240 years of America's war letters

As has been demonstrated through the success of such books as "Letters of the Century" and the "Griffin and Sabine" series, humans have a fascination with reading other people's mail. (Regardless, it would seem, of whether those people be factual or fictional.) Perhaps it's because the writing seems more eloquent than anything we've ever sent or received ourselves, no doubt there's an element of voyeurism in the appeal, but much of the attraction stems from the fact these carefully selected dispatches deal with universal truths or historical events at such a personal level that we can actually identify with them.

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History has recently embraced this philosophy with a collection of correspondences written during America's various periods of conflict, and posted them online as Battle Lines: Letters from America's Wars. And while the concept may not be new, the particular content and unique style of presentation have made Battle Lines a popular web destination.

Featuring letters that span history from the American Revolution to the War in Iraq, Battle Lines breaks its exhibit into themes (Enlisting, Comforts of Home, Love) rather than periods - thereby comparing examples of similar experiences over more than two centuries. With about half a dozen dispatches per section, each ranging from one to seven pages in length, the site offers a relatively small collection when compared to many online exhibitions, but the quality of the artifacts makes up for the lack of quantity.

And that quality isn't merely (or even necessarily) reflected in the unusually skilful prose of the correspondents - as the stories behind the dispatches are frequently more compelling than the words they contain. The first pair of letters in the anthology constitute two sides of an impressively civil Civil War exchange between a Confederate and a Union General -friends before the war- as they faced each other across Pensacola Bay in Florida and tried to explain their respective choices and allegiances.

Apart from the simple fact that personal messages still moved between the Northern and Southern sides in wartime, the respectful, almost cordial tone ("...I was much gratified by the receipt of your note...") between these two newly made enemies makes the letters extraordinary by their very existence.

Other letters from the "Enlistment" section include a World War I private's impressions of Europe as he arrived a few days before the end of that conflict, an appeal to FDR asking for permission to enlist despite not having the "minimum of eighteen natural teeth with at least two opposing molars" required by the army, a sister's letter of encouragement to her brother as he ships out, and a 21st century Marine's note to his young daughter as he waits to go into action against, "the bad man way far away."

"Comforts of Home" contains correspondences in both directions between the battlefield and the home front, including the second last letter from Lt. Sidney Diamond (one of more than 500 he wrote to girlfriend Estelle Spero) before he was killed in action in the Pacific in World War II. "Love" follows the universal emotion through the changing conventions of the times, from, "I received your agreeable letter" in 1778, through "Absent but Affectionate Wife" in 1864, to "Honey...my true love" in 2003.

Enhancing the content of the letters is the style of presentation itself. As each new artifact is chosen, an introductory paragraph and small photograph is accompanied by a scan of the dispatch's first page and an audio file of the letter being read aloud. The sound clip begins playing as soon as the download is complete, but if you'd rather listen to your own inner narrator, you can pause the playback and survey the complete letter page by page. (The audio file plays the full essay without interruption, for those who would rather sit back and experience the entire composition with a single click.)

If the writer's handwriting is not up to easy legibility, a dragable, translucent window 'translates' the words underneath into type. If it proves a distraction, the window can be retracted to one side of the page and only called upon should its aid be necessary. For offline review, PDF transcripts are available for download.

As mentioned, the collection is a small one at the moment, but surfers who leave the site still wanting more will be encouraged to know that at least one further installment is planned for an undisclosed date. An email notification service will save you having to make repeated return trips to check for the addition.

Battle Lines is a simple site, in the best sense of the word - allowing the letters to stand on their own, and the visitors to take from them what they will. It won't take long to view the entire collection, but don't be surprised if some of the content stays with you for a good deal longer.

Battle Lines can be found at http://www.gilderlehrman.org/collection/battlelines/index.html.

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