Students in Mark Eifler’s History 420 this semester are reading, transcribing, and researching a collection of unpublished letters of a surgeon from the US Civil War. The letters of William Peck were digitalized and given to the university by Jane Leeson, who lives in the North Portland neighborhood. The letters begin in 1854 and go through 1870, and cover Peck’s work as a doctor, lawyer, surgeon, officer, political worker and businessman during this traumatic period of history.
The collection was digitalized last summer in order to preserve the letters, and to make it easier to view and study them without increasing any deterioration of the original pages. The letters are now being transcribed and researched.
Only a few collections of letters from surgeons covering the entire war are known to exist, and this collection may be one of the best in the western United States. Peck’s letters are written to his fiancee, and later wife, Jennie Tracy. They cover the period after he leaves medical training and becomes a traveling doctor in Pennsylvania. A few years before the war be begins to train for and practice law, but when the war breaks out he enters as a regimental surgeon for the 104th Pennsylvania Volunteers. Much of his time is spent setting up field hospitals and caring for the men in his regiment. Some of the most interesting letters come from his experiences in Virginia in the spring of 1862 in the Peninsula Campaign.
Students in Eifler’s class are transcribing the letters and doing research into the stories of Peck and his family and friends. They are also looking into what life was like in the mid-ninteenth century, and studying the letters of other soldiers in the war. At the same time they are helping to create indexing tags so that researchers in the future will be better able to get into the content of the letters.
As work proceeds on this project, students will be able to write up their findings and present them in regional conferences and publish them in the student journal, Northwest Passages. The digitalized letters themselves will be made available on the library’s web site for anyone who wants to read through them.
And in the long run the letters will likely be published as a book. Eifler hopes that within a few years, as the context and research on the letters progresses, that he will be able to take students and the letters’ owner on a trip back to Pennsylvania and Virginia to visit the locations where the letters were written, and do deeper research into William Peck’s world.