WASHINGTON — Andrew Carroll gingerly opened the FedEx box that arrived at his Washington, D.C., apartment on a recent morning and carefully pulled out a letter, written in beautiful cursive script on paper browned by nearly a century of age.
“Chère Madame,” begins the letter, which is in French. “It is a mother who is writing to you, a mother who has been with your dear child in his last days; and it had seemed to me that to tell you a little of his last acts and gestures may soften the bitterness of your grief.”
A French woman had written the letter in 1919 to the mother of Carl Saunders, a 22-year-old from upstate New York who died in France during service with the American Expeditionary Forces after the end of World War I.
For 15 years, Carroll has been collecting war letters as part of the Legacy Project, an effort to preserve the correspondence of Americans serving during war. Some of the letters have been published in anthologies or featured in documentaries, but the great majority of them have been sitting in a nondescript storage facility on Washington’s U Street.
Now Carroll is giving the collection, numbering around 100,000 letters, to Chapman University in California to establish the Center for American War Letters, which will be officially launched on Veterans Day. Carroll believes the transfer is the largest donation of war letters in the nation’s history.
The collection includes letters from every American war. A Civil War letter from Gen. William T. Sherman warns that the South had “laid open her fair country to the tread of devastating war.” A doughboy in France writes of village church bells “ringing out the news of Peace, Peace, Peace” upon the armistice ending World War I.
A GI in Berlin writes a letter on Adolf Hitler’s stationery and includes a sliver of wood from the Führer’s desk. A mother writes in 2004 to her son, a Marine killed in Fallujah, Iraq: “There are so many things that spark a memory of you — a song, a boy in a baseball cap and baggy pants, a skateboarder.”
Carroll and Chapman officials say the center is intended to be a resource for students, scholars and the general public.
Carroll traces his quest to 1989, his sophomore year at Columbia University, when his father called shortly before Christmas to report that the family’s home in Washington had been gutted by fire. Sifting through the ashes a few days later, Carroll was shocked at all the family memories lost.
As consolation, James Carroll Jordan, a distant relative who served in World War II, sent the family a letter he had written to his wife in April 1945.
“I saw something today that makes me realize why we’re fighting this war,” wrote Jordan, then a 23-year-old B-51 pilot from St. Paul, Minn.
Members of his squadron had visited Buchenwald, a Nazi concentration camp liberated two days earlier. “When we first walked in we saw all these creatures that were supposed to be men,” Jordan wrote. “They were dressed in black and white suits, heads shaved and starving to death.”
When Carroll tried to return the letter to Jordan, the World War II veteran told him to keep it. It probably would have been tossed anyway.
For Carroll, the letter sparked what has become a lifelong passion to preserve such accounts. To him, the letters are literature of the first order, stripping away war’s romanticism.
“War’s brutality is the secret that civilized societies keep from themselves,” he has written.
On Veterans Day 1998, Carroll launched the Legacy Project, and later that year his request for war letters was published in a Dear Abby column. Within days, letters began to pour into his apartment.
The letters spawned several well-regarded anthologies and documentaries, all of which brought in more letters.
“My biggest fear in donating the entire war letters collection to any institution was that it would be locked up in a facility somewhere, never to be seen again,” Carroll said.
Chapman’s proposes to incorporate letters into lesson plans and classroom discussions, and to use them as the basis for films and plays.
The university intends to digitize much of the correspondence, beginning with letters from World War I, and eventually make it available to the public. Carroll will oversee the collection as director of the center.