January 12, 2010

Emotional Design III: From Civil War Letters to Email

This is a postcard photo of my grandmother Eulah Maxwell (tallest on the right), her sister, Margaret and her two cousins, Margaret and Nellie Barr. Circa 1910, Fairgrove, Michigan.

Why an antique postcard? Well, lately, I have been thinking about mail and the ways people preserve their connection to one another. For the longest time, people took pen to paper and attentively scribed their words in ink. They then handed their thoughtful words over to the postman who sent it on to a yearning loved-one. The journey took weeks if not months to complete. If a person didn’t have time to write a letter, a postcard might suffice. Maybe they would send a small gift, but the idea was the same...to maintain an emotional connection.

As you know, we have come a long way since the Pony Express. Today, not only can we churn out a flurry of correspondence before our 10:00am coffee break, but we can spam hundreds of our friends on Facebook with the latest full length video of our beach vacation or our kid’s crazy birthday party. Our friends can...and will do the same... ;-)

I think this is great. :-) We are all so far away yet we can stay tightly connected. We can easily keep up with endeavors of our peer group on a daily basis. This is, of course, a human need. We all feel the need to stay connected...at least most of the time...

...But somehow, I think something is missing in the equation. I am not sure why...maybe it’s due to the ephemeral nature of today’s correspondence or our seemingly transparent, but opaque digital personae. It is so easy and instant to connect with one another that the very connection seems disposable...

Civil War letter envelope. Peter Maxwell to Elizabeth Maxwell. 1862-1865

So let’s look at the past...The above envelope is from a letter sent by my great, great grandfather Peter Maxwell. He was my grandmother Eulah Maxwell’s grandfather. It is from a collection of correspondence Peter sent to his wife, Elizabeth, during the Civil War. It is over 145 years old...

The envelope is uniquely beautiful...notice the emblem...the handwriting...the loop in the capital Ms, the lower case z, and the ink from a quill. It is definitely something to be cherished...and shared...so, I will share with you two of his letters...

A little background...Peter Maxwell enlisted in Company F of the 20th Michigan Infantry in the Union Army on July 24, 1862. He was 34 years old...an old man for the army. I have no idea what he was thinking because he had two young children, Francis and Frankie. He and his wife had already lost three children...and would end up losing little Francis and Frankie by the end of that terrible war...

...and it was terrible...over 600,000 soldiers killed...America’s bloodiest war ever...more killed than all of America’s wars combined to date... The US only had a population of 31 million at that time.

Peter Maxwell did not have to go. Most of the men (boys) in Peter’s regiment were in their late teens and early 20’s. I’m not sure how he kept up with them, but he did.

I am sure he enlisted out of honor and duty to country.

Union soldiers cooking. Photo via Library of Congress

I understand Peter started out as the company cook. I figure he knew how to cook better than the most of the teenagers in the ranks. An army marches on its stomach. —Napoleon Bonaparte ;-)

As fate would have it, Peter ended up with a gun in his hand because his company sustained heavy losses and he was one of he last men still standing.

Peter Maxwell, Company F, 20th Michigan Infantry

The following letter is dated May 16, 1864. At which point, Peter had been at war for nearly 2 years...he had lost his little girl, Francis...and son Frankie to sickness, whom he laments over at the end of the letter. I cannot imagine the hardships and emotions he and his wife endured.

Notice the embossing at the top of the letter...and the 19th century handwriting...

Have a read...

The above is a depiction by Kurz & Allison.

Notice Peter mentioned the heavy losses at the Battle of the Wilderness. That battle occurred May 6th, 1864. Fortunately, he was a cook at the time......But Peter eventually had to take up arms and was wounded in the Second Battle of Petersburg between June 15th and 18th, 1864. The letter below was just before the battle on June 15th, 1864...he would not be able to finish it...

Notice the different hand writing at the end...Peter was not able finish the it because he was wounded...Brayton Webster from his company finished the letter for him on June 18th. I have transcribed the closing since it too difficult to read...

June 18th, 1864
Mrs. Maxwell,

As Peter is hurt in his right hand and wishes you to hear from him I will finish it [the letter]. He is not hurt seriously and I think that he will get a chance to come home as soon as he gets to Washington. He is shot through his right hand, but there are no bones broken so you need not be alarmed about this and he says that he is quite comfortable. None for which we may all be very thankful.

Very respectfully yours,

Most Obl. Servant

B. G. Webster

Co. F
20th Mich

I remember my grandmother, Eulah, speaking of his crippled right hand. Yes, she remembered him and often told me of his life. That is why I tracked down the letters...

Photo from a newspaper clipping of Peter and Elizabeth’s golden (50 year) wedding anniversary in 1904.
Peter’s story does not end with the Civil War...upon his return, he and Elizabeth picked up the pieces of their lives and managed to build a new family of 3 sons and 3 daughters. They thrived on a 40 acre farm in Fairgrove, Michigan where they remained married for over 50 years.

Peter was not a hero or a historical figure. He was just an ordinary man in extraordinary times. There will be no novels published or history books written about him...though his story should be remembered...

...And nothing I have encountered seems as difficult when I think of what was endured so long ago...I would not know this, if the letters had not been saved...

I am always inspired knowing that I exist because Peter and Elizabeth endured.

Today there are also meaningful stories...but I feel society risks losing their impact amidst the deluge of digital content that bombards all of us...

...Think back to my grandmother’s postcard...it had been saved in a shoe box for 100 years. Among other mementos, my mother framed a letter with a beautiful silk scarf sent by my grandmother’s suitor stationed in Paris during World War I.

Why save them? Because they embody the spirit and emotions of the person who penned them...and by keeping them, we keep that person alive.

Will emails one day become treasured memories? Can we save our Skype calls? Would we want to? How will we pass on our life’s stories to future generations? How will we curate them? With so much content constantly being created, the task seems too daunting.

Before we can answer these questions, we need to realize what we could be losing through our casual digital communications. Then we can begin to design ways to curate our digital lives in order to preserve what is important on into the next generation.

So, the next time you are about to send that angry email...or upload 200+ vacation photos to Facebook...or Twitter your lunch plans...stop...and take a moment to think about what you’re leaving behind.

Someday, your great great grandchild may need inspiration... ;-)


Anonymous Doug W. Sr. said...

On Fri, Jan 15, 2010 at 1:21 AM, Doug Wills wrote:

A really interesting piece of history. Lots I never heard before. Thanks for doing a brief history of our family. I tried to write a comment on your blog but for some reason could not get Google to accept my entry.

January 15, 2010  
Blogger annamatic said...

Fascinating! Do you know, one of my New Year's Resolutions this year is to "write more snail mail." That came about when I happened upon a stash of unused stationery while cleaning out some drawers...

My nephews and nieces can't read or write script; they don't teach it in school anymore.

January 15, 2010  
Anonymous Priya Prakash said...

Funny Annamatic, that was one of my resolutions too. This time when I came back from India, was also doing the whole- Helping my parents with new tech (a digital camera, a new mobile phone and a MP3 player) ... also figuring out how to archive old photos ins a sensible digital archive..so much to do in this space. Overall, there is a real need for well-designed products and service that the older generation can use and share.

January 18, 2010  
Anonymous Lyra Jakabhazy said...

Now Peter's story lives on for many more generations to come. Feel honored to have read his letters. Deep thanks.

January 19, 2010  
Blogger Unknown said...

A very thoughtful commentary. I appreciated reading it, and I agree with your sentiments.

[As an aside, I guess that might be partly why I loathe text messaging so much.]

I hope all is well,
Jeffrey (Atto)

April 20, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just discovered your blog, and was excited to see that someone else appreciates Peter's letters as much as I do. By the way, we're related. I'm also Peter & Elizabeth's great-great granddaughter, great-granddaughter of Sarah Maxwell McCreedy, and granddaughter of Clara McCreedy Cartwright. I'd love to hear from you and possibly trade more family info.


July 22, 2010  
Blogger Unknown said...


My name is Daniel Maxwell. I have some more of these letters; they are different than yours. I'm not sure of my place in the family but I have alyways understood that Peter was a direct reletive. My father is Wesley and his was Laurel. Please contact me at the email below, I would like to hear from you.



March 26, 2011  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hi there, I am a friend of Pete McCreedy's, and am trying to retype some of your Great-Great Grandfather's letters from photocopies. Have you done this already? Do you have the originals? We would like to have a printing company make some quality copies of the original for some educational activities that we are doing with students in Lapeer. This is a wonderful blog!

June 06, 2011  
Anonymous Kathy Bradley said...

I am also a great great granddaughter of Peter and Elizabeth. My Grandmother was Clara Cartwright and my Mother was Sarah Blanche Cartwright. I have a copy of one of those letters, which was given to me in the family Bible upon my Mother's death. It was interesting to read your blog. I'll try to keep up on it. Kathy Bradley, Caro, Michigan

December 17, 2013  
Blogger Unknown said...

I am a great great great granddaughter of Peter & Elizabeth Maxwell. Clara Cartwright is my great grandmother. My grandma, Jeanette Staschke, has a cedar chest of Peters from during the civil war!

September 29, 2015  
Blogger Unknown said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

September 30, 2015  

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