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[Detail] Photographic Print of Tilton C. Reynolds, undated

Descriptive Writing

Description is an element of every type of writing. Strong descriptive writing provides details that appeal to all five senses—touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing.  Powerful verbs, adjectives, and adverbs evoke an emotional response from the reader.

Letters often describe events and places that the writer has experienced and wishes to share with the letter recipient. Hiram Sprague’s lengthy letters to his cousin, Juliana Reynolds, provide examples of such descriptive writing. In a letter dated May 24, 1862, just days before he was killed in battle, Sprague described Virginia’s farms and its rich soil along with the "marks of the Desolating influences of War" as the regiment marched toward Richmond:

The Country here is the most beautiful that I have Saw in VA. The farms here where they are Cultivated are rich the Soil is of a Sandy Nature and Can be by Cultivation be made to produce the most abundant Crops yet. . . .

The country here as in other parts we have passed through bears the marks of the Desolating influences of War. The rebels have burned all of the fences along the Course of their incampments in their Comeing to Yorktown and their retreat from that place leaving Exposed Some of the most beautiful grain fields to the [pu[b]lick?] but these fields afford very good pastureage for our horses and beef Cattle. Some of these fields that are less Exposed to roads then others is now Shooting in head and looks beautiful. . . .

There is Some very nice houses in this County bu[i]lt on the old Va Stile Chimneys on the out Side. There is but very few brick houses and where you See one it is painted or plastered over with a kind of white Cement and Chimeys left the natural Colour of the bricks which gives them all the Same ap[p]ea[ra]nce.

From Letter from Hiram P. Sprague, May 24, 1862

  • What descriptive words or phrases did Sprague use to convey information about the Virginia landscape? Which words or phrases evoke a response from you as the reader?
  • To what sense did Sprague primarily appeal? What details help you to visualize the landscape he described?
  • Think about the scene that Sprague described. Imagine what your other senses would be experiencing at the scene. Write several descriptive phrases that appeal to different senses.