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[Detail] Photographic Print of Tilton C. Reynolds, undated

Correspondence: Purpose, Form, and Style

Different kinds of correspondence (i.e., letters) have different purposes. Because of the different purposes letters have, they may take different forms and have different styles. Form refers not only to the way a letter looks but also to expected components.  For example, a thank you letter has different purposes than a job application letter and thus would have a different form and a different style. Of course, the circumstances under which a letter is written and the personality and background of the letter writer also affect its form and style. We would not expect a letter written on a nineteenth-century battleground to look or sound like a letter written in a twentieth-century office. Similarly, a letter written by a well-educated doctor in his 40s would differ from a letter written by a teenager who has dropped out of school.

What are the general purposes of letters written by soldiers to loved ones at home? Jot down your ideas. For each purpose, write down a component that you would expect to find in a letter from a soldier to a loved one at home.
Examine the following letters:

What common elements do you find in at least two of the letters? What insights does identifying these common elements give you as to the purpose of the letters? How closely do the common elements resemble the list of components you wrote before looking at the letters? Based on your thinking about the purposes of letters from the war and your analysis of the letters, write a brief set of directions for soldiers writing letters home.

Some of the letters in the collection were written in haste while others appear to be more reflective.  Letters from youthful soldiers often were rambling accounts of events and somewhat incoherent while those from older relatives and friends were more reflective.  Select early letters from Tilton Reynolds or Joseph Green (both teenagers when they joined the Pennsylvania Volunteers) and compare them to letters written by David Crawford, Hiram Sprague, or John Smith (who were older):

  • How do the letters differ in style and content?
  • What do the letters reveal about the interests and values of their authors?
  • To what extent do you think the differences in the letters are attributable to the age of the writers? Explain your answer.