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In Their Letters, in Their Words

In Their Letters, in Their Words

Illinois Civil War Soldiers Write Home

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Edited by Mark Flotow


E-book (Other formats: Paperback)
12 illustrations


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Table of Contents

Table of Contents

About the Book

WINNER, Russell P. Strange Memorial Book of the Year Award from the Illinois State Historical Society, 2020!

A vital lifeline to home during the Civil War, the letters of soldiers to their families and friends remain a treasure for those seeking to connect with and understand the most turbulent period of American history. Rather than focus on the experiences of a few witnesses, this impressively researched book documents 165 Illinois Civil War soldiers’ and sailors’ lives through the lens of their personal letters. Editor Mark Flotow chose a variety of letter writers who hailed from counties throughout the state, served in different branches of the military at different ranks, and represented the gamut of social experiences and war outcomes.

Flotow provides extensive quotations from the letters. By allowing the soldiers to speak for themselves, he captures what mattered most to them. Illinois soldiers wrote about their reasons for enlisting; the nature of training and duties; necessities like eating, sleeping, marching, and making the best of often harsh and chaotic circumstances; Southern culture; slavery; their opinions of commanding officers and the president; disease, medicine, and hospitals; their prisoner-of-war experiences; and the ways they left the army. Through letters from afar, many soldiers sought to manage their homes and farms, while some single men attempted to woo their sweethearts.

Flotow includes brief biographies for each soldier quoted in the book, weaves historical context and analysis with the letters, and organizes them by topic. Thus, intimate details cited in individual letters reveal their significance for those who lived and shaped this tumultuous era. The result is not only insightful history but also compelling reading.


Mark Flotow is the retired director of the Illinois Center for Health Statistics and is a former president of the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems. He is an adjunct research associate in anthropology at the Illinois State Museum and a volunteer interviewer with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library’s oral history program. Flotow has published articles about Illinois Civil War soldiers in Illinois Heritage and has given many presentations on the topic.


“The greatest strength of the book is the context Flowtow provides [with] his impeccable research…[giving] the reader a wealth of historical information.”—David JoensIllinois Heritage!

"Walt Whitman famously once wrote about the Civil War that 'the real war will never get in the books.' If Mark Flotow’s new edited volume In Their Letters, In Their Words: Illinois Civil War Soldiers Write Home does not capture 'the real war,' then it is doubtful that any book ever will."—Cameron Sauers, Cleveland Review of Books

"Mark Flotow does so much more than is typical of a book of Civil War letters. . . .[R]eaders interested in primary Civil Warsources will find In Their Letters, In Their Words a valuable addition to their libraries."—Dave PageJournal of America's Military Past

"This book will be a valuable read for those interested in an on-the-ground perspective of the war, or for those doing research on Illinois soldiers. The book will also serve as a very good resource for students, genealogists, regimental historians, and those engaged in public history projects."—Kathleen ThompsonCivil War Monitor

"The letters give an insight into every aspect of their daily life. Some are uplifting and full of hope and love, others, disturbing and focused on battles and harsh views. Flotow's book is masterfully arranged and provides a unique view of the Civil War."—Cinda Ackerman KlicknaIllinois Times

“Mark Flotow has assembled a brilliant collection of letter material, full of surprising, fascinating, and enlightening details that bring us closer to the men who took part in the war so long ago.”—John Zimm, editor of This Wicked Rebellion: Wisconsin Civil War Soldiers Write Home
“Words matter, and by allowing Illinois soldiers to speak for themselves, the Civil War comes alive anew. Flotow helps us envision the ‘real war’ that Walt Whitman observed would ‘never get in the books.’ The editor’s fresh approach provides an intimate and illuminating portrait of the war and those who fought it. In Their Letters, in Their Words is a superb addition to Civil War literature.”—Stephen D. Engle, author of Gathering to Save a Nation: Lincoln and the Union’s War Governors

“Possibly someone has read more soldier letters, but no one has listened more attentively to them than Mark Flotow has—for nuance about family, slavery, rain, politics, food and health, the officer corps, etc. He provides a guided tour through thousands of surviving letters by selecting the most representative and the most interesting. Illinois soldiers were numerous enough to form a microcosm of the entire Northern outlook, and so become a touchstone for the national war effort. There is even new material about Lincoln.”—James M. Cornelius, former curator of the Lincoln Collection, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
“Flotow has done a fine job of linking together, as well as comparing and contrasting, the comments of 165 Illinois soldiers on a wide variety of Civil War subjects. The result is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read for anyone with an interest in the Civil War.”—Glenna R. Schroeder-Lein, author of The Encyclopedia of Civil War Medicine

“A moving and thoughtful collection of letters from soldiers…letters that share with the reader the longings of the soldiers, the lives they led away from their loved ones, the fear they held close to their hearts about battle and, yes, the boring days of tedium. As Library Services Director, I sometimes interrupted the author to ask about the stories he’d found in the the library collections. This is a thoroughly well researched volume that will add to the knowledge about our Illinois Boys in Blue.”
Kathryn Harris, Director of Library Services, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Retired
“This is a passionate but historically rigorous account of Illinois soldiers’ experiences at a defining period in the life of this country and this state. Flotow’s scholarship and commentary make this an indispensable and rich primary source for a wide array of scholars, students, Civil War buffs, and anyone interested in this region. People often think that documents speak for themselves. But those distant voices only find a meaningful voice with experts like Flotow providing useful frameworks and thoughtful historical context as here.”—Mark B. Pohlad, Ph.D., art historian and Lincoln scholar, DePaul University, Chicago

“Independent scholar Flotow draws upon extensive research in letters that soldiers from Illinois exchanged with relatives and friends to give us a unique ‘ground up’ look at the Civil War.”—A.A. Nofi, StrategyPage, The New York Military Affairs Symposium