In just a few days, it will be exactly 150 years ago that Private Oscar A. Stearns wrote, “I take my pen in hand to inform you that I am well as usual or as can be expected as long as I live on hard tack and salt hog.”
That line from his June 24, 1863, letter home may not be one of the greatest lines of the Civil War, but is does hold special meaning to Kathleen Fannin, the retired Monmouth College chaplain. Stearns, who served with the 13th Vermont Infantry and fought at the Battle of Gettysburg, was Fannin’s great-great grandfather, and his letters were among documents passed down to her through five generations.
Fannin has turned those letters into her seventh book – “Paper Trail: Letters from the Civil War.” The 295-page paperback is available at three locations in Monmouth – the college bookstore, the Buchanan Center for the Arts and Reworks Renovations, which is located at 325 E. Ninth Ave. It will soon be available at the college's Hewes Library. It is also available through Amazon.com and https://www.createspace.com/4299324?ref=1147694&utm_id=6026
“I was going to turn the letters into a novel,” said Fannin, “but the letters speak for themselves. I filled in some historical detail. Because the letters comprise most of the actual text, I looked for another way to make a creative contribution.”
She found it through painting watercolors, including one of a cannon on the Gettysburg battlefield that graces the book’s cover.
“I went to Dick Blick, and I learned how to paint,” she said. “For the first few months, what I painted looked like the work of a child, but then the paintings really started to look like something. One of them won first in its class at the Heartland Art Show,” and she has others on display at the Buchanan Center.
Painting was part of the process of creating the book, as were two other time-consuming tasks: transcribing the book’s 165 letters, a six-month process that she started on July 4 two years ago, and compiling the book’s index. Fannin is proud of the nine-page index, which she said worked on for eight hours a day for two weeks.
“It was tedious as all get out, but it helped me make some connections I wouldn’t have normally,” she said.
A connection she was well aware of was Stearns’ participation at Gettysburg.
“I’ve been told his unit was instrumental in turning back Picketts’ charge,” she said.
Not as fortunate was her great-great grandfather’s close friend, James Wilson, who was killed during the battle.
Fannin’s interest in the Civil War goes far beyond the letters and the book. She spent a number of years participating in Civil War reenactments across the U.S. and working as a park ranger and archaeologist for the U.S. National Park Service.
“This was a really interesting self-taught course in history and genealogical research,” she concluded. “I’m very excited about it, and I was pleased to finish it in time for the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg.”