To The Letter S2 E10: Black Soldiers in the Army

In this episode we’re talking about the roles of Black men and women in the military during the Civil War.

To the Letter is a podcast brought to you in collaboration with University Libraries and the eLearning and Emerging Technologies Department’s Digital Studio at GVSU. On this podcast, we bring correspondence from GVSU’s Special Collections alive. In each episode you will hear (in their own words!) letters written by the people who lived through history and the stories behind them. John Bennitt is voiced by Matt Ruen, Scholarly Communications Outreach Coordinator at University Libraries.

Letters featured in this episode are available below:

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, Apr. 12, 1864

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, February 25, 1865

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, March 3, 1865


Additional research for this episode:

Questions? Comments? Let us know!

To The Letter S2 E9: Vote for President!

Episode 9 is all about the election of 1864, in which only 25 states participated!

To the Letter is a podcast brought to you in collaboration with University Libraries and the eLearning and Emerging Technologies Department’s Digital Studio at GVSU. On this podcast, we bring correspondence from GVSU’s Special Collections alive. In each episode you will hear (in their own words!) letters written by the people who lived through history and the stories behind them. John Bennitt is voiced by Matt Ruen, Scholarly Communications Outreach Coordinator at University Libraries.

The letter featured in Episode 9 is available below:

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, Dec. 27, 1863


Additional research for this episode:

Questions? Comments? Let us know!

To The Letter S2 E8: It’s So Rare We Get Any Mail Here

We couldn’t resist talking about how the mail system worked! While delays in communication were a common theme in Season 1, John hasn’t talked too much about the mail yet. In Episode 8, we take a look at how letters were delivered, especially as troops moved into enemy territory.

To the Letter is a podcast brought to you in collaboration with University Libraries and the eLearning and Emerging Technologies Department’s Digital Studio at GVSU. On this podcast, we bring correspondence from GVSU’s Special Collections alive. In each episode you will hear (in their own words!) letters written by the people who lived through history and the stories behind them. John Bennitt is voiced by Matt Ruen, Scholarly Communications Outreach Coordinator at University Libraries.

Letters featured in Episode 8 are available below:

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, Nov. 8th, 1863

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, Dec. 3, 1863

(Notice in the December letter that John wrote in both directions to conserve paper!)


Additional research for this episode:

Questions? Comments? Let us know!

To The Letter S2 E7: Bushwhacking

This episode explains “Bushwhackers” and “Jayhawks”. Bushwhackers was the term given to pro-Confederate secessionist guerillas of Missouri, in particular, but was also applied to other guerilla fighters in Kentucky, Tennessee, northern Virginia, and even California. Jayhawks, in contrast, were pro-Union guerilla fighters.

Several famous outlaws in the West got their start as bushwhackers, including Frank and Jesse James.

To the Letter is a podcast brought to you in collaboration with University Libraries and the eLearning and Emerging Technologies Department’s Digital Studio at GVSU. On this podcast, we bring correspondence from GVSU’s Special Collections alive. In each episode you will hear (in their own words!) letters written by the people who lived through history and the stories behind them. John Bennitt is voiced by Matt Ruen, Scholarly Communications Outreach Coordinator at University Libraries.

Letters featured in the episode are available below:

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, July 21, 1863

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, Oct. 27, 1863

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, March 3, 1864


Additional research for this episode:

Questions? Comments? Let us know!

To The Letter S2 E6: The Invalid Corps

In this episode we delve into the aftermath of Civil War medicine. What happened to soldiers wounded in action?

To the Letter is a podcast brought to you in collaboration with University Libraries and the eLearning and Emerging Technologies Department’s Digital Studio at GVSU. On this podcast, we bring correspondence from GVSU’s Special Collections alive. In each episode you will hear (in their own words!) letters written by the people who lived through history and the stories behind them. John Bennitt is voiced by Matt Ruen, Scholarly Communications Outreach Coordinator at University Libraries.

Letters featured in this episode are available in full below:

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, July 5, 1863

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, May 19, 1863


Additional research for this episode:

Questions? Comments? Let us know!

To The Letter S2 E5: Prisoner of War

In today’s episode we discuss the capture of the 19th Michigan Infantry by Confederate troops near Brentwood, Tennessee and how prisoners of war were treated during the Civil War.

To the Letter is a podcast brought to you in collaboration with University Libraries and the eLearning and Emerging Technologies Department’s Digital Studio at GVSU. On this podcast, we bring correspondence from GVSU’s Special Collections alive. In each episode you will hear (in their own words!) letters written by the people who lived through history and the stories behind them. John Bennitt is voiced by Matt Ruen, Scholarly Communications Outreach Coordinator at University Libraries.

Letters featured in Episode 5 are available in full below:

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, April 26, 1863


Additional research for this episode:

Questions? Comments? Let us know!

To The Letter S2 E4: Sisters of Charity

In Episode 4, we continue to talk about medical treatment during the Civil War – particularly the role that women in religious organizations played. The Sisters of Charity, Daughters of Charity, Sisters of the Holy Cross, and Sisters of St. Joseph all provided volunteer nurses.

To the Letter is a podcast brought to you in collaboration with University Libraries and the eLearning and Emerging Technologies Department’s Digital Studio at GVSU. On this podcast, we bring correspondence from GVSU’s Special Collections alive. In each episode you will hear (in their own words!) letters written by the people who lived through history and the stories behind them.

The letter featured in Episode 4 is available below:

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, January 17, 1863


Additional research for this episode came from:

Questions? Comments? Let us know!

To The Letter S2 E3: Sawbones

Episode 3 is all about Civil War medicine – which is a huge topic! John was one of many Civil War surgeons, but one of few that had prior medical training.

To the Letter is a podcast brought to you in collaboration with University Libraries and the eLearning and Emerging Technologies Department’s Digital Studio at GVSU. On this podcast, we bring correspondence from GVSU’s Special Collections alive. In each episode you will hear (in their own words!) letters written by the people who lived through history and the stories behind them. John Bennitt is voiced by Matt Ruen, Scholarly Communications Outreach Coordinator at University Libraries.

Letters featured in Episode 3 are available below in full:

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, November 9th, 1862

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, November 30, 1862

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, Dec. 28, 1862

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, February 7, 1863

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, March 18, 1863


Additional research for this episode:

Questions? Comments? Let us know!

To The Letter S2 E2: Always Be Prepared

In Episode 2 we’re getting into what military camps looked like during the Civil War and how John got involved in the war. He enlists as an assistant surgeon in 1862 with the 19th Michigan Infantry.

To the Letter is a podcast brought to you in collaboration with University Libraries and the eLearning and Emerging Technologies Department’s Digital Studio at GVSU. On this podcast, we bring correspondence from GVSU’s Special Collections alive. In each episode you will hear (in their own words!) letters written by the people who lived through history and the stories behind them. John Bennitt is voiced by Matt Ruen, Scholarly Communications Outreach Coordinator at University Libraries.

Letters featured in Episode 2 are available below:

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, August 21, 1862

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, October 23, 1862


Additional research for this episode:

Questions? Comments? Let us know!

To The Letter S2 E1: An Introduction

We’re so pleased to bring you Season Two of To The Letter!

To the Letter is a podcast brought to you in collaboration with University Libraries and the eLearning and Emerging Technologies Department’s Digital Studio at GVSU. On this podcast, we bring correspondence from GVSU’s Special Collections alive. In each episode you will hear (in their own words!) letters written by the people who lived through history and the stories behind them.

This season, we’re discussing the letters of John Bennitt, a Civil War surgeon from Michigan. Bennitt is voiced by Matt Ruen, Scholarly Communications Outreach Coordinator at GVSU.

Letters featured in Episode 1 are available below:

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife, Charlotte “Lottie”, Dec. 1861

Letter from John Bennitt to his wife Lottie, Aug. 21, 1862


For more information about John Bennitt, or if you are interested in reading all of these letters in their entirety, our Curator of Rare Books & Distinguished Collections, Robert Beasecker, edited a book called “I Hope to Do My Country Service” that contains all of the letters, with additional footnotes. It is available through Wayne State University Press.

Questions? Comments? Tell us what you think! Contact Leigh at rupinskl@gvsu.edu or leave a review on iTunes or Spotify!

WWII Paper Dolls

Although often considered a child’s toy nowadays, paper dolls were originally used to advertise current fashions, illustrate moralistic stories, and, of course, reflect society’s view of women.

First manufactured in America in 1812, they were printed in women’s magazines as well as newspapers. Godey’s Lady’s Book, a popular women’s magazine famous for its hand-tinted fashion plate, printed their first paper dolls in November 1859. By the early 1900s, magazines such as Good Housekeeping and Ladies’ Home Journal regularly printed paper dolls.

Paper dolls reached their height of popularity during the 1930s-1950s. Since paper was an affordable medium even during the Great Depression, and was not affected by rationing during World War II, paper dolls became a popular plaything.

Paper dolls produced during World War II reflected the changing roles of women. While the clothing choices included the requisite military uniforms, they often appeared alongside “date night” appropriate and traditional clothing choices. Despite their expanding roles in the work force and military, still needed to be seen as feminine and desirable.


To view the Paper Dolls Collection please visit Special Collections & University Archives in Seidman House.

Late 19th-Early 20th Century Sheet Music

Special Collections and University Archives acquired a collection of late 19th century early 20th century sheet music. Ragtime arrived, World War I inspired patriotic fervor, and show tunes exploded on Broadway. Many of the compositions included in the collection are written by famous composers. All of the following songwriters were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in its 1970 debut.

George M. Cohan

Nicknamed “the man who owned Broadway”, Cohan is considered the father of American musical comedies. He wrote, composed, produced, and/or acted in more than thirty-six Broadway musicals. His first big hit was Little Johnny Jones in 1904, which introduced now-famous songs “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “The Yankee Doodle Boy”.

In fact, Cohan wrote more than 300 original songs. “Over There” became America’s most popular World War I song. Other hits included “You’re a Grand Old Flag”, “Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway”, “Life’s a Funny Proposition After All”, and “Always Leave Them Laughing When You Say Goodbye”.

Cohan was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor for his popular patriotic songs. Shortly before his death, Cohan was able to see the movie “Yankee Doodle Dandy” based on his life, starring James Cagney. Cohan died on November 5, 1942.

On September 11, 1959 Oscar Hammerstein II unveiled an eight-foot tall statue of Cohan in the heart of Times Square on Broadway commemorating Cohan’s contributions to musical theatre in America. Cohan’s status is the only public statue of a theatre performer in all of Manhattan.

Fred Fisher

After visiting the United States in 1892, Fred Fisher immigrated in 1900. He was famous for writing dozens of Irish songs, including “Peg O’My Heart”.

“Come Josephine in My Flying Machine” was written in the early days of aviation. The song follows a young man courting his girl. Allegedly, the girl was based on Josephine Sarah Magner, who was an early American female parachutist in 1905, and who married aviation pioneer Leslie Burt Haddock.

Fragments of the song are sung in the movie Titanic (1997) by both Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) during the Irish party and the “I’m flying” scenes. It’s also featured in an early episode of Peaky Blinders.

Irving Berlin

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Irving Berlin was born Israel Beilin on May 11, 1888. He was an incredibly prolific songwriter, with over 1000 songs to his name. Hi first major international hit was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, which sparked an international dance craze.

Berlin produced ballads, dance numbers, novelty tunes, and love songs that defined American popular song for much of the century. Some of his most famous hits include: “Blue Skies,” White Christmas,” “Always,” “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” “Heat Wave,” “Easter Parade”, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”, and of course “God Bless America.”

Berlin won an Academy Award for Best Song of the Year for “White Christmas” in 1942.

Egbert Van Alstyne

Van Alstyne composed a number of popular and ragtime songs, often teamed with lyricist Harry H. Williams, such as “Who Are You With To-Night?” Our collection also includes “That Old Girl of Mine”, a collaboration between Van Alstyne and Earle C. Jones.

Con Conrad

“Oh Frenchy”, words by Sam Ehrlich and music by Con Conrad

In 1912, Con Conrad published “Down in Dear Old New Orleans”. In 1913 he produced a show on Broadway called The Honeymoon Express, starring Al Jolson. His first big hit wouldn’t come until 1920 with “Margie”. Other famous songs include “Ma, He’s Making Eyes At Me”, “You’ve Got to See Your Mama Every Night”, “Memory Lane”, “Lonesome and Sorry” and “Come on Spark Plug”. He went on to win the first Academy Award for Best Song, along with collaborator Herb Magidson, for “The Continental” in 1934.

Harry & Albert von Tilzer

Harry Von Tilzer was born Harry Gumm in Detroit, Michigan. He ran away and joined a traveling circus at age 14, where he adopted his mother’s maiden name (Tilzer) as his own, and added on a “Von” to seem even more elegant. Eventually all his brothers would also change their last name to match his.

In 1898 Harry Von Tilzer sold his song “My Old New Hampshire Home” to a publisher for $15. It went on to become a national hit, and Harry decided to become a professional songwriter. His 1900 song “A Bird in a Gilded Cage” became one of the biggest hits of that time.

In 1914, Harry Von Tilzer was a charter member of the performing rights society, American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). 

His younger brother, Albert, also became a songwriter. One of his most notable hits is the classic “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”.

Joseph E. Howard

Howard and his second wife, Ida Emerson, published a syncopated novelty telephone number called “Hello, Ma Baby” in 1899. It sold over a million copies of sheet music within months. A sequel, “Goodbye, My Lady Love,” appeared in 1904. Other notable titles written by Howard include: “On the Boulevard”, “What’s the Use of Dreaming?”, “I Don’t Like Your Family”, “When You First Kiss the Last Girl You Love”, and “A Boy’s Best Friend Is His Mother.” Perhaps the most famous of Howard’s songs is “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now?”, a “cry-in-your-beer waltz” first performed in the 1909 Broadway musical The Prince of To-Night


For more information on any of the sheet music sampled here, or to view the entire collection, please visit Special Collections & University Archives on Allendale Campus at Grand Valley State University.

Slave Narratives

Slave narratives are a specific literary genre featuring an account of the life, or a portion of the life, of a fugitive or former slave. While some former slaves could write their own accounts of their lives, those who were not literate often worked with abolitionists to relate their stories. Narratives were meant to educate the American public about the realities of slavery.

Many former slaves who escaped to freedom, including Harriet Tubman, Harriet Jacobs, and Frederick Douglass, later published accounts of their enslavement and escape. The typical format follows the narrator’s journey from slavery in the South to freedom in the North.

Special Collections has a number of slave narratives in our Civil War & Slavery Collection including the following:

Title page of "Aunt Sally; or, the Cross the Way of Freedom." (1859)
Williams, Isaac.  Aunt Sally; or, The Cross the Way of Freedom.  A Narrative of the Slave-Life and Purchase of the Mother of Rev. Isaac Williams, of Detroit, Michigan. Cincinnati: American Reform Tract and Book Society, 1859.

Probably written by the son of Sally Williams (b. 1796), this anti-slavery tract details the dehumanizing practices of slavery in North Carolina that includes the separating of families. Sally Williams was sold to an Alabama plantation owner while her mother and son were left behind, and later her husband and children were sold to other owners. Her son escaped slavery and was eventually able to purchase his mother’s freedom. Written for young people, the author hopes “that this little story may be the means of leading those who read it to think and feel deeply upon the truths which it involves…so that the young may grow up imbued with spirit of liberty….”

Title page of "Father Henson's Story" (1858).

Eliot Samuel L. and John Lobb.  Truth Stranger Than Fiction: Father Henson’s Story of His Own Life.  Boston: John P. Jewett and Co., 1858.

The narrative of the life of Josiah Henson first appeared in 1849 under the title The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada. Narrated by Himself and was ghost-written by Samuel Eliot.  It tells of Henson’s life from his birth as a slave in Maryland, his life there and later in Kentucky, his being sold in New Orleans, and finally his escape north via the Underground Railroad to find refuge in Canada. 

By the time the second (and revised) edition appeared, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin had appeared and Stowe, to answer Southern critics, intimated that her story was based on that of Henson and his adventures.  This was not true in the strictest sense, but this edition of Henson’s autobiography conveniently was altered by John Lobb to conform to the statements of Stowe.  In his old age Josiah Henson came to believe that he indeed was the model for Uncle Tom. Our edition has this additional note from the book’s previous owner alongside Henson’s signature:

Josiah Henson's signature.

Sylvia DuBois’ biography is written entirely in phonetic orthography. The author, C.W. Larison, wished to write her story “just as she spoke it”. Larison explains that “giving her own words in the order and style in which she spoke them, portrays more of the character, intelligence, and force of the heroine than can possibly be given in any other way” (3).

Title page of "Henry Box Brown who escaped from slavery enclosed in a box 3 feet long and 2 wide" (1849).
Stearns, Charles.
Narrative of Henry Box Brown, Who Escaped from Slavery Enclosed in a Box 3 Feet Long and 2 Wide.  Written from a Statement of Facts Made by Himself…. 1849.

In 1848, Henry “Box” Brown had the original idea of mailing himself out of slavery with the help of a friend.  He made a box, climbed in, had the box nailed shut, and then was sent via a shipping company from Richmond, Virginia to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 


February is Black History Month. To view more items related to slavery and African-American history, visit Seidman House on the Allendale Campus or view our Civil War & Slavery digital collection.

To the Letter Episode 15: The End

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Well this is it! The big finale. After enlisting in 1941, Joe has made it all the way to 1946…and is still writing to Agnes. ❤

To the Letter is a podcast brought to you in collaboration with University Libraries and the eLearning and Emerging Technologies Digital Studio. Joe Olexa was voiced by Kevin McCasland.

The final letter featured in Episode 15 is available below:

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We have really enjoyed getting to share Joe and Agnes’ story with you through this podcast. Are you interested in learning more about the Veteran’s History Project? Visit https://www.loc.gov/vets/. Have questions or comments about this week’s episode or the podcast in general? Send them to rupinskl@gvsu.edu. Want to see the Olexa Letters in person? Visit GVSU Special Collections & University Archives at Seidman House, Allendale, MI.

Thank you so much for listening!

-Leigh & Jackie

To The Letter Episode 14: Concentration Camps

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Although Joe may not have been directly involved in the liberation of any concentration camps, he certainly knew what was going on and talked with survivors. This episode we’re talking about the Holocaust.

To the Letter is a podcast brought to you in collaboration with University Libraries and the eLearning and Emerging Technologies Digital Studio. Joe Olexa was voiced by Kevin McCasland and Agnes Van Der Weide was played by Tracy Cook.

Letters featured in Episode 14 are available below:

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Letter from Joe Olexa to Agnes Van Der Weide, May 4, 1945

 

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Letter from Joe Olexa to Agnes Van Der Weide, May 31, 1945

There is a lot more to be said on this topic than we had time for – if you’re interested, we highly recommend checking out the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The BBC History article mentioned in the episode is also worth reading. Have questions or comments about this week’s episode? Send them to rupinskl@gvsu.edu. Happy listening!