Traverse City Record-Eagle


April 11, 2011

Special delivery: An 1864 Civil War letter


For years I had little relationship to my great-great grandfather Charles Dickerson until 2005, when I received his 1864 letter home from the Civil War.

He came to mind often last month as I worked on the three-day series that started Sunday. It reports how the Civil War played out in the Grand Traverse region. I don't think I could have written those stories or any of the local history I've done over the last two years had it not been for the letter and the door it opened between past and present.

I wanted to know Charles Dickerson, his family and descendants. To do that, I had to know his times, how he got to Michigan's Thumb from Niagara County, N.Y., and the politics of that era.

His letter brought the Civil War home to me. It gave me a deeper sense of roots and a wider, more personal perspective of Michigan, U.S. and world history. It enriched my life.

Charles served in the 23rd Michigan Infantry, which in the spring of 1864 became part of Sherman's March on Atlanta.

Cannons boomed in the distance that afternoon of July 7, 1864, as he wrote to his wife, Cordelia, somewhere near the Chattahoochee River and Kennesaw, Ga.

Three things are clear in that letter. He loves and misses his family. He strongly opposes slavery. He believes God does, too. He is certain that the fight to end slavery in the United States is a just cause.

It is why he enlisted, he writes. It is why he is willing to risk his life and even die, if necessary, though he prays he makes it back home.

And he did in May 1865. He and Cordelia had five more children. Their youngest was Hattie, born in 1873, my great-great grandmother, who named her first-born child, Ethel, my grandmother.

The letter has a history all its own. It came into Ethel's possession sometime in the early 1900s. By the 1940s, she kept it in the drawer of a tiny black telephone desk. She often took it out to read to her nephew, Tommy, when he was a little boy.

Ethel died in 1956 and the letter remained undisturbed until 1967, when my grandfather died.

Tom came home to close down my grandfather's mercantile business, and my grandfather's sister came to pack up the house. One day Tom stopped by and learned she had burned all of the old pictures and letters in a huge chest of drawers in the living room.

When she left the room, he opened the telephone drawer. The letter had survived. He pocketed it.

In 2005, Tom turned it over to me.

"Your grandmother would want you to have it," he said.

I like to think Charles would, too.

Associate editor Loraine Anderson can be reached at or 231-933-1468.

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