On Saturday, I finished working on a series of letters that tell the sad tale of Samuel, a Civil War soldier. Leaving his wife, Rachel, and their three boys (Oscar, Willie and Clintie) behind, Samuel joined the Ohio Volunteer Infantry for a three-year stint fighting for what he called a good and glorious cause. Six months later, Samuel joined Andrews’ Raid, was captured, court-martialled and hung. He posthumously received one of the first Congressional Medals of Honor.
While the descriptions of a solder’s life are likely the most educational feature of the letters that Samuel sent to Rachel, I like their opening lines best. “I take my pen in hand to inform you that I am well at present, hoping that these few lines may find you and the family all well,” one began. In another, Samuel wrote, “I seat myself this pleasant Sabbath evening to answer your welcome letter.”
Despite enduring a 40-mile march on muddy roads, sidestepping a measles outbreak, and using a cigar box as his writing surface, Samuel managed to write descriptive, thoughtful letters to his wife in handwriting that’s better than some I’ve seen around the tables of conference rooms.
Samuel and his contemporaries knew that letters did more than convey information. They also presented the writer’s character. Out of respect for the addressee, people took great care with the style of their correspondence and worked hard to write carefully in their very best hand. Letter-writing manuals reminded correspondents to begin each sentence with a capital letter, write with a dictionary at hand, and carefully fold their finished piece, making the corners sharp so that they showed a handsome shape when they were sealed. These books also presented myriad examples of model letters to emulate when readers found themselves in certain situations, such as writing to a younger sibling at school, asking a friend’s apology for having disappointed him, or advising a young man to avoid the “pernicious Habit of Drinking to Excess.”
The more I work with letters like Samuel’s, the more I think about the care that my grandmother took in her own correspondence. Using her ninth-grade rhetoric textbook, The Century Handbook of Writing, as her guide, she wrote appreciative thank-you notes and thoughtful “Thinking of You” cards in her elegant script. Watching her write was also fun. When she signed her name, she made several circular motions with her hand before executing a flourishing “J.”
Following her example, I developed a fondness for keeping in touch with people through the mail. In fact, when I asked a local business leader to write a recommendation letter for me, he concluded his remarks by writing, “I probably have more handwritten thank-you notes from her than from any other person here in Central Ohio. She never let any event pass without acknowledging it warmly. Her notes were kind and friendly, like one would receive from the dearest of friends.”
Today’s tools for instant communications may be gratifyingly efficient, but I think they’ve lost the charm of those carefully chosen phrases written in meticulously formed cursive letters. While I’m trying to send more e-mails, I much prefer taking my pen in hand to let people know I’m thinking about them, or to thank them for something nice they’ve done for me.