Connecting with the past

When I started my work in the Special Collections Research Center here at Swem Library in August, one of my first projects entailed uploading metadata to our online database for the Nathaniel V. Watkins Family Papers, 1846-1889. This collection is now digitized to help preserve it, but is also part of our ongoing Civil War Transcription Project. All of the Watkins Papers from the Civil War era are currently online, which means that they are now ready to be transcribed and shared with researches worldwide.

For those of you who do not know, metadata consists of the information that we have about the collection itself. The collection title, the call number, a brief description of the document in question, the creator of the document, and the date it was created are all examples of what archivists refer to as “metadata.” At first glance, it may not seem like uploading metadata is the world’s most thrilling exercise. To be completely honest, there is a lot of repetition involved, and I got to know the “Copy” and “Paste” commands very well indeed. That being said, I quickly found that uploading metadata can be one of the best ways to become acquainted with an entire collection. I found it utterly fascinating to see who was writing to whom, and when they were writing, not to mention what they were writing about. In addition to filling in the metadata, I was also in charge of uploading scans of each letter. For me, this was the best part of the job, as I had the opportunity to work with the letters first-hand.

As you can imagine, I felt like I got to know the members of the Watkins family very well as time went on. The letters exchanged between Nathaniel and his very young son Charley fast became my favorites. Charley’s script was nearly illegible at times, but both Nannie (Nathaniel’s wife) and Nathaniel’s letters testify that he was just learning to write. We can assume that he was about 5 or 6 years old. Charley always wrote to his father anxious to hear news from the front, but it was his drawings that touched me most. I could easily picture Charley sitting at the desk, attempting, and often failing, to bend the pen to his will as he drew chickens, and cows, and even a Yankee for his father. When Charley told his father that he and his baby sister had been good, so Nathaniel ought to come home, it almost broke my heart. I can only imagine how Nathaniel felt!

Nathaniel’s letters back to Charley were equally touching. He paid Charley for his drawings in kind, and often included sketches of horses and other animals in his letters. Nathaniel always explained camp life in terms Charley would be able to understand, using measurements from things at home (like Charley’s height or the size of Charley’s grandpa’s yard) in his descriptions. Nathaniel never alluded to the danger he was actually in, but instead focused on anecdotes that Charley would find amusing, like the time Nathaniel left his tent in the morning to find the outside entirely covered with frogs. Charley made it clear in his next letter that letters and stories from Nathaniel meant the world to him, and Charley hoped that he would get home soon.

Unfortunately, the next news Nathaniel (and I) had of Charley came in a letter written by Nannie. In it, she describes the diphtheria epidemic that swept through their town, impacting several families and causing numerous deaths as it went. Nannie and their toddling daughter Minnie eventually made it through, but Charley got ill very suddenly, and passed away within a few days.

As I started the letter, it soon became apparent how it was going to end. My jaw literally dropped when I learned that Charley died so very young, and so very suddenly. I could not even fathom what Nathaniel went through when he read that same letter. I talked to my parents that night, and told them what I read that day at work. My mom was sympathetic, but my dad replied, “Han, you know he’d be dead by now anyway, right?” His point helped me realize exactly how closely attached I had become to the Watkins family, just by reading their letters. Of course I knew that the people I was reading about were long gone, but the emotions and love they expressed through their letters were just as real in 2011 as they were in 1863. Isn’t that the point of archives after all? They provide us with a place where we can examine our shared humanity, which is an exercise that transcends time.

Hannah Bailey is a graduate student in the Department of History and a 2011-2012 Archives Apprentice in the Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library.