We Destroy a Part of Our History Every Day

I spent the majority of today conducting research at the Indiana State Archives for my thesis on the Grand Army of the Republic. It did not go as well as planned. I was particularly interested in studying the letter books of the Department of Indiana’s Assistant Adjutant General, of which there are 25 volumes from 1895-1918 at the archives. The Assistant Adjutant General was the right hand man of the Department Commander, the person in charge of the entire state GAR. He was sort of like a press secretary for a top executive today. I went through the collection from 1895-1900, and let me tell you, these puppies are thick. Each volume was between 900-1000 pages and covered the AAG’s correspondence over a 6-9 month period, roughly. The AAG at this time, R.M. Smock, was most definitely a man of letters and very passionate about his job.

I was hoping to use this collection to gain a better insight into the views and ideas of the GAR as a whole. I wanted it to be passionate and personal. However, most of the letters are purely bureaucratic in nature: writing local posts reminding them of bills due to department headquarters, helping to organize new posts into the order, making preparations for the state and national encampments, answering questions about the proper rituals of the GAR, etc. Several people wrote to the AAG looking for friends and loved ones who may have been in the organization. A lady named Ida C. Patterson from Honolulu, Hawaii, mailed the AAG asking him to look for one William Eaton, who was supposedly living in Indianapolis in 1898. The AAG responded on March 18 by stating, “I do not know where such a party lives. I have examined the roster of the Indiana soldiers at the Buffalo [National] Encampment and do not find his name in the list.” If I were writing a thesis on the GAR’s organizational structure or the migration of GAR veterans (and their loved ones) to the West, such a letter might elicit a stronger interest from me, but I’m pretty sure 95 percent of the AAG’s letters will be of little use to me, which means that I will unfortunately need to continue going through the letters up until 1918 for that 5 percent that could benefit the project.

Another disappointing realization made today was that some of the AAG’s letters–regardless of their content–have been permanently destroyed. The typeset ink used for these letter books has faded so badly that they are now unreadable to us today, leaving us in a sense of bewilderment as to what these letters may have contained. None of this material has been digitized, just like most of the archival material in repositories around the world. Even a prominent institution like the Smithsonian is fighting just get 10 percent of their collections online. Clearly, historians are in a race against time to preserve the documents in their archival institutions.

See if you can read this AAG letter from 1895 (click to expand):

GAR AAG Letter - Illegible

Thankfully, most of the AAG letters I’ve seen so far look more like this one (a letter not from the AAG but from Dept. Cmdr. James S. Dodge to A.S. McCormick, Commander for John A. Logan Post 3 in Lafayette, Indiana) and reads as follows:

Replying to your esteemed favor of the 25th inst. in reference to the propriety of allowing the pictures of Generals Lee and Longstreet in the Grand Army Post hall, permit me to congratulate you on the stand you have taken in this matter, and you should not, no difference what pressure may be brought to bear on you, waver in the least in carrying out your good resolutions. I can readily understand why a camp of confederate veterans might order the pictures of Lincoln, Grant, Thomas, Sherman, Logan and other heroes of the Union war hang in their meeting place, but it is beyond my comprehension how any person who loves his country and the Union for which he fought can want to hang the picture of a rebel General in such a place.

GAR AAG Letter - legible

This was my favorite letter of the day and I think it has real potential to be included somewhere in the thesis. I’ll comment on it further in another post, but for now I want to focus on the first, illegible letter. Such letters are being lost to historians on a daily basis. The ravages of time are wiping out these documents, but there are also institutional challenges to be considered. Many archival repositories are struggling financially yet receiving large collections from donors. As time, money, and space decrease in quantity, archivists are forced to destroy many objects no longer deemed important. In his article “The Archive(s) is a Foreign Country: Historians, Archivists, and the Changing Archival Landscape,” published in the The Canadian Historical Review in September 2009, Archivist Terry Cook has suggested that only “1 to 5 per cent of the total available documentation of major institutions is preserved.” When I first read that, it shocked me. That means 95-99% of archival documents are destroyed by major archival institutions. Wow. It is actually a surprise that these AAG letters still exist today.

My experience today reminded me of Daniel J. Boorstin’s 1987 essay, “The Historian is Both Discoverer and Creator.” Boorstin reminds us of a harsh truth in history-making. “Historians,” remarks Boorstin, “can rediscover the past only by the relics it has left for the present… My life as a historian has brought me vivid reminders of how partial is the remaining evidence of the whole human past, how casual and how accidental is the survival of its relics.”

Yet Boorstin ends on a high note: “The historian-creator refuses to be defeated by the biases of survival. For he chooses, defines and shapes his subject to provide a reasonably truthful account from miscellaneous remains.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. If I can use these documents to tell a reasonably truthful story about the GAR in Indiana, I will be satisfied. It won’t be definitive or beyond criticism, but it will hopefully start a conversation about an important organization in the history of Indiana and the entire United States.

To be continued…