First of two parts.
Budge and Russ Weidman never expected to become experts on long-neglected Civil War files tucked away in storage rooms of the National Archives. Neither was a professional researcher in the 1990s, when they volunteered to help organize the little-known files and to prepare them for microfilming.
Eleven years later, long after they had planned to ease into retirement, they spend three days a week at the archives, supervising 30 other volunteers who work in small groups one day a week, smoothing the creases of letters and reports written during and after the war. The completion of this project is many years away, but the immediate result of their work is public access to microfilmed files few people knew existed.
The Weidmans, of West Springfield, have spoken for free at several Civil War conferences about the work of the volunteers and their findings. They say there is something that draws them back to the dusty files and the stories that they tell.
"I love working with the 19th-century original records for the insights you can get that you can't get out of reading books," Budge Weidman said. "I have the gift of time now, and I love to find and read the poignant stories in the letters."
For her husband of nearly 50 years, the attraction is learning about the war. "I know much more now about the battles, particularly the obscure ones," Russ Weidman said. "I've learned more about Lincoln and Grant. Now I am reading books about them."
There is also the excitement of finding a Lincoln signature -- four so far.
The group has finished the records of the U.S. Colored Troops and the military records of soldiers from California, Colorado, Delaware, Nebraska, Vermont and the District of Columbia. The volunteers are working on files from the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, commonly called the Freedmen's Bureau.
The dusty file jackets often contain heart-tugging appeals from mothers, such as the one from Washington resident Mary Buckley, who knew where to go when she needed help getting her son out of prison. She wrote to the president.
James Callan, a private in Company E, 2nd Regiment of the District of Columbia's Volunteers who had enlisted at the outbreak of the war, was found guilty of desertion on Aug. 26, 1864, even though he returned to his unit after a six-day absence.
He was sentenced to hard labor at Fort Delaware for three years and would have a dishonorable discharge and forfeit all pay due him. A year before his unauthorized leave, he had signed up for a second three-year tour of duty.
His mother saw his reenlistment as an indication of her son's loyalty and dedication to the Union.
She wrote to President Lincoln, saying: "He was a young boy and careless and wild as youth is generally and was consequently unfortunate enough to get into trouble. James is a prisoner for a thoughtless act of folly, while those who have done nothing for the cause, are free."
Lincoln, known for his compassion toward soldiers, wrote on the back of Buckley's letter, "If his colonel will say in writing on this sheet that he is willing to receive the man back to the regiment, I will pardon and send him. A. Lincoln. Feb. 7, 1865."
The colonel did so, writing on the back of Buckley's letter, and on Feb. 10, Lincoln ordered Callan to return to his unit, again signing his name.
To find one Lincoln signature so many years after scholars believed there were no more to be found is unusual; to find two on the same letter is extraordinary.
"The woman who found it was silent for a long time," Budge Weidman recalled. "It was as though she was frozen. I touched her and she said: 'Look. Look. Lincoln. Lincoln.' "
Everyone gathered around, and then the archivists were called in to see it, too.
"It was fabulous," Weidman said.
Another District boy, James S. Smith, felt the long arm of his mother when he joined Company K, 1st Regiment of the District, by faking his age. Claiming he was 18, James enlisted as a drummer on April 13, 1862, and was sent to Beltsville, Md., for training. Shortly after he left, his father died unexpectedly, and his mother wanted him to come home.
She wrote letters and made personal appeals, her plight finally reaching the office of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. A.D. Doolittle of Stanton's office wrote on July 8 to James's commanding officer: "Mrs. Smith called on me this morning. Her husband died a day or two after her boy enlisted. She is lonely and heartbroken. For God's sake, let her boy come home. He is only 14 years old."
James was discharged July 17.
The mention of a mother showed up in another letter, but this was one from an imprisoned soldier, reaching out to his commander.
Pvt. Henry Carr of Company K, 1st D.C. Infantry, was imprisoned in the Slave Pen Jail in Alexandria, when he wrote on Oct. 15, 1862, to his commander, Capt. Marvin P. Fisher.
Admitting he had been a little "tight" when arrested he still gave it a try.
"I trust you will ever maintain the high character universally awarded you by all hands, for upholding and enforcing the necessary discipline of those under your command, but, without frustrating the ends of Justice, you may display that God-like attitude of tempering Justice with Mercy, therefore, for the love of the dear Mother who bore you, release me from this hog pen, where we are getting lousy, starved on bread and water."
There is no indication that Fisher was moved to release Carr. The two men show up again on May 25, 1864, when Fisher, still Carr's commander, charged him with being absent without leave, threatening a non-commissioned officer and drunkenness on duty.
It didn't go well for Carr.
He was found guilty on all charges.
Last heard from, Carr had to forfeit $13 of his monthly pay to the government and was sentenced to 30 days of confinement in his company's Alexandria camp and kept under guard.
Next: Insights from the Freedmen's Bureau files.
Linda Wheeler can be reached at 540-465-8934 or firstname.lastname@example.org.