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Archives & Special Collections: The Life of a Soldier During the Civil War


The Civil War was a defining moment in US history.  It caused tremendous damage to the entire nation, while also creating a situation that planted the seeds of equality in the nations Constitution and in the American psyche.  In short, the Civil War pitted two parties of one nation against each other and redefined American society and our system of government.

Although we often look at the Civil War as a battle of North versus South, nationalism versus states' rights, and anti-slavery versus slavery, we rarely stop to consider how it affected the individual rights of the people involved. This collection of approximately 150 letters  by an Irish immigrant named William Butler offers an opportunity to view the Civil War through the eyes of one individual.  These letters describe Butler's experience during the war, including his fears, the battles and daily activities. Using this information, consider Butler's experience as a Union soldier.  A fruitful comparison could be made of the life of other Civil war soldiers, whose letters have been published. 

Primary Sources

Butler Family Papers 1844-1980 MSS 684 (Special Collections). More information available electronically under Archives and Manuscripts on the Special Collections website.

Edwards, Abial Hall, et al. Dear Friend Anna: The Civil War Letters of a Common Soldier from Maine. 1st ed. Orono, Me., U.S.A: University of Maine Press, 1992. 

Musser, Charles O., Barry Popchock, and Inc ebrary.Soldier Boy: The Civil War Letters of Charles O. Musser, 29th Iowa. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008. 

Pardington, John Henry, and Coralou Peel Lassen. Dear Sarah: Letters Home from a Soldier of the Iron Brigade. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999. 

Secondary Sources

Hess, Earl J. The Union Soldier in Battle: Enduring the Ordeal of Combat. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1997. 

Linderman, Gerald F. Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War. New York: Free Press, 1987. 

Mitchell, Reid. The Vacant Chair: The Northern Soldier Leaves Home. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. 

"Letters from the Edge: William Butler's Civil War." Union College Magazine. Fall 2001. (Available in periodicals in the basement).