“This is the original,” he says, smiling as he recounts the story of his ancestors told in the letters.
Dougherty, who inherited 150 Civil War-era letters in 1985, decided he needed to do more than preserve them. He’s compiled 13 of the 150 letters into a book called “Ann’s Letters,” and signed copies of the book Saturday afternoon in downtown Acworth.
Dougherty still marvels at the details of the old letters. Swirls written on the page served to empty the pen when the letter was finished. The cursive writing is clean and attractive, but many words are so badly misspelled it’s hard to make them out. For example, the word “pacified” is spelled “passeyed fied” in one letter, owing to the relative lack of formal education.
Dougherty, a 79-year-old Dunwoody resident, brought nearly the whole family to the store Saturday. His wife, Beverly, four children, a daughter-in-law, a son-in-law and two grandchildren all showed up in support.
He said the family history continues with the book’s cover, which was designed by his granddaughter, Gentry Moore. A 16-year-old senior at Woodstock High School, Moore designed the artwork and concept chosen by the publisher. She plans to be a graphic artist in the future.
Dougherty’s family was from the Ohio area. The letters go into great detail about the family’s hopes, anxieties and the day-to-day life of 1860s America, Dougherty said.
One part of the correspondence includes letters sent by a soldier who Dougherty said was part of Gen. William Sherman’s 60,000 troops.
The letters run from 1862 to 1865 and were written by Ann Bowman, who Dougherty describes as “the Twitter of her age” because many people did not write at all in those days. It was also Ann who began the preservation process as well, saving all of the letters after the war ended.
The theme of the letters is that Ann was the sister of two soldiers. She also wrote to two other soldiers at the time. She married one of them and the other married her best friend, Dougherty said.
Though letters tended to be very formal at the time, Dougherty said there are subtle hints the two were flirting at the time. For example, one of the letters ends with a very large “yours truly,” which he said was about as bold as a writer could get at the time.
“In the 19th century, it was much different than today,” said Michael Shaffer, assistant director of The Civil War Center at Kennesaw State University. “If a young man was courting a young lady and they were exchanging letters, they would make very, very casual hints at their romance. Certainly, they would never directly address the issue.”
Shaffer said soldiers on both sides of the conflict loved receiving letters, and often would complain about not receiving enough mail or not receiving it quickly enough.
After Ann married William Bowman, Dougherty’s great-granduncle, they had a son named Jesse who lived to be 102 years old. Because Jesse Bowman lived until 1976, Dougherty grew up knowing him and said he still remembers his great-granduncle very well. Dougherty’s mother inherited the letters and he later received them himself.
“Any time new primary source materials emerge from that period, I think there always is an interest,” Shaffer said. “It certainly doesn’t happen every day.”
Dougherty stresses he’s not a historian, but said the letters provide insight into family life during the time. He transcribed the letters for the book and added notes to help readers interpret their meaning.
A few of the letters were written from the infamous Andersonville prison in Georgia, and have a deceptively optimistic tone. Dougherty said the reason is the soldiers knew the letters would not be sent out if they revealed the awful conditions at the prison.
Dougherty thinks of how hard life was back then with the hard work, lack of amenities and prevalence of disease. The letters themselves could take more than a month to be delivered.
“Compare your life in 2014 to life in the 1860s,” Dougherty said. “Would you survive? Chances are, we wouldn’t.”