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11/6/2002 Civil War letters tell story of Yamhill County man

McMINNVILLE ? The stories and experiences of a Civil War soldier with ties to Yamhill County will be brought to life by Linfield History Professor Peter Buckingham during a reading from "All's for the Best: The Civil War Reminiscences and Letters of Daniel W. Sawtelle," on Wednesday, Nov. 20, at 7:30 p.m. in Jonasson Hall, lower level of Melrose Hall at Linfield College.

The reading is co-sponsored by Linfield's Northup Library and the Friends of McMinnville Public Library. It is free and open to the public.

Buckingham edited 120 letters and memoirs and wrote the introduction for the book, which was published by the University of Tennessee Press in 2001.

In the process, he came to know and admire Daniel Sawtelle, born April 9, 1838 in Aroostook County, Maine, and who served in the Eighth Maine volunteer infantry. Sawtelle, a supporter of Abraham Lincoln, wanted to put an end to slavery although he'd never known an African American when he joined the war to free them.

Like many soldiers, Sawtelle was an avid letter-writer and his sister kept every one. Carla Burdon, wife of Sawtelle's great-great-grandson, Alan, brought the letters to Buckingham in 1990. The Burdens live on the Sawtelle family property with their children outside Sheridan.

"There are lots of Civil War letters around because it was one of the things soldiers did between battles to keep from being bored," said Buckingham, chair of the history department. "I think a lot of families had a sense that this was something important and people tended to keep the letters."

The collection proved particularly noteworthy because it was accompanied by a memoir written by Sawtelle in 1912, some 50 years after he joined the army. Sawtelle, who had by then settled in Yamhill County, wrote the memoir for his two sons, LeForest, a Linfield speech coach in the 1920s, and Claude, a farmer and butcher.

Buckingham spent more than a decade sifting through page after page of handwritten letters, no easy task considering Sawtelle's penmanship and creative spelling. Buckingham said the letters are in remarkable shape, thanks to the pen, ink and good paper that had been distributed to soldiers by the U.S. Sanitary Commission and the Christian Commission.

"These letters are in superb condition," Buckingham said. "They look like they were written yesterday because the paper they used was better. Paper from the 19th century endures, but acidic papers of the 20th century become brittle and crumble. Future historians are going to have a lot harder time because there are going to be fewer surviving documents."

Buckingham focused the letters on the military campaigns and Sawtelle's life as a soldier. He also wrote a history of the Eighth Maine Regiment, the first of its kind, and included background about Sawtelle's life before, during and after the war to give readers context.

According to Buckingham, Sawtelle was the only member of his original squad who wasn't killed or wounded during the war. But he had his own near death experience after contracting malaria shortly after being sent south. He lived through the outbreak, but the fever returned every summer for the rest of his life and presented a hardship for Sawtelle who, after the war, made his living as a farmer.

"All he knew how to do was farm, but how can you farm if you come down with malaria at harvest time each year?" Buckingham asked.

Buckingham, who also authored "Rebel Against Injustice: The Life of Frank P. O'Hare" and "Woodrow Wilson: A Bibliography of His Times and Presidency," said the project challenged him professionally as a 20th century historian.

"I've always loved the Civil War," said Buckingham, who learned about the conflict as an undergraduate at Gettysburg College. "But to publish outside your field is a big challenge. I've been teaching Civil War for years but I really had to steep myself in very specific aspects of the war. This material was so compelling, that I really wanted to do it."

After spending 11 years delving into Sawtelle's world, Buckingham feels somehow connected to the man who lived a century before.

"I read these letters meant only for his sister," he said. "Read them, transcribed them, reread them, tried to squeeze every last bit of meaning from them, read the memoir intended only for his sons, plowed through census records and records from the state of Oregon, I've been through his pension file in Washington, D.C., where he's begging the government to increase his pension because he's going blind. It's really very intimate when you think about it."