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A Story from Letters

Around twenty years ago, a cousin who lived in Southern Illinois wrote me, very excited at what she found at the estate sale of an elderly aunt. She bought a box of junk items, hoping to find some family memento, and at the bottom of the box was a folder containing letters John McCartney, our great grandfather, wrote while he was Captain of Company D in the 56th Illinois Infantry serving in Georgia and South Carolina. I asked for copies. Word spread through a family newsletter and a few months later, Bernice Morton, who lived in Washington state, said she had letters written to him by his wife.

Since I have a degree in American History, I offered to write explanations for puzzling references in some of the letters, but as I came to know John F. and Elizabeth and learned more about the joys and sorrows of their lives, I thought the letters should be shared more widely.


Many books of Civil War letters describing the soldier’s military experiences have been published. The wife’s letters are more unusual and provide a woman’s perspective of life during the war that we don’t hear often. Many years after the war, the soldier’s sister, who assisted his wife while her brother was serving with the army, wrote a memoir of that time which provided many details on their lives. I recognized that together they told a story I thought would engage readers today. With that goal, I began Hardtack and Heartbreak: A Family in the Civil War.

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