Carleton Young is the author of Voices From the Attic: The Williamstown Boys in the Civil War. Carleton was good enough to take the time to answer a few questions about his book and his research/writing process.
BR: So Carleton, what would you like us to know about you?
CY: My undergraduate degree is in economics from Westminster College. By my senior year, however, I was becoming increasingly interested in history. I attended Ohio University for an MA in history, and then began teaching at Thomas Jefferson High School while working towards my PhD at the University of Pittsburgh. I had anticipated switching over to college teaching, but by the time I had completed my degree, I found that I thoroughly enjoyed teaching high school students (it helped that I was teaching primarily AP American history) and had no interest in leaving. So I continued what I was doing and added in teaching college classes evenings as an adjunct professor at several colleges.
My academic areas of interest had always been on rather obscure topics in which few others had an interest. For my Ph.D dissertation, for example, I became an expert on nineteenth century American history textbooks and how they covered religious issues. I always assumed that if I ever wrote a book it would be on something like that, not on what is probably the most talked about subject in all of American history – the Civil War.
Until about twelve years ago, I knew only enough of the basics about the Civil War as was needed to teach AP History or a college survey class. My interest had been more in political history, so I could have told you a great deal more about the election of 1860 than about any particular Civil War battle. Then I found the letters.
BR: Tell us a little bit of the story behind how you came across the Martin letters.
CY: After my parents had passed away, I was clearing out their house in Pittsburgh. I did not expect to find much that I was unfamiliar with in the house in which I had grown up, but I was quite surprised that we found a very old wooden box in the attic. Inside it were hundreds of letters, still in their original envelopes, written home by two brothers as they fought in the Civil War. There were also things like officer commission papers and hand-written orders from the war. The letters had been written home by two brothers, Henry and Francis Martin, both members of the Vermont Brigade, Sixth Corps, Army of the Potomac. It was all quite confusing to me at first because I had no idea where the letters had come from or why they had ended up in my parents’ attic. I had never heard of any relatives with the last name of Martin. And I could not imagine why, with my interest in history, that my father had never mentioned to me that he had this box of Civil War letters in the attic.
BR: Once you recognized the significance of the letters, what was your game plan for organization and research? How did the narrative structure develop?
CY: The next step was to call in a friend, Edd Hale, who taught history and was more of a Civil War buff than I had ever been. Once he saw the letters, he then called in Bill Lutz, another local teacher who was even more of a Civil War expert. Then along with my wife, Carol, and Edd’s wife, Nancy, the five of us began holding weekly meetings. First we organized the letters chronologically and by author and placed them in acid-free folders and then into binders (they are all stored away now in a climate controlled storage area). Edd scanned each of the letters and we used those scans to then begin transcribing the letters. There are about 250 letters and not only are some quite long, but the hand-writing can be very difficult to read at times (especially after a battle). The two brothers also frequently used cross-writing, conserving paper by turning the letter side-ways and writing over the lines they had just written [see attachment]. It took us several years to get through the letters, and then because we had left many gaps of words and phrases that we couldn’t decipher, we went back and started all over. Being more familiar with the hand-writing and with their experiences, we did much better the second time through.
We also began to do a good bit of traveling. We have visited the hometown of the two soldiers, Williamstown, Vermont, several times. We were quite amazed the first time that we visited that the head of the local historical society was able to direct us to the house of our two soldiers. Not only is it still standing, but it has become the front of a nursing home with the back wall of the house taken out for a large addition. The front of the house is used as a lobby and has been given a nineteenth century look, so we really felt like we had entered our soldiers’ home. We also received a great deal of help from historian Paul Zeller. He has written books on the history of the 2nd and 9th Vermont Regiments as well as a book on Williamstown soldiers in the Civil War, so that helped enormously in identifying other soldiers and townspeople mentioned in the letters. We also began visiting all of the battlefields where they fought. NPS rangers were always fascinated by the letters and very pleased to help us follow in the footsteps of our two soldiers in all of their battles.
BR: Was there anything you discovered along the way that surprised you or went against the grain?
CY: The study of the Civil War is like so many other areas in that the more you learn, the more you realize what you don’t know, so there was always a desire to learn more. But another reason that this book was more than twelve years in the writing is that the research went off in so many directions. First there was the experiences of the Martin brothers throughout the war and learning about the role of their regiments at the Peninsula Campaign, South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Funkstown, the New York City draft riots, the Wilderness, and Cedar Creek. At the same time, the Martins had many close relatives who appear in the letters and as we started researching them, we began to see how interesting they were as well. For example, Francis and Henry’s uncle, Major Issac Lynde, was blamed for an early defeat in New Mexico, just four days after Bull Run. When Henry first arrived in Washington, D.C. for training, his uncle Issac was in town trying unsuccessfully to meet with President Lincoln to explain his side of the story. Lynde’s son, Fred, was in camp in the same regiment as his cousin Henry. One of Lynde’s daughters, Helen, another cousin, was married to Frederick Dent, whose sister had married his close friend, Ulysses S. Grant. Dent ultimately became a Brigadier General. Isaac Lynde’s other daughter, Mary, was married to Major Norman Fitzhugh, Assistant Adjutant General for Jeb Stuart. And that was just one of many fascinating branches of their family. At the same time, I found it necessary to develop my own family tree using Ancestry.com and other sources to make the connection to the Martins, and that ended up being surprisingly complex to find what ultimately was a somewhat distant family relationship. All during these years, many people kept asking me when I was going to finish the book, but it was only last year that I finally felt a sense that the time had arrived.
BR: How do you sum up the experiences of the Martins, and how do you sum up how this project impacted you?
CY: The letters are significant in part for the depth that they go into about each of their battles and specific aspects of army life. It was much more common for soldiers to gloss over such topics and dwell on more mundane matters in their letters home. One of the letters, for example, details an execution. Another describes the burning of dead bodies, rather than burials, by Union soldiers at Antietam. When I showed that letter to a NPS ranger at the battlefield, he told me that he had heard of this occurring but that he had never before seen a firsthand account like this confirming it. When I showed a letter to a historian at Fredericksburg, he told me he wished he could have used the letter as a source for his last book because it was such a detailed account of a part of the battle, along Deep Run, about which little has been written. The two brothers wrote vivid and in-depth accounts of battles, but they also discussed many other aspects of army life during the war. The letters include everything from step-by-step instructions on how they built their winter quarters, to recipes for making hardtack into a tasty pudding, and how best to prepare coffee in a frying pan over an open fire.
BR: How has the book been received so far?
CY: When I finally decided to publish, I contacted a number of publishing companies. Commercial publishers tended to feel that books based on letters and journals were more appropriate for a university publisher. The university publishers prefer academic books filled with footnotes and references to the most recent research. Although I have done that kind of writing before, that was not the book that I wanted to write. I simply wanted to tell the story of two brothers, primarily in their words, who witnessed and helped to make history, and then preserved that history through surprisingly detailed and insightful letters. Consequently I decided to self-publish the book. That limits the book to mostly on-line sales on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.com, but so far I am very pleased with both the sales and the responses from those who have read the book.
BR: What’s next for you?
CY: I greatly enjoy telling the story, and since I am now retired, I have been able to start scheduling presentations with many libraries, historical societies, and book clubs. I am also planning on teaching a course next year based on the letters in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. But unless I stumble across another treasure trove of letters from the past, I do not foresee another book in the making.