Pratt library wants your Civil War documents

Marylanders are being asked to brave dusty attics to help preserve history.

The Enoch Pratt Free Library is in search of Civil War-era documents and wants to preserve them on computers and share them on the Internet. Librarians have joined up with the Maryland Digital Cultural Heritage Program.

"We're really trying to find things that are hidden in personal collections and share them with everyone online and allow both historians and the general public to have access," said Michael Scott, the library's digitization supervisor.

The initiative, called "The Civil War in Your Attic," kicks off Saturday, when people are encouraged to bring their found treasures to the Poe Room at the central library on Cathedral Street.

Norma Moore saw a notice in the Pratt newsletter and quickly made an appointment to share her collection of letters and photos, many from her great-aunt, Virginia Moore. "I've always sort of taken pride that we had a relative that close in the Civil War," she said. Virginia Moore was married to Union Capt. Frank Craig, whom she met when his regiment was stationed in Baltimore.

Each letter is addressed to "My Own Darling," but the content is far more than the stuff of love letters. "She wrote a lot of things that were historical to the time," Moore said. "Maryland was very divided. She talks a lot about the division of the state and of Baltimore."

One excerpt from a letter dated April 19, 1865, expresses her suspicions that Marylanders were responsible for Abraham Lincoln's assassination. "Churches are well attended and everything is draped in black," she wrote.

"Nothing could exceed [the first casualties of the Civil War on Pratt Street in 1861] except the last desperate acts of Maryland rebels: the assassination of Abraham Lincoln," she wrote.

Moore will be submitting her attic treasures with the help of her sister, Barbara Koehler. "People will be interested in the human side of the war," Koehler said. "They may learn something about Baltimore in them. They will certainly understand what it was like to live in a city so divided."

The divisions weighed heavily on Virginia Moore, who had several relatives who were secessionists. "At one point she says, 'I would have seceded myself if I hadn't met this fellow in the Union'" army, Koehler said.

The letters also have light-hearted moments. "One of my favorite letters is from a party in Washington she attended. She goes into great detail about what people were wearing and how their hair was done," Koehler said. "Uncle Frank must have hated that."

Library officials hope the initiative, which will last at least through 2012, will create a digitized collection to display on the cultural heritage program website. The "scanning event" at the Pratt will be the first of several to be held around the state, and Scott anticipates there may be up to 10 before the collection is completed.

Submissions should be dated between 1859 and 1867. "We're looking for mostly manuscript items —- things that are handwritten," Scott said. "The emphasis of the project is trying to be somewhat specific, looking for unique items that were created by one individual."

That includes letters, diaries, photographs, military papers and sketches. Officials encourage people to make appointments, and they'll be asked to provide background information for each item and complete forms that allow the digitized scans to be displayed online.

"This is a real way of highlighting this collection that was in private hands," Scott said. "It's really exciting."

Towson resident Rosemary Scott has had several of her family's documents scanned for the initiative. "My grandmother saved things," she said. "She also had her husband's trunk from before the Civil War. She would take me out on a summer afternoon, sit me down and take objects out of the trunk one by one and tell me about each one. It looked kind of like a treasure chest, and it turned out to be. I felt as if those people were real and living at the time."

Scott, whose daughter-in-law Michael Scott is organizing the event, is encouraging her friends to bring in their documents as well. "All these things are previously unpublished," she said. "It's really exciting to see your ancestor on the computer. It's going to be interesting to my family."

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