In 2002, Judy Cook discovered a packet of letters written by her great-great-grandparents, Gilbert and Esther Claflin, during the American Civil War. An unexpected bounty, these letters from 1862–63 offer visceral witness to the war, recounting the trials of a family separated. Gilbert, an articulate and cheerful forty-year-old farmer, was drafted into the Union Army and served in the Thirty-Fourth Wisconsin Infantry garrisoned in western Kentucky along the Mississippi. Esther had married Gilbert when she was fifteen; now a woman with two teenage sons, she ran the family farm near Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, in Gilbert’s absence.
In his letters, Gilbert writes about food, hygiene, rampant desertions by drafted men, rebel guerrilla raids, and pastimes in the daily life of a soldier. His comments on interactions with Confederate prisoners and ex-slaves before and after the Emancipation Proclamation reveal his personal views on monumental events. Esther shares in her letters the challenges and joys of maintaining the farm, accounts of their boys Elton and Price, concerns about finances and health, and news of their local community and extended family. Esther’s experiences provide insight into family, farm, and village life in the wartime North, an often overlooked aspect of Civil War history.
Judy Cook has made the letters accessible to a wider audience by providing historical context with notes and appendixes. The volume includes a foreword by Civil War historian Keith S. Bohannon.