Correspondence is often one of the most fruitful research materials in a manuscript collection. Communication between the record creator and his or her family, colleagues, and others can provide insight into their lives. It also sheds light onto less personal portions of a collection such as financial materials or legal documents. The SWC’s Austin Wiswall Papers, 1863-1912, recently digitized and made available online, is an example of the potential benefits of correspondence.
Austin Wiswall was born on April 5, 1840, in Princeton, Illinois, to Noah and Elizabeth Lovejoy Wiswall. He was the nephew of the famous abolitionist publisher and martyr Elijah Parish Lovejoy–whose papers the SWC possesses and has also made available digitally–and of U.S. Senator Owen Lovejoy. Wiswall served as a lieutenant in the 9th United States Colored Troops, 3rd Division, 10th Corps, United States Army during the Civil War. Captured by Confederate forces in August 1864, he was held at Andersonville and Libby prisons until released by exchange. After the war, he married Martha Francis Almy on November 15, 1865 with whom he had three children. He served on the Board of Trustees of Morgan Park, Illinois after the Civil War, where he died on September 9, 1905.
The Austin Wiswall Papers consist of correspondence and a diary. The correspondence, often addressed to his mother, primarily concerns personal experiences during and after the Civil War. Of particular interest are letters describing the recruiting, behavior, fighting skills, and movements and activities of the 9th United States Colored Troops participating in the Civil War. When paired with the collected correspondence of his sister, Harriet Wiswall, as well as related collections such as those of Howard Hampton, Austin Wiswall’s correspondence reveals an intensely personal side of mid-19th century life both inside and outside of the U.S.’s most personal war.
Interested researchers can find much of Wiswall’s material, as well as many other digitized collection, here. Our Reference Department is always eager to provide access to our physical holdings as well.