Remembering, responding to the Civil War 150 years later

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Guest Opinion by David McCartney for the Iowa City Press-Citizen


David McCartney

Jesse Skinner Wilkerson was a 33-year-old farmer from Hamburg, Iowa, when he was drafted to serve in the 13th Iowa Infantry, Company C. His wife, Sarahett, was pregnant with their third child and left to run the farm in his absence.

The year was 1864, and the U.S. was embroiled in a civil war that ultimately cost three-quarters of a million lives among the Union and Confederacy ranks. Wilkerson, by his reckoning, traveled over 5,000 miles to seven states during his service. Though he survived the war, he was murdered in a barroom in 1869, only four years after the war’s end.

Wilkerson’s letters to his family, and those from his wife, recount the hopes of a farmer to return home soon and reunite with his family.

On Jan. 21, 1865, Sarahett Wilkerson wrote: “They say there is a going to be peace I hope it is so you can come home again. Me and the children is crazy they talk about you all the time. Hatty can talk plain now she sais her paw is in the army shooting rebels I wish you could see the children. I expect you would like to see them, I wish you could come home on a furlow I don’t expect you can.”

The Wilkerson letters are among some 13,000 pages of Civil War-era letters and diaries housed in the Department of Special Collections and University Archives, University of Iowa Libraries, which have been digitized and transcribed online as part of DIY History, a UI Libraries project.

Launched in 2011, the project encourages volunteers to read, analyze and transcribe historic documents so that researchers may enjoy improved access to the material on the Web, visit http://diyhistory.lib.uiowa.edu.

DIY History is one of many ways we remember the nation’s bloodiest conflict, and it is among those to be discussed Friday as part of the University of Iowa’s WorldCanvass program, “The Rupture of Civil War.” To observe its sesquicentennial, WorldCanvass will explore how we document and interpret the Civil War from a variety of perspectives:

  • John Raeburn, UI professor emeritus of American Studies, will discuss how the emerging technology of photography brought the war home to civilians.
  • Byron Preston, collections management coordinator at the Old Capitol Museum, will describe the museum’s current Civil War exhibit.
  • Ed Folsom, UI professor of English, will recount Walt Whitman’s wartime experience and how it influenced Whitman’s poetry.
  • Sylvea Hollis and Heather Cooper, UI graduate students, will examine African American perspectives of the war.
  • Kathleen Diffley, UI associate professor of English, will talk about the role of magazines, an emerging medium, in their dissemination of stories about the war.
  • Corey Creekmur, UI associate professor of English and director of the Institute for Cinema and Culture, will discuss how film and television have depicted the war.
  • Wayne Richenbacher, a retired surgeon from University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, will address the deplorable field conditions that wartime health and medical workers faced.

To open the discussion, an overview of the war — the circumstances building up to it and its overwhelming impact on Americans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line — will be provided by Leslie Schwalm, UI professor of history.

After 150 years, the Civil War continues to teach us about hardship, courage, and effects on family and friends. Please join us for the University of Iowa’s WorldCanvass program, “The Rupture of Civil War,” hosted by Joan Kjaer, at 5 p.m. Friday in the Senate Chamber of the Old Capitol. The event is free and open to the public.

David McCartney is the University of Iowa Archivist.

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