Rewriting Wartime History, One Letter At A Time
Nov 20th 2019 | Posted by W. Ayers

Rewriting Wartime History, One Letter At A Time

With each passing day, we turn the page on memories and their historical significance in time. Especially, with the ease of obtaining information digitally, what we consume is often forgotten before we fully absorb its importance.

But it wasn't always this way.

Case in point; the story of Andrew Carroll which appears in this month’s edition of the Smithsonian Magazine. Sure, you’ve probably never heard of the man, but by and large, he's responsible for the care of more than 225 years of nearly forgotten American history. An unrivaled collection of wartime letters carrying immense precedence, they are first-hand accounts of the military service and sacrifice documented by those who were there - from the American Revolution to the aftermath of 9/11. What’s more interesting is how this trove of now treasured writings came to be, in his possession, in the first place.


Carroll’s quest rose from the ashes of a fire that destroyed his family’s home in 1989. After losing everything, including precious family heirlooms and generation's worth of memories, it was a sudden encounter with a distant relative that would reshape Carroll's life and change the course of history forever. Carroll's cousin, James Carroll Jordan, shared with him a letter he had written during his time as a pilot in World War II. Realizing the significance of the letter Jordan himself said could've otherwise been discarded, Carroll discovered a renewed sense of purpose. And so began a fueled determination to uncover an intimate portrayal of American history, from those who lived through it.


For a Columbia University student, with no prior interest in history, it was his cousin’s lack of desire towards his own wartime accounts that led Carroll to believe many more like it could be collecting dust in attics and basements across the country. The fear so much valuable, timeless accounts of American history persuaded Carroll to embark on a search that has consumed him for more than 30 years.

Constantly traveling the country, Carroll rebranded his search as the ambitious “Million Letter Campaign.” From public speeches outlining his work to sharing his story with syndicated advice columnist Dear Abby, he has amassed an impressive collection of wartime letters spanning generations of military service. Some have unearthed previously never before heard events from the likes of General George Patton to what is considered the very first correspondence of Earnest Hemingway being wounded in World War I. As letters continue to pour in and storage space running out, Carroll donates most of what he collects to the archive now cataloged at Chapman University's Leatherby Library in Orange, California.


Now serving as the director for the Center for American War Letters (CAWL) at Chapman, Carroll and his team of volunteers painstakingly archive more than 100,000 wartime letters and audio recordings. Widely considered the largest non-governmental collection of wartime correspondence in the country, each letter is scanned, physically preserved, and cataloged for future research. Today, it continues to be a celebrated endeavor by a man who’s own personal loss continues to publicly reward him and all who seek to maintain nearly two and a half centuries worth of American military history.