Andrew Carroll gingerly opened the FedEx box that arrived at his Washington apartment on a recent morning and carefully pulled out a letter, written in beautiful cursive script on paper browned by nearly a century of age.
“Chère Madame,” begins the letter, which is in French. “It is a mother who is writing to you, a mother who has been with your dear child in his last days; and it had seemed to me that to tell you a little of his last acts and gestures may soften the bitterness of your grief.”
A French woman had written the letter in 1919 to the mother of Carl Saunders, a 22-year-old from Upstate New York who died in France during service with the American Expeditionary Forces after the end of World War I.
For 15 years, Carroll has been collecting war letters as part of the Legacy Project, an effort to preserve the correspondence of Americans serving during war. Some of the letters have been published in anthologies or featured in documentaries, but the great majority of them have been sitting in a nondescript storage facility on U Street.
Now Carroll is giving the collection, numbering around 100,000 letters, to Chapman University in California to establish the Center for American War Letters, which will be officially launched on Veterans Day. Carroll believes the transfer is the largest donation of war letters in the nation’s history.
The collection includes letters from every American war, starting with the Revolution. One is a Civil War letter from Gen. William T. Sherman, warning that the South had “laid open her fair country to the tread of devastating war.” Another is from a doughboy in France, writing of village church bells “ringing out the news of Peace, Peace, Peace” upon the armistice ending World War I.
A third is from a GI in Berlin who wrote a letter on Adolf Hitler’s stationery and included a sliver of wood from the Führer’s desk. A fourth was written in 2004 by a mother to her son, a Marine killed in Fallujah, Iraq. “There are so many things that spark a memory of you — a song, a boy in a baseball cap and baggy pants, a skateboarder.”
Carroll and Chapman officials say the center is intended to be a resource for students, scholars and the general public.
“Maybe it’s a little grandiose, but our goal is for it to be the largest collection of war letters in the world,” said Daniele Struppa, chancellor of Chapman, a midsize liberal-arts university in Orange, Calif. “We are so used to official records of a war. These letters are a perspective from the field, a perspective that you can’t get from books.”
Like so many letters in the collection, the missive from France told a story of individual tragedy and kindness and sorrow.
Saunders, a farm boy from the tiny town of Leonardsville, N.Y., was a promising pitcher at Colgate University in 1917 when the United States entered the Great War raging in Europe. Saunders enlisted and was sent there with the American Expeditionary Forces.
He was assigned to the 310th Infantry Regiment band as a cornet player but was not spared the horrors of the trench war at terrible battles such as Meuse-Argonne and Saint-Mihiel. He served as stretcher bearer, picking up the dead during nighttime cease-fires. At one point a German bomb knocked him from a truck, injuring his spine.
After the armistice, the 310th band members spent a few days at a hotel in Vals-les-Bains in Ardèche, where the proprietor, J. Armand, could scarcely distinguish Saunders from the others.
“The first week I noticed him but little, as they all wore the same uniform,” Armand wrote in her letter to Saunders’s mother, Cora.
Some of the soldiers were ill with the flu. “Then I noticed the little blond, as we called him, not knowing his name,” Armand wrote.
The other soldiers recovered, but Saunders, possibly suffering from spinal meningitis related to his injury, quickly deteriorated. A doctor was summoned and found his condition grave.
“His comrades were admirably devoted and cared for him as no nurse would have done,” Armand wrote. “He was for them a little brother, whom they petted and spoiled to quiet his pain. He was never left alone day or night and when they saw him depart, they wept like children.”
The dying young American was taken to a hospital in Montélimar. “An hour before he left, my husband and I went up to see him and I kissed his forehead in his mother’s name,” she wrote. Armand cut off a lock of his hair as a last remembrance.
The arrival of the letter from France in Leonardsville in the winter of 1919 was a great consolation to Saunders’s parents.
“It was a very tender thing,” Saunders’s nephew Paul Saunders, 80, said from his home in Knoxville, Tenn. “It meant so much to our family.”
Carl Saunders’s father, Ocran, died a year after his son’s death. “I think it broke his heart,” Paul said. Cora Saunders kept the letter until she died in 1946, leaving it in the care of her daughter, who later turned it over to Paul.
Paul sent Carroll a copy of the letter in 2004 after hearing of the Legacy Project. With the opening of the Center for American War Letters, he agreed to donate the original to Carroll’s new effort.
“It will be there for everybody to see,” Paul Saunders said. “I love the work that he’s doing.”
For Carroll, there is a sense of urgency to the project. “Every day, letters get thrown out,” he said. “When people move or pass away, they get lost.”
Carroll traces his quest to 1989, his sophomore year at Columbia University, when his father called shortly before Christmas to report that the family’s home in Washington had been gutted by fire. Sifting through the ashes a few days later, Carroll was shocked at all the family memories lost.
As consolation, James Carroll Jordan, a distant relative who served in World War II, sent the family a letter he had written to his wife in April 1945.
“I saw something today that makes me realize why we’re fighting this war,” wrote Jordan, then a 23-year-old B-51 pilot from St. Paul, Minn.
Members of his squadron had visited Buchenwald, a Nazi concentration camp liberated two days earlier. “When we first walked in we saw all these creatures that were supposed to be men,” Jordan wrote. “They were dressed in black and white suits, heads shaved and starving to death.”
When Carroll tried to return the letter to Jordan, the World War II veteran told him to keep it. It probably would have been tossed anyway.
For Carroll, the letter sparked what has become a lifelong passion to preserve such accounts. He is a lover of literature — he was the co-founder, along with Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky, of the American Poetry & Literacy Project, which produced books of poetry for free distribution. To Carroll, the letters he began reading were literature of the first order, stripping away war’s romanticism.
“War’s brutality is the secret that civilized societies keep from themselves,” he has written.
On Veterans Day 1998, Carroll launched the Legacy Project, and later that year his request for war letters was published in a Dear Abby column. Within days, letters began to pour into his apartment.
The letters spawned several well-regarded anthologies he edited, including “War Letters” and “Behind the Lines,” as well as documentaries, all of which generated more letters — some of them copies, others originals. They filled plastic crates and file cabinets in his Connecticut Avenue apartment, as well as his U Street storage space and a safety deposit box.
For years, Carroll had worried about what to do with the growing collection, but he was reluctant to turn them over to an archive.
“My biggest fear in donating the entire war letters collection to any institution was that it would be locked up in a facility somewhere, never to be seen again,” Carroll said.
Carroll’s connection with Chapman began five years ago, when he collaborated with a professor on a play based on the letters, “If All the Sky were Paper,” which premiered in 2010.
Carroll was intrigued by Chapman’s proposals to incorporate letters into lesson plans and classroom discussions, and to use them as the basis for films and plays.
The university intends to digitize much of the correspondence, beginning with letters from World War I, and eventually make it available to the public. Carroll will oversee the collection as director of the center.
More and more of the correspondence, including much of that from Iraq and Afghanistan, comes in the form of e-mail or other electronic formats. The Persian Gulf War, he noted, “was the last war where letters were prominent.”
Yet some letters provide a sense of place that e-mails lack. There are Civil War letters speckled with blood and a letter from the Gulf War coated with fine sand. Notes from Iraq and Afghanistan are scribbled on the back of cardboard ration boxes.
Perhaps the most evocative letter in the collection was pierced by a bullet, having been carried in the backpack of a soldier wounded at Anzio in Italy during World War II.
And then there is the letter from the French hotel proprietor. The little blond had been buried at the Vals-les-Bains cemetery, Armand told Cora Saunders.
“When I go to see the graves of my own family, I assure you, Madam, that he will have a visit for his mother’s sake,” she wrote.
A few years later, the remains of Carl Saunders were exhumed and reburied at the Leonardsville cemetery. He lies next to his mother and father.