Voices From the Past

-Sally Blanchard-O’Brien, Archives Month Committee Member

Through correspondence, voices of the past come alive for us in the present. Here, we take a look at two nineteenth century letters that not only bring the details of the writers’ life into focus, but that shed light on the moments and movements of history of which they were a part.

In 1815, Jonas Clark wrote home after traveling to Montpelier, where the legislative session was beginning in October of that year. Clark was serving his fourth term as Representative for Middletown, and wrote in his letter that he was “very much fatigued” after the long journey. He then went on to write about election results. 1815 was an interesting point in Vermont election history, as Jonas Galusha won the governor’s race against the incumbent Martin Chittenden.  Galusha had held that office before, prior to Chittenden. The two campaigned against each other for five years, and the two years previous to 1815, neither candidate had won a majority. This meant that Vermont legislators, including Jonas Clark, chose the state’s Governor. But, in 1815, Clark’s letter tells that Galusha won by a majority, the first time in three years that a gubernatorial candidate won outright.

Letter from Representative Jonas Clark to wife, October 15th, 1815. Courtesy Vermont State Archives and Records Administration, record series A-365.

Jonas Clark served in public office in many capacities, and even ran for governor himself many years later. Knowing that he later ran an unsuccessful campaign, it’s interesting to read his report home about the 1815 gubernatorial election. Even while participating in the legislative session, Clark tried to manage domestic affairs back in Middletown; he writes his wife Betsey “whenever a leisure time happens…the cellar should be cleaned, it can be done in wet weather.”

Another letter written to a wife back home comes from Sergeant Valentine Barney, a Civil War soldier from Swanton. He served in the First Regiment of the Vermont Volunteer Infantry, which was officially mustered into the United States Army in May of 1861, stationed at Fort Monroe in Virginia. On May 19th, the Vermonters saw their first actual fighting with the attack on the steamer “Monticello,” and Barney writes of it to his wife Maria. He tells her “the report is that some 18 or 20 of the Enemy were killed but how true it is is not known by me, but we could see the firing and hear the report plainly.”

The first page of a multi-page letter from Civil War soldier Valentine Barney to his wife, May 19th, 1861. Courtesy of Vermont State Archives & Records Administration, record series PRA-356.

Barney wrote his wife often, and through his letters we can observe the experience of a Union soldier away from home and his family. In his letter, he writes first about his concern for his family’s health before even mentioning the fighting. He also tells Maria, “I never before realized so forcibly the comforts of a home and the kindness and goodness of my loving wife and children as at the present, and I hope and trust that I may be more attentive to them in the future than I have been in the past.” Barney’s regiment returned home after a three month campaign. However, less than two years later, Barney was commissioned as a Lieutenant Colonel for the Ninth Regiment, serving until several months after the end of the Civil War.

The Jonas Clark letter is housed at the Vermont State Archives and Records Administration. The Valentine Barney letters were microfilmed by the Vermont Civil War Centennial Committee, and later digitized through the University of Vermont. You can read the May 19th, 1861 letter in its entirety, and many others, online.

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