Reading a group of Civil War letters can be emotional and can leave a person feeling cold, tired, a little frightened and even a bit breathless at times. Beem generally wrote on stationery, so finding a letter written on a piece of torn out ledger page was odd. Reading it was really an experience, though. Written hastily after a “terrible battle,” it actually made my heart race. Unlike other letters, he did not identify his location at the top of the page. The date really piqued my interest.
Indeed, he wrote this note just after the Battle of Antietam. With more than 20,000 killed or wounded, this is known as the bloodiest day in American military history. And the battle was not won by either side. Beem’s immediate concern was getting a message to his wife to let her know that he had survived. The urgency comes through in the paper, the penmanship and his “voice.” Surely he knew the battle would be in the newspaper before she could get his note, and all he could do was communicate as quickly as possible.
Collections as large as Beem can really give an insight into the person behind those letters. I can imagine David Beem was a very precise person and had a well-developed sense of himself. He also loved his wife and his friends deeply. In a word, I think I might describe him as devoted. Beem was not someone to do things halfway. I enjoyed getting to know him and was glad as I read the letters to already know he survived the war. In fact, he died less than 40 years before I was born.
Those of us born in the 20th century often reflect on the tremendous change wrought by World War I, but that’s nothing compared to the changes seen by a large number of Civil War veterans. Imagine being one of the fellows who attended the last G.A.R. Encampment in Indianapolis in 1949. Not only had they seen several wars, they also saw the rise of the automobile, airplane and atomic bombs. This brings me to the connection between two very different collections. Larry Foster photographed the attendees at the final G.A.R. Encampment.
Sometimes our collections cause me to ask how we got to now. Others show me.
You Are There 1863: Letter Home from Gettysburg will open Sept. 16. Step into the parlor where Capt. David Beem’s wife is reading a letter sent just after the Battle of Gettysburg ended.