Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Tribute to the Ladies

In a letter to his mother dated December 10, 1863, Colonel George Wells makes brief mention of a social activity organized by the officers of his regiment.

Thanksgiving, the officers of the 34th gave a ball which was really a most elegant affair – music, supper, decorations and pretty women were all in style. How it was accomplished God only knows.
As I searched for corroborating evidence of the events referred to by Wells in his letters, I came across this somewhat more colorful description of the evening. In a history of the regiment called Life with the Thirty-Fourth Mass. Infantry in the War of the Rebellion, published in 1879, William Lincoln, who had served as an officer in the regiment, offers this tribute to the ladies attending the ball.
The ladies, God bless them! were there in large numbers. And oh! the dresses! and ah! the un-dresses! Sprigged muslins, and other gauze-like fabrics, floated round forms of 200 pounds, at the least, of good solid adipose matter; and heavy stiff black silks stood out from and helped cover skeletons, whose bones could almost be heard rattling an accompaniment to the music of the dance. Flashy calicoes contrasted with heavy, glaring red merinos. High-necked and long-sleeved dresses, jealously guarded from, perchance, a too searching eye, the least particle of flesh, dry and withered too often, it is true; and again, there were other dresses so cut and disposed as to reveal the rich amplitude of shoulders and bosom to any who would not turn away
Ouch! At the risk of getting trapped in a quagmire of political incorrectness and cattiness, let me just say that archival research can be as entertaining as it is challenging.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Who was Private Norman Boyd?

Among the many curiosities to be found in the archival collection at the Beaton Institute, at Cape Breton University, in Sydney, Nova Scotia, is a single sheet of paper that, at first glance, appears to be a letter sent home to his mother in Cape Breton, from a private serving in the Union Army during the American Civil War.

At the end of the letter, after asking his mother to write to him, and providing his address, the writer adds this odd postscript: "When I enlisted I gave my name as Norman Boyd, so that I would have a chance to get away." What could this mean?

At one point in the letter, the writer identifies a certain John McDonnell as his first cousin, so we might speculate that he gave the name Boyd instead of McDonnell. Unfortunately, the letter provides no clue as to his motivation for enlisting under an alias, or for why he chose the particular name Boyd. Was he trying to get away from something, perhaps a criminal record, and thus the name change would allow him to avoid being tracked down by authorities? Or, was he hedging his bets in the event that he chose to desert the army and make his way back to Canada without being caught? Was he an American citizen?

We may never be able to establish the true identity of Norman Boyd. The letter contains no specific addressee, only the salutation, "Dear mother." As for finding Private Boyd in muster rolls of the Union Army, he only provides his address as Siege Battery B, in the Army of the Potomac. We have no clue as to which regiment, division, or corps, this battery was attached.

Furthermore, we have no idea how this letter came to be part of the collection at the Beaton Institute. One of the critical aspects of archival management is to gather information about the provenance of the items that it receives and curates. Who was in possession of this letter at the time it was donated to the archive? Where did they get it? When? Did they know anything about the writer, the addressee, or any of the other individuals mentioned in the letter? Only those associated with the item can provide these sorts of details. Without this kind of information, items can remain hidden in plain sight. They are not lost. The archive has cataloged the item, and anyone wanting to look at it, merely needs to ask. However, without any context for the item, how would anyone know to ask?