Tag Archives: Civil War

How to tame an opossum…and other childhood preoccupations through the Barnard children’s letters

In 1876, Sanford Curtis asked John Hall Barnard about his career plans, depicting the options of a naval officer aboard a ship or a man sitting in an office. His own plans took the shape of a detailed farm scene with animals and a hoe, a rake, and a pitchfork.

Processing collections according to updated archival standards gives RBML archivists the opportunity to discover anew our collections. In this post, Processing Archivist Celeste Brewer offers us insights into the practice of children writing letters during the Civil War-era. Historians typically foreground the writings and papers of “Great Men,” but as Celeste notes, paying attention to children’s words and ideas helps us see nuances in interpersonal relationships of the past.

With summer vacation here for most school-aged U.S. children, perhaps Willy Fred, Porter and John will inspire you to get your kids to put pen to paper instead of eyes-to-screen. 

“We have bows and arrows and we shoot the pigs away from the gate,” seven-year-old Willy Fred Barnard announced to his father on October 4, 1854.  This news opened the earliest in a group of letters written by children between 1854 and 1878, which can be found in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s newly processed Barnard Family Papers collection.

William Frederick Barnard (1848-1863) and his older brother, Augustus Porter Barnard (1847-1911), wrote letters to their father, John Gross Barnard (1815-1882) as soon as they were able.  These letters are unusual for several reasons.  First, that they exist at all; the Barnard children came from a wealthy family that valued education highly.  (Their uncle, Frederick A. P. Barnard, would become president of Columbia College in 1864.)  Willy Fred and Porter were privileged to be educated by private tutors from approximately the age of six.

The first letter from Willy Fred Barnard to his father, John Gross Barnard, about a visit with family at Niagara, New York.

Even the minority of young children living in the mid-nineteenth century who could both read and write—and had access to writing tools more permanent than a piece of chalk and a slate—had little reason to write letters to their parents until they were old enough to go away to school.  However, Willy Fred and Porter’s father was an officer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  Their mother had died in 1853.  The boys lived in rural Maryland with their aunt and uncle, Sophia and William F. Brand.

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