His most recent release, “Letters From Home: York County, Pennsylvania, during the Civil War,” follows the same vein. This time, the Springettsbury Township author and attorney focused on a collection of family letters that offer insight into home life in York County during the Civil War.
We caught up with Hershner to see how the book came together.
Book Buzz: “Letters From Home” is a collection of letters written by your ancestors during the Civil War. How did you come across the documents?
Ron Hershner: “Letters From Home” is based upon 23 letters written to John Harvey Anderson while he served in three different Union army units between 1863 and 1865. The correspondents were his sisters, brothers-in-law and female cousins. He somehow was able to save these letters throughout his military service, which took him through some challenging circumstances, particularly as a cavalryman in Sherman’s Carolina Campaign in 1865.
Years later, when Harvey’s wife died, he moved in with his daughter, Margaret Anderson Wiley. When Margaret died, the letters passed to her daughter Burneta Wiley Hershner, who was the wife of my great-uncle, William B. Hershner.
Knowing my interest in history, Burneta first showed me the letters in the 1970s. Shortly before her death, she gave me the letters on the condition I write a book about them. I have been working on the book (intermittently) for about a decade and finally pushed to compete the work for this important year in Civil War history.
BB: The letters focus on the life of a family with a soldier away at war. What drew you to the writing and inspired you to pull them into a book?
RH: From the first time I read the letters, I knew they had something to offer that, while not unique, was rare.
This was not the story of soldiers and battles. It was an insight into the lives of those back home, who believed in what their family member was fighting for, and wrote both to provide encouragement to him and to keep him apprised of life back home.
Most significantly, the letters are first-hand evidence of the deep divisions in York County about the war and its purpose, and the impact of the draft that called soldiers into involuntary service.
Harvey’s family were ardent supporters of the Union, the Republican Party, and Lincoln. They were a distinct minority in York County at the time. This is an important aspect of the Civil War, and York County’s role in it, that has not received much attention until recently.
I had nearly finished the book by the time my step-son enlisted in the Army. He is currently deployed in Afghanistan. That very personal experience with a soldier away from home has given me a new and deeper appreciation for what soldiers and their families go through. Today it is Facebook and Skype, but the “letters” from home are just as important — for just the same reasons — today as in 1863.
BB: How did you go about pulling everything together? Did you seek out other historical sources to fill in the gaps?
RH: I spent several years researching before I wrote a word. The book is about the letters. I wanted to understand everything in the two years of correspondence.
I followed the path wherever the letters led me. That took me many places, from the Confederate invasion of York County in June 1863, to Sherman’s acceptance of Joe Johnston’s surrender at Bennett Place North Carolina in late April 1865. From sleigh rides and church picnics, to wheat harvesting and milling. From bitter political partisanship to teenage romance.
The book is heavily footnoted and the bibliography demonstrates the variety of resources upon which I relied. In addition to the many books and articles I consulted, the resources at the York County Heritage Trust Library and Archives were invaluable. The newspapers of the period helped frame the social and political issues of the time.
BB: Was there anything that surprised you in the letters or in your research and writing?
RH: From the start, the letters opened up for me a keen awareness that there was no united homefront in the North during the war. As I delved deeper into the politics, I came to understand that York County in particular was in large measure not supportive of Lincoln and the war. The Copperhead movement (of Northerners who sympathized with the South) was particularly strong here. The Anderson family, while certainly not alone, were in the minority in their strong support of the cause. Jennifer Weber’s 2006 book “Copperheads” was very helpful to me in understanding this movement, its rise and its fall.
I also was struck by the degree to which Harvey’s female relatives, who of course had no right to vote or participate in the political process, were so well informed and ardent in their beliefs. They emerge to the reader as passionate, well-informed and articulate young women.
BB: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
RH: My father had a saying “there are always two sides to every story” and that was certainly the case in York County during the Civil War.
“Letters From Home” is a microcosm of what occurred throughout northern communities. There were strong, impassioned, and sometimes violent, disagreements over whether what the Lincoln government was doing was right. Harvey’s family believed it was right, and in the face of substantial and vocal opposition did what they believed was right.
History has proven them to be on the side of freedom, justice and liberty. That was not altogether clear in their time.
Lives in: Springettsbury Township
Family: Married, four children
Occupation: Managing partner of Stock and Leader, LLP
To purchase: “Letters From Home” is available at the York County Heritage Trust, 250 E. Market St., York; at Stock and Leader’s offices in York and Stewartstown; or online at www.yorkheritage.org
If you go
Hershner will sign copies of the book 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 19, at the York County Heritage Trust’s Historical Society Museum, 250 E. Market St., York. Hershner will speak briefly on the book, and readers will be able to see some of the letters on display in a Trust exhibit. For details, call 717-848-1587 or visit www.yorkheritage.org.
Also of interest
“Letters from Home” offers inside-out look at Civil War homefront