Researcher skill: Assessing letters

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

National Tribune Sherman generals

General Howard is standing at left in this drawing of General William T. Sherman (seated, center) and his generals printed on the front page of the 29 November 1894 issue of the National Tribune; it has Howard’s signature on the left.

What did the countryside look like in northern Georgia during the Civil War?

How can we determine this today? One good way is from contemporary descriptions, although we must also understand that letters and so on may embroider the truth, lie, or tell it exactly the way it was.

Here’s a paragraph extracted from a report from General O.O. Howard, published on the front page of the Washington DC National Tribune on 29 November 1894 (column 3, below drawing) from a letter dated May 22nd 1864:

The country this side of Resaca is very beautiful. Large, luxuriant farms, magnificent trees. It is no wonder the rebels are not starving in such a country as this. This is a pleasing change of scenery from the mountains near Chattanooga, and really of great practical benefit for the horse and mules; plenty of grass to eat. The people have nearly all gone away.

Read the full front page on the Library of Congress website here.

So, how would you confirm the accuracy of General Howard’s description? This kind of problem is commonly faced by archaeological (and historical) researchers.