Spend any time with Veterans History Project (VHP) collections, and it becomes clear that mail frequently played a central role in the military experiences of many veterans, particularly those who served in the days before electronic communications. Often, letters served as the sole, fragile link between servicemen and women and their families and friends. Written correspondence in various forms—airmail, v-mail, telegrams—contained everything from expressions of love and marriage proposals to more tragic news, such as official death notices or the abrupt end of a relationship. Such is the importance of mail that the members of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, a ground-breaking unit in the Women’s Army Corps made up of African-American soldiers, was recently awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for their extraordinary work in organizing and handling a backlog of millions of pieces of mail in England and France during World War II.
This March, the Veterans History Project is releasing a trio of curated resources focusing on correspondence in our archive. While this isn’t the first time that we’ve explored this topic, we hope that these new resources will shed new light on the meaning and importance of mail during military service, and the multitude of letters within VHP archives. In addition, these resources give you a sense of three different research tools that VHP offers that can help you to explore our collections: Story Maps, LibGuides and Experiencing War.
As she discussed in last week’s blog post, rather than examining the contents of letters, Justina Moloney’s Story Map focuses on their container—that is, on illustrated envelopes in VHP collections. As Justina relates, the Story Map application is a wonderful tool to help bring these envelopes and their illustrations—and the stories of their creators—to life. The Art of Correspondence is VHP’s second Story Map, following in the footsteps of D-Day Journeys, which VHP produced in 2019 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day. We hope to create more Story Maps in the future.
The second resource to be released this month is a LibGuide focusing on World War I correspondence collections. Part of the Library of Congress’s vast array of LibGuides, this research guide offers comprehensive profiles of five veterans whose letters are part of the VHP archive, as well as guidance on how to search the VHP database for WWI collections and additional materials—such as finding aids, online exhibits and blog posts—relating to World War I. On each page of the LibGuide, we’ve used the veteran’s letters and photographs to narrate their experiences serving in France during the Great War. One of our goals with the LibGuide was to show how correspondence can provide a deeply personal glimpse into an individual’s own story, and can also act as a rich historical resource for researchers.
Once you’ve taken a look at this most recent LibGuide, you can check out the others in the VHP series, each one offering a taste of different VHP collections in an engaging, dynamic format. Our other guides have explored collections pertaining to Navajo Code Talkers in WWII and post-9/11 veterans’ photo collections, and we’ve published a more general guide on how to do research in VHP collections.
Finally, the last resource in our triptych of correspondence-related research tools is an Experiencing War online exhibit that will be released in the coming weeks, focusing on transcribed correspondence collections. “Line by Line: Transcribed Correspondence Collections” will be #73 in VHP’s ever-growing roster of online exhibits, and for it, we’ve corralled nine different correspondence collections, all of which were fully transcribed by VHP staff during the pandemic. Watch this space for more information—and perhaps consider donating correspondence from the veteran in your life to the Veterans History Project.