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Are America’s Students Dumbed Down? Compare How they Write to Civil War Soldier’s Letters

Private Union Soldier

Private Union Soldier

By Bill Korach

Schools today no longer teach cursive, and papers longer than 100 words are rarely demanded of students or written by them. Compare what most high school kids write today to what Privates James Elliot of Connecticut and Joseph Saberton of Indiana wrote in 1862. According to the Civil War Trust:

“In general, students attended school for fewer years than do modern students. However, a brief survey of school books from the period indicates that their reading books advanced through several modern grade levels in any given year. By the fifth year of school, students were reading material at a level which is today considered college level.

Corporal punishment was used, and even encouraged. Lucy Chase traveled south to teach in a school for free blacks. She related in a letter that the mothers frequently encouraged her to use corporal punishment:”

Norfolk, Va. 7/1/64
…Many a father and mother have begged me to beat their children at school. “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” is on every mother‘s tongue. “Now you whip her and make a good girl out of her,” the kindest mother says when she trusts her sweetest child to us…    


Note Private Elliot’s eloquent expression of faith during trying times. America’s 21st century soldiers and sailors write well, but they are the pick of the crop. The majority of America’s students face low educational standards and even lower expectations. Accordingly, the average American high school students spends between 2 and 5 hours per week on homework. According to Will Fitzhugh, Publisher of the Concord Review, history and writing skills are vanishing from the modern curriculum.





James Elliot 1st Conn. Artillery.

Fort Richardson  Arlington Heights


Jan. 22nd 1862


Dear Mother, Brothers & Sisters

As I received by telegraph the sad information of fathers death. I haste to to send you a line in the form of a letter at the earliest opportunity, expressing my regret that either George or myself were not permitted to pay the last tribute of respect to our beloved Parent, but circumstances are such as to render it impossible at the time, as it is more than probable that there will be an advance of this portion of the army in a very few days perhaps before this reaches you. Perhaps we may go, perhaps not.

As soon as the dispatch reached me I went to see the Col. to see if it was possible for me to get a furlough, he said that word came to him from Gen. McClellan to grant none to anyone for any time, though he (the Col.) would be glad to let me have one if he could.

You may be sure that I sympathize with you all at this trying moment, knowing that we shall be missed more at this time perhaps than any since we left our home to go out to help sustain our government and to fall in so doing if necessary.

The bad news was little expected by us as it was only a week since I recd a letter from him.

I know none of the particulars of his death, all I know as yet is simply the telegram saying he died on the morning of the 21st Inst. wishing George and me to come to attend the funeral Saturday, if we could, it was signed I. F. Abbe. I suppose it meant Randolph.

By this dispensation we as a family are all afflicted; Mother is left a widow and we are orphans; I feel that I can say in this “God doeth all things well, let his will be done.”

The question arises now (in which George and I am interested) how is the family left and how will they get along? I know nothing of your circumstances how you are left but I suppose that you will remain together until Spring certain and then perhaps you may think best to have a change. There will be some expenses connected with this event and I am not able to see how how you will settle them. George and I am willing to do what we can to help keep the family together, you will please send the particulars of your circumstances; and expenses to be paid etc to me. I have a little money by me at the present time and a little in Hartford and which I shall furnish if necessary.


Mother in my absence I can only refer you for comfort to Him who has said he would never leave, nor forsake us, try and keep up your spirit as much as you can. I will wait until I hear from you before I write more, much love to you all.

James P. Elliott


Private Joseph Saberton was in Company C, 25th Indiana Volunteer Infantry.

In the field, Camp near Corinth   May 29th 1862

Dear Brother

I received your welcome letter today and it could not have come at a better time than today for this is pay day with us.  I was very glad to plan you wise well. And all the folks’ too.  I was out on picket yesterday again.  We went out the day before that but our whole regiment was ordered out with the brigade.  We advanced on P Center line about 1 ½ miles yesterday and we had a warm time in doing it.  In our charge we made in the rebel pickets the two men next to me were killed dead.  That is what I call close shaving.  They belonged to the 14th Illinois – a regiment in our brigade, but we cleaned them out and held our ground and through up by castworks and fixed our batteries.  We were relieved by the 1st brigade who took our place today.  We do not know when we shall have a general fight here it is hard to tell.

You speak of my being clear of my scrape.  I tell you that I am perfectly clear of it or else I could not have received my full pay today.  Those damned fools that come home and tell their yams about those left behind would out lie the devil. I am just as clear as any soldier in the regiment.  Nearly all the officers that were on my court marital were either killed or wounded at Pittsburgh and the Col. Restored me to duty free of all charges.

I do not want you to notice every fool that comes home and as for being in the fight I was there for no man, especially a soldier could be one miles from the river(?) without being in the fight.  The fellow that gave you the information was not in the fight an hour before he got hurt and the men that can tell everybody that was in the fight.  Don’t do much himself but must be sneaking around watching.  We are drawing the South up into mighty close quarters and they will either have to fight or run in a few days.  And their I unto to you again.

Dear brother, I send in this letter forth $40.00 dollars to keep for me until I come back.  I drew $53.00.  I owed the Sutter (?) $9.00 and paid him and the balance has to got to last me until next pay day.  I know the balance will be safe in your hands.  I send it to you by Alex Foster our Gr Master and if I should happen to get killed in this battle, I want you and sister Sarah Rhodes to have it and all that may be coming to me. give my love to all and  answer this letter right away—-if you receive the money.  No more at present.

Your affectionate brother

Joseph Saberton

Direct as before, I expect we go on picket tomorrow again

I received your papers and Sarah’s letter – send some more.


Bolivar Sept. 30th 1862

Dear Brother

I once more take the pleasure of writing a few lines to inform you that I am well and I hope when these few lines reach you they may find you enjoying the same blessing.  I received your letter yesterday and was glad to hear that you was well.  I was glad to hear that you whipped the guerrallis at Owensboro.   It is a pity that you did not get their sooner and then you have seen how it went. skirmishing is nothing new to us for we have it all the times in some part of our division.  We are still laying in line of battle here expecting an engagement every day we are about 20 miles from the Junction and the report is there is a good many rebels about their.  I wrote a letter 10 days ago and sent it without paying the postage and I sent a note in it that I received from the Evansville post master saying their was a letter directed for me at the post office and it was unpaid.  I want you to pay the postage on it and forward it to me.  I sent John White a letter 2 days ago.  It is very strange about that likeness.  I think you had better rite to him at Newburgh and see what he has done with it.  Direct it Benjamin Johnston Newburgh Ind.

The nights is getting very cold here now so now I must conclude.  Give my best respects to James Rhodes and all enquiring friends.

N.B. I think it very strange that Ann Clark don’t write anymore.

Direct to Bolivar

I remain your Aff. Brother

Joseph Saberton




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