Letters from a Young Chaplain
Years ago, after my grandparents passed away, my mom went through the love letters they wrote during their courtship and the first year of their marriage. My grandparents met during the summer of 1917. My grandfather had just finished his first year at the Colgate Rochester Divinity School, He was in Bradford, Pennsylvania assisting with vacation bible school (VBS) at the church where my grandmother attended and she volunteered with the VBS.
They met and fell in love amid the gaslight-lined streets of Bradford, Pennsylvania. By the end of the summer, they were secretly engaged as my grandfather went back to divinity school and my grandmother began her freshman year of college at Bucknell University.
In the early twentieth century, talking on the phone was a luxury reserved for special occasions and the bearing of bad news. In one of the letters my grandmother wrote to my grandfather, she described how anxious and upset a fellow classmate of hers was when the girl learned she had a telephone call waiting. The classmate was sure it was bad news and couldn’t bear to hear it.
“The office girl called from the second floor saying that there was a call from Danville for Lottie. She was so frightened by this that she began to cry at once without waiting to see whether anything was wrong.”
It turned out the girl’s parents were concerned because they hadn’t received her Sunday letter.
Not everyone had a telephone in those days. Letter writing was how people communicated with their loved ones, so a missed letter could mean something unspeakable had happened. Letter delivery was swift. They sometimes received letters in just one day. My grandmother mentioned receiving mail delivery up to four times in one day.
In 1918, Spanish Influenza reached pandemic numbers. The nation and the world were also engulfed in a war they thought would end all wars — it didn’t, and women still hadn’t secured the right to vote. There was no television, few cars, and even fewer telephones. The internet and smartphones weren’t even someone’s fever dream. People communicated through writing letters.
Letters from people who lived during this time provide great insight into this time in history.
World War I
Through their letters, my grandparents expressed their opinions of events as they lived them and shared snippets of their lives. My grandfather served in World War I as a chaplain for the 74th Coast Artillery Corps serving in France. Going off to war was just as hard then as it is now. In one of his letters, he wrote:
At Canandaigua, some soldiers were leaving. They began to sing the popular songs, “Over There,” and “Hail, Hail The Gang’s All Here.” In the middle of it, a man came hurrying down the street and rushed to the edge of the group at the car steps. Shortly after, he returned to the edge of the pavement, leaned his head on his arms against the stone wall, and broke down crying.
He was a middle-aged man and I concluded that his boy was leaving…I am more and more convinced that the mothers and fathers are paying a greater price in this war than we young ones are.”
He also worried about the cheapness of human life in war.
“There are other reactions I have to this game. Reading newspaper stories and hearing officers talk and the songs we sing as. “blast the bloody Germans out of France,” makes me realize the cheapness with which we evaluate human life, not only of the enemy but of our own army.”
Spanish Influenza Pandemic
While my grandfather was on his way to France aboard the U.S. President Grant, the Spanish Flu Pandemic hit the ship hard. Part of my grandfather’s duties as Chaplain was helping to officiate in the funerals aboard the ship.
“How can one describe the situation adequately? A calm sea, save for a few white caps, a troopship with circular camouflage near a cruiser off to the rear, two destroyers off ahead. The sun shining as if the world were a palace of love. Slowly the coffin chutes draped in Old Glory and burdened with once inhabitable clay brought by six pallbearers. One after another until twelve were in line. With a low subdued voice, I read, ‘until the deep shall give up her dead…’ Then Chaplin Breslin, ‘the holy martyrs receive them, the angels in heaven take them to the holy city of Jerusalem.’ Amen.
A dismal swish, a dull splash, twelve souls have departed this earth.”
Those words were from my grandfather’s journal as many of his letters were censored as he made the Atlantic crossing. in a letter to my grandmother, he emphasized the words in bold.
“I wish I had a week or so to describe adequately our feelings as we landed. First, everyone was double anxious to leave the boat for towards the last it was near to a regular morgue.”
He would later state that 118 men died aboard the ship from the Spanish flu. Despite my grandfather’s exposure to the sick and dying, he had not fallen ill from the flu. We believe a virus he had that knocked him out for about a month in the spring may have helped his immunity to this strain of the flu.
My grandmother also wrote of the flu virus while she was at Bucknell University:
10/6/1918: All churches are closed today but do not worry about me. I am being careful.
October 9, 1918: I have not been feeling well for over a week and feared that I might be getting influenza. There are twenty girls ill with it now beside several that have gone home, ill or scared, and a number who have recovered.
10/20/1918: At home, the epidemic is spreading rapidly though they are rigidly quarantined. — churches, movies, ice cream parlors, billiard and pool rooms, lodges, and everything are closed, yet there were twenty-four new cases in one day.
by 1918, the tide was beginning to turn where women’s rights were concerned. Though women would not win the right to vote until August 20, 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment was passed.
During this time, more and more women began to attend college, though they often dropped out when they married. My grandmother was one such woman. In 1918, she was a college freshman. She was engaged to my grandfather and had definite ideas about how their lives would work.
On August 17, 1918, In a letter to my grandfather she talked about her Household Management class where they often discussed budgets and household accounts, my grandmother said:
“I have some very up-to-date twentieth-century ideas, so I hope that yours are up to date also. Otherwise, I shall have to educate you slowly and you may receive a jolt now and then.”
In the days before her wedding, my grandmother wrote:
“Leave the word, “obey” out of the ceremony if you wish to. It really makes very little difference to me. I have never had to obey an arbitrary command and so I scarcely know the meaning of the word. I do not expect to have any more trouble with it as your wife. Still, perhaps it would put us more on an equal footing were the word omitted. As far as I am concerned it is about as useless as a man’s appendix and will probably disappear in the process of evolution.”
The Armistice for World War I
In their letters, my grandparents wrote of their experiences with the Armistice. My grandmother stated that in October of 1918 they were awoken early in the morning with news that Germany had surrendered. The news was premature, and Germany didn’t actually surrender until a month later. On November 11, 1918:
The whistles are blowing so that I cannot sleep. So, I am writing this letter by candlelight at 5 AM. It must be that the German representatives answered before the time limit was up for President Wilson has asked that there be no celebrating till the official announcement from Washington. You see, the nation just about went wild last Thursday. Big parades were held, and the greatest excitement reigned in many places.
That same day, my grandfather said: Last night we received news of the abdication of the Kaiser; today, rumors of the armistice terms accepted. So we expect peace very shortly now. And how happy his world will be!
Letters like the ones from my grandparents show us a firsthand account of life during specific times in our history. While my grandparents were not famous nor were they rich, but like many people, even today, they recorded their lives. By doing so, they showed us what it was like during a time when telephone calls and car rides were luxuries. And life seemed a little simpler.
My grandmother at one point in her correspondence with my grandfather wondered what it would be like if their love letters would be published much like the letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. I think she’d be proud to share her letters with the world.