Archives Week – The Human Touch

This is Archives Week in North Carolina and, as part of our celebration here at the State Archives, we’ve been writing a blog post a day about some of our favorite items in our collections. When I was assigned a “my favorite thing” blog post this week, I knew instantly which item I’d have to pick: the letter by Martha Hendley Poteet to Francis Marion Poteet, June 16, 1864 (or as we call it in the Information Management Branch: “the letter with the hand”). It appears in a lot of our and the State Library’s press materials for the Digital Civil War Collection and the North Carolina Digital Collections because it is such a memorable image and I’ve used it in almost every tour or training related to our online materials that I’ve given in the last year because it never fails to get oohs and aahs from a crowd.

If you haven’t read our previous blog post about the Poteet letters, here’s the short version of the story. In 1863 Francis Poteet was conscripted into the 49th North Carolina Infantry Regiment and soon after he wrote home simultaneously planning to desert and bring his wife Martha to see him in camp to alleviate his loneliness. How his wife could have managed to visit is anyone’s guess because the Poteets had (as my mom would say) “a mess of kids” – eventually thirteen in all, several of whom died of illness during the period of the Civil War. Francis was actually put in jail for while because he left his regiment to be with his family when one of his sons got sick and eventually died. If that wasn’t enough, the family was constantly in danger of being thrown out of their house, robbed of what little they had by their neighbors, or starving to death.

The “letter with the hand” shows glimpses of all that hardship and worry. In the letter portion itself, Martha writes about the illnesses of family members, the crops she has planted, state and local politics, the high cost of goods and the general unhappy state of the home-front as she sees it. But the thing that catches everyone’s eye is the part where she mentions their newborn daughter (“…My baby will be 4 weeks old Saturday Night she was born the 21 of May write to Me what to name her…”) and the tracing of her daughter’s hand that she sends along with the letter to give her absent husband an idea of the child’s size.

I suppose part of the reason people react to the paper hand as they do is that it instantly tells a story to which everyone can relate. The shape of the hand and the carefully colored in nails gives anyone who sees it a mental image of the child it was based on. And everyone can understand Martha’s need to share the birth with her husband and the difficulties that distance can cause in such stressful or joyful times. You don’t need to be interested in the Civil War or North Carolina or be a relative of the Poteets to have an instant emotional connection to the hand-tracing. Which is why this is one of my favorite Civil War items in our collections, because it does what all our best materials do: powerfully connect people to a past they may never have known about before and may have never thought they would care about at all. Moments like that are part of why I got into this profession in the first place and what keeps me excited about our future as an Archives.

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