THE TALE OF 250 LETTERS
WRITTEN BY: BRYNN ELSON
Published February 2022 - Hillsdale College Alumni Newsletter
“You need to see this!” Tom Harvey’s wife exclaimed one rainy fall afternoon in 1994. Harvey, ’69, looked at the letter his wife was holding and read, “I was at the funeral of Abraham Lincoln.” The two of them sorted through the contents of four wooden crates unearthed from Harvey’s parents’ house: 250 letters written during the Civil War. The letters were relics of two of Dr. Harvey’s ancestors, Thomas S. Armstrong and George Porter. After he and his wife discovered the letters, Dr. Harvey knew he needed to share the story that they contained. Soon after retiring, he penned his book, Seeing the Elephant: One Man’s Return to the Horrors of the Civil War, a true story based on the 250 letters.
One might wonder what “seeing the elephant” means. It is a military phrase, unique to the United States, which signifies one has been to battle. Few enlistees escaped the Civil War without “seeing the elephant” and the carnage associated with the battle—in fact, Dr. Harvey’s ancestors saw the elephant firsthand, an account that Dr. Harvey relays in his book. He delves into the story between the lines of the old, faded, handwritten letters that his ancestors (especially his great-grandfather, Thomas S. Armstrong) wrote during their time serving the Union Army. In his words, “the letters and the research simply told the story. All I had to do was fit the characters into it.”
After learning that his great-grandfather “survived some rather uncomfortable conditions in five different Confederate prisons,” Dr. Harvey settled on writing a historical novel about Civil War penitentiaries. He spent three months transcribing the letters, after which he began to supplement them with context acquired from Civil War-era journals. These journals described what life was like in Confederate prisons in Virginia, Georgia, and South Carolina. Dr. Harvey also discovered newspapers from the era, preserved on microfilm, that gave him insight into the activities of the regiment in which his great-grandfather served. All told, his research produced about 1,000 pages of source material, meaning that Dr. Harvey’s job was twofold: compress 250 letters and 1,000 pages of raw source material into a 524-page book.
Once revisions were complete, Dr. Harvey sent query letters to several publishing companies that specialized in military history and historical fiction. He only had to wait a few weeks to receive a positive response from Monday Creek Publishing, headquartered near Athens, Ohio. Dr. Harvey submitted two chapters for review and received a contract to publish in return. Monday Creek then assisted with additional revisions, book formatting, and the cover design. Dr. Harvey writes, “We found a wonderful artist in the Athens area who painted the book’s seminal moment: when my great-grandfather surrendered to a Confederate officer, handing him his sword.
His hope is that the readers of his book would “experience the emotions of the characters: their thoughts, fears, and expressions of excitement, faith, hope, love, and patriotism among all the reactions people have to war.” According to Dr. Harvey, dialogue and emotion are difficult to incorporate into literature, so the letters he acquired—which had dialogue and emotion built in—were an especially valuable primary source. Dr. Harvey also writes that he “didn’t want it restricted to the soldiers, as families and friends played a huge role. All of this meant conversations were a must to draw readers into the story.”
Dr. Harvey will be publishing a prequel to Seeing the Elephant in spring 2022. The prequel, titled Answering Lincoln’s Call: War Comes to America, describes the decision process that both Armstrong and Porter faced as they decided whether or not to enlist. The book describes their experience of training with the 78th Ohio Volunteer Infantry and engaging in battle at Fort Donelson and Shiloh. Dr. Harvey will also publish a sequel, which he plans to title From Vicksburg to the Grand Review: The Long March to Victory. This sequel, which will be published in early 2023, tells George Porter’s story. It begins with the siege of Vicksburg and continues throughout the march across Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. It also delves into the battle of Atlanta and the destruction of Savannah, and concludes with the Grand Review of Grant’s army in May 1865.
Dr. Harvey’s books tell of the experiences of two specific people, yet the worries, fears, and concerns of both men were shared by every other man in uniform, both North and South. The experiences of those who “saw the elephant” are a solemn reminder to be grateful for our own safety and freedom—for the fact that we can read about the horrors of the past from the comfort of the present. Dr. Harvey’s work provides a novel perspective on the conflict that tore our country apart and the hope that brought it back together.