Turning from my academic work about medieval Europe and focusing on America's Civil War was a challenge. The research involved took me to new places and required new skills in interpretation. One such research trip taught me something important about the nature of evidence. It also set my writing goals off on a new direction.
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 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 attractive. Rev. Browne was a straight-laced Calvinist. 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.