Treasure in the Attic: Local Author and Teacher Discovers Civil War Letters

Published in IN Community Magazines – Keystone Oaks Summer 2016

PITTSBURGH – Shortly after Carleton Young found a wooden box full of letters from two brothers who fought in the Civil War, he knew he had to write a book about his discovery.

“We immediately realized that this was an amazing collection that we had stumbled upon,” Young says. “We had a story to tell.”

He discovered the letters after his parents died and he started to clean their house in Churchill in 2004. However, it took almost 12 years to complete the project. Young self-published “Voices from the Attic:  The Williamstown Boys in the Civil War” late last year and it is now available on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

Young was surprised to find the letters because his parents had never said anything about them.

“At first I was quite confused,” he says. “I had expected to be familiar with just about everything in the house in which I had grown up.”

Young taught history at Jefferson High School for 37 years and speculates that his parents never told him about the letters because they didn’t know what was inside the box. He says there’s no evidence the box had been opened before he uncovered it. After discovering the letters, Young put them in his sister’s garage in Dormont while he got ready to sell his parents’ house.

After he had a chance to examine the letters Young immediately called his friends Edd Hale and Bill Lutz who taught history at Keystone Oaks High School for decades. Lutz is the true Civil War expert in the group.

“I’ve been a big Civil War buff since the fifth grade,” Lutz says. “I drove over in 15 minutes. I couldn’t believe it. I was flabbergasted.”

The letters were well preserved because they were written on acid-free paper and were jammed into the box so tightly that no light or air could get in. Hale says the letters were written in red, black, blue and green ink and the soldiers’ penmanship was beautiful.

Hale, Young and Lutz began meeting on a weekly basis to sort, organize and transcribe the letters. Hale’s wife Nancy and Young’s wife Carole also contributed to the efforts. However, the group found it difficult to read the documents because the letters were cross written. The soldiers turned a letter 90 degrees and then wrote across their words in order to save paper and postal fees.

Each week the group would meet and examine one or two letters but progress was slow. In addition to cross writing, the group had to deal with misspellings and archaic vocabulary. For example, one letter referred to a stoop which in the 19th century was a covered porch or walkway. Lutz helped fill in other details because he recognized the names of generals and battles. However, there were still moments when everyone struggled to understand a passage.

“There were lots of times when the whole group stared at a letter and mumbled to ourselves for several minutes,” Young says.

It took two years go through all 250 letters and then the group read all the letters a second time to fill in the gaps. They finally finished the transcription in 2008, but the group also conducted research to discover who the letter writers were and what happened to them.

Two brothers, Henry and Francis Martin, from Williamstown, Vermont, were the authors. Henry Martin wrote most of the letters and joined the 4th Vermont Infantry at the start of the Civil War in 1861. His unit was part of the Vermont Brigade which Hale says was an excellent group of soldiers.

“They stood and fought in the worst conditions,” he says. “They didn’t retreat.”

Henry Martin fought in a number of different battles in the eastern theater of the Civil War, including Antietam, Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. He was wounded several times and eventually advanced to the rank of lieutenant. He died after being shot in the chest during the Battle of the Wilderness in northern Virginia in May 1864.

His brother Francis Martin joined the Union army as a private in 1863. Hale says at the time nobody thought Francis Martin would be a good soldier because he frequently suffered from depression and was often very ill. Francis Martin was also very pious and published newspaper articles about his experiences during the Civil War. Bill Lutz says none of Francis’ friends or relatives thought he would survive in the Union army.

“Nobody thought he could go and be a soldier,” Lutz says. “But all of the sudden he just sprouted. He wrote home about how healthy he felt.”

Francis Martin was wounded at the Battle of Cedar Creek in northern Virginia in October 1864. He was trying to help another wounded soldier when a bullet hit him just above the ankle. His left foot was amputated, but part of the bone was exposed so doctors had to operate again. Francis Martin was discharged and went home to the family farm that produced willow for baskets, wagons and carriages.

The brothers described battles in a very straightforward manner to each other but were more subtle when writing to their parents, Hale says. The letters often arrived only a few days after were they posted and the soldiers’ family often sent care packages of perishable food, such as butter and pies.

“We were shocked by that,” Hale says. “Today you can’t get a letter in two days.”

The letters included a lot of mundane information, such as how the soldiers constructed their winter quarters, but also provided unique insights. One letter recounted an execution one brother witnessed, and another letter described how Union soldiers burned corpses after the Battle of Antietam instead of burying them. Young later visited the battlefield and showed the letter to a park ranger.

“He told me that he had heard of this occurring but that he had never before seen a firsthand account confirming it,” Young says.

Young eventually discovered a very distant connection to the Martin brothers through his father’s side of the family that came from Vermont. Young and the other members of his team visited the Martin family farm and located the family cemetery as well, although it’s unclear if Henry Martin’s remains were reinterred there. During his research, Young also located a cousin who had some additional letters and Henry Martin’s personal saber. They also went to the battlefields where the two brothers fought and explored archives in Vermont. In one archive they found a number of important documents including the original order form for Francis Martin’s artificial leg and a picture of him after his leg had been amputated.

Young’s wife Carole also found a newspaper article that described what happened to Francis Martin after the war. Carole says the discovery was stunning but her husband says he wants to save the surprise so that readers will find out what happened when they read his book.

“They felt like family,” Carole Young says. “It felt like you knew them.”

Her husband began trying to publish the book in 2010 but he says it was very difficult to find a company that was interested in his manuscript, because more than 50,000 books have been written about the Civil War.

“About one book per day has been published since the Civil War was over,” Young says.

Eventually, he decided to self-publish the book and has given presentations at local libraries, book clubs and historical societies about his work.

“Rather than just walk away from it, I am left with a desire to keep telling the story,” Young says.

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