Today, with the help of laser labels and cheap bubble mailers, sending mail is a relatively easy task. As a result, we often forget how important this act of communication was in the days before wholesale bubble mailers and printable sticker labels, and how vital letters can still be to our understanding of the past. Take a recent exhibit at the Brooklyn Historical Society, for example: the show featured letters from a Brooklyn soldier who wrote of facing certain death in the Civil War, which were rescued from a California trash can by a conscientious bystander.
The letters were written by Captain Samuel Sims of Brooklyn, a Union officer who perished in a martial clash known as the Battle of the Crater. A bloody event in the Siege of Petersburg, Federal soldiers detonated a mine under the Confederate defenses, creating a crater and potential opening for the Union Army. Unfortunately, everything deteriorated quickly for the Federals after this promising beginning: the Confederates quickly recuperated and launched several counterattacks, causing the Federals to suffer severe casualties. The Siege of Petersburg lasted another eight months and the Union Major General Ambrose E. Burnside was relieved of his command for his role in the fiasco. However, the charge was led by Captain Sims, who wrote at least one letter to his mother in the days before the attack about his apprehension. He was one of the many who died in the battle, and his men later paid for a granite monument to be erected above his grave in Brooklyn, honoring his gallantry.
After his death, Sims’ letters were preserved by family members. However, when his grandson, Kenneth, and his wife, Dorothy, passed away, they had no children or relatives to take care of these heirlooms. As a result, a cleaning crew simply tossed them in a trash can, where they were rescued by passerby. After several years, this person sent the letters to the Historic Fund Collection at Greenwood Cemetery, where Sims is buried. The cemetery has since loaned the letters to the Brooklyn Historical Society for a year-long exhibit titled “Personal Correspondents: Photography and Letter Writing in Civil War Brooklyn.”
While letter-writing may have fallen out of fashion in recent years, the case of Sims’ letters shows just how important our documents can become to our descendants and future generations. Help preserve our current day: buy some cheap mailers and laser labels today and start mailing letters!