Saturday, January 7, 2023

Colorado unit that fought Rebels and Indians during the Civil War put out a newspaper. The Library of Congress now has a rare complete set

A complete set of Soldier's Letter (Shawn Miller, Library of Congress)
The Library of Congress (LOC) has acquired extremely rare editions of a soldier-produced newspaper describing the actions of the Second Colorado Cavalry against Confederate guerrillas and troops in Kansas and Missouri and, later in the war, Native American fighters.

The bound copy of the full print run of Soldier’s Letter was among only a few complete sets of 50 editions to survive the war, the library said in a late December post about the acquisition. The unofficial camp newspaper was produced 1864-1865 in Kansas City, Mo., and Fort Riley, Kan.

Pvt. Oliver Wallace served as editor, working from contributions by other enlisted men and wives. Soldier’s Letter included poems, regiment history, rosters, letters to the editor and features about camp life, according to the American Antiquarian Society. (Colorado, by the way, was a territory during the Civil War, but this unit fought in the Midwest).

Though there is a long-standing national obsession with the Civil War, regimental newspapers never quite caught on as something to be preserved,” wrote Neely Tucker in the LOC blog post.

“More than 200 such papers in at least 32 states printed at least one edition, according to historian Earle Lutz, but they had mostly vanished by the time he surveyed the nation’s libraries, museums and major private collections in the early 1950s.

(From left) Lt. Col. Theodore Dodd, Col. James H. Ford and Pvt. William Waggoner (WCNB)
The LOC acquired the volume from a dealer in rare manuscripts. The volume was given to regimental commander James Hobart Ford after the Civil War as a memento.

The editions of the newspaper -- which each cost 10 cents -- are printed in pulp stock. Three pages in each edition included news, rumors, jokes and histories of the regiment, which was formed in 1863. The fourth page was left blank for soldiers to write letters or notes to family or friends. The troopers then mailed the pages home.

“Much of the war was over by the time Wallace started his paper, but he and his unnamed correspondents did note Lincoln’s assassination, accounts of skirmishes and the general tenor of the last days of the Confederacy,” wrote Tucker, who manages the LOC blog.

“The rebels have taken to smuggling in bacon past the blockage,” a short item noted in one edition of the anti-slavery camp newspaper. “The evidences multiply that they are on their last legs.”

Final issue sums up unit's history and number of complete editions (Library of Congress)
Another soldier wrote:

“Dear Mother:
Nothing of interest has transpired since I sent you the last two copies of the Soldiers Letter. We are still staying in Mo and will probably remain here some time. My health is good first rate. Plenty of fun Plenty to eat and nothing to do Capt Moses was maried [sic] last Thursday He givs [sic] a party to  night at his wives fathers you bet we will have a good time.”

The Second Colorado Cavalry was deployed  for some time in what was called the Trans-Mississippi Theater during the Civil War. Its actions included patrols, clashes and chasing Confederate Gen. Sterling Price in Missouri in 1864, engaging in multiple battles. Price's foray was a major defeat for the South.

Wilson's Creek National Battlefield in Missouri has a collection of Trans-Mississippi items in its museum, including 19 photos of Second Colorado Cavalry's soldiers (three above) and two documents, says curator Jeff Patrick.

Late in the war, the regiment was sent west to quell Indian raiders on the Santa Fe Trail and other locations. Although the Second Colorado Cavalry was not a participant in the infamous Sand Creek Massacre of Indians in 1864 that killed scores of women, children and the elderly, the Soldier’s Letter editorialized the attack was not vicious enough.

Chris Rein, who wrote a book about the regiment, said in an interview with H-Net that the unit “had a fascinating history, and operated at the nexus of the Civil War and the conquest of the American West.”

He told the Picket in an email this week that accounts such as those by the regiment are "incredibly valuable for assessing the 'unit culture' of Civil War units. Letters, diaries, memoirs, etc. give an individual perspective, but newspapers were intended to appeal to a broader readership and therefore more accurately reflect collective views."

"The paper was published during the most pivotal period of the unit’s service in the 'Burned District' along the Kansas-Missouri border and therefore provides insight into that 'counterinsurgency' campaign, as well as the flaring hostilities on the Plains. It highlights how a regiment of staunch abolitionists could, at the same time, be among the worst Indian-haters in the West," Rein told the Picket.

Chandra Miller, in a 1999 article for the Kansas Historical Society, said the men of the Second Colorado Cavalry, created the Soldier’s Letter to fight isolation, boredom and vagueness of purpose.

“In each issue the Soldier’s Letter covered topics from the history of the regiment to civilian gossip, but the bulk of its pages was dedicated to reflections on the righteousness of American governmental institutions, politics and the eradication of slavery,” Miller wrote.

The newspapers have not been transcribed and thus are not online. The only way to see the full run is by visiting the LOC in Washington, D.C., or, according to Rein, the Denver Public Library, which he says also has a complete set.

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