In 1998, Andrew Carroll founded the Legacy Project, with the goal of remembering Americans who have served their nation and preserving their letters for posterity. Since then, over 50,000 letters have poured in from around the country. Nearly two hundred of them comprise this amazing collection -- including never-before-published letters that appear in the new afterword.
Here are letters from the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf war, Somalia, and Bosnia -- dramatic eyewitness accounts from the front lines, poignant expressions of love for family and country, insightful reflections on the nature of warfare. Amid the voices of common soldiers, marines, airmen, sailors, nurses, journalists, spies, and chaplains are letters by such legendary figures as Gen. William T. Sherman, Clara Barton, Theodore Roosevelt, Ernie Pyle, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Julia Child, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, and Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Sr. Collected in War Letters, they are an astonishing historical record, a powerful tribute to those who fought, and a celebration of the enduring power of letters.
Carroll founded the war letter-collecting Legacy Project when his Washington, D.C., home burned down in 1990, taking his family letters with it. A "Dear Abby" announcement of the project led to 50,000 responses. Now, at 31, Carroll follows up 1999's bestselling Letters of a Nation (which spans 400 years and myriad walks of life) with this cull of dispatches. Chapters are limited to the Civil War, WWI, WWII, "The Korean War & The Cold War" and "The Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War, Somalia, & Bosnia" making for an incomplete survey of American wars. Of the more than 150 letters, three are from African-Americans, though Carroll remarks in an afterword on efforts to locate more. Perhaps most striking is how many letters are written by the soon-to-be-dead, or concern the death of a close relative; any reaction to them other than personal sympathy seems impossible. Yet the power of these voices from various fronts including an Asian woman held in an American internment camp is undeniable, and the sentiments and observations they record have a compelling immediacy. (On-sale: May 15)Forecast: Carroll was the subject of a New York Times feature in 1994 for his role in cofounding (with the late poet Joseph Brodsky) the American Poetry and Literacy Project, which put books of poems in motel rooms alongside Bibles. His media experience should make his seven-city author tour and appearance on PBS's American Experience (on November 11) successful. Expect strong sales and a showing on bestseller lists for the weeks before and after Memorial Day. Browsers could be reminded that the New Yorker published a selection of the letters in January 2000. All author earnings will be donated to nonprofit organizations.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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April 28, 2002
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Excerpt from War Letters by Andrew Carroll
Griping about insufferable conditions was not uncommon, but a number of soldiers took a more drastic step: they deserted. During the Civil War an estimated 280,000 Union and 104,000 Confederate soldiers were classified as deserters -- to date, the highest rates recorded in American wartime history. (At the height of the Vietnam War the numbers peaked at 7.4 percent, compared with an average of about 11 percent in the Civil War.) Punishments for desertion varied from receiving a mere reprimand to being flogged, imprisoned, branded on the face with a "D," or, in the most serious cases, shot. The latter was rare; executions could have a counterproductive effect on troops, and the vastly outnumbered Confederacy could hardly spare the men. Newspapers were quick to report when executions were carried out, serving as cautionary reminders to those tempted to flee. But these reports were not always accurate, as a mortified young Union private named Francis Christiance discovered one day while reading the paper.
Alexandra Heights, Oct. 7, 1861.
I this day received an issue of the Star and Times containing the following paragraphs which no doubt overwhelmed me as much as it certainly must have done you. "To be shot: Francis Christaince deserter from the ranks of Capt. Truax'es Company, one which we have known for a long time was sentenced to be shot and perhaps met his faith at noon to-day. We have not given this fact publicity before, we did hope for and do not yet despair of a reprieve for the misguided soldier though the fact that this terrible punishment is meted for a second offense seems to abide it: -- "
I simply deny in to each and every specification contained in the above.
1st. I am not shot.
2nd. I am not sentenced to be shot.
3rd. There has not been here the slightest supposition among the men or myself that I was to be shot.
4th. I never deserted from Capt. Truax'es Company nor have I ever been tried for any charge for desertion. From whence these false assertions could have originated I cannot surmise. But if he has feeling for a kind and loving wife, a household of children, not to say of the grief that fills your heart at this report, he certainly would not be humanity to contradict it.
This afternoon Col. Jackson has received a letter requesting the transmission of my dead body to my wife, my feeling may better be imagined than described. The editor of the Star certainly should bare a great deal of the blame for publishing a rumor leaving a whole family on the foundation of what must have been a mere rumor, but this is not the first nor I suppose the last kindness we will receive from those we left behind.
Truly your loving and yet living husband,
Another Union soldier, Charles Bingham, wrote to his wife, Sarah, to describe in chilling detail the execution of a deserter, whose death he witnessed firsthand.
August 9 1863
Same old camp 6 miles from Rebbys
My dear wife
i seat myself again to pen a few lines to you again as it is Sunday and did not think that i could let the day pas without a little conversation with you and it may be that you are engaged at the same business at this moment i would like to know if you are out but i supose that the day will be spent in visiting with happy friends and neighbors and i would not wonder if you had a quite a good time at it i hope that you will
i tell you what it is it is so hot here that it aint comfortable a setting in the shade and do nothing i had a letter from mother two or three days ago she was well at the time she is to work out there for ten shillings per week and she says that this fall she is a coming out to see you if she lives
the day before yesterday the execution of a man took place out in front of our camp it seems as though he had enlisted some three times getting a big bounty each time and then desert again i stood and watched the execution of him the division that he belonged to was marched out the band playing a lively tune all the while untill they formed a hollow square then came the officer on horse back then came the pallbearers four in number carrying his coffin the one that i spoke of in one of my other letters close to them was the chaplain and the criminal keeping the step as firm as if he was going out on parade
next came the band playing his death march in fine stile but it did not seem to affect him in the least and following them was 12 with loaded guns and i think there was four others with loaded guns in reserve so if the first did not make the work of death complete the others could finish it at once
they marched in and sat the coffin down and took their position behind the man the chaplain then stood by him and made a prayer and shook hands with him bade him good bye and steped back
the officer approached him and he steped forward took off his cap and blouse laid them down alowd himself to be blindfolded and then took a seat on his coffin the officer shook hands with him and bade him good by and steped back to the twelve exicutioners the criminal then raised his hand three times holding it out straight the last time but he did not hold it long before the death messengers hit him he fell from of his coffin and lay there kicking