Letters to the Skirmisher

What can we learn about the Civil War from primary sources?

Frederick Douglas Letter
This letter, written by Frederick Douglas in 1873, provides an example of what a primary source looks like. (Library of Congress)

A primary source from the Civil War is a document produced at the time of the conflict. Primary sources can be letters, diaries, photos, sketches, or government documents. What is most often revealed through primary sources is how much these people were like us. Soldiers write letters to their sisters about the girls back home, the practical jokes in camp, about playing cards and singing songs. Then, they talk about their personal roles in important battles: jumping over rocks, swearing, dodging fire, charging and being charged.

Here’s a soldier from the 3rd United States Colored Cavalry talking about the Battle of Big Black River Bridge: 

“When the bugle sounded the charge, the black troopers sprang forward as one man. Into the flaming crucible they plunged.

The swamp resounds with the rattle of musketry and their lines tremble and sway like a young forest swept by a cyclone.

Facing this deadly storm of buck and ball, with ranks thinned, they reach the bridge and, though swept with murderous fire, they scale its dizzy heights. With no footing but the railroad ties, they press forward.

The troopers sweep on with irresistible force. Pierced with bullets, men tumble and fall with a splash into the murky waters below. The survivors reach the opposite bank.

They close in on the enemy. Through the sally ports of the fortress they fight their way. A mighty shout rends the air. The enemy, in terror, flees to the shelter of the swamp. The victory is complete.”

Some great quotes from other famous figures include:

Union General George McClellan wrote to his wife and told her that he could be dictator if he wanted to be, “but it would not please me, so I will not be dictator.  Admirable self denial!” 

Sullivan Ballou wrote to his wife to tell her “my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name,” a week before a cannonball took his leg off and killed him. 

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