Old Letters Open a Poignant Window on War

By Shira J. Boss, | The Christian Science Monitor, November 10, 1999 | Go to article overview

Old Letters Open a Poignant Window on War


Shira J. Boss,, The Christian Science Monitor


Like most people, Horace Evers didn't think that the letters he wrote during World War II would be of interest to anyone outside his own family.

He kept them tucked away in a trunk until he read of the War Legacy Project - a volunteer effort by a young man in Washington to collect and preserve letters from America's wars - and sent one in.

It was written at the end of the war to his mother and stepfather, and tells of the horrors American soldiers encountered at the Dachau concentration camp after its liberation.

That eyewitness account is enough to make it significant as a historic document, says Andrew Carroll, who runs the project. What makes it even more special is that Mr. Evers wrote it while sitting at Adolf Hitler's desk, two days after Hitler's suicide.

Evers penned the letter on sheets of Hitler's personal stationery, embossed with a golden swastika and the dictator's name, which Evers crossed out and replaced with his own.

"The proximity of that is chilling," Mr. Carroll says. And it is just one example of how letters bring history alive as textbooks usually cannot.

Carroll's project is an appeal to Americans to preserve their war letters, from parchments penned during the Revolution to e-mails typed from Kosovo. Ones that include such detail or illustrate the effects of war will be made public by the War Legacy Project.

"We're trying to bring out the humanity of war. We often think of war as a clash between these two faceless armies," Carroll says. "But these are individuals with children and siblings and friends - you multiply these stories by the millions and it's overwhelming."

Carroll first realized the worth of letters when his house burned down in 1990 while he was in college and he lost all of his letters. He started to pay more attention to other people's letters, and over the next seven years he put together what turned into a bestselling book, "Letters of a Nation: A Collection of Extraordinary American Letters."

Seeing the movie "Saving Private Ryan" last year motivated Carroll to launch the project to preserve war letters before more veterans pass away and their correspondence is lost.

"We're losing our most cherished personal possessions," he laments. "Kids go through their parents' houses and throw out boxes of letters without realizing what they're throwing out."

He appealed to Abigail Van Buren to write a "Dear Abby" column asking readers to send him copies of their war correspondence, and within a week he had received bins of letters.

A year later, Carroll estimates the collection is at about 15,000 letters. Some arrive as packets of entire correspondences over years.

"People write and say, 'There's nobody left but me, and I want someone to remember what my father [or husband or whoever] did. Please hang on to these,' " Carroll says.

Part of the project's aim is to get others to realize the value of these letters.

"These are eyewitness accounts of battles, personal accounts of encounters with generals, love letters that show the destruction of war," he says. "We have Civil War letters that are marked with flecks of mud and blood. There are 'Dear John' letters that these guys have kept their whole lives and still say, 'The war tore us apart.' "

A Civil War soldier wrote describing a deserter being executed by firing squad. A long series of letters between a mother and son ends with her asking, "And when are you coming home? …

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