by Sumer Marie Forsyth
When I first started at The Wade Project, I did a lot of reading. First I had to get to know the man who started it all, Jeptha Homer Wade I, so I read the complete autobiography that he wrote for his grandson, Jeptha II, to read. After that, I spent some time third wheeling in his son Randall’s relationship. I read the already transcribed courtship letters between Randall and his future wife, Anna, and then began my own transcriptions with the letters Randall sent back and forth to Anna post-marriage whenever he was away from home for an extended period of time.
The best parts of the letters were Randall’s political commentary. In one letter from May 25, 1862, for example, he mentioned to Anna that he wouldn’t be able to go home by a certain route near the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, as it had been taken from Union General Banks by the Confederates. Of course, Randall was talking about the aftermath of what we know today as the First Battle of Winchester. According to him, the Union lost because “General Banks’ army was reduced [by the president] to too small a number…and joined to General McDowell’s forces who had no enemy in front of him.” Lincoln and the Secretary of War were, in Randall’s opinion, a “murderous joke” who “know nothing of military strategy.” In another letter written in November 1864, shortly before that year’s election, Randall wrote again about politics: what it was like being against Lincoln and his “infamous administration,” and being a part of those “branded a Traitor” for “thinking of peace or doing anything to stop this bloody war before our country is financially ruined.”
These were the highlights of my first batch of transcriptions for several reasons. First, it felt almost like I was reading a modern equivalent of a liveblog of the Civil War, especially when Randall was talking about the Battle of Winchester. I’ve studied other related primary sources, but I think this experience was different because I was one of the first to read it save for Anna and maybe other Wade descendants who looked through them before they were given to WRHS. Second, and most important to me, was the fact that I was getting a new perspective of what it was like to be alive during the American Civil War. I’ve read plenty other documents about the time period, but I don’t recall ever experiencing a firsthand account of someone who was against Lincoln and his administration yet still in favor of Union victory. I wasn’t at all under the impression that such people didn’t exist, but I think that there’s a heavy bias in American (especially in the Northern states) classrooms and textbooks that maybe take issue with shedding any kind of negative light on Lincoln and the Union. I feel like now that I’ve had this experience, I have a more balanced view of the state of the nation and those living in it during the Civil War because I have a better notion of the opinions of people on all sides of the realm and not just those who were a part of the majority.
The final task I was charged with during my time working for The Wade Project was to transcribe a month’s worth of Randall’s son Jeptha II’s travel journal entries. I had mentioned to Holly the very first day we met that I had a vague interest in learning more about Egypt. She remembered, and thought that I would enjoy going there with Jeptha II in 1892 for a little while. I did. [Below is an image of the family yacht, The Wadena]
Compared to his father, Jeptha II’s style of writing was very concise, and his actual penmanship wasn’t as easy to read. Though there wasn’t anything in particular that stood out to me when I was transcribing his writing like there was with his father’s, it was still an enjoyable experience nonetheless. What I liked most was that Jeptha II wrote so nonchalantly about very strange things:
Started at 7. Temp at
9=60. At 1 77. At 3 – 83. No wind
Perfect day. Passed two dead
bodies floating in river.
And very mundane things. As you can see, he started off every entry with the temperature for the day, wind speed, how the sun looked, etc. He also wrote about things like how his children were passing time on the boat, how he’d slept the night before, etc. At first, it kind of puzzled me; why would he care about such small things? Why wouldn’t he be writing about the big things? It took me a while realize that he was writing down the little things because he wanted to remember them. When you travel, those aren’t what usually stays with you when you come home. It’s the explanation that makes the most sense to me, since it was his journal. I don’t think he cared too much about making it a super exciting page turner in the off chance that some random 20-year-old in the year 2016 decided to read it.
My experience at WRHS definitely wouldn’t be one of the little things that Jeptha II would write about in his journal. The time I spent working for The Wade Project and everything that I learned will stick with me forever. It was my first real experience doing work in the field that I hope to enter when I graduate, and it definitely helped me confirm that the pursuit of historical knowledge is what I want to spend my life doing. I’ve learned how to so many practical things, like how to make a spreadsheet, navigate through a set of archives and do a professional level transcription. I’m excited to out and build on all of the knowledge that I’ve gained as an intern at The Wade Project, and I will be eternally grateful for this experience and everyone involved.