Jan. 14 2009 12:00 AM

State to digitize Civil War 'love story' of donated letters

State Archivist Nicole Garrett displays one of the 291 Civil War-era letters donated to the State Archives. (Bill Castanier/City Pulse)

As Nicole Garrett, archivist for the state of Michigan, delicately extracted a letter from its file last week, it was almost possible to sense what Nancy “Nan” Ewing was feeling the first time she, or anyone, read it nearly 150 years ago. The excitement, the anticipation … and then the terrible feeling of learning her beloved husband was wounded.

Her husband, Henry Mackendree “Mack” Ewing, wrote that he had lost his right eye and was in a hospital recovering and eager to return home. It was more than a year before the reunion occurred.

This letter is one of 291 Civil War-era letters recently donated to the Michigan Historical Center by Ewing’s great grandson, Wallace K. Ewing, of Grand Haven. The collection spans 1856 to 1865 and includes letters of war and love, which were written while the couple was courting in the early 1860s.

The letters, which have been appraised at $30,000, have been preserved and kept intact by the Ewing family, but by this spring they will be available for anyone with an Internet connection to read on the Department of History, Arts and Libraries’ new Web site www.seekingmichigan.org.

As the sesquicentennial of the Civil War approaches, Wallace Ewing said the timing was perfect to share these family mementoes with the world. “There wasn’t the same interest among family members in the letters, and the Archives will care for them properly,” Ewing said.

Mack Ewing was a 22-year-old farmer from Hillsdale when he and his brother, Andrew, enlisted in the Second Michigan Infantry in 1864. The Second Infantry fought in Virginia, Tennessee and Mississippi, suffering high casualty counts. Ewing was wounded while at an encampment near Petersburg, Va., in May 1864, and he spent the rest of the war in a Philadelphia hospital recovering from his wound, which in a letter to Nan he wrote, “The DR says he thinks my face won’t be disfigured any … . I shall not be shamed of it. yet it would Seam Sweeter if I cood See out of two eyes.”

The actual letters and envelopes are a visual feast, many of them illustrated with colorful lithographs of Abraham Lincoln, canons and other graphics. Ewing said the letters’ amazing condition could be attributed to family care and the quality of the cotton-based paper of the time. It also doesn’t hurt that Mack Ewing spent most of his service days in a hospital and not on the battlefield.

Although the letters generally avoid battlefield descriptions, in one letter Ewing wrote about the shooting of a Union deserter caught fighting for the “Rebs.” After explaining how he left before the actual execution, Ewing wrote, “I have not got hard harted enough yet to stand and se a half dozen bullets put through a man in cold blood, but he deserved it, Yet I could not look at him.”

Mark Harvey, state archivist, said the collection is one of only a few of this size representing letters from a single source.  The State Archives has thousands of individual letters or pages of diaries, but nothing approaching the number, the quality or the completeness of this collection, Harvey said.

In addition, Wallace Ewing has annotated the letters and transcribed them so they can be easily read. In the spring, online visitors will be able to view the actual letters along with the transcriptions.

Wallace Ewing said he doesn’t recall when he first became aware of the collection. “It’s kind of like a chandelier in the family home; it’s just there,” he said.

The collection also includes photographs of Mack Ewing and his brother, a scrapbook of clippings and other found items Nan Ewing kept during the war and a notebook Ewing carried during the war.

Wallace Ewing, who calls himself an amateur historian and works at the Tri-Cities Historical Museum in Grand Haven, has also published the book “From Home to Trench: The Civil War Letters of Mack and Nan Ewing,” which includes 85 of the transcribed letters with historical context and observations.

Ewing believes what makes his great grandparents’ letters unusual is that they offer “a love story” that presents a view of the war at the front and at home.

In the ephemeral age of text messages, e-mail and Twitter, this cache of letters written almost 150 years ago between a Union soldier and his wife has special significance: They were not only a lifeline back home, but they tell in simple terms how both soldiers and family grew weary of the war. As Mack Ewing wrote one letter: “O I do wish this crewel war was over.”