By JOHN MARTIN
In the tense days preceding the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, Abigail Adams urged her husband, future president John Adams, to declare independence without delay, while chiding him about the despotic nature of his own sex.
A staged burlesque has nothing on the amusing but urgent plea of a Civil War soldier who personally writes Abraham Lincoln to obtain a discharge from the Union Army so that he can save his family from the lusty excesses of his faithless wife.
Bravura and pathos mix in the words of Theodore Roosevelt as he describes events surrounding the death of his youngest child, Quentin, a World War I fighter pilot.
An absent father's birthday letter to his son captures the quiet sacrifices of peace-keeping duty from a U.S. military base in war-torn Bosnia.
ABC News correspondent Cokie Roberts, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, Sen. John McCain and writer Christopher Buckley were among the participants that read from these and other letters selected from a new book edited by author Andrew Carroll, War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars (Scribner, 2001), during a Books & Beyond program held at the Library on May 16.
The Center for the Book and the American Folklife Center cosponsored the event to kick off a new three-year national reading promotion theme, "Telling America's Stories." Center for the Book Director John Y. Cole and Veterans History Project Director Ellen Lovell introduced Mr. Carroll and the guest readers. Authorized by Congress last year, the Veterans Oral History Project will collect oral histories, letters, diaries and other materials that reflect the legacy of American veterans.
Andrew Carroll began "Project Legacy" to preserve America's rapidly diminishing firsthand chronicle of wartime experience and emotions.
"Every day these letters are getting thrown away or lost," he said. "This is a tragedy. They are the first unfiltered draft of history."
Andrew Carroll is the founder of Project Legacy, a national, all volunteer campaign that encourages Americans to safeguard wartime correspondence. The May 16 program begins Mr. Carroll's trip to 20 American cities in search of historically significant war letters. Mr. Carroll is the editor of a previous collection of historic American letters and of a collection of famous 20th century speeches. In 1994, he co-founded the Literacy Project with former poet laureate the late Josef Brodsky.
Project Legacy struck gold when it amassed more than 50,000 copies of original war correspondence in response to a request for assistance published by Abigail Van Buren in a 1998 "Dear Abby" column. Not all of the letters featured in the program can be found among the approximately 200 compiled in the book. Others, written in the authentic vernacular of the combat soldier, were read to the audience in slightly edited form.
Washington commentator and ABC News journalist Cokie Roberts began the program by reading a letter from Abigail Adams to her husband, John Adams, a delegate to the Continental Congress then debating the question of formal separation from Great Britain. In addition to demanding political independence for the 13 Colonies, Mrs. Adams challenged her husband and his fellow lawmakers to extend the principles of liberty and equality to women as they hammered out the framework of the new democracy.
"I long to hear that you have declared an independency," wrote Mrs. Adams. "And by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could."
Adams, said Ms. Roberts, replied that he would call on General Washington to deploy all his troops rather than submit to "petticoat government."
Ms. Roberts and her husband, Steve Roberts, also a journalist, together read portions of the unique World War I exchange between Goldie Marcellus and her husband, Edward, a clerk stationed at forward bases in Germany. Upon getting a handwritten missive from his wife, Marcellus would type brief retorts directly on the letter and return it to her in the States. Their dialogue shows that love and fidelity were matters of anxiety in the trenches and on the homefront.
Goldie: So some of the men in your Co. go with girls.
Edward: No, not girls, frauleins.
Goldie: Well, dear Ed, I suspect there is much more of "not being loyal" by the girls over here.
Edward: Yes, I know all about them.
Goldie: I just read in the paper where a returned soldier came back only to find the one he had been true to in love with another man, so he killed her.
Edward: Yes, you'll find the members of the A.E.F. are not afraid to kill.
The room erupted in laughter when Mr. Roberts read an 1863 letter from John M. Newton, an enlisted man in the Union Army, to President Abraham Lincoln.
"Dear Mr. Lincoln:
When the Civil War broke out, I went right in. I did and I fought and bled for the cause and left my wife and family. And when I came home on furlough last month I found she had been diddling other men. And I would like to have a discharge to take care of my children, for I won't live with her, and I don't want any of my children to live with her, for she diddles all the time—and has got the clap, which I now have got too. And I want a discharge for me to take care of my children when I get well.
Yours truly and affectionately,
John M. Newton"
Lincoln, it is reported, accepted the soldier's plea and granted his discharge.
Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) read letters that told more somber stories. Senator Inouye received the Congressional Medal of Honor and was severely wounded during World War II as part of the now legendary 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a unit composed entirely of Japanese Americans, many of whose families had been interred in the United States after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and officially classified as "enemy aliens."
During July 1944, Pfc. Ernest Uno, a Japanese American serving with the 442nd, wrote his sister from Italy, scene of some of the most brutal fighting of the war.
"There was one time while we were fighting that one sniper killed one of our men. A [local] woman saw him die, and she sat by the body and wept. Maybe she had a son once, who knows? But she refused to leave the body, and between tears, she tried to tell us how horrible it was to see an American soldier die for their sake. It was very pathetic."
Private Uno survived the war and, after a 30-year career with the YMCA, studied theology and became a deacon of the Episcopal Church.
Senator McCain, a former Navy fighter pilot who served in Vietnam, read a letter to home from Airman 3/C Robert Zwerlein, one of his shipmates on the U.S.S. Forrestal, an aircraft carrier on station in the Gulf of Tonkin.
"Ya know, Sue, the night before we pulled out of the Philippines to leave for Yankee Station some guys and I went to the club for a couple (80 or 90) drinks. Well … there are guys from all over the USA and as it always happens the band would play DIXIE and all the guys from the south would start singing and yelling and cursing the Yankees from the north and the same thing would happen when the band would play Yankee Doodle only we got up. But as soon as that band started to play God Bless America, everyone, no matter where they were from, just stood up and started to sing. It was really great. It made me feel real good. I wish people back home could have seen it.
"I imagine a lot of them would say it was a bunch of drunken sailors that didn't even know what they were singing. But it wasn't that at all. It was a bunch of guys that are proud of their country and will fight and die if necessary for it."
On July 29, 1967, four days after Zwerlein wrote his letter, the accidental detonation of a missile on a loaded flight deck sparked an inferno that engulfed the Forrestal. During the explosion and ensuing battle to save the ship, 134 sailors lost their lives, including Airman Zwerlein, who died from his wounds on August 1, 1967. He was 21 years old.
Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Edmond Morris read President Theodore Roosevelt's affecting letter to Mrs. H.L. Freeland, a woman who had written him condolences on the death of his son, Quentin, a pilot serving in World War I. Because of the lag in communications between the front lines and the States, Roosevelt continued to receive mail from Quentin after he already knew of his death.
"It is hard to open the letters coming from those you love who are dead," Roosevelt wrote, "but Quentin's last letters, written … when of his squadron on an average a man was killed every day, are written with real joy in the 'great adventure' …. He had his crowded hour, he died at the crest of life, in the glory of the dawn."
Also present was Gary F. Powers Jr., the son of Francis Gary Powers, the pilot of the U-2 spy plane that was shot down on May 1, 1960, during the height of the Cold War, while on a surveillance mission for the CIA. Mr. Powers read the first letter his father sent his parents from his jail cell in Moscow. Despite being a guest of the KGB and facing a possible death sentence for crimes against the Soviet state, Mr. Powers's main concern was for the pain his predicament would cause his family.
"I sincerely hope that you both are well," Mr. Powers wrote. "I was very worried about how this news would affect you. Mom please take care of yourself and believe me when I say I am being treated much better than I expected to be … Dad, you see that Mom takes care of herself … I am very sorry about all this. I am sorry for all the pain and anxiety I have caused you and am still causing you."
After almost two years in prison, Mr. Powers was released in a prisoner exchange and rejoined his family. During the ensuing years, his son said, Mr. Powers harbored no resentment about the incident. He also, apparently, managed to balance humor with the need to keep classified information secret.
"Dad, how high were you really flying when you got shot down?" Mr. Powers Jr. says he used to ask as a boy.
"Son, not high enough," his father would reply.
Washington writer and journalist Christopher Buckley read the final letter in the program.
Maj. Tom O' Sullivan, on peacekeeping duty in Bosnia, wrote the letter to his son, Conor, on the occasion of his seventh birthday.
"I am very sorry that I could not be home for your seventh birthday," O'Sullivan wrote.
"I remember the day you were born and how happy I was. It was the happiest I have ever been in my life and I will never forget that day … That day was so special to me that I think it is right to have a celebration each year to remember it.
"There aren't any stores here in Bosnia, so I couldn't buy you any toys or souvenirs for your birthday. What I am sending you is something very special, though. It is a flag. This flag represents America and makes me proud each time I see it. When people here in Bosnia see it … they know that it represents freedom and, for them, peace after many years of war. Sometimes, this flag is even more important to them than it is to people who live in America because some Americans don't know much about the sacrifices it represents or the peace it has brought to places like Bosnia.
"This flag was flown on the flagpole over the headquarters of Task Force 4-67 Armor, Camp Colt, in the Posavina Corridor of northern Bosnia-Herzegovina, on 16 September 1996. It was flown in honor of you on your seventh birthday. Keep it and honor it always."
Mr. Martin is an examiner in the U.S. Copyright Office.