Hidden History in Civil War Documents

During the American Civil War (1861-65), Florida faced serious shortages of many consumer items that were normally obtained through trade. Clothing, weapons, ammunition, hardware, and even salt became scarcer and scarcer as the Union Navy encircled the Florida coastline with a blockade. What limited trade items could be obtained were generally funneled to the front lines for soldiers’ use.

C.S.S. Florida

C.S.S. Florida “runs” the Union blockade at Mobile Bay. “Blockade runners” used small, fast vessels to sneak past or outrun Union blockade ships and conduct trade (1862).

These privations were tough, especially the lack of food, arms, ammunition, and metal goods. Sometimes, however, the best illustrations of history come from the tiniest details. Want to see a great example of how strapped Florida’s citizens were for certain supplies during the Civil War? Look at their writing!

The words written on a historical document are certainly very useful, but sometimes how they are written, what they are written on, and what they are written with can be just as important for learning something new about the past. Take this document, for example:

Letter from "Julius" to an unidentified friend, August 24, 1863 (MS 109, State Library Manuscript Collections).

Letter from “Julius” to an unidentified friend, August 24, 1863 (MS 109, State Library Manuscript Collections).

This letter was written August 24th 1863 by a man named Julius, who was stationed at Legare’s Point on James Island near Charleston, South Carolina. You’ll notice right off that he wrote the letter in two directions, at right angles so as to be as readable as possible. He italicized his handwriting, which also increased the readability of the letter.

Why go to all this trouble? The answer is simple – as the war grew longer, paper and stationery supplies grew increasingly tight throughout the Confederacy. This was particularly true for soldiers on the front like Julius, who were often away from towns for long periods at a time. Although there were paper mills in the South in the 1860s, most letter-writing paper still had to be imported. The paper produced in the South was generally quite coarse, almost like craft paper. With the blockade in place, good stationery was difficult to obtain. Accordingly, folks “made do” with what they had. Throughout the collections of the State Library & Archives, we see examples of “cross-writing” like that above, as well as re-using paper and even using envelopes to write messages.

Message to Wagon Master Richard Joseph Adams at Waldo written on the back of an envelope, April 24, 1863 - Richard Joseph Adams Papers (MS 1, State Library Manuscript Collections).

Message to Wagon Master Richard Joseph Adams at Waldo written on the back of an envelope, April 24, 1863 – Richard Joseph Adams Papers (MS 1, State Library Manuscript Collections).

A lack of paper wasn’t the only challenge facing Floridians and other Southerners wanting to drop a line to someone during the war. Ink supplies also ran low, which led some citizens to turn to older natural sources. Long-time State Librarian Dorothy Dodd’s papers contain recollections from Floridians who reported using nutgalls and pomegranate skins to produce ink.

Tallahassee resident Susan Bradford Eppes confirms in her diary that her family was forced to find substitutes for ink, although she reports that it blotted and faded easily. This widespread substitution likely explains why the writing in some of the Civil War-era documents at the State Library & Archives is so faded, even when much older letters can still be read easily.

Excerpt from an April 3, 1864 letter with faded ink. Contrast had to be added digitally to make the document legible (Washington Ives Papers - MS 44, State Library Manuscript Collection).

Excerpt from an April 3, 1864 letter with faded ink. Contrast had to be added digitally to make the document legible (Washington Ives Papers – MS 44, State Library Manuscript Collection).

The State Library & Archives collectively hold a wealth of information about Florida in the Civil War. Diaries, letters, government reports and documents, military records, and other primary sources are available, as are books and periodicals relating to the Civil War era. If you’re looking for information about a Civil War-era ancestor, the Library’s genealogy section is a great place to get started.

Check out our Guide to Civil War Records and our Guide to Genealogical Research to learn more, or search our catalogs.

The Myth About Dusty, Musty Archives

Have you noticed how often news articles and blog posts refer to archives as dusty, musty places filled with similarly dusty, musty collections? Here are a few quotes perpetuating the dusty, musty myth about archives:

“I lifted the lid of a sere and dusty gray box; a box unexceptional among shelf upon shelf of sere and dusty gray boxes…”

“An archivist enters, pushing a cart that bears a dozen dusty gray boxes.”

“…the search happens in finding aids, the archival stacks, and the dusty boxes.”

“When people think of archives at all, they think of mouldering files in forgotten basements…”

“Leaving Cloister of Dusty Offices, Young Archivists Meet Like Minds”

“Musty Archives Shed Light on Democracies at War”

Invoking the name of T.R. Schellenberg, a revered mid-20th century American archival theorist and writer, one archivist responded to the seemingly endless litany of dusty mustiness with this Tweet,  “Whenever you use ‘musty’ [or ‘dusty’] in an article about Archives, the ghost of Schellenberg kills a kitten.” (Brad Houston, University Records Archivist, University of Wisconsin –Milwaukee, @herodotusjr)

Houston’s response, though couched in humor, affirms a truth rarely revealed in the quest for a snappy headline or catchphrase: archives and the collections they preserve are usually pretty darn clean. As these shots of our storage areas show, one would have to search long and hard to find the dust and must so ubiquitous in those articles and blog posts.

Well-organized rows of shelves at the State Archives of Florida (2014).

Well-organized rows of shelves at the State Archives of Florida (2014).

No dust here! Only neatly labeled boxes containing original documents from Florida's colorful past (2014).

No dust here! Only neatly labeled boxes containing original documents from Florida’s colorful past (2014).

Another view of the stacks at the State Archives of Florida (2014).

Another view of the stacks at the State Archives of Florida (2014).

Occasionally an archives will acquire a collection that was not stored in clean conditions and requires cleaning or rehousing. If researchers are provided access to such a collection before that work is done, they might indeed encounter some dirt or dust. Or a very small or severely understaffed and struggling archives might lack the resources to perform such work. But those are the exceptions. Far more typical are the well-maintained collections and facilities that disprove the myth of the dusty, musty archives. Come visit us – we promise you won’t get dirty!

Did you know you can search the holdings of the State Archives of Florida from your own computer anytime? Check out the Archives Catalog to find out what we have on your favorite Florida history topic.