Uncommon Words of Common Soldiers

By Linda Wheeler

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON - In April 1861, New York newspaper editor William Cauldwell asked soldiers departing for Washington to send news.

Boy, did they ever.

More than 3,000 of their letters were published in Cauldwell's Sunday Mercury during the course of the Civil War.

Many letters telling of battle-inflicted injuries or the boredom of camp life were sent from Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. In exchange, the amateur correspondent got a free copy of the edition in which his letter appeared.

The Mercury's extraordinary documentation of the war from the view of the common soldier was long forgotten until historian William B. Styple discovered the accounts while researching a book. He organized 500 of those letters into a chronology of the war in his newly published book, "Writing and Fighting the Civil War" (Belle Grove Publishing Co., $27).

The writers, all members of New York regiments, had to fully identify themselves to the editors to get published, but they could appear in print with a nickname or initials.

Most dealt with impressions of first-time travelers.

From Harewood Hospital in Washington, "Guardian" sent a letter on Oct. 18, 1864, about the burial ground at the nearby Old Soldiers Home.

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