ISSUED: 31 October 2016
MEDIA CONTACT: Valerie Owens
SHEPHERDSTOWN, WV — The experience of the common Southern Civil War soldier will be the topic of the next Shepherd University Faculty Research Forum. Dr. James Broomall, assistant professor of history and director of the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War, will give a lecture titled “By Whose Hand?: The Curious Letters of a Civil War Soldier” on Wednesday, November 9, at noon in the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education auditorium.
Broomall will talk about John and Charles Futch, yeomen farmer brothers who served together in the Confederacy’s 3rd North Carolina Infantry. Broomall said the Futch brothers were representative of about 80 percent of the male population of the time—non-slaveholding men who were semiliterate or illiterate.
“They’re unusual because they actually write about their experiences,” Broomall said. “Typically yeoman farmers were very much concerned with the rhythms of nature, with agriculture, and with farming; they didn’t spend a lot of time writing letters, and they didn’t spend a lot of time keeping diaries or corresponding with loved ones.”
Broomall said John and Charles Futch wrote extensively to their families. Broomall is almost certain that John was illiterate, so the letters credited to him were probably written by others. During the Faculty Research Forum, Broomall will read and explore several letters that were composed on John’s behalf in July 1863, after Charles Futch was struck in the head by a minié ball and died during the Battle of Gettysburg. Broomall said John was devastated and expressed his feelings in six letters that were written after Charles July 3 death.
“Each one was written in an entirely different vein because John wasn’t writing them,” Broomall said.
In one letter that was probably written by a Southern aristocrat, potentially an officer, Charles death is portrayed as what 19th-century Americans would call “the good death,” in which the dying person makes his peace with God, is surrounded by loved ones, and passes on. Broomall said this description of death meets the expectation that an individual needed to fulfill a series of religious, social, and personal obligations.
“But we know if a man is dying on a hillside under enemy fire and then lingers into the next day, there’s nothing good about that day,” he said. “It’s actually a slow, painful, and agonizing process.”
Broomall will discuss two other letters that were written two to three weeks after Charles death, probably by someone who was semiliterate and from the same socio-economic background as John.
“In these two letters all that veneer is stripped away,” Broomall said. “All that language of the good death is vanquished. Instead we see this incredibly emotionally fragile individual, John Futch, who is grappling with what he considers the most traumatic experience of his life.”
Broomall said in the two letters John talks about being unable to eat, about being half out of his mind, and about being desperate to go home.
“We have the beginning hints of possible military desertion,” Broomall said.
Even though the soldiers were volunteers, Broomall said they couldn’t leave without permission from company-grade officers. However, thousands of Confederate soldiers deserted for a variety of reasons. In some cases they were welcomed back to the military. In others they were shot or were never heard from again. Futch fled the Confederate army in late August of 1863.
Broomall said this Faculty Research Forum offers a unique opportunity for the audience to learn what went through the mind of a man who represents the vast majority of the Southern population at that time.
“We seldom hear from their voices,” he said. “It’s this incredibly rare source material. I think it’s a compelling story.”
Broomall said he also hopes the lecture will help the audience better understand the trauma war can cause.
“I want people to really think about the experience of war and think about how it changed individuals and how it shattered their lives,” he said. “We can do so through this small study that says a lot about larger forces.”
Listen to the interview HERE.
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