WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Civil War Letters Tell the Story of Lewistown Couple

Feb 24, 2018

A Civil War soldier from Lewistown, Illinois and his wife regularly communicated during the war by writing each other letters.  Their correspondence is the subject of a new book that offers a different perspective of the War Between the States.

This Infernal War – The Civil War Letters of William and Jane Standard was edited by Tim Roberts, who’s a Professor in the Department of History at Western Illinois University. The book was published by The Kent State University Press.

“It’s important at this point – the bicentennial of Illinois – to learn about an Illinois soldier who wasn’t a good soldier. He fought for the Union but, if you read the book, you get a sense of his skepticism about what the war became,” said Roberts.

“He never really accepts that the war becomes a war against slavery. He doesn’t really believe that African-Americans should have the same rights as white people.”

Robert said there is a rawness to the way the Standards talk about President Abraham Lincoln and they commonly used racial epithets in their writing.  He said the letters have a coarseness that demonstrates the complicated politics in the Union during the war.

He said letters are also valuable because they include both sides of the conversation.

Tim Roberts
Credit Rich Egger

“We get the letters sent home from William. We also get letters to him from his wife Jane. And we get a sense of what it was like to be in the remote part of the Union – the Illinois prairies – during the war years and the pressures the war created for this couple and presumably many others.”

Roberts believes that when William wrote home, he would include the letters sent to him by Jane, thus preserving both sides of the conversation.

Roberts said Jane became a stronger, independent woman during the war years and William came to depend on her to make decisions regarding their family and property.

Roberts said he learned of the letters through a phone call that came out of the blue.

“I was in my office in 2011 over at the university. And the secretary at the Department of History said, ‘There’s somebody on the line from Atlanta, Georgia, who wants to talk to our Civil War historian. Would you care to talk to him?’”

That someone is a descendant of the Standards. He had grown up in west central Illinois and had inherited the letters from his mother.  Roberts considered it unusual for such letters to surface publicly now after so much has been written and said about the Civil War through the years.

As it turned out, this was not the first attempt to publicize the letters.

Roberts said the Standards’ great-granddaughter tried to publish them in the 1930s but book companies told her they lacked drama.  Roberts said he has thanked his lucky stars the letters were not published then and that they were shared with him many decades later.