Paper Trail: Letters from the Civil War
Oscar A. Stearns from Warren, Vermont was twenty years old when he enlisted as a private with Co. B of the 13th Vermont Infantry in August, 1862. Like many of his fellows, he was a farm boy; he had no idea of the rigors, dangers, and demands of life as a Civil War soldier. He would learn. During his nine-month service with the Union Army, Oscar would write a number of letters to the girl he left behind, and to his mother and siblings, correspondence in which he described his day-to-day experiences with the 13th Vermont. When wagons couldn’t get through knee-deep mud to deliver rations, he and his comrades went hungry. He saw companions die from measles, dysentery, typhoid and other diseases. He endured cold snowy nights in a tent in Virginia in conditions that rivaled those he had known in Vermont winters (albeit, in Vermont he lived in a nice warm house). He lived on hardtack and beans and longed for the next mail call, hoping for word from the folks at home. He saw the Capitol in Washington, D.C. and visited George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon. Eventually he would endure the long nine-day march to Gettysburg, Pa. where his unit would be instrumental in turning Pickett’s charge.
Meanwhile, his sweetheart back home, Jennette L. Persons, wrote to him about her life and the lives of both their families in the Green Mountains of Vermont, where Oscar’s younger brothers Orion and Clifton worked on their Uncle Azro Bragg’s farm at Fayston, VT. In their letters, Oscar and Jennette dreamed of a future time when they could be together at last, “if nothing happens.” In other words, if Oscar made it home from the war without being killed or dying from disease. This was a constant concern, obliquely expressed, yet ever present in their missives. Jennette's brother, Frederick D. Persons, a sergeant with Co. G of the 6th Vermont Infantry also wrote letters to both Oscar and Jennette. Among other places, Fred would see service at Cold Harbor, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Courthouse. After Oscar mustered out (July 21, 1863), Fred remained with Co. G of the 6th Vermont Infantry through June 26, 1865; Oscar’s brother Clifton Stearns and Orson Persons, another of Jennette’s brothers, would join Fred in the 6th Vermont in the spring of 1865. All of them were literate; all of them wrote letters; some of those letters were saved. Meanwhile, Oscar became the hostler of the stables at the Memphremagog House, a four-hundred room hotel on the shores of Lake Memphremagog in Newport, Vermont. He wrote of pipes being laid in the town to bring running water to homes and of the fast learning curve required for getting Newport’s newly acquired fire engine to function when a fire broke out in the middle of the night.
During this time, Jennette was working as the “hired girl” for a family in Granville, Vermont. Though she worked hard at domestic tasks, she also found time for social pursuits such as attending concerts, oyster suppers, and parties. Though both were now living in Vermont, Oscar and Jennette were still about one-hundred miles apart, so letters between the two of them continued. Eventually they married and in 1871 moved to Lone Tree, Nebraska, where Oscar became a photographer and dentist.
This volume includes one-hundred-eighty-three letters from Oscar, Jennette, Fred, Clifton, Orson, other siblings, and Oscar’s mother, as well as one letter to Jennette from Oscar’s best friend, James Willson, and one letter to Jennette from her aunt Anna Bixby Griggs Bragg. The book is thoroughly indexed and incorporates historical details about every person mentioned in the letters for whom such information could be found. Despite the hardships of life in the nineteenth century, despite the grief of losing family members and friends, these folks lived lives filled with laughter and love, facts reflected in the rich senses of humor and expressions of caring that flow through the lines they put on paper so long ago.