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Letters give glimpse of the past

They are a collective window into one of the most turbulent times in American history, compliments of the people who lived through it.

The Lawrence County Historical Jail Corp. is offering a new book containing letters written by Union soldiers during the Civil War.

The book is called Letters to Eliza (from soldiers and friends) 1861-1865. The letters were written to a young woman named Eliza Smith, of Hamilton County, from her brother, James, two cousins and some of their fellow Civil War comrades. The letters were sent from all over the country, wherever the soldiers stopped and had time to drop a line. Eliza, often addressed as Lide in those letters, was 15, her brother only 20.

Virginia Bryant, who transcribed the letters for the book, said she was struck by the sentiments that were expressed in the letters and how closely they resembled the letters published in an edition of Newsweek magazine from Iraqi soldiers.

“The soldiers may be different and the equipment they use is different but war is war,” she noted.

Some of the letters give a stark picture of the realities of war.

“The General Hospital is here. There is a large amount of sick people in it. One building, the Iuka Springs Hotel, will accommodate 500 persons and it is crowded full besides four other small buildings,” James wrote in a letter dated Aug. 26, 1862 from Iuka Springs, Miss.

Other letters are laments about missing home and the people they left behind for the battlefield. James seems to have had affection for a young woman named Sallie who was friends with his sister.

“I was sorry to learn of Sallie’s meeting with such a sad accident. I hope she may soon recover,” James wrote to Eliza in November 1862. By then he was in Grand Junction, Tenn.

How did the letters wind up in Ironton? In 1961 Earl Triplett, now living in Chesapeake but formerly of Ironton, purchased a suitcase full of old letters along with a bedroom suit at an auction in Scioto County. When he found that some of them were letters written by Civil War soldiers, he suggested several times over the years to Virginia Bryant and Kay Rader that the letters were a fascinating piece of history.

Once they took up the letters, they agreed and a year ago Bryant began transcribing the letters to put in a book.

The proceeds will be split between the historic jail committee and are available at the museum, the Briggs Lawrence Library, Unger’s shoe store, Printing Express and Lou’s Style Shop.

The cost is $23.36 plus tax, shipping and handling.