Mechanicsburg library posts online versions of historic books

It got to the point where even a morsel of yellow dog was satisfying to Isaac Elliott.


A Union Army soldier, the Pennsylvania man was suffering from starvation and exposure while caught in the hell of Andersonville Prison.


“The sights I saw upon entering the stockade filled me with horror,” the survivor recalled decades after that May, 1864 moment.


“The camp contained about 15,000 prisoners. After seven or eight months, a robust healthy man would be reduced to a walking skeleton covered with filth and vermin.”


His is just one story of courage and conviction recently made available on the Internet by the Joseph T. Simpson Public Library of Mechanicsburg.


Last fall, the library received a $2,500 grant from the Mechanicsburg Area Foundation to digitize “Personal War Sketches” along with two “minute books” from the Colonel H.I. Zinn Post No. 415 of the Grand Army of the Republic.


“The books are very old and very fragile,” said Sue Erdman, library director. “They are too valuable to have people handling them. With today’s technology, they can be posted online so people around the world can look at them.”


Upcoming exhibit


Described as a memorial, the original “Personal War Sketches” is a one-of-a-kind resource on Civil War history documenting the service record and stories of about 270 GAR members. Written by Alexander and Matilda Underwood, it was presented to the Mechanicsburg veterans post in 1896 and is on temporary loan to the Mechanicsburg Museum Association.


Association members plan to incorporate the book into an exhibit at the Freight Station Museum, 3 W. Allen St., which starts on June 15, runs through Oct. 19 and features as its centerpiece the Confederate occupation of Mechanicsburg during their 1863 invasion of Cumberland County, said Joan Quick, a member of the MMA board of directors.


This summer marks the 150th anniversary of the invasion that ended in the three-day Battle of Gettysburg in early July. The intended goal of the Army of Northern Virginia was the capture of Harrisburg. Confederate forces moved through the Cumberland Valley in late June 1863 during their approach to the objective.


“We were the precursor to that,” said Quick, explaining how the Rebels had demanded food from Mechanicsburg residents. Other exhibit features include a display of Civil War era medical equipment, letters to home from soldiers in the field and period-style clothing on loan from re-enactors. There will also be a display of instruments and other artifacts from the Singer Band, a community ensemble that formed prior to the Civil War.


The Death Carts


Each entry in the “Personal War Sketches” book was written to a standard format with the same ornate banner on the top of each page. In every case, the veteran was referred to as “comrade” in the text.


Some accounts are sketchy and only include such basics as the date the veteran entered service, the units he served in and the battles he fought in. Other entries are more extensive and include graphic details such as the experiences of Elliott as an inmate at Andersonville, an infamous Confederate prisoner-of-war camp.


“About eight feet into the stockade was called the dead line and woe to the man who stepped across it,” Elliott recalled. “A stream of filthy warm water ran through the stockade. This we had to drink.


“A poor cripple was shot by my side for stepping close to the dead line,” Elliott added. “He said he was so miserable, he wanted to die. Every day there were from 50 to 100 corpses waiting for the dead carts. I saw a man lying near the stream. The maggots were eating him up. Nothing could be done for him until the cart came and picked him up...”


Better access


Until 2001, “Personal War Sketches” was hidden away in library storage in a carrying case made of varnished wood. It was believed the book was found at the old high school (now Schoolhouse Apartments) located near the library’s former location on Simpson Street, Erdman said. Someone had brought the book to the library.


In 1999, the library received a $3,500 grant from the Mechanicsburg Area Foundation to microfilm the book and back issues of old newspapers. Two years later, the foundation donated the $5,000 the library needed to buy a microfilm reader/printer to make “Personal War Sketches” accessible to readers.


Last August, the library applied for the $2,500 foundation grant to not only digitize “War Sketches” but the minute books with GAR meeting notes from 1887 to 1900. The library wanted an alternative form of access to the microfilm reader which is getting harder to repair and find parts for, Assistant Library Director Linda Wilson said.


“People do not have to just come into the library to use it,” Wilson said of digitized collection. “It will be good for researchers. We are contacting area schools, historical societies and college history departments.”


Leftover money from the process will be used to publish promotional material announcing the URLs of the three digitized books from the GAR post 415.



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