Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 20, 2012

Civil War letters live on in book

Historian publishes more than 100 letters by soldier


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---- — SWARTZ CREEK (AP) — Len Thomas couldn't allow himself to let the story of Civil War soldier Harrison Harmon Carson become lost to the passage of time.

So when he heard about worries over the future of the soldier's letters, Thomas, 72, of Swartz Creek, decided to do something about it.

"I decided to take the bull by the horns," said Thomas, a former Flint elementary school teacher. "I made a proposal to buy the letters. ... There are a lot of books on Civil War letters but this is a very complete set. I just couldn't let them slip by unnoticed."

Thomas, 72, of Swartz Creek, has something of an obsession with Civil War history. He and his wife spend time wandering cemeteries looking for the grave sites of Civil War veterans that don't mark them as veterans. Then he works with officials and installs flag holders himself.

He learned from a friend that an Owosso woman, Esther Boerman, was worried that letters her great-grandfather had written home from the Civil War would eventually be thrown away.

Thomas bought the letters and spent the better part of a year transcribing more than 100 letters home from Carson during about four years of the war and putting them together for a book, "The Civil War letters of Harrison Harmon Carson," which he published himself.

In addition to transcribing the letters, he wrote a brief introduction to each before each year of the letters, from 1862 and beyond 1866, describing where Carson was and what was going on in the war during that time.

Although he said it took some time to earn Boerman's trust, Thomas said she now carries a copy of his new book, "The Civil War Letters of Harrison Harmon Carson" with her wherever she goes.

"Because she's so proud," he said.

By manually retyping each letter, Thomas read the collection more closely than a casual reader, making him feel eerily close to all the people involved, now more than a century dead.

"They moved all over," he said of Carson and his fellow soldiers. "They talk about the weather, they talk about their battles. He sees a lot of his comrades die. It's a very sad story, but one that needs to be told."

Thomas said Carson was a farmer, family man and 39 years old when he decided to enlist in the Civil War. As a soldier, he not only remained connected to his family through his letters, but also to his farm.

"While taking care of his Civil War duties, he's running the Owosso farm," Thomas said, adding that he was amazed at the attention to detail Carson was able to pay his farm back home. "It's really an amazing story."

The first letter in the book, dated Aug. 28, 1862, serves as a good example of Carson being both the family man and the business manager.

After a brief update on his whereabouts and health (a boil burst was running freely, according to the letter), he wrote, "If it is possible I will come home first (before marching on) but think it is very doubtful. if I do not I will send you twenty-five or thirty dollars and you must pay your thrashing bill and get your lumber. Carry on work as you think best, but keep it moving."

Thomas said he felt he got to know the entire family and some of Carson's own quirks, including his penchant for putting an extra 's' at the of his wife's name, Agnes.

He also came to understand why Carson decided to enlist in the war with a family at home and a farm to run.

"He was very against slavery. He mentions that several times," Thomas said.

Throughout the letters, Carson makes mention of a Mrs. Ketchum, and how he hopes she finds a husband.

"People who have read the book always ask me, 'Did Mrs. Ketchum ever get married?'" said Thomas, adding he's unable to give them an answer.

The entire story, sadly, does not end on a happy note.

Carson survives the war and comes home, but Thomas said through his research he found that it wasn't long after that Carson's horse slipped by a river near their home during the winter. They found Carson's body some days later.

Thomas is selling the book himself, at $20 a copy — a dollar more than it cost him to print each one.

He said he hopes to get the books into stores soon.

"It's a story that just needs to be told," he said. "It's a marvelous story."