Localauthor Barb Winters first got to know the Eaches, Fendalls and Tacketts sortingthrough boxes of letters for the Alexandria Librarys special collectionsdepartment almost a decade ago.
Donatedby a distant relative of the families’ now living in Massachusetts, themanuscripts document the lives of three generations of prominent Alexandrians,before, during and after the Civil War. Preparing the letters for the citysarchives off and on for the next several years, Winters discovered she had astory in her hands.
Idecided to see if I could write it, Winters said. These are all true stories,not made up for publication. They didnt write for publication, they wereletting it all hang out.
Afterthree years of writing and editing, Winters will unveil her newly publishedbook Letters to Virginia: Correspondence from Three Generations ofAlexandrians Before, During and After the Civil War for a signing at the EllenCoolidge Burke Branch Library, December 18.
Afew of the letters included burn me addendums, not because they containedclassified materials, but steamy conversations between separated lovers,Winters said. That the explicit request was never carried out amazed Winters.
Thatthe letters were saved and passed on from generation to generation, spanningfrom 1817 to 1940, amazes her even more.
Iwould read them and think how the blazes did this letter get in here?Winters said. I was just fascinated then and I still am. I have reread [mybook] it at least six times and I still find something new it in every timethat didnt connect before.
Fromthe family drunk to a long-distance marriage, Winters had an unadulteratedglimpse of Alexandrias past. One of the Fendalls was a scam artist, cheatinghis sister of her inheritance before marrying one rich widow after another andscamming them out of their fortunes.
JackTackett, a traveling salesman following the Civil War, wandered throughout thepostbellum south. What he sent home was closer to travelogues than letters; hewas in the wrong business, Winters said.
Heshould have been a tour guide, she said. Theyre beautifully written accountsof what the south was like then What towns have improved and how hes happy tosee theyre looking better now after the war.
Shealso documented his correspondence to his wife. Though married for 25 years,they may have spent as little as two sharing the same bed, Winters said.
Andthen there were the Eaches. Two brothers became prisoners of war after fightingfor the Confederacy while another supported the Union.
Thusfar God has mercifully preserved my life through all the dangers& hardships of the field, though I have been twice shot&have, ineach successive battle, seen many of my bravest comrades fall around me,Hector Eaches wrote home from the war. My wound is healing&my healthgood – the hope of seeing you all again has shed a cheering ray over my spiritin many an hour of gloom&trouble&I fondly cling to that hope.”
Whilearchivists and historians treasure letters, its just another piece of thepuzzle when its time to reconstruct the past, said Amy Bertsch of the Officeof Historical Alexandria.
Havingletters and understanding peoples personal interests and biases is reallyimportant, she said. But its also very rewarding, because you get to see apart of Alexandrias history from the people who were witnessing it.
Bertschwonders what future historians will draw on to craft their impression of thepresent in an age of email, Twitter and blogs. As long as there are archivists,theres nothing to worry about, she said.
Butpart of the motive for writing the book, proceeds of which will support thelocal history and special collections department, comes from a desire to seeothers put more down on paper, Winters said.
Ihope this will encourage people maybe to write letters or if nothing else printout their emails and keep a record of it to pass on down to the nextgeneration, she said.
Wintershas her own collection of personal writing and correspondence tucked away in aback closet. Theyre not for publication, she said.
Butthat might be up to another generation to decide.