Joseph Henry Portrait

Joseph Henry, A Letter From 157 Years Ago

April's designation as "Letter Writing Month" serves as an opportunity to reflect on changes from 150 years ago

Browsing the Archives' collections leads to very interesting finds.  Upon learning about the Smithsonian Institution’s first Secretary Joseph Henry, 1846-1878, I had the opportunity to read a letter written fourteen days from the start of the Civil War.  In the letter, which is addressed to his brother-in-law, Stephen, he expresses uncertainty and dread of the unfolding events.  The letter dated April 26, 1861, was written six days following authorization for the Smithsonian to be provided muskets and ammunition by Secretary of War Simon Cameron. The reason for the extra precaution was noted by the precarious position of the Smithsonian between the southern and northern lines, and the possibility of attack.

Joseph Henry Letter to Stephen Alexander (April 26, 1861)

In the short letter Joseph Henry questions what can be gained by engaging in a war between countrymen, impact which has yet to be seen on the faces of his daughters observing the turmoil of war. Immediately, I thought about the length of time delivering letters could take considering the proximity to the border where the north and south were divided.  How could such a short letter open so much information about an institution, a person, and ultimately a country?

Today, some people say that writing a letter is a dying art, being replaced by instantaneous emails and texts.  Short texts, videos, and gifs are common today as letters were, once upon a time.  I found it nice to find an old letter and truly appreciate the person that wrote it, the language used, and information they included, knowing that it could possibly be weeks before they received a response.  So, I have to ask, "Have you read any good letters lately?"

Simon Cameron's Letter to Henry Knox Craig (April 20, 1861)

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