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Future of Letter Writing

Letter Writing in America

by Kathryn Burke


Letter dated July 21, 1918--mailed from Paris by an American private writing to his younger brother.
Letter dated July 21, 1918--mailed from Paris by an American private
writing to his younger brother.

World War I Letters

As the second decade of the twentieth century got underway, the fight for freedom became an ever-present theme in America. The Great War dominated American minds and hearts, especially after the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. As American soldiers began to pour across the Atlantic to help the Allied cause, letter writing provided a crucial connection between these men and their families back in the states. Letters passing between soldiers and those left behind included everything from passionate declarations of love to parental support to the simple daily news of home and the front lines. Often it was difficult for family members to let their soldiers go, but one of the best ways to keep them as close as possible was through a regular correspondence.

Kate Gordon, mother of three young soldiers fighting in Europe, wrote regularly to her sons, offering them bracing words along with her maternal sentiments. In a letter to one of her sons, she wrote, "And when you do come marching home old fellow bring me back the same boy I gave my country,--true, and clean, and gentle, and brave. You must do this for your father and me and Betty and Nora;--and most of all, for the daughter you will give me one of these days! Dear, I don't know whether you have even met her yet,--but never mind that! Live for her or if God wills, die for her;--but do either with courage,--'with honor and clean mirth!' But I know you will come back to me." It is impossible to tell which of her three boys Kate Gordon was addressing in this letter, but only the youngest Gordon boy, Jimmy, was killed during the war. The other two did indeed come back to their mother.

Letters not only allowed parents on the home front to support their sons in uniform, they also provided a way for soldiers with their own wives and children to remain present in the lives of their families. Young children, in particular, often have a difficult time understanding the concept of war, and many fathers, uncles or even older brothers overseas worried that the younger children in their families would forget them or get angry at them for staying away so long. General John Pershing, whose wife and three daughters perished in a fire in the family house three years before the United States entered the war, made sure to write often to his only surviving child, Warren, who was living with an aunt in Nebraska. Through his letters, the general tried to explain to his young son what he was doing so far away, and why it was so very important.

In a letter dated October 18, 1918, Pershing wrote, "I want you to know while you are still a boy something of the fine patriotism that inspires the American soldiers who are fighting over here for the cause of liberty." Having previously promised to use his considerable clout in the army to arrange a voyage for his son to visit him in France, Pershing explained, "I want you to see some of the battlefields of France with me, over which the American soldiers have fought in carrying out the great purpose of our people. It will enable you to realize later in life just what sacrifice means and just what degree of sacrifice our army is called upon to make and which they have made and are making bravely and courageously." Reaching out to his son through the letters they exchanged allowed Pershing not only to remain close to the growing boy but also to help Warren understand the work his father was doing and the commitment it entailed.

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