Civil War Profiles: Letters from Vietnam


In the modern electronic age and with the inception of the Internet, the idea of taking pen in hand to write a letter to friends and loved ones has become a rare occurrence. In the mid-19th century, however, letter-writing was the only means of communication available to soldiers away from home serving their country. For the most part, this continued during 20th-century military conflicts, including the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s.

For example, Nancy Lynch’s book “Vietnam Mailbag: Voices from the War: 1968-1972” is a collection of letters from Delawareans serving in Vietnam. As a reporter for the News Journal in Wilmington at the time, Lynch solicited these letters to print in her newspaper column.

The book brings back memories of decades past. Letters during wartime are a treasured commodity, as I recall from my service in Vietnam.

For soldiers during the Civil War years, 1861-1865, letters from loved ones were at the top of their priority list — even ahead of a rare hot meal and a decent night’s sleep. In John Rozier’s collection of “The Granite Farm Letters,” a Georgia soldier named Edgeworth Bird belatedly received a packet of letters from his wife and wrote that he sat down “with mounting satisfaction” and had a “proper feast” of reading “a regular journal of home matters … [that] was pure enjoyment.”

In those days, soldiers also kept friends and neighbors apprised of life while in military service by writing letters for publication in hometown newspapers.

As we learn from William B. Styple’s “Writing & Fighting the Confederate War,” Capt. Virgil A.S. Parks’ letter to the Savannah Republican revealed the carnage during the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. Parks is lost for words after witnessing the death of thousands of soldiers in the brief period of a few hours: “There can be nothing more puzzling than the analysis of one’s feelings on the battlefield. You cannot describe them satisfactorily to yourself or others.”

VASP, as he signed his name, later sent an upbeat article after viewing the “imposing sight” as regiments of cavalry troops rode in review in grand style past their commanding officers. “Many ladies, blooming in health and beauty, were present” to lend grace and refinement to this imposing scene.

A University of Delaware collection (http://www.lib.udel.edu/digital/index.php) includes Edward A. Fulton’s letter of June 1, 1862, from Camp Aberdeen, Md., to his mother in Wilmington, complaining, “We slept several nights in a freight car without straw and have had nothing to eat but fat pork [and] hard biskets … [but] the people here say we are the most respectable set that have been here yet [compared to a] company of Philadelphians … [that] were a hard looking set of fellows.”

Letters during the Vietnam era have much in common with those from the days of the Civil War. Early in the Vietnam War, Army Nurse Diane King wrote, “I’m almost sorry that the Morning News is being sent to me while here in Vietnam. Life here is depressing enough at times, and one can only think of getting ‘home.’”

In 1970, two years after the Viet Cong surprise attack during Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, Lt. Henry Wise wrote, “Tet is two weeks away, and everyone is running around in circles, getting ready. … The NVA [North Vietnamese Army] and VC [Viet Cong] … step up activity just when the weather is about to turn … hot and dusty.”

As the Vietnam War was winding down, Navy corpsman Joseph Opdenake’s letter expressed “thanks and appreciation” because “I spent Christmas in a place that I would have thought people would have forgotten about. But the great people from Delaware came through once again. I received so many cards, care packages and stuff from everyone. You people are just heaven and earth for us guys.”

In his foreword to Lynch’s book, U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) recalled his “three tours in Southeast Asia as a naval flight officer aboard Navy P-3 patrol aircraft.” He said he had reassessed his beliefs about the controversial Vietnam War following a return trip there as part of a delegation 16 years after the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Carper wrote, “Looking back now, I’ve concluded that I was mistaken in my earlier views that we had won the battle in Vietnam, only to lose the war. Instead, I believe we lost the battle, but in a very real sense, we’ve won the war for the hearts of the Vietnamese people.”

The senator urged Vietnam veterans to travel back to Vietnam to assess the situation for themselves, because “their reflections on modern-day Vietnam might make for an interesting postscript to Nancy’s ‘Vietnam Mailbag.’”

What is certain is that letters from Vietnam echo voices from 150 years ago, when soldiers wrote home to maintain their tenuous link with loved ones and letters received were manna from heaven to those serving during the Civil War.

Thomas J. Ryan is a Civil War author and speaker and former president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table in Dover. He lives in Bethany Beach. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com.