Tag Archives: civilwar

Letters to Diamond Hill

As part of our “RBMSCL Scholars” series, we’ve asked some of the wonderful researchers that the RBMSCL has hosted over the years to contribute a few words on their new books and research projects. Today, we have an essay from J. Keith Jones, editor of The Boys of Diamond Hill: The Lives and Civil War Letters of the Boyd Family of Abbeville County, South Carolina, released in March by McFarland Publishers.

Cover of The Boys of Diamond HillWhen I first began investigating the Robert Boyd Family Papers at Duke’s Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, I expected to find something that would appeal to genealogists of this family and those researching the history of Abbeville County, South Carolina. I didn’t know that I would discover a rich story about the triumphs of love and the tragedies of war. I would not have believed that two years later their story would be available to the world in The Boys of Diamond Hill: The Lives and Civil War Letters of the Boyd Family of Abbeville County, South Carolina. With the guidance of the staff at RBMSCL and my editors at McFarland Publishers, that is exactly what has happened.

The backbone of this work can be found in the 86 letters of the five Boyd brothers and the husband of their eldest sister lovingly preserved in the RBMSCL. With the additional research of this family and the units they served in, their full story slowly emerged. In April 1861, brothers Daniel and Pressley Boyd joined the Confederate army. Soon the war would sweep the other three Boyd brothers—William, Thomas and Andrew—as well as their brother-in-law Fenton Hall, away from their farm in Abbeville County, South Carolina. Researching this collection uncovered warmth, humor, horror and loss of four long years of war.

I understand from descendants of Fenton Hall that a number of letters from this family had been lost in a house fire. They were thrilled to learn that those destroyed did not constitute the entire body of the brothers’ letters. It is so wonderful that Duke has preserved these surviving letters so the fascinating lives of these young men would not be lost to history. The helpful staff and wonderful facilities made the marathon sessions with this collection a joy and their support through the preparation for the publication process was invaluable.

To learn more about the book, as well as Keith’s other research projects, visit his website!

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The End of an Ironclad Mystery?

Sketch of the CSS Virginia.

The Battle of Hampton Roads, fought on March 9, 1862, marks the first time two ironclads engaged in battle: the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimack). While both warships escaped destruction that day, neither would survive the year intact. The CSS Virginia was destroyed by the Confederacy in May rather than risk its capture by Union forces. On December 31st, the USS Monitor sank off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina during a heavy storm. Duke University has ties to both.

In 1973, John G. Newton, Marine Superintendent for the Duke University Marine Laboratory, led a team that discovered the wreckage of the Monitor. Artifacts recovered from the site are currently on display at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia. However, the Duke University Archives might have a piece of the Virginia/Merrimack in its possession.

Photo by Mark Zupan.

Earlier this year, the University Archives curated “‘As Far As Possible from Forgetfulness’: The Trinity College Historical Society.” Precursor to the University Archives, the Society was established in 1892, with the objective of collecting material illustrative of the history of North Carolina and the South. The exhibit included artifacts and documents that once belonged to the Society. One of the most popular pieces displayed was a non-descript piece of wood. My co-curators and I found no mention of this item’s identity or significance in the Society’s records, yet we felt strongly that the piece of wood should be included in the exhibit: at some point in the history of the Society, someone believed that piece of wood had historical significance.

On the day of the gallery talk on the exhibit, I delved deeper into resources available in the University Archives in hopes of uncovering any tidbits on the piece of wood. In the Christian Educator (a predecessor, in some respects, to the Chronicle), I found a reference to two pieces of wood donated to the Society in 1896. One was said to be from Libby Prison in Richmond and the other was said to be from the CSS Virginia/USS Merrimack. I mentioned these references at the gallery talk and also stated that a RBMSCL colleague with a background in archaeology noted the piece of wood appeared to have been in water at some point, leading me to speculate that this particular piece of wood might be from the ironclad.

Professor Emeritus of Botany and former director of the Sarah P. Duke Gardens Richard White attended the gallery talk and graciously offered to submit a sample of the piece of wood to a lab in Wisconsin that could potentially identify its species. We were able to obtain a loose sample from the artifact which was then submitted to the Center for Wood Anatomy Research for testing. The lab determined the wood to be of the white oak group.

Further research shows that white oak was often used in the construction of Civil War ironclads, including the Virginia/Merrimack. Is it possible that the mystery of the piece of wood’s identity and significance has been solved?

Post contributed by Kim Sims, Technical Services Archivist for the Duke University Archives.