Today I was reminded of HSP's digital project called the DCA or the Digital Center for Americana. Last year this project focused on the processing, digitizing and archiving of collections related to the Civil War. We have a great wealth of information in this area and it wasn't surprising that a couple months ago someone came into HSP and showed us a belt of their ancestor who fought for the Union Army, Company E, 53rd Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers.
The belt itself was made of leather and contained an extended flap that, once fastened to the waste, could extend over a jacket, coat or any outwear. On the flap was written "Willie Sargent, Co. E, 53rd Regt. Pa. Vols. Wounded, Battle Fair Oaks, June 1st, 1862." This served to inform people who would have no other way of knowing that the state of Willie Sargent was greatly in part to the wounds he had recieved fighting at the battle of Fair Oaks in Virginia. During this battle he received bullets in both arms and buckshots to the face and especially, the nose.
In one of HSP's resources titled: "Medical and Surgical History of the Civil War" published by Broadfoot Publishing Company, anyone can go and look up people who were injured during the War of the Rebellion, as it is also called. There it specifies, rather straightforwardly, that both of Sargent's arms were amputated due to his injuries. He survived this and was able to return to Philadelphia but was obviously disabled.
The belt thus stood as a small consolation for his efforts and maybe afforded him the respect of others. People who would potentially have seen him as a born cripple were reminded that he was a volunteered to fight. Nonetheless, whethr there was a spring in his step or he walked in hunched solitude upon his return, we may never know? Information about the quality or extent of one's happiness if often uncapturable. Nonetheless, what I believe is able to shed light on life's mysteries are people. A family with a belt or a story past down can often be like stumbling upon a small lump of gold. I ponder how the work I do with HPS's digital collections may ultimately help bring people together. How it may give them a place to go or contact? Some of our collections are going up on Ancestory and I wonder if we will start to be more widely, useful to the public. If so, how many more stories will end up being shared with people who have belts or photos or just memories? As well, how would we as an institution ever really know?