Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Intern's Report: Getting "Up Close and Personal" With a Common Soldier

 Today's blogger, Erin Weinman, is a history major at Rutgers University.  This post is the story of her favorite project during her summer internship at the David Library of the American Revolution.

By Erin Weinman

            My internship at the David Library ends today, and when I look back on the past  six  weeks, I think I was able to absorb much more actual knowledge of life in Revolutionary America than any class could ever allow me to learn.

Librarian Kathie Ludwig asked me to undertake a very interesting task:  transcribing a series of letters written by a Revolutionary War soldier named Oliver Reed. The letters are part of a family collection, and the current custodians permitted the David Library to digitize them.  My job was to make transcriptions so that Library patrons can enjoy easy access.  At first, the letters were a bit difficult to read, but as a history student, transcribing is an important skill I must acquire if I want to become a historian.

The letters ended up being one of the most fascinating series of personal accounts I have ever read. I had the choice to write a research paper for my senior capstone at Rutgers University, but I chose instead to come to the David Library to experience what it is like to be a historian, and nothing could be more “hands-on” than this project. Although my job was simply to transcribe, I was able to learn who Oliver was on a personal level. These were his words that I was reading, his personal thoughts that he had shared privately with his wife. Once I finished all the transcribing, I was eager to learn more about the man who had written these letters and with help from Kathie and from Richard Wood, a volunteer at the David Library, I was able to flesh out the story of Oliver. We were all amazed at what came up, and I soon learned the fascinating history of Oliver’s regiment, including the fact that it marched through my hometown of Somerville, New Jersey.

            While many great American patriots are well known, the letters allowed a peek into the life of an average soldier. Oliver Reed of Pomfret, Connecticut first enlisted in the army during Lexington where he served for 12 days. Before long, he was a sergeant in the 20th Continental Regiment. His heartfelt letters humanize a man who might otherwise be lost to history, giving voice to his longing for his children, as well as his cravings for pickles and cider, and they describe his struggles with chronic illness. It’s a part of a soldier’s life that is rarely seen when studying the American Revolution, and amazingly, the David Library’s collection allowed me to bring Reed’s story to fuller life in relation to the ongoing war.

            Born in 1745, Oliver married Betty Force and moved to Pomfret in time for the birth of their first child, a daughter, Nabby. By 1776, Oliver was off in Cambridge and marching to New York for the Battle of Long Island. Using the letters of George Washington, soldier cards and a multitude of secondary resources, I was able to piece together the world of Oliver Reed by forming a timeline of historical events including the siege of Philadelphia, the battles of Trenton and Princeton, and eventually Valley Forge. Along the way, I discovered a lot about the 20th Continental (later renamed Fourth Connecticut) Regiment and its leaders, Capt. Beriah Bill, Capt. Stephen Brown and Col. John Durkee.

            The letters do more, however, than just piece together a possible campaign trail. They allow us to see what it was like to be an average soldier, or  to be a woman on the home front. Oliver himself was constantly sick and repeatedly expressed his desire to go home, even just for a few weeks. He wanted to provide for his family, send gifts to his children from Boston and eat real food. “I want sum of your pickels to Eat Long with Cold meat”, he wrote. “I want sum sider too”. 

The home front was perhaps even more tragic. In August 1777, Betty wrote to Oliver about the deaths of two of their children. Records show that a third child died just days after the letter was written. Betty had little support and relied on the help of neighbors for milk and wood. Eventually, she took her surviving son, Oliver Jr., and moved him to her in-laws’ in Wrentham, Massachusetts.

            I’m pleased to report that I was invited to write an article about the Oliver Reed letters for the website (Journal of the American Revolution).  My article follows the lives of Oliver and Betty as the war continued. The emergence of Oliver’s letters reveals a previously undiscovered story that illuminates the life of a common Revolutionary era soldier. Special thanks to both Richard and Kathie for their help with this project. It was an opportunity I never thought I would have as an undergraduate. The article is scheduled to be published on this August.

The Oliver Reed Letters, a part of the David Library Digital Archives, are currently being curated.  The Library will be making the digital letters available to researchers in the near future.