In 1991, my father's sister, my Aunt Iris, gave me a small box filled with about three dozen folded up pieces of obviously well-aged paper. Each piece of paper was actually stationery, on which Josiah Peter Hackett wrote to his family in Genessee County, Michigan, while he served as a private in the U.S. 17th Infantry during the Civil War.
Those letters literally changed my life, and put me on the path to become obsessed with documenting the history of my family and build a tree for both my paternal and maternal lines. It wasn't until Aunt Iris (who I grew up calling Aunt Gigi, based on Gigi, the nickname her grandson, my cousin Trey, gave her because he couldn't say "grandma.") If I could go back to that day when I was visiting her at her Austin, Texas, home, I would insist that she show me more family documents. Because today, I KNOW there were more. What I don't know is if they still exist; she died six months later.
I promised Aunt Gigi that, if she would let me take the letters home with me, I would transcribe all of the letters and send her a printed copy of them. Historically, I'm not very good with follow-through in such cases, but this time, I'm proud to say I finished the task and sent them to her before she died. I hope she read them, but I'll never know if she did.
Transcribing those letters taught me all kinds of lessons regarding history and genealogy. It taught me that the names for battles during the Civil War that I was taught in history class were not necessarily the names the battles had at the time they were fought, or immediately after. For example, Josiah writes in one letter about "the battle of the brick house." By taking the date when he wrote the letter and comparing it to a timeline of Civil War battles, I realized that he was at Chancellorsville. Chancellorsville, I then learned, was the name of that brick house; it was not the name of a town, as one might assume.
I learned, before I ever heard of or even met Elizabeth Shown Mills (one of the gurus of genealogical research and source citation), about the "FAN Club" research method, which involves researching Friends, Associates, and Neighbors of a specific person being researched. I learned a lot about Josiah's life by studying the information he gave in all of those letters, most of which were intact and a few of which were incomplete.
For the next few weeks, I will be posting individual letters from Josiah that I have transcribed. I will also talk about the research I put in to help me make sense of the unfamiliar content of those letters.
Here is the first of those letters. Feel free to comment or contact me if you are interested in more information.
"October 3, 1862
Fort Preble, Portland, Maine
I take this opportunity to write in perfect [hurly burly]. I am well and hope these lines will find you the same. I expressed 15 dollars home and last week sent 5 dollars home in a letter.
I will send a receipt with this and keep one for myself for security.
I got my first pass down street last night and 7 of the boys that went from Flint with me missed the ferry and got in too late and got into the guard house. I got in a half hour sooner than the rest and was all right. We are put to 6 hours drill every day and the rest of the time it takes to clean our brass.
I have got a pocket writing desk for a dollar and it took another to buy tools. I will send all the money home that I can spare. I guess I have sent the most money home of any man in the fort. I am dreadful lonesome here in a big crowd but don't feel so home sick 1400 miles from home as I did while amongst you after enlisting.
I will send my picture home the next letter if I get my gun and accoutrements. Our fare is pork and beans in the morning, beef and potatoes at noon with cabbage twice a week and bread and coffee for supper. I buy an apple or 2 for to finish supper on.
The drum is beating for drill. Your affectionate son and brother, Josiah
P.S. I have had two hours hard drill and now I will finish my letter. I am awful leg weary but not very tired other ways. I am growing heavier every day. It is very cool weather here and we get up first break to dinner. We have just been to dinner. We had soup made of potatoes, beef, carrots, turnips, onions and Bread and it is bully too. I will send you a receipt to get the $15 at the express office in Flint. Write soon. Josiah
(note on the back: Transporting the pay for this money will have to be paid for at Flint.)"
Note: Sadly, Fort Preble no longer exists. Standing on that site today is the Southern Main Community College campus. Apparently other forts in Casco Bay, some of which Josiah also had been assigned to, do still exist.