02-13-2014 01:14 PM
Editor’s note: We have retained the punctuation, capitalization and spelling of the original letters.
The date is May 7, 1863, a Thursday. The North has just suffered a humiliating defeat to Gen. Robert E. Lee's Confederate army at Chancellorsville, Va., in what will later be called Lee's "perfect battle."
But William Henry Ruse of the 97th Ohio Volunteer Regiment has other things on his mind: namely, a young lady named Maggie Stewart, whose letters he imagines might greet his own as they pass on the road.
“Oh! Maggie! I have written so often to you that I expect you are getting wearied reading my disinterested letters. but let me assure you it is not so with me. …Your memory is ever dear to me and if we never again meet on Earth I shall ever Cherish the fond remembrance of Thee. … I cannot yet see much sign of the war Closing but I always try to hope for the Best.” [i] Full text here
It’s a scenario that has played out again and again for hundreds of years: service members far from home and loved ones left behind trading thoughts — on triumphs and tragedies, life and death, love and longing.
From letters penned in muddy Revolutionary War encampments to emails hastily typed at forward operating bases in Afghanistan, the letters of American troops convey the challenges of military life — the worries, the loneliness, the heartache.
But these letters, handwritten pages of American history, show something else too. No matter a service member’s rank or generation, their messages illustrate the motivating force of memories, of encouragement, of home.
These letters show the sustaining power of love.
Take this sorrowful letter, dated Sunday, Dec. 24, 1944, from Seaman Robert Perz to his wife, Marion. It sums up the homesickness many feel, especially during the holidays.
"It’s Christmas Eve and I know all of you are gathered about in the living room with smiles on your faces, but I’ve got tears in my eyes as I sit here writing this letter. I feel sick to my stomach, and very, very unhappy. I love you Marion, and God only knows how much I miss you." Full text here
After serving aboard the USS Chenango the following year, Perz returned to his family at the end of World War II. [ii]
But others were less fortunate.
In a soul-searching letter dated July 10, 1969, to Joyce, his wife of just two years, 1st Lt. Dean Allen, pictured right, describes the emotional toll of watching members of his platoon get wounded or killed in Vietnam.
“Being a good platoon leader is a lonely job. I don’t want to really get to know any body over here because it would be bad enough to lose a man — I damn sure don’t want to lose a friend. … As hard as I try not to get involved with my men I still can’t help liking them and getting close to a few. I get to know their wives name or their girls and kids if they have any.”[iii] Full text here
Shortly after writing this letter, Allen stepped on a land mine. As he was being evacuated, there was a second explosion, and he died three days later. Allen received the Bronze Star, Air Medal and Purple Heart.
There’s no doubt that life in a combat zone is hard. For some, it's the little things — the small reminders of home — that make a lengthy deployment bearable.
For Army Capt. Jason Ritter, it was a picture. In a letter to his fiancee, Danielle, dated March 30, 2003, Ritter describes building "a handy-dandy little shelf on the wall above my cot" in Afghanistan to which he taped photographs of "my true love," aka "Zippers."
"Everytime I lay down to go to sleep your beautiful smile is the last thing I see —and when I wake each morning I stare into those amazing eyes of yours. … I dream nightly of our reunion and how overwhelming it will be." Full text here
After planning their wedding through phone calls and letters, the two finally married when Ritter returned from his deployment.
Even as early as the Revolutionary War, military spouses had to contend with an array of challenges to support their loved ones in the field. Imagine you're Lucy Knox, a young wife with a newborn, disowned by your family and left basically homeless while your husband is off fighting the British. Sensing her distress, Henry Knox writes to her on Jan. 10, 1777.
"Beleive me my Love I live move & exist only for you, in the greatest hurry & confusion of War you are uppermost in my thoughts my heart is yours altogether my Country demands my poor pittance to endeavor to rescue her from Barbarity, Tyrany, & every misery consequent on an unlimited uncheck'd power. … my heart suffers pain exquisite pain in being separated from you - It sympathizes feels & weeps with yours, & often pours forth a pious petition to the great author of all things to support & comfort you." Full text here
Often letters are sent as a reminder of the love and devotion shared by a couple despite their separation, as in the letter from Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, a trusted aide to George Washington, to his wife Catherine, on July 17, 1778.
"Altho I have been absent from you, I have not been inconstant in love, unfaithful to my vows, or unjust by our bed. … At the close of the war I flatter my self I shall be able to return to your Arms, with the same unspotted love and affection, as I took the field. Infected with the Pomp and parade Of Public Life, I shall doubly relish domestic pleasures. To please my Love and educate my Children will be
a most happy employment.” Full text here
Through them all, a pattern emerges and the familiar sentiments ring true for a reason. Absence does seem to make the heart grow fonder, and there really is no place like home.
Pictured left, Robert Perz (right) and brother Raymond Perz (left) on the USS Chenango, 1945. Courtesy of Robert Perz and family.
USAA would like to thank the following institutions and people for allowing us to present the letters and photographs in this article: the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History (Sandy Trenholm, Andy Carroll and Tom Mullusky), Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Special Collections – University Libraries, Robert Perz and family, the family of Dean Allen and the Smithsonian Institution National Postal Museum (Marty Emery).
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[i] William Henry Ruse Correspondence, 1863-65, Ms1989-068, Special Collections, University Libraries, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, VA.
[ii] Robert Perz (right) and brother Raymond Perz (left) on the USS Chenango, 1945. Courtesy of Robert Perz and family. Robert Perz (right) served as part of the arresting gear crew aboard the USS Chenango in 1945. His brother Raymond (left) served aboard a mail boat for the U.S. Navy at the same time. When their vessels met off Nakagusuku (Buckner) Bay, Okinawa, the two brothers documented their reunion with this photograph.
[iii] Letter and image provided by Andy Carroll through Sandy Trenholm with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
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