Thursday, March 21, 2019

Unexpected Discoveries at the David Library by Dusty Marie Dye

Guest blogger Dusty Marie Dye is a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland. During her residency as a 2018-19 David Library Fellow last summer, she came across some  passages in orderly books, correspondence and diaries that were both insightful, and strange. 

My fellowship at the David Library of the American Revolution lasted for the month of June, 2018, and I have to say it is one of the best experiences of my scholarly career. It goes without saying that I was tremendously excited to have the extensive collection at the library at my fingertips on a 24/7 basis, but I could not have expected how amazing my discoveries would be. My dissertation focuses on eighteenth-century mourning customs and how those customs give us insight into the lives of the soldiers and civilians who experienced the turmoil of the American Revolution, the separation of Great Britain from its North American colonies, and the formation of an entirely new nation with citizens who struggled to develop new national identities. With such a peculiar starting point, I have had to be creative in the sources that I have employed to examine my subject and the collection at the library has been an absolute treasure of valuable (and sometimes quirky) information. I found, for example, instructions in an orderly book for New York soldiers to “furnish 3 Sargts & 30 privates to Burrey the dead bodys & carkesses & cover the other putred matters” in and around Yorktown in October 1781. In addition, I found sheet music for funeral dirges and an officers’ handbook (Thomas Simes' Military Guide for Young Officers) that listed, in detail, the order that soldiers should march in funeral processions, what the usual funeral expenses should be, and what should be done with a fallen soldier’s belongings, whether he be an officer or a “common soldier.” As for civilians, the personal papers and diaries that can be found at the library are awash with accounts of attending funerals and lamentations on the deaths of loved ones and friends, including fears for those marching off to battle and consolations to others who lost family members to the war.
Page from Simes' Guide

In the course of my research, I also found other insights into military life, such as when orderly books included prohibitions against soldiers throwing apples at one another or lounging about naked after bathing. There were frequent reminders that the soldiers who fought the Revolution were ordinary men and boys, such as when they noted in their diaries that they missed their families or relieved their boredom by doodling in the margins of orderly books.
A doodle in the margin of an orderly book
In the letters between soldiers and their wives, in between descriptions of battle, there were affectionate jokes and references to mundane matters such as the management of crops and the state of household accounts. In short, the collection at the David Library allowed me a glimpse into the world of the Revolutionary generation and the lives that were shaped both by everyday cares and personal connections and the tremendous disruptions of war. It is my hope that my work, which will be built upon the discoveries that I made during my fellowship, will help others to connect on some level with those who fought in the Revolution and helped to build the nation we live in today.

1 comment:

  1. I would love to read your dissertation when completed. Perhaps you have your own that we could follow? These insights are important for me in my genealogical quest: to find the family (my family) of Samuel Garrison. He enlisted in Haverstraw and was captured at the Battle of Ft. Montgomery on Oct 7 1777. He died in a NYC prison. I've no idea who his wife or parents, etc. were...