Research Associate Professor
University of South Carolina
Welcome to the University of South Carolina Libraries’ Civil War collection, courtesy of the South Caroliniana Library and the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. The items here originate primarily from the Civil War period, and most are from South Carolina. Because it was a literate society and because emotions ran so deep for decades among descendants who cherished family archives, the American Civil War (1861–1865) has produced a surprising number of such documents in libraries, archives, and museums across the country. Few, however, include the myriad of examples found here.
This collection provides a rich trove for delving into the minds of South Carolinians of the period, yet one should be aware of the inherent pitfalls. No historian can work without the opportunity to dig into primary sources of the period, but those of us in the present age have an advantage. Historians work with perspective: we know the end of the story. Primary sources derive from those people who do not know what was going to happen; their notations characterize the facts as they saw them, in their own lives. These materials, therefore, depict people who are writing with hope, frustration, melancholy, and fear. Survival of these documents is fortuitous, for the items represent only those that were written, saved, cherished, and donated. In addition, one should remember three other facts about the circumstances which generated these items: first, there were ten other states in the confederacy; second, within the state there were also those who supported the union (see the Bounty poster); and third, there were African-Americans, whose voice is scarcely represented here.
Those three facts point us to the three basic interest groups during the Civil War: white southerners, as represented here; white northerners, who have some representation among the correspondence; and African-Americans. Sometimes a letter will give us evidence about the members of another group. An example of letter from a union soldier is one from Jared Abell in March 1863. He was a young white northern officer, who wrote to his sister in pleasant surprise concerning the African-American troops serving under him. As valuable as this collection is, to garner a more complete story, one should also explore the recommended sites listed below. This site, however, will provide a treasure of information about the people of South Carolina during this era, particularly those who were not household names.
The search engines provided by the library allow ease of finding relevant material, allowing search by year, by topic, or by type. For instance, one might look for December 1860, when South Carolina seceded from the Union (see the letter dated December 28 which refers to the smallpox epidemic in Columbia and the convention’s subsequent move to Charleston). Or, one might probe for April 1861, right at the start of the war, for accounts concerning the firing on Fort Sumter. There are a few letters to family members relating the commencement of the war. Other noteworthy dates include May 1863, with one letter describing the funeral of Stonewall Jackson; July 1861, recounting the First Battle of Bull Run; or the spring and summer of 1863, anticipating the attack on Fort Wagner.
Other source materials incorporated here are rare elsewhere. Check out the collection of covers, an old term for the equivalent of envelopes sold by the post office or other venues of the period. These covers carried cartoons, which were so popular during the war that scholars note they were collected even then. This series of covers contains examples from the Confederacy, such as the one depicting Gen. Ben Butler as a devil, but also has cartoons from the Union, such as one depicting Old Glory. Even during the dark days of the war, some people managed to maintain and appreciate a strong sense of humor.
Another unexpected group is the selection of sheet music. A number of copies will be familiar to those interested in the music of the period, including “Lorena” and “All Quiet along the Potomac To-night.” Others, however, are not as well-known, such as the “Reconstruction Grand March,” “Do They Miss Me at Home?”, and the “Southern Rights Polka.” Noting the date of issue of the sheets can be instructive, for the tone of the music changes from martial music in the early years of the war (as with the “Dixie War Song”) to a more melancholy approach by 1863, as with “When This Cruel War Is Over.”
Even those familiar with the details of the war are often surprised to discover that a number of foreign correspondents were embedded within the opposing armies. A practice begun in earnest during the Crimean War, newspapers such as the Illustrated London News and Le Monde (Paris) provided reporters to keep their European readers apprised of new and exciting details of the American Civil War. Of concern to many was the home front. This site includes examples from the papers noted above, as well as from the L’Illustration, Journal Universel, the Illustrated Times, and even the New York Illustrated News, which, to people in South Carolina, had just become a foreign newspaper!
A final group of materials, each printed a generation after the war, contains a fascinating set of representations of the “Lost Cause”: a viewpoint which lauded the noble memory of the sacrifices of Confederate fathers and grandfathers. Typical of other wars, these memorials were written in flowery phrases and often ignored the more unsavory and gritty portions of battle. See, for instance, Captain Francis Dawson’s Our Women in the War, written in 1887, and Stories of the Confederacy, written in 1912.
Of particular interest see Mrs. Mary Whilden’s Recollections of the War, 1861–1865, written in 1911, in which she recounted her memory of the burning of Columbia. Be aware that this narrative is what she remembered years later and does not include views from others then present, such as Columbia natives or troops under William T. Sherman. Note, though, the collection of cartes-de-visite depicting the ruins of Columbia, printed just after the war: Columbia was devastated when burned in 1865.
Enjoy the site. The library staff has done a remarkable job of putting together a repository of information that will excite the professional researcher as well as the interested amateur.