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VALUES / Honoring those who fought.

Front Lines

A heart-rending collection of letters written by American soldiers at war provides a glimpse at the horrors of combat and the longing for peace and home.

May 26, 1999|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1862, Columbus Huddle was a 20-year-old Ohio farm boy with an eighth-grade education who found himself in the Battle of Shiloh--one of the bloodier engagements of the Civil War. The two-day clash felled 23,000 men, killed or wounded. Among the dead was a boyhood comrade whom Huddle watched die and later buried.

Huddle wrote to his father about the battle's grim and sobering aftermath.

"[The] tongue can't describe the sight that I seen--dead secesh [secessionists] and Union men all lying together, some tore to pieces by cannonballs and shells," he wrote. "I have been in one of the hardest battles that ever was fought in the New World, but I never want to get in another one, for it is not what it is cracked up to be."

Huddle, the common foot soldier, did his duty and was lucky enough to eventually return home. And like so many of America's other war veterans, he did not make history. But more than a century later, his eight-page letter just may.

The 137-year-old missive will be anthologized in an upcoming book honoring letters that ordinary Americans have penned during wartime. Huddle's letter was submitted for consideration by his grandson, 69-year-old Robert Battin of Dana Point. Battin was one of about 10,000 who heeded a call sounded in a Dear Abby column on Veterans Day for historically significant letters written during America's wars.

"I'm really proud of his letter," says Battin, whose grandfather was 62 years old when Battin's mother was born. "You can tell he was still very upset by the death of his friend."

Like Huddle's, the letters can be eyewitness battle accounts but don't have to be, says the project's editor, Andrew Carroll. They can also feature acts of heroism, chance encounters with famous leaders, experiences in prisoner-of-war camps and even love--anything that might provide a clearer picture of those who served and sacrificed, Carroll says.

Huddle's letter also exhibits an almost universal plea from soldiers at the front--for family members to please write soon.

"When I was in the military, I felt exactly the same way," said Battin, a Korean War veteran. "I remember when I was on battleship, there'd be mail call and everybody would go crazy. Everybody wants a piece of home."

It's that longing for home, that special connection to one's humanity, that's at the heart of the ongoing letter project, Carroll says. Whether it's a faded handwritten letter from the Revolutionary War or a quick e-mail dashed off from Kosovo, the letters reveal the great pain and sense of loss caused by temporary--or permanent--separation.

"This is more than a war letters project," says Carroll, who also edited the bestselling "Letters of a Nation: A Collection of Extraordinary American Letters" (Kodansha America, 1997), which traces the development of America through letters. "It's a human project. This is about how we all respond to the worst life throws at a person, the threat of death, having those closest to us killed, being far from home and enduring the worst of physical circumstances."

As Carroll knows from his previous compilation, the public and even historians are hungry for first-person accounts of ordinary people swept up in extraordinary times. This new appetite for unsung heroes is in stark contrast to a period only a couple of decades back when the focus was almost solely upon prominent men of diplomacy, politics and war.

"We're in a time where we've heard enough about the presidents and the generals and the secretaries of state," says Doug Brinkley, a history professor and director of the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans. "Now we want to hear what some of the people working below them thought and felt."

"It's really history come to life," adds Brinkley, whose center will become caretaker to the wartime letters when Carroll's book is published. "It's much easier to think 'that could have been me. I could have been there.' Not all of us could imagine being Douglas MacArthur, but we could all imagine being an ordinary soldier."

It was a judicious mix of the country's most powerful and its most powerless that propelled Carroll's "Letters of a Nation" onto the bestseller lists. Time and again during his seven-year effort, Carroll was impressed by the poignancy and importance of letters written by "ordinary Americans."

"I unearthed so many extraordinary correspondences by ordinary Americans that I became convinced there must be many more out there still to be found," he says. "And I was right."

His new project may do more than just protect some letters from loss or anonymity--it may immortalize them. But the process of selecting a couple of hundred letters from a stack of 10,000 takes its toll, not only physically, but also emotionally. The correspondences recall everything from the horrific landing at Omaha Beach on D-day to "Dear John" letters received by soldiers containing returned wedding or engagement rings.

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