A woman whose daughter is in my history class is working on a book based on the Connecticut soldier’s experience in the Civil War. She’s gathered diaries, letters, newspaper clippings, reminisces, and official records, and all sorts of materials from the era, and complied genealogies on many of the men and women who served — as nurses, soldiers, doctors, ambulance corpsmen, and more. Some of the letters come from Andersonville Prison, others from the camps of wounded in the aftermath of Gettysburg, and some from women working in the field hospitals in the ruins of Richmond. They’re a fascinating look at the US Civil War from a ground-level view, and it’s amazing to me how many times Lincoln appears in the view screen of the men and women who experienced the front lines; one of the men reports in his letter that he and his unit are camping in General Lee’s farmyard, while another expresses discontent at the news that he is now fighting to free the slaves; another spends the battle of Antietam unarmed and exposed to enemy fire, while his thumb plugs up a wound to the jugular of a comrade in arms. By turns fascinating, and horrifying, and deeply moving, the letters and stories are a window into another time.
This mother opened her archives to my students, and, out of the goodness of her heart, assembled a portfolio for each of thirty students, of the letters and reminisces of a soldier or nurse each. This painting is going to be my thank-you note to her, based on one of the letters, which opens, “Dear Wife, my hands are still scarce fit to touch paper…” that was written a few days after the battle of Gettsyburg. It shows a man’s hand, tanned from being out in the July sun, wrapped in bandages (that will need some blood and powder stains), writing with an old-style quill pen on a mini writing desk with the grass in the background. In time, as I work on the painting, there will be some brass buttons on the blue coat, and maybe some gold stiching, and the paper will need to be a little more messed-up. But the words will need to be visible. It’s taking me longer to execute than I planned, in part because I want it to be a great painting… but I’m pleased with the progress so far.