The family letters, papers and documents of individuals of the nineteenth century should always make for interesting reading even if they are of the unexciting, tedious and mundane.
There is always information which lends insight into their ways, means, customs, traditions, thoughts, feelings, attitudes and opinions.
The volume under review can be viewed, in places, as such a combination.
The individual in question is one George Ryan of Norfolk, Connecticut, who was appointed to the United States Military Academy in 1853, graduated in the Class of 1857 (E. Porter Alexander was a classmate), went on to serve as an officer in the Civil War and colonel of the 140th New York Volunteers, following the death of Patrick O’Rorke at Gettysburg, before he was killed in action at Spotsylvania on May 8, 1864.
The letters and documents included were written by Ryan and other family members to and from each other and detail a portion of Ryan’s adult life from just before his appointment to West Point to the aftermath of his death. As mentioned above, some of the material is not nearly as interesting to some readers as they might like yet the overall story, if you will, certainly demonstrates another tragic episode of the American Iliad. Ryan was a beloved son and brother who served his country in its greatest hour of need.
If there is much of interest here, it is the unusual format of the book, specifically the apparently handwritten notes at the end of some of the letters by Susan Betts, a Ryan descendant, which add further context as well as the illustrations or photocopies of some of the original letters, at least one of which is rather illegible, unfortunately. The dust jacket is plain white but unusual as it is a reproduction of the cadet appointment document which George received from the well-known Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis.
Also, inside the back cover is a photo reproduction of Ryan’s commission in the 140th New York Infantry from the state’s governor at the time, Horatio Seymour.
Again, unfortunately, the hand-written portion of the document is rather faded and simply not readable.
The letters themselves are relatively brief but the family missives following confirmation of George’s death and subsequent recovery of his remains are quite poignant, reveal the initial uncertainty of his demise and then depth of grief experienced by the survivors as his death is confirmed.
Interestingly, the letters were kept over the years in a fellow officer friend’s footlocker, in which Ryan’s personal effects were sent home after his death, before being donated to the Catholic University of America where they now reside.
The illustrations are a highlight as they include a sketch by Alfred Waud of Union soldiers escaping the fires in the Wilderness and a pen and ink drawing by fellow cadet, James McNeill Whistler, of “Mother” fame and subsequently dismissed from West Point by Robert E. Lee. Photographs are of George, two classmates, family, the Old Academic Building at West Point as well as other family documents.
Unusually, there is no title page and a table of contents was certainly unnecessary. If there is any criticism to be made, it is that the editor states that “to bring an ease of reading to this work, modern punctuation has been overlaid as needed.”
If so, there are quite a few letters, transcribed by another Ryan descendant, Jerry Goebel, where it is missing or has simply been excluded.
As a result, some of the letters must be read carefully in order to realize a sentence has ended or to obtain the proper understanding of a sentence or its context. However, each letter’s text is large and easily read, notwithstanding the punctuation.
Otherwise, Susan Betts has done a great service and, as she says in the Afterword, published these letters because Ryan did not marry and so had no children and she wanted to secure his memory as one of those who gave the last full measure in the War of the Rebellion.
Although this is not a complete compilation of the 1200 Ryan papers and documents, these letters do provide an inside look into the life of an individual who, despite his tragic and violent death at an early age, was a “player” and leader of a well-known regiment of the war. His story should be considered among the reasons why we should never forget the sacrifices which made those of the 1860s the original Greatest Generation.
Title: Inside the Ryan Papers: George Ryan
Editor: Susan Betts
Publisher: Dementi Milestone Publishing, Inc.