What a nag I'm becoming I didn't start out to be quite so negative. For the last several posts, however, I have been warning against believing everything you find as you research your topic or your own ancestors. Before I leave this thread, I have to add another. We'll frame it as a positive rule: "Always check the identity of your source." The more information becomes instantly available over the internet, the more careful you have to be. There's a wealth of material out there; there is also a never-ending supply of quacks, polemicists, and other angry people. Don't accept anything without finding some strong supporting evidence.
We'll talk more about using the internet in another post. For now, I want to call attention to a particularly dangerous area — personal letters or diaries that have been transcribed, copied, or edited by someone else. The Italian language has an important proverb: "Traduttore traditore." It means, roughly, "a translator is a traitor." Spanish provides a similar thought: "E que traduce, traiciona," or "He who translates is guilty of a betrayal." I kept the Italian version posted on the wall right above my office computer while I was working on a translation of Latin letters, just to remind myself that my English translation should reflect nothing but what the author wrote, not what I thought he SHOULD have written.
Back when I was first starting to do the research for A Scratch with the Rebels, I traveled to Penn State University to sift through a huge collection of materials from the 100th Pennsylvania Regiment. Seven large boxes in the library basement held a conglomeration of original letters, newspaper clippings, and typescript copies of other letters and diaries from members of the regiment. Nothing much had been done to preserve the materials, so that the original documents were often faded and ripped. I was grateful for the typescripts and spent much of my limited time reading those because they took less time effort. The collection as a whole was so valuable for what I was doing that I didn't worry much about authenticity. It had, after all, been collected by other descendants of the Roundheads, and it was compiled by a college English professor who taught in the area from which the regiment had been recruited.
Some time a bit later, I was in the public library in New Castle, PA, this time looking for newspaper articles that would reveal how much the people back home knew of the war and how they felt about it. At one point the librarian came back into the archives to chat. She casually mentioned an elderly gentleman who had been there several years before. He had been looking for evidence that the regimental commander had been having an affair with the regimental nurse. He had insisted that the chaplain had been quite upset about the affair. Had I seen anything about that, she asked. I dismissed it out of hand. After all, I had just finished reading a typescript of Rev. Browne's letters, and I had not seen a single mention of such a thing. I dismissed it as utter nonsense. The librarian was relieved; Col. Leasure was a New Castle native and a local hero. She wanted nothing to sully his name.
I, too, put it out of my head for the time being, but I became a bit intrigued by the possibility. Col. Leasure was a dapper little fellow. Nurse Nellie was young and very attractive. And Rev. Browne was a straight-laced Calvinist. So when I went to the Military History Institute in Carlyle to investigate their holdings, I was pleased to learn that they had the original letters from Rev. Browne — some three hundred of them, many more than I knew about. I asked for the collection and put my husband to work on one stack while I plowed through the other. "Look for any mention of Nellie," I told him.
It didn't take long! These original letters were full of innuendo, snarling attacks on Nellie's character, and semi-veiled accusations of improper relationships. It was clear that the good chaplain had hated the nurse with a finely-honed passion and that he resented the fact that the colonel seemed to favor her. But why the difference? When I talked to the archivist there, he shrugged and said, "Well, Browne's granddaughter was the one who prepared the typescript before we received the letters."
And there was the answer to at least part of the puzzle. The granddaughter had sanitized the collection, systematically removing anything that might have reflected badly on her beloved ancestor. It didn't prove, of course, whether or not there had been an affair. It simply explained why I had not reached the same conclusion as the elderly gentleman who believed what Browne had believed.
I remain grateful for the discovery. It gave rise to my next book, Beyond All Price, and in that novel I had to deal with the question of the affair. I won't give away my final conclusion, but I can tell you that I would have written a much different book if I had not read the original letters for myself.