From the Editor

By Carol Berkin

It is a rare war movie or novel that does not include a mail call scene. News from home, packages filled with cookies or favorite foods, drawings by sons or daughters folded in with letters from husbands, wives, or family members—these are the high point of the soldier’s day. Today, the contact might be through Skype or email or FaceTime on a smartphone, but the purpose is the same: to conquer the miles that separate those fighting a war from those waiting for them at home. For many people, it is the saved packet of these letters, or the diaries kept, or the memoirs that appear when peace returns that humanize the experience of a nation at war. For this, our forty-third issue of History Now, we asked scholars to look at war through these, its most intimate and personal records. The individual stories that emerge from these documents will, we believe, help us understand the meaning of war to those who lived through it.

In "‘Dear Girl, how much I love you’: The Revolutionary War Letters of Henry and Lucy Knox," Phillip Hamilton looks at the impact of the war for independence on the marriage of a patriotic bookseller who rose to be a major-general and the daughter of Loyalist parents who chose him and his cause over her family. Henry’s critical military role in the Revolution meant long periods of separation, broken only by Lucy’s extended stays in the army camp during the winter months. In over 150 letters, the Knoxes recorded their deeply felt emotions. The long separation worked important changes in Lucy Knox; she became an able, independent manager of the family’s finances and, as she put it to Henry, a "woman of business." Lucy’s ability to survive on her own like many wives during the long years of the Revolution led her to insist on greater equality in marriage.

Amy S. Greenberg brings us to a war of the nineteenth century with her essay "A Christian Soldier in the US-Mexican War." Greenberg provides striking insight into the way men fighting a war can articulate their own interpretation of its purpose. Ralph Kirkham understood the war with Mexico not simply as a territorial dispute but as a religious crusade of Protestants against Catholics. Seen through his eyes—in his letters to his wife and his diary—this was a holy war waged against idolatry and a people unworthy of the beauties and bounties of Mexico. This conviction, shared by many soldiers, that Catholic Mexicans were wicked and their religion was false, led them to desecrate Mexican churches and attempt to force Protestantism on the men they captured. Not every soldier agreed that the war was justified as a holy war. There were New Englanders who considered the invasion of Mexico to be the primary wickedness; a Vermonter wrote in his diary that it was enough to "make atheists of us all." Kirkham’s faith, however, remained firm and he never questioned the policies that prompted the seizure of much of Mexico’s land.

In "The William Shepp Diaries: Combat and Danger in World War I," Michael Neiberg relates the wartime experiences of Private William Shepp from West Virginia. Shepp was part of an engineering company that arrived in France in early April of 1918, just as the Germans began to threaten Paris. Shepp’s diary brings to life the boredom experienced by soldiers waiting for combat, the "fog of war" that surrounded Shepp whose only source of information seemed to be old American newspapers, and the homesickness that a teenager like Shepp suffered while in a foreign land. But the diary contains more; in it Shepp recorded his impressions of the French civilians, the beautiful countryside, and the ravages of war on the French as he observed towns with few able-bodied men and many widowed women. Finally, his pride in the bravery and endurance of his fellow soldiers comes through clearly. Private Shepp never doubted that the allies would defeat their enemy.

Susan Saidenberg offers us an opportunity to see World War I not through the eyes of a soldier, but through those of a nurse who cared for the wounded fighting men. In "The Diary of Ella Jane Osborn, World War I US Army Nurse," Saidenberg brings to life a Long Island woman who gave up her position at a New York hospital to aid the sick and wounded on the front lines in France. Osborn meticulously recorded her experiences, preserving both pleasant and sad memories. There are entries on picnic outings with friends, shopping, dinners in restaurants, but there are also accounts of German bombing raids, of heroism, of young men wounded or killed by poison gas or shelling. What Osborn does not record is the emotional impact on her of the many deaths she witnessed. Saidenberg perceptively suggests that perhaps this apparent detachment allowed Osborn to survive her tour of duty.

In his essay, "‘Dear Miss Cole’: World War I Letters of American Servicemen," Phillip Papas provides us with a moving account of how a group of schoolchildren showed their support for local soldiers fighting abroad. The woman behind their letter-writing project was Annie E. Cole, a Staten Island principal at PS #5. As Papas points out, Cole embodied the era’s spirit of volunteerism, taking part in Liberty Loan drives and working for the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. But the school project of writing letters and sending packages to local men serving in the military was designed to reassure these soldiers that they were remembered. Papas has found a treasure trove of the soldiers’ replies to these girls and boys, expressing the gratitude these men felt at being remembered and their appreciation for gifts from home like American candy. In their letters to Annie Cole, the men talk of combat, of the loss of friends and comrades, of exhaustion and hardship, and of their willingness to do, as one soldier put it, "my bit . . . for the cause." There was a limit to what the soldiers could share, of course; "Mr. Censor," as one man noted, did not allow too much information about military matters. When the war ended, one returning soldier summed up the desire shared by his Staten Island friends: "everyone is trying his best to get back to civilian life."

Not long ago, Cecelia Hartsell interviewed a veteran of World War II and she shares his story with us in her essay, "Race and the Good War: An Oral History Interview with Calvin D. Cosby, World War II Veteran" Although Hartsell had known Cosby for many years, she did not realize he was a veteran until, in 2001, her mother persuaded him to talk about his life in the military. The interview gives us important insight into the experiences of African Americans in the "Great War." And, as an historian of the era, Hartsell takes care to describe the larger context for those experiences. Like many black men, Cosby was ambivalent about fighting in an army that maintained segregated facilities not unlike those he encountered every day as a resident of Knoxville, Tennessee. Even the ships that carried troops to Southern Italy, ironically known as "Liberty Ships," were segregated. Cosby remembered other indignities, but recounted them to Hartsell with gentle humor. White soldiers, he said, told Italian women that black soldiers had tails. "One woman," he recalled, "did lift up my coat to see!" When he returned to civilian life, Cosby found work with the US Post Office. He ultimately rose to become the first African American postal branch manager in Knoxville, a fact that leads Hartsell to honor him as a "quiet trailblazer" for the black community.

In our last essay, "The First Saddest Day of My Life: A Vietnam War Story," Sharon D. Raynor brings us to one of the most controversial wars in modern American history. The diary and oral history interviews she draws upon are based on the experiences of her own father, Louis Raynor. Drafted at eighteen, Raynor received seventeen weeks of training before being shipped to an airbase near Saigon. It is telling that, in Raynor’s diary, his first day of service is labeled as Day 365, and his last day as Day 1. Clearly he felt Day 1 signified his liberation from military life. He called Day 365—the day he said goodbye to his family and friends—"the first saddest day of my life so far." The diary provides us glimpses of weather, food, daily activities, fatality statistics, and diversions like the USO Bob Hope shows. Raynor recorded the mundane and the dangerous, from patrol missions to the battles of the Tet Offensive. He was wounded, but remained on active duty until he was honorably discharged on September 7, 1969. He suffered from PTSD after the war. But, he told his daughter, for many years he did not seek help or talk about his time in Vietnam to anyone. No one seemed to care, he explained, and "everyone looked at me like I had done something bad." Finally he sought help from a Veterans Outreach Center. He told Sharon, "I feel that all veterans should have the opportunity and privilege to sit down and share their memories with one another."

Finally, History Now’s interactive feature, the digitized Revolutionary War diary of Ezra Tilden, continues our focus on first-person accounts of wartime. It covers the period from July 1776 to December 1777 and it is accompanied by annotations and an interactive map. In addition to this diary, History Now offers a selection of primary sources drawn from the Gilder Lehrman Collection.

In closing, let me wish all our readers who are teachers an enjoyable and productive school year! We hope this issue—and all our past issues of History Now as well—can assist you in your commitment to educating students about their nation’s past.

Carol Berkin

A Special Editor’s Note: We thought readers might be interested in a list compiled by CNBC of the top ten organizations that provide support for our veterans (http://www.cnbc.com/2014/11/14/top-10-charities-that-support-veterans.html). There is a brief description of each organization and a link to each website. The organizations are:

Hope for the Warriors

Military wives founded this organization in 2006 as they witnessed, first-hand, the effects of war on spouses and their families. The group’s mission is to enhance the quality of life for post-9/11 service members who have sustained physical and psychological wounds in the line of duty. Services include career transition and education programs, health and wellness counseling, and community building initiatives for military families as they transition into civilian life.


Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA)

This 10-year-old organization serves the 2.4 million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan from their first day home through the rest of their lives. Founded by an Iraq veteran, the group's mission is to provide new veterans with health, education, and employment support. IAVA also encourages ways for them to connect with other veterans in their area.



The USO (United Service Organizations) is a nonprofit organization chartered by Congress, but is not a part of the federal government. Since 1941, it has provided care packages, entertainment, and recreation-type services to military members and their families. It operates more than 135 centers worldwide, including 10 mobile canteens in the U.S. and overseas. Services include free Internet and email access, libraries and reading rooms, housing assistance, family crisis counseling, support groups, game rooms and nursery facilities.


Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society

For over a century, this organization has provided financial assistance and education to members of the United States Navy and Marine Corps and eligible family members, widows, and survivors. The group operates nearly 250 offices ashore and afloat at Navy and Marine Corps bases throughout the world and has provided more than $48 million in interest-free loans and grants to over 100,000 sailors, marines and their families around the world.


Wounded Warriors Family Support

This organization, started by retired U.S. Marine Corps Colonel John Folsom in 2003, helps the families of those men and women who have been wounded, injured or killed during combat operations. It provides, free of charge, family-friendly retreats where wounded veterans, spouses, and children can reconnect with each other in a low-stress setting that they would otherwise not be able to afford. The goal is to offer these families a way to bond again and help heal the emotional and psychological trauma inflicted by war.


Puppies Behind Bars

Puppies Behind Bars (PBB) trains prison inmates to raise service dogs for wounded war veterans and explosive-detection canines for law enforcement. The puppies live in prison with inmates from the age of eight weeks to 24 months. Once trained, the service dogs are placed, free of charge, with returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. The dogs learn special commands to help mitigate the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and TBI (traumatic brain injury).


Homes for Our Troops

Helping severely injured veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan is the mission of Homes for Our Troops. Started in 2004, the organization builds mortgage-free and specially adapted houses for multiple amputees and veterans with traumatic brain injuries. It also adapts existing homes for handicap accessibility. Home for Our Troops has built nearly 170 homes since its founding, with another 50 currently underway.


Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Charitable Service Trust

This group supports physical and psychological rehabilitation programs that provide direct service to ill, injured, or wounded veterans. The programs support everything from driver’s rehabilitation services for veterans with traumatic brain injuries, to treatment for post-service mental health services. The Trust also helps to fund programs that provide food, shelter, and other necessary items to homeless or at-risk veterans and their families.


Thanks USA

This organization, started in 2006 by sisters Kelsi and Rachel Okun when they were mere children, distributes need-based college, technical, and vocational school scholarships to the children and spouses of active duty U.S. military members. Since it was founded the organization has awarded 3,500 scholarships totaling almost $10 million.


Fisher House Foundation

Started in 1990, this organization is best known for its network of comfort homes where military and veterans’ families can stay at no cost, while a loved one is receiving treatment. The homes are at major military and VA medical centers nationwide, close to the medical center or hospital they serve. The foundation has served over 220,000 families since it started, and can accommodate a total of 832 families a day nationwide.