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Adventures in the Archives: Searching for the Past

christmas-eve-1500

For much of this past year, I’ve been entrenched in dissertation research. Despite the long hours hunched over dusty papers, trying to decipher century-old handwriting, generally while cold and hungry, I’m not complaining. I’m continually amazed that I’m getting the opportunity to do exactly what I’ve always wanted: the work of history. What I wasn’t prepared for was the emotional work that would come along with it.

My dissertation topic is not a happy one. Because I study disabled Civil War veterans, most of my research time is spent reading about things like grievous bodily injury, pain, illness, suicide, domestic violence, crime, substance abuse, poverty, and mental illness – just to name a few. This wasn’t an accident. I purposely chose to investigate these issues because I think they’re incredibly important. They represent the real repercussions of warfare, things I think we need to continually remind ourselves about.

What I didn’t expect, however, was how powerful, and how complicated, working with these issues could be. As Adam Turner discussed in a recent post for Nursing Clio, after a while in the archives, you start to see bits of evidence rather than people in your documents. After hours of sifting through dry medical documents from a government asylum, I would find myself holding a letter from a family member, such as the one I discovered from Caleb Moncrief, a farmer from Hancock County, Indiana, written in 1886. Caleb was writing to W. W. Godding, the superintendent of the Government Hospital for the Insane, the asylum where many mentally ill Civil War soldiers were sent. His spelling and grammar caught me off guard. The words were written in pencil, in careful but unpracticed penmanship. There was no punctuation, and almost nothing was capitalized. Somehow, all this made it feel more real than the careful script of the doctors and administrators. Moncrief wrote:

Dr Sir in regard to john t. moncrief I want to now if at iney tim he ever ses eny thing about his family and if his mind is right at iny time if so about how long at a time and how his health is general and about what is his wate at this time and if he is getting much gray. [1]

It’s a simple letter. It doesn’t even mention any of the gut-wrenching topics that I normally scan for, but it still made me stop. Caleb Moncrief, it turns out, was John Moncrief’s son. Caleb was three years old when his father enlisted in the 11th Illinois Infantry. Since John had been institutionalized during the war over twenty years earlier and hundreds of miles from Indiana in Washington, DC, it’s doubtful Caleb could even remember his face. This was a young man who wanted to know something about his father – did he speak about Caleb, his brothers, or his mother? Was he healthy? Did he suffer? Was his hair starting to go gray?

469px-Edwin-Stanton-and-sonLetters like this are always unexpectedly intimate, even when they don’t touch on particularly private issues. There’s something about holding someone’s stationary and seeing their handwriting that can make even a dull letter extraordinary – there’s a sense that this still exists in the world. It touched someone’s hands over a century ago. They put their thoughts or feelings into it, and now I, of all people, get to read it.

Caleb Moncrief – I imagine, at least – never dreamed that his letter would be read and reread by some future scholar. It’s hard not to feel voyeuristic – or worse, exploitative. Because I want to know how families dealt with a veteran’s mental distress, I look for letters like Caleb’s. When I find one, I can’t help but feel overjoyed at finding some great evidence. That excitement quickly becomes jumbled up with the sad realization that Caleb must have been pained and confused, and then I feel a sense of guilt for knowing that I will use that emotion to my advantage. My work exists because people like Caleb and his father suffered. After many hours spent with these kinds of letters and documents, it’s hard not to feel weighed down.

When it starts to feel a bit heavy, I try to remember that I’m working to give these stories greater meaning. Caleb was far from alone in his situation, although I’m sure he probably felt that way. By taking his letter and connecting it together with the stories of others, I hope that I’m helping to make some sense of that pain and confusion.  Little did Caleb know that he was part of a community of families that lost loved ones to the war – gone, but still alive, living out their days in insane asylums across the United States.

Trying to find a little bit more about the family, I did a little digging into the Moncriefs on genealogical websites. Just like Caleb’s letter, something I found in a census stopped me with its simple power. When he wrote this letter in 1886, Caleb Moncrief was a father himself. He had named his first child – a son – John T. Moncrief. [2]

___________________________________________________________________

[1] C. W. Moncrief to W. W. Godding, Record Group 418, Records of the St. Elizabeth Hospital, National Archives and Records Administration.

[2] Tenth Census of the United States, 1880. Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29. National Archives, Washington, D.C. Accessed through http://www.ancestry.com.

Featured image source: Thomas Nast, “Christmas Eve,” appeared in Harper’s Weekly, 1863

 

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. I have had exactly the same experiences, and in fact I’m going through them right now (I’m doing a research fellowship at the moment). One of the most powerful emotional experiences I had in an archive was very similar to yours. It happened 3 years ago when I was at the American Antiquarian Society. I read a diary of some guy from Massachusetts. It was a very small book, less than 100 pages, and only a few inches square, and yet it was the diary of his life from 1794 to his death in the 1830s. Naturally the entries were very short and sometimes he went for years without writing at all. On one page, toward the end of his life–it was dated 1827–there were some strange doodles of leaves and an entry that read simply, “My brother died today. He drowned in the river.” That was all he said. He didn’t even write down the brother’s name. It was profound and sad because of its brevity, and all the emotion that must have happened that day that never made it to the page of this very small book.

    June 13, 2014
  2. Reblogged this on DailyHistory.org and commented:

    Writing for Nursing Clio, Sarah Handley-Cousins explores the emotional side of archival research. Handley-Cousins reminds us what it’s like to think about our historical subjects as real people, as opposed to “bits of evidence.”

    June 13, 2014
  3. A great, powerful post. I have just begun postgraduate research into the lives of Deaf people in Irish institutions in the nineteenth century, and there is something uniquely affecting about coming across not just letters, petitions and statements written by Deaf people who were incarcerated, but also the handwritten notes passed between barristers and Deaf witnesses or defendants at trials. These pieces of paper were more than just a record of a conversation; in many senses they *were* the conversation, and to hold these in your hands – with the wider life experiences, often brutal, of the writer in mind – is both thrilling, and a sober reminder of a responsibility, a deep privilege and duty to tell their stories respectfully and with dignity.

    June 16, 2014
    • sarahhandleycousins #

      Cormac – your research sounds fascinating! I couldn’t agree more: it is indeed a privilege, a duty, and a great responsibility.

      June 16, 2014
  4. sarahhandleycousins #

    Sean, thank you for that story! Sometimes those little snippets can be the most revealing, even when they say so very little.

    June 16, 2014

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