By Jean Stevenson
My introduction to Little Women came when I was eleven and “between” books and my regular visit to the public library. My mother rescued me by handing me her copy of the novel, saying, “I was your age when I read this. You might enjoy it.” Like many readers, I found myself captivated by Jo and the March family. My reading of Alcott’s novel coincided with a unit on the Civil War in school, so Jo’s account of the home front, her father’s service to the Union Army as a chaplain, and Marmee’s travel to Washington to care for him when he fell ill became real to me and further fueled my interest in the Civil War.
This led me to explore the trunks in my grandparents’ attic in search of evidence of family involvement in the war. On the top tray in a trunk I came upon an empty leather wallet and a small brown pocket-sized copy of the New Testament including the Psalms, which was inscribed: “Presented to F. A. Edmands as a Memento of the existing Rebellion of the Southern States. B. W. Edmands, July 1864.” It also contained a label that indicated the volume was “From the cargo of the Anglo-Rebel Blockade Runner Minna for sale by W. H. Piper and Company 133 Washington Street, Boston.” I ran downstairs, book in hand, to ask my grandmother who F. A. Edmands and B. W. Edmands were. She identified the names as those of my great-grandfather (F. A. Edmands) and great-great-grandfather (B. W. Edmands).
After reading the letters Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy wrote to Marmee, I headed back up to the trunk in the attic in search of further evidence of family involvement in the war—perhaps in the form of letters my great grandfather might have written to his family. I found none. I later learned that my great grandfather, who was born on December 31, 1847, had lied about his age and taken an assumed name when he enlisted in the Union Army. When he returned to Boston after the war, he never divulged the name he had used or the unit he had served with, and he never talked about his experiences. Without this vital information, neither my great grandmother, Eva Augusta Davis Edmands, nor his six children, could obtain veteran’s benefits when he died in 1885 at age 38. His death and lack of documentation meant my grandfather, Horace Frederick Edmands, would be sent to the Boston Farm School on Thompson Island in Boston Harbor in 1885 when he was six years old. Although Grandpa Edmands’s description of living conditions at the Boston Farm School could be described as harsh in today’s terms, he maintained that the skills he learned there probably saved his life.
Although I didn’t find any correspondence in the attic, letters as a source of information about people (real and fictional) and the times they inhabit have long intrigued me. Curiosity about history, the people who make it, those who write fiction and nonfiction stories about events, and their creative processes propel my scholarly life. I regularly use primary sources in the form of working papers that include notes, drafts, sketches, galley and page proofs, and correspondence. I can’t draw a direct connection between the letters in Little Women and the New Testament my great grandfather carried. But my memories of the intellectual adventure Louisa May Alcott and my ancestors initiated are still alive.
On the verso of the page containing the inscription, my great grandfather wrote “F. A. Edmands” in pencil. Tracing the inscription and signatures and turning the small volume in my hand, I am still filled with a powerful sense of connection with my ancestors.
Jean M. Stevenson is Associate Professor-Emerita at the University of Minnesota Duluth where she taught courses in children’s literature and literacy. Although retired, she continues to conduct research at the Kerlan Collection-CLRC.