Hidden Historical Treasures at The Filson
By Brian Craig Miller
The Filson Historical Society has had a profound impact on my career as a researcher and writer for more than a decade. When I was in graduate school at the University of Mississippi, I made the nearly six hour drive from Oxford to Louisville and spent several blissful days astonished by one of the best card catalogues in the country. I am not kidding here. The cards in the drawers are so thorough that it is impossible to pull a collection and not find exactly what you have been looking for on your historical journey. Since that wonderful week in 2005, I have been like Douglass McArthur and returned on several occasions, using the vast collections to work on projects ranging from wounded veterans to the presence of the United Confederate Veterans in Kentucky.
Out of the thousands of pages of documents that I have examined at the Filson, I have a particular affinity for three different letters. The first that I uncovered back in 2005 emerged from the Viars Family Papers. On September 18, 1864, Gideon Viars, a Union soldier from Ohio, wrote to his sister Mary. He provided a particularly frank description of southern women, as he notes, “The women here in Georgia are not good looking. They are all poor, pale yellow-dried up looking creatures without any color in their faces and almost all of them rebels.” I found this quote to be particularly striking for a number of reasons. First, Viars wrote to his sister, someone who probably has never been to the South, let alone seen another southern woman. Second, he painted a particularly negative portrait of the physical attributes of southern women, describing them as “creatures” (which actually matches a few other descriptions of southern women I have encountered from northern soldiers who find their appearance and support for the war physically repulsive). Finally, he noted that the women are almost exclusively rebels, finding little evidence of southern women supporting the Union war effort. The lack of American patriotism caused the most physically repulsive attribute of the women that Viars encountered. I have always wondered how his physical description of southern women would have changed if he had encountered pro-Yankee belles.
In a letter to Jefferson Davis dated in January 1865, James Phelan discussed the collapse of General John Bell Hood’s army following the disastrous military campaign into Tennessee. Hood’s army had been bloodied at Franklin and then driven from the field a few weeks later in Nashville. Phelan expressed a wealth of sympathy for Hood, calling him a “gallant, brave man” who did not grasp the dismal morale of the army. The heavy toll of death and dismemberment leveled the Army of Tennessee to a former shell of its self. Phelan felt a twinge of sympathy, as he explained, “Deeply do I sympathize with him, in his misfortunes and earnestly do I labor to sustain his palsied arm and defend his noble character.” I found it fascinating that Phelan, in his emotional moment of empathy for Hood, noted the disability that the general sustained from a gunshot wound received at Gettysburg in 1863. Hood remained “only human,” according to Phelan, which may explain why he failed to grasp the horrific reality of what happens to an army (and its morale and stamina) when it is battered and bruised in battle. Phelan concluded, “Truth, when terrible, is hard to bear.” I have always been struck at how honest and succinct of an assessment Phelan provided of Hood in the waning days of the Civil War. Humanity, in this case, trumped a tactical analysis or a slew of blameworthy statements.
The third snippet I found tucked away inside the Thomas Osborne scrapbook of 1917. John Bankhead, a Senator from Alabama, delivered a speech at the Twenty-seventh Annual UCV reunion in Washington, D.C. in June of 1917. The Senator understood the significance of a Confederate reunion taking place in the national capital, as the “shattered remnants of the armies of Lee and Jackson, Johnston and Bragg,” went on parade before the President of the United States. He saw the event as a culmination of reconciliation efforts and the “spectacle” that took place in Washington prompted a regurgitation of memories of men who had once tried to hammer away at the gates of Washington. The soldiers, who marched that day, with “broken body and faltering step,” embarked on a “mission of peace and love, not of hatred and bloodshed, but in a spirit of resolute reconciliation and absolute loyalty to our flag.” Bankhead remained thankful at the fact that he had lived to see the day when old Confederates marched through a city that they once tried to destroy but now were “anxious to preserve.” Although reconciliation efforts remained uneven throughout the postwar period, men like Bankhead saw the UCV reunion as a pivotal moment when the honor of the Confederacy could be re-compartmentalized into an effort to once again preserve the Union.
Through these three small examples, the collections contained inside the walls of the newly renovated Filson showcase a wide variety of southern viewpoints and experiences manifested both during and after the American Civil War. Many of the documents here reflected that border state tension exhibited by men and women who either supported the Confederacy amongst Unionists or those who desired for the Union to remain strong alongside those who wanted to shatter it to pieces. Researchers willing to make the journey to Louisville will find boxes of letters, diaries, and printed materials that shed light on the diverse experiences of those who attempted to make sense of a world altered by war.
Brian Craig Miller is Dean of Liberal Studies and Language Arts at Mission College in Santa Clara, California. He is the author of several books, most recently Empty Sleeves: Amputation in the Civil War South, which was a finalist for the Jefferson Davis Book Award from the American Civil War Museum. Miller is also a proud former Ballard Breaux Fellow at the Filson Historical Society.
Please send your own Filson Finds to LeeAnn Whites, Director of Research (firstname.lastname@example.org)