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240 years of America's war letters

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As has been demonstrated through the success of such books as "Letters of the Century" and the "Griffin and Sabine" series, humans have a fascination with reading other people's mail. (Regardless, it would seem, of whether those people be factual or fictional.) Perhaps it's because the writing seems more eloquent than anything we've ever sent or received ourselves, no doubt there's an element of voyeurism in the appeal, but much of the attraction stems from the fact these carefully selected dispatches deal with universal truths or historical events at such a personal level that we can actually identify with them.

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History has recently embraced this philosophy with a collection of correspondences written during America's various periods of conflict, and posted them online as Battle Lines: Letters from America's Wars. And while the concept may not be new, the particular content and unique style of presentation have made Battle Lines a popular web destination.

Featuring letters that span history from the American Revolution to the War in Iraq, Battle Lines breaks its exhibit into themes (Enlisting, Comforts of Home, Love) rather than periods - thereby comparing examples of similar experiences over more than two centuries. With about half a dozen dispatches per section, each ranging from one to seven pages in length, the site offers a relatively small collection when compared to many online exhibitions, but the quality of the artifacts makes up for the lack of quantity.

And that quality isn't merely (or even necessarily) reflected in the unusually skilful prose of the correspondents - as the stories behind the dispatches are frequently more compelling than the words they contain. The first pair of letters in the anthology constitute two sides of an impressively civil Civil War exchange between a Confederate and a Union General -friends before the war- as they faced each other across Pensacola Bay in Florida and tried to explain their respective choices and allegiances.

Apart from the simple fact that personal messages still moved between the Northern and Southern sides in wartime, the respectful, almost cordial tone ("...I was much gratified by the receipt of your note...") between these two newly made enemies makes the letters extraordinary by their very existence.


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