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While Father is Away
The Civil War Letters of William H. Bradbury

From the Press:

Civil War letters of Dwight man subject of book

Used with permission of John Faddoul/Staff Reporter

The letters that a Civil War soldier sent to his wife and children in Livingston County is the subject of a book that was edited by a California woman who will be in Dwight April 23 to meet with the historical society there.

"While Father Is Away" is a collection of William H. Bradbury's letters home to his family, friends and newspapers while he was serving in the Civil War, when his wife and children lived in Dwight. Edited by Jennifer Cain Bohrnstedt, the 394-page book is published by the University Press of Kentucky and is available from that press, from booksellers and on amazon.com.

The book was "launched" the week of Feb. 10-15 at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, and at other locations in Kansas, including the Wichita Civil War Round Table, the Kansas Center for the Book, the Topeka Library and at several bookstores in Missouri and Kansas. Bradbury was a land speculator during the war, and his future would take him to pioneering Topeka in the 1880s, Bohrnstedt noted.

Bohrnstedt's visit to the Dwight Historical Society, at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 23, at the Prairie Creek Public Library, 501 Carriage House Lane, will include a program, book review and book signing. The event is open to the public; call Tony Thorsen in Dwight for more information.

Bradbury left Livingston County in the late summer of 1862, along with all the other troops of the 129th Illinois Infantry. "He was a close comrade to many men from Pontiac, as that is where most, if not all, of the officers of the 129th came from," Bohrnstedt noted. "There are few, if any, true accounts with the 'rest of the story' of men from Livingston County in the Civil War so I believe this could have special interest to folks in Pontiac and surrounding areas."

Some of the most frequently named officers from the county in the Bradbury's letters are Joseph C. Culver, Andrew J. Cropsey, Henry Case, Col. George Smith, Elihu Chilcott, Philip Plattenburg, Curtis J. Judd, Samuel T. Walkley, and George W. Gilchrist.

Bohrnstedt researched the 129th Illinois Infantry -- and more than 300 members of the regiment, including all of its officers -- at the National Archives in Washington.

Her wide-ranging research for the book also included a stop in Dwight, where she met with Thorsen, of the Dwight Historical Society, on her way to Springfield to present a paper at the Illinois Historical Society's annual symposium. She also was in contact with staff at the Pontiac Public Library to learn what happened to old newspapers of the era.

Bohrnstedt's Web site, www.civilwarsoldiers.com, has recently been updated, and now features a surname search for soldiers, maps and photos, and a page for educators and book clubs.

An independent scholar with an interest in "combining social and military history in underrepresented fields in historical literature, including the Western Campaigns of the Civil War," Bohrnstedt had edited a previous book, "Soldiering with Sherman: The Civil War Letters of George F. Cram," in which Bradbury appeared as a footnote. She first came across Bradbury's letters in a collection at the Library of Congress in Washington while working on that first book.

"I didn't go looking for a character like this," Bohrnstedt said in a telephone interview. "I kind of felt he found me." Bohrnstedt's affection for Bradbury is obvious, despite his faults, and she found him "a real human being," not the romanticized or idealized soldier that she finds typical in looking back at men and women of the Civil War period. "I felt a grit and a reality about this person, who just came to life for me."

Bohrnstedt said Bradbury's letters to his children were "as literary and as informative as were his letters to his wife." She admires his determination to "be a father who would not give up his parental responsibilities and interests just because he was off in the war."

"I just felt this was a universal subject that needed to be explored," she said.

Bradbury, born in England, was an attorney. He emigrated in 1851 and lived in Chicago and Morris before settling in Dwight, then a town "strategically important for its railway linkages," Bohrnstedt writes in the first chapter of her book.

At age 33, Bradbury enlisted in the Union army. He served as a private and clerk for the rest of the war, apparently never firing a gun in battle, according to the University Press of Kentucky web site. It adds: "... Bradbury became a 'privileged private' with extraordinary access to powerful Union generals including Daniel Butterfield, future president Benjamin Harrison, and Clinton B. Fisk, the region's administrator for the Freedmen's Bureau during Reconstruction. The letters also provide an in-depth look at this driven land speculator and manager for the Atchison Topeka Santa Fe Railway. As a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, the Manchester Guardian and other publications, Bradbury was both eyewitness to and participant in the shaping of events in the world as it moved west."

Bradbury also wrote for the Pontiac Sentinel during the war.

"Bradbury's story haunted me from the beginning, especially because of the length and style of this British immigrant's writing and the subset of the war letters to his children," Bohrnstedt wrote in remarks prepared for University Press of Kentucky when her book was published. "When I had time and the first book was done, I returned to read Bradbury's entire collection and appreciated the breadth of subjects he discussed with his wife, children, and other family extended well beyond those of the war. I was surprised to learn that Bradbury was a prolific newspaper correspondent during the war years including newspapers in Cincinnati, Chicago, Pontiac, Illinois, and England.

"However, his paid correspondence for the Chicago Tribune and the Manchester Guardian were choice insights to the leaders of the western campaigns, many whom he supported directly as a clerk. His descriptions for readers back 'home' (the Manchester/Yorkshire region was his native home) of places like Knoxville and Atlanta are illuminating for their social commentary.

"I was also surprised to learn about the small group dynamics of teams of men at work, whether in documenting the war, supplies, or in catering to social events that prevailed even during wartime. That is to say that, yes, men gossiped! Posturing, observing rank and privilege, social status, educational background among group members was very easy to observe through Bradbury's writings.

"I had not expected to learn of his view of what we would now call public assistance or welfare. Bradbury's aristocratic background dominated his behavior during the years at war when his family would likely have benefited greatly from county aid and charity from friends."

Bohrnstedt also says about her book: "We have not had the opportunity until now of knowing about the nature of long-distance fatherhood and how men stayed involved in their children's lives. Bradbury provides an important and timeless look at the longing and dedication to personal involvement in decisions affecting Jane, Freddy, Willie, Edwin, Elwood and Charles. You might say we now know more about intimacy and husband-wife longing too; he had three children when he went to war, but six children at the end of the war. 'Fertile' furloughs they were!"

"By having research and letters from William's wife, Mary Brown Bradbury, included in the book, we know more about what the homefront challenges were like, especially as the wife and partner of such an entrepreneurial person as her husband was."

As a land speculator after the war, Bradbury bought parcels in Kansas for many years, and eventually became the land agent-manager for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railway. He died in 1900. One of his granddaughters, Mary Amelia Grant, who was a professor in the classics department of the University of Kansas for 40 years, donated most of the family records to the Spencer Research Library at the university.

Bradbury's Civil War letters to his wife and children were donated to the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division. That's where Bohrnstedt first came upon them. Bradbury's correspondence to his friend and comrade in the Quartermaster Corps, William Bailhache, also the former publisher of the Springfield (Ill.) Journal, were donated to the Illinois State Historical Library.

"Bradbury's war-era experience was very unusual," according to Bohrnstedt. "As an army private, he worked for key Union generals in the western campaigns while also sharing some of their quarters and most of their meals. He was treated as an officer; how could that be? He was an attorney, well-educated, and accustomed to working with and among the upper crust of society, wherever he was.

"Tremendous candor, if not intimacy, existed in the letters between William and Mary. Because of William's expressiveness readers can add more substance to the form, character, and personage of an amazing wife and partner during the war. Mary's 'voice,' while limited by the number of preserved pages, came to life abundantly through deductive process in William's letters."

"I located Bradbury's extensive newspaper correspondence with the Chicago Tribune in the old-fashioned way -- by painstaking hours at a microfilm reader," Bohrnstedt said of his stories for that newspaper.

"Bill McDonald, a researcher in Droylsden, England, Bradbury's native home, helped gather original print copies of the Manchester Guardian and other historic documents pertaining to the Bradbury family's legacy as cotton mill owners."

"I found, apart from Bradbury's own account, people close to him had left important letter collections and other manuscripts at the Indiana State Historical Society (future president Benjamin Harrison, that is), the Filson Club (Louisville, Ky.) the Tennessee State Archives (Nashville) and importantly the U.S. National Archives. There were many other places visited and tapped for help, including the U.S. Army Military History Institute."

Bohrnstedt, who lives in Palm Desert, Calif., is a board member of the National Coalition of Independent Scholars. She helped found a nonprofit organization near Nashville, the Cumberland Valley Civil War Heritage Association, and remains active as an adviser to the board. That association's work and successes have been recognized by the Tennessee Wars Commission and the Tennessee Board of Economic Development.

She was the keynote speaker to the Chicago, Milwaukee, and San Jose (Calif.) Civil War Round Tables last fall and spoke to the Harrisburg, Pa., Civil War Round Table on March 21.

Bohrnstedt grew up in Indianapolis, received her bachelor and master's degrees from Indiana University, and has lived in California the last 15 years.