Sunday, January 21, 2018

Meet the man preserving history, one letter at a time

William Griffing -- you can call him "Griff" -- transcribes Civil War letters and creates web sites for them.
The letter at left was written by John Hebron of the 2nd Ohio. (GO HERE.)
Like this blog on Facebook  | All Griffing's CW soldier letter transcriptions.

When William Griffing entered college decades ago, he thought he may want a career in American history. That thought quickly evaporated, and he decided instead to pursue something more lucrative. He eventually took a position in the environment, safety and health field as a director at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Chicago.

But he never lost his keen interest in American history -- an interest spurred at a young age by his grandfather, a Kansas farmer who voraciously read history books and often shared stories of the family's military service. A voracious reader himself, Griffing belonged to a Book of the Month Club, frequently devouring Civil War books.

When he's not transcribing old letters
or diaries, William Griffing, who is retired,
 can often be found on a golf course.
At some point, Griffing -- you can call him "Griff" -- became fascinated with Civil War soldiers' war-time letters, sometimes invaluable primary source material. Now 65 and retired, he has taken his fascination online, transcribing old letters and diaries and creating web sites for them.  You may have visited one or more of his superb Spared & Shared sites, which he shares on a Facebook page he has created for them. Or perhaps you have checked out this page that includes all his soldier letter transcriptions. (Griffing also has a transcription service.)

Griffing doesn't collect Civil War letters -- in fact, he has never had a strong desire to own any. He's most interested in "mining" and preserving soldiers' letters online.

"More times than not," he told me, "the history in any given letter is not colossal in importance but as a microcosmic piece in the larger picture of the war. Or as a fragment of information precious to the descendants of these soldiers, it becomes important and worth saving. I am particularly stimulated and challenged to discover the identity of a letter’s author when there is no signature, or only a partial one. I think of this as 'forensic' genealogy and derive incredible satisfaction in reuniting a soldier with his words."

In between transcribing and golf, Griffing's other obsession, Griff told me about his favorite letters, the challenges he faces, where he finds material for his unique hobby and more:

In this letter, dated Oct. 11, 1864, John Whitcomb Piper of the 4th Massachusetts Heavy Artillery
writes of  President Lincoln's summer residence north of the White House. (GO HERE FOR THE SITE.)

How many letters have you “saved,” and where do they come from?

Griffing: I honestly can’t even throw out a figure; it has to be in the thousands. I started transcribing letters about 25 years ago, starting with those of my great-great grandfather and his fiancĂ©e (later wife) who exchanged over 500 letters between 1840 and 1880 — most of them written during the 1850s. This process gave me experience in the art of transcription, which is more difficult than most people probably think. It takes years of reading letters to understand the vernacular commonly used during the mid-19th century and a familiarity with the people, places and events of history to understand what they are referring to in their letters. (Go here for Griffing's page of soldier letter transcriptions.)

A letter written by Benjamin Franklin Orr of the 76th Ohio.
It's on Griffing's "Reluctant Yanks" site, which also includes
letters from Orr's brother, Joseph, also of the 76th Ohio.
Those who read my transcriptions will quickly notice that I prefer to post transcriptions that are edited — the spelling is corrected and I sometimes make minor grammatical corrections. By doing so, I feel it improves the chances that the letters will be found doing browser searches. But this is also why I like to post scanned images of the letters so that readers can see the author’s original handwriting and judge their level of education and proficiency in letter-writing. It also enables the reader to re-examine the script to decipher the writing for themselves if they think I have erred in my transcription.

Almost 10 years ago now, I initiated a collaboration with a guy who did a volume business in buying and selling old letters on eBay. I had noticed that he seemed to have access to some of the better letters offered for sale, and that in particular he often bought large collections of letters and then sold them one by one on eBay. This troubled me at first; I hated the thought of large collections of letters written by a single soldier being broken up — the collective information contained in them lost forever to multiple collectors, perhaps filed away in a drawer with no opportunity to share the contents. I also found it disturbing to see the letters sold without a recognition of who authored them or the significance of their content revealed.

And so I made the following proposal to this seller: In exchange for the opportunity to transcribe the letters, perform research on the author/contents, and to post them on a blog site, I would provide him with a transcript and my research notes to use in advertising the letters on eBay, thus enhancing his sales. This offer was accepted and I went to work, first transcribing letters from the time of the Revolutionary War up through the time of the Civil War but over time, narrowing this down to those primarily from the Civil War.

Over time, the seller has come to know the types of letters that I prefer to spend my time on, and he has become more selective in what he sends to me. Occasionally I will find a letter that is so historically significant that I will encourage him to donate the letter to some historical library or archive, which he has invariably done.

William Griffing designs his web sites. Here's the header for his site for the diary of Gene Shue
of Birney's Zouaves , the 23rd Pennsylvania. (GO HERE FOR THE SITE.)
What are your greatest challenges in what you do?

Griffing: I have fewer challenges today than I used to have. This is due to the growth of the Internet as a tool for doing research. I have subscriptions to (genealogy and census records), (military records), Genealogy Bank (old newspapers) and other sources that enable me to find information online, making my research more comprehensive and less time-consuming.

29th Connecticut soldiers in South Carolina in 1864. A letter by a soldier in this black regiment
is among the most compelling Griffing has transcribed.
Tell us about your favorite letter.

Griffing: I can’t point to any particular letter as my favorite, but I have discovered a few letters that were written by black soldiers during the Civil War that were being bought and sold on eBay without an understanding of the historical significance and value of each letter. These letters were by Henry E. Mumford of the 29th Connecticut; Penrose Edmundson of Co. F, 25th USCT; Henry Williams, Co. D, 113th USCT; and John Posey of Co. D, 55th Massachusetts. The last named soldier —- a farmer from Vincennes, Ind., wrote: "I will stand with [my] Enfield rifle on my shoulder with my comrades. I will die or freedom be made whole. As for democracy, we do not fear. Uncle Sam is our guide and the channel he will make clear. He is honest and worthy of the praise of the colored population if nobody else. For my part, I trust that the Providence may aid him to carry on the war to the destruction of [this] miserable rebellion…"

Another letter than I enjoyed was one written in 1864 by Orderly Sergeant Joseph S. Collister of Co. F, 138th Illinois Infantry, describing his regiment’s passing through the town of Weston, Miss. — a place that I have enjoyed visiting myself in the past.

Envelope for letter written by 7th Rhode Island Private William Jordan to his parents.

Since starting “Spared & Shared,” what kind of feedback have you received? Have professional historians commented?

Griffing: I get lots of comments on my Spared & Shared blog site posts. Most of the comments are from descendants of the author or someone mentioned in the letters. They generally thank me for sharing the letters and tell me that the content afforded them the opportunity to see their ancestor as more than just a name on their family tree. Much less often I get comments from professional historians, libraries or authors doing research for books they are working on. Though they are often disappointed to learn that the original letter has been sold, they are grateful that a transcription and scans of the letter are digitally archived on one of my many blog sites where they can be accessed through online research.

What do you see as the future of your project?

A tintype and letters of Captain Rufus Staniels
of the 13th New Hampshire.
Griffing: I don’t think of my hobby as a project. To my way of thinking, a project has a beginning and an end. As long as I am able, or until I find something I enjoy more, I’ll probably keep doing these transcriptions. I imagined at one time that I might try to write a book or two using the content of these letters, but I think there are people better equipped than I am at writing professionally — and if they are able to use this primary material to tell a story, then I will feel I’ve made a sufficient contribution to preserving American history.

Over the years, collectors of letters have contacted me and asked me to assist them in showcasing their letters or diaries in a web site. I have done perhaps a half-dozen of these projects. There are a couple of collectors who also allow me to transcribe, research and post their letters on one of my blogs.

I have also assisted enthusiasts in showcasing other artifacts, such as the web site I created for David Morin’s CDV collection of New Hampshire soldiers. To date, I have created over 100 web/blog sites, and most of them are devoted to the preservation of letters and diaries. I am currently posting in Spared & Shared 16 since the bandwidth of most of the earlier blogs is nearly exhausted. I have also started a Spared & Shared Page on Facebook to advertise these postings and to feature some of the more interesting letters.

All William Griffing's transcriptions of Civil War soldier letters here.

Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


  1. Another great post from John Banks. And to anyone who has transcribed handwriting of of that era, especially written under the duress of war, it is no easy task. Fascinating how Mr. Griffing stepped in with such a clever and excellent idea. Well done by William Griffing and John Banks! Thank you!

  2. Great work and truly fascinating. I love reading about the Civil War especially new discoveries such as this. Battles and leaders get a little boring after a while and reading the letters bring things to life.

  3. Wow. I just went to Mr. Griffing's Billy Yank and Johnny Reb site. As someone who has transcribed dozens of letters and hundreds of newspaper articles myself, I'm blown away by his work.