Write that Letter Home, Part I: Senders, Recipients, and the Content of World War I Correspondence
By James R. Miller, Historian and Philatelic Genealogist
The National Postal Museum is pleased to share part one of a three-part blog series by historian and philatelic genealogist James R. Miller. A presenter at the National Postal Museum's Tenth Winton M. Blount Postal History Symposium, Miller is deeply engrossed in philatelic genealogy; that is, using letters, postcards, and covers to reveal family trees and other intricate, genealogical details. In "Write that Letter Home: Senders, Recipients, and the Content of World War I Correspondence," Miller illuminates the context - both personal and historical - of several WWI postcards and letters. More examples of how postal history and genealogy work together can be found on the author's philatelic genealogy website: Philgen.org.
Letters and postcards sent by United States military personnel during World War I are unique sources of information about their training, why they served, and their experience of war. Each letter and postcard show details about military service that cannot be found elsewhere. Genealogical databases and online family trees help identify the sender and recipient that enable notification of their descendants. The smallest detail in a letter or postcard can be a treasure for a descendant learning about someone in their family.
Most soldiers began military service in training. Ray Markel wrote from Camp Jackson, Columbia, South Carolina to his brother Chester in Spencerport, New York.1 Markel writes “I am on the motor transportation messenger [service]. I have an Indian motorcycle with side car.” The picture shows soldiers running and Markel writes “this is what I had to do every morning.” Markel began his service 3 September 1918 and served four months in the United States before being honorably discharged 2 January 1919 (Figure 1a-b).2
Why They Served
Oscar Reynolds, private, 61st Artillery, Coast Artillery Corps, wrote 20 November 1918 to his father Charles in Mandan, North Dakota. “I would like to do some real work so as to go back with the feeling that I have served my country to good advantage … I find some pleasure in working as loafing will get us nowhere and only means to stay here the longer. There isn’t a soldier who wouldn’t work his head off if he thought it would hasten our return back to the U.S.A. and Home.” Reynolds served overseas 18 July 1918 to 16 February 1919.3 A genealogist commented “Such a neat letter! It provides a different perspective to war that is relatable between father and son.”4 (Figure 2a-b)
John Edward Clay, private, 15th Engineers, wrote 20 August 1918 from France to his parents in Melstone, Montana about his aunt’s two sons, Clay’s cousins, who were already serving in the military. “[W]hen they come back [Aunt Jen] will be more proud of them than she ever was before and will say I am glad that you went and were not like some of the slackers that hang back and told the other fellow to go.” Clay entered service 18 February 1918 and was overseas 5 May 1918 to 27 April 1919.5 While most men in specified age groups registered for the draft when called, those failing to register were called “slackers.”6 (Figure 3)
Experience of War
A ‘Safe Arrival Card’ was often the first sign that a soldier was ‘Over There.’ Feaster Bailey, 5th Trench Mortar Battery, sent a safe arrival card to his brother Albert in Opal, Arkansas.7 Feaster Bailey later died of disease in France.8 A genealogist commented “I was so excited to see this piece of my family story.”9 (Figure 4a-b)
Eustace Dupen, sergeant, “S.O.S. [Services of Supply],” sent a postcard 11 July 1918 to his brother Anthony in Bisbee, Arizona. Dupen wrote “Had a great Fourth here. Wonderful parade of American troops + they certainly looked fine!” The postcard shows the parade. Dupen died 9 January 1919 in an accident and was buried in France in the Oise-Aisne Cemetery.10 His mother declined traveling to France in the Gold Star Mother’s Pilgrimage of the early 1930s.11 (Figure 5a-b)
Karl Ladner, military police, wrote to his father Charles in St. Cloud, Minnesota 8 August 1918 about his sense of the United States’ wartime effort. “The more one travels and sees what America is doing + has over here the more confident one becomes … People in the States surely must be very busy to turn out the stuff they are delivering here.” A descendant wrote “the letter … is beautiful. I’m … very happy & proud of my family members.”12 (Figure 6)
...Stay tuned for Part II, coming tomorrow!
1900 U.S. census, Roseboom, Otsego County, N.Y. ED 139, p. 3A, Ancestry, National Archives and Records Administration [NARA].
Ray F. Markel, “New York, Abstracts of World War I Military Service, 1917-1919,” Ancestry.com, N.Y. State Archives.
Adjutant General's Office, Roster of the Men and Women Who Served in the Army or Naval Service (including the Marine Corps) of the United States or its Allies from the State of North Dakota in the World War, 1917-1918 [North Dakota Roster] (Bismarck, N.D.: The Bismarck Tribune Co., 1931), vol. 3, 2684.
6 July 2018 email from Jason Fitzgerald.
North Dakota Roster, vol. 1, 571.
Edward M. Coffman, The War to End All Wars, The American Military Experience in World War I (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 28.
1910 U.S. census, Fulton, Polk County, Ark., ED 109, p. 1B, Ancestry, NARA.
Committee on Public Information, Official U.S. Bulletin, “Casualties Reported by Gen. Pershing,” 8 November 1918, 10, Archive.org.
12 July 2018 email from Sandy Bailey Low.
“WWI, WWII, and Korean War Casualty Listings,” Eustace P. Dupen, Ancestry, American Battle Monuments Commission.
“U.S. World War I Mothers' Pilgrimage, 1929,” Eustace P. Dupen, Ancestry, NARA.