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Letters from the Front - Correspondence Spanning Two Centuries of American War

By Andrew Carroll 
Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: October 31, 2008 
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O Mary you could never form an idea of the horrors of actual war unless you saw the battlefields while the conflict is progressing.

Legacy Project
The Legacy Project is a national, all-volunteer effort that encourages Americans to preserve correspondence, including letters and e-mails, by U.S. troops and their loved ones from any war and on any subject matter. To read more about the Legacy Project's mission, information about preserving letters and additional excerpts of correspondence from its archives, please visit: www.warletters.com.

Letters from the Front
Correspondence from a two-century span of American wars reveals the men and women on the fighting lines. Some are also presented in audio format. If a link appears with a letter, as with William Czako's letter immediately below (Excerpted the audio version of Behind the Lines), click on it to hear the correspondence being read.

"It is now 9:05 Sunday morning and we've been bombed now for over an hour," William Czako began a hastily written letter to his sister, Helen, on a winter day from a U.S. warship. Czako wondered whether he—or his letter—would survive, but he continued:

Our anti aircraft guns are yammering and every so often a bomb strikes so close as to rock this ship. Again a bomb. We're helpless down here in the Forward Engine Room because our main engines are all tore down.…I am on the interior communications telephone and I can hear the various stations screaming orders at one other. A man just brought us our gas masks.…

What makes this moment-by-moment description of an attack all the more compelling is the date in the letter's upper right-hand corner: "Dec. 7, 1941;" William Czako was trapped inside the docked USS New Orleans at Pearl Harbor.

Czako's riveting account, read here by Fred Weller, is one of 80,000 previously unpublished missives sent to the Legacy Project since the initiative's launch 10 years ago. From handwritten notes penned during the American Revolution to e-mails sent from Iraq and Afghanistan, the letters illuminate the full spectrum of emotions in wartime—terror, grief, passion, courage, resilience—all made more vibrant through the lens of warfare. They offer firsthand glimpses of the unfolding drama accompanying major world events.

Following are a half dozen letters and e-mails from the Legacy Project archives, all written by men and women who found themselves, if only briefly, at the epicenter of history.

Revolutionary War
Personal letters by common soldiers from the revolution are particularly rare. Writing paper was scarce, there was no reliable postal service, and many of the troops were barely literate. A private from New Jersey named Henry Johnson was, however, able to send the following to his parents on June 13, 1780, from the Basking Ridge Hospital after being wounded in May 1780. (The letter is transcribed as written with only minor commentary. The word "Etacted" is believed to mean "attacked.")

Bascon Ridge Ospitreal
Honoured parents
I have taken this opertunyty to let you know what misfortue I met with on the seventh Ult A party of the Enemy Came to Elisebeth town [and] ma[r]ched to the Conecticut Farms We lay at Newark Mountain A Bout twelve oclock at Night we was Alarmed and Marched to the farms and about Sun Rise We Etacted them the Jersey Berguade and there was a Bout five thousand of them we kept up a hot fire about fore hours and in the atact was wounded Col Ogden of the forth Regt and a number of Soldiers kild and wounded and I got a Wound in the head very Bad But I am in hopes With the Assistance of god that I Shall git wel again.…

Sonomore at preseant
But Remain your Loving Son
Henery Johnson But I desir to Be Remembered to all Enquirering friends

Johnson survived the war and eventually became a shoemaker.

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