In January of 2014, a survey was conducted to over four hundred random people across the states regarding their views on letter writing. One of the questions specifically asked the individual to think about letter writing during wartime, and asked them to remember, if they did serve during wartime, any emotions or thoughts they may have experienced when receiving a letter during this period. Most of the data filtered back in the same month by email, except for one response, which was received by mail and hand-written.
I would like to address the importance of letter writing and receiving letters during war. But first I feel I should give a little background to my own experience.
I served in the US Navy during the Vietnam War. My ship was USS Hancock CVA 19 (a US carrier). In the two years I was aboard the Hancock we spent 18 months in the war zone in the Gulf of Tonkin. The average age of the crew of 3800 men was 19 years old. Most of these young men had never been away from home for any given period of time and mail was essential…
The critical part of this response is the last sentence, “Most of these young men had never been away from home for any given period of time, and mail was essential.” How could this be an important statement?
The answer to this question about letter writing and why it held meaning in the lives of people during wartime, an answer lies in several aspects of history in the nineteen century. Clues can be found in Mitchell Reid’s book, “The Vacant Chair: The Northern Solider Leaves Home.” While Reid’s text specifically targets the soldiers who left the home front during the Civil War, the visual image that he created by the reference to George Root’s poem The Vacant Chair, provides a glimpse into the social pulse of the nineteenth century regarding the dynamics of family structure.
When the call to arms was sounded in 1861, young men left the safety and comfort of home, some for the very first time, just as Larry Schwafel mentioned in his response to the survey. What made this separation more profound was the fact that in the midst of the civil unrest the country was experiencing, there also existed an underlying current concerning the fracture of the family connections, which surfaced well before the war. Reid notes this threat in his book and labels it the ‘family in crisis’ scenario. What was this fear?
The nineteenth century was a turbulent time, not just in America but also in England and France. Industrialization and urbanization created a new set of problems for the institution of the family, as members moved away from home. Gone were the times of the eighteenth century communal society to the more private and individual family structure of the late nineteenth century. Many viewed the core of society as becoming disrupted and devalued as members of the family left home seeking work in the new factories or moving to the new urban centers within the big cities. Reid noted that national consensus before 1861 concluded that the family group, seen as the “most fundamental institution of society and the body politic,” was soon to be an item of the past, as industrialization and urbanization took the very strands that held the family together and severed them.
It was during this shifting of society that a new revolution came about. Rowland Hill, a citizen of Great Britain, proposed a new ‘technology.’ This was the same piece of paper know as the Penny Post. Letters or postcards were an important element of communication for families or loved ones, especially before today’s technology of phone and email. Reid Mitchell in his book The Vacant Chair envisions a solitary empty seat at the place of a kitchen table, which “symbolized the soldier’s absence.” Could something else symbolically fill the empty space while the soldier was away?
During war, letters or even postcards became a connection. Letters in war were not just forms of communication, but carried such value to those receiving them, that not getting any correspondence at mail call affected their state of mind and well-being. While the ‘vacant chair’ remained empty, there was a need to find a way to keep the essence of the absence person within the home, and letters and postcards from the war zones were the element that kept this connection. The movement of mail was essential during war, not just for the soldiers, but for the people at home too. During war, letters and postcards became a symbolic representation of the person writing them: the ink used, the paper touched, the lipstick prints next to the words ‘I love you,’ all carried meaning, and were not just a form of communication, but a representation of the spirit and memory of the person writing them. By studying the letters of the everyday soldier with new digital tools such as www.voyant-tools.com, deeper analysis can possibly be made with the text of these letters. Word clouds can give us a hint of what words were most familiar in the handwritten collections that I have personally amassed in my mission to rescue as many off of Ebay as I can. This blog is a documentation of the successes and failures, and challenges I find along the way of transcribing and placing these sets in the program offered by voyant-tools. Journey with me as I delve in the old ink of war time letters.
 Correspondence to Author from Larry Schwafel of Crockett, California, dated April 4, 2014.
 Mitchell Reid, The Vacant Chair, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 91.
 Ibid, xiv.