Laurence Burke: Favorite Archive Find

I am a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University.  The main thrust of my dissertation is the history of technology, but the particular technology I am studying is military.  Specifically, I am looking at how the U.S. military services adopted (and adapted) the airplane, and comparing that development across Army, Navy, and Marine Corps from 1908-1925.  (I keep saying this, but I hope to be done soon!)


In April of 2008, I started the archival research for my dissertation by visiting the Air Force Academy library’s special collections.  As this was my first intensive research visit, I had not yet developed any clear ideas as to what, exactly, I was looking for, so I was looking at a bit of everything.  I knew, however, that I needed to see the papers of General George Owen Squier, an important officer in the development of aviation in the U.S. Army.  This collection is what brought me to the Academy.


Though he never underwent flight training himself, Squier remained an aviation promoter and enthusiast once he had been exposed to flight.  I had not yet read deeply in secondary sources, but I knew that Squier had been Chief of the Army’s Signal Corps, for the last year or so before Army aviation separated from the Signal Corps in 1918.  I also knew that, from that position, he had supported the development of Army aviation.


But in reading his papers, I discovered that Squier was much more involved with (and important to) Army aviation than I knew.  One interesting thing I discovered concerned Squier’s time in London as military attaché in 1914.  In a presentation in 1930, Squier’s sister, Mary Squier Parker (the two were close – she survived him and was the one to donate his papers; the collection includes many of her papers as well), told members of a local Michigan club that her brother had been allowed to visit the British sector of the front in 1914 – this at a time when the U.S. was still strongly neutral, and when representatives of Britain’s declared allies (Russia and Japan) were reportedly denied similar access.  Since she was relating the story in an informal setting (academically speaking) many years after the fact, I mentally discounted the tale.  I figured that that this was just a sister’s pride in her brother’s achievements, combined with the inaccuracy of memory inflating his importance over time.  However, I soon found some other documents to corroborate the date and nature of George’s visit, and moved on with my research.


Toward the end of my scheduled time in Colorado Springs, I had been through everything I knew I wanted to see, and was at the point of just looking at other things on speculation.  The finding aid identified a collection of “News Clippings, 1899-1958” in “Package 7,” and I figured I would see what kind of stories were in these clippings.  But there was a problem: “Package 7” could not be found.  In fact, as I recall, none of the “packages” could be located. They were not on the shelf with the document boxes.  After a good bit of searching, the archivists found the “packages” back in the oversized documents storage.


The packages were little more than oversized envelopes, apparently untouched since their accessioning, as the envelopes were glued shut.  The reason the archivists had had a hard time locating Package 7 is that several of the packages had been placed together in a large Hollinger box and stored with the oversized documents.  As I opened the envelope that was Package 7, I could see that the contents were all loose clippings and odd-sized papers.  Since the archivists had no idea what was in the envelope, I promised to try to sort through the papers and report on their contents.  It quickly became clear that this envelope probably contained the contents of a desk drawer: there were multiple copies of articles from the local paper mentioning George, including perhaps two dozen copies of his obituary, along with other odds and ends.


But while sorting through these clippings, I found an odd-sized piece of very heavy paper.  The paper bore a letterhead consisting of a seal and the address, “War Office, Whitehall,” embossed on the paper, with nothing else to highlight them.  The document was a short letter, typed, with a firm, clear, handwritten signature.  Dated “14th November 1914” and addressed to “My dear French,” the letter introduced Squier, mentioned that he would be traveling to France, that he would “doubtless want to see something of our troops,” and encouraged French to “give him facilities for doing so as far as is practicable.”  It was signed simply, “Kitchener.”  This was Squier’s free pass to visit the British lines in France and see practically anything he wanted.  (The vague wording was diplomatically necessary to avoid putting in writing exactly what Squier would be doing in France.)  The archivists were just as excited as I was to discover that this document survived, unknown, in their collection.  They immediately gave it its own acid-free folder in the last document box, removing it from the rest of the contents of Package 7.


The letter itself makes no new revelations.  It was not needed to confirm Squier’s visit to the front; other evidence (beyond Mary Squier Parker’s memories) exists to prove the visit occurred, though the letter does wrap it up and put a bow on the story.  Instead, the interest is in the provenance: written (or at least signed) by Lord Kitchener (at that time, Britain’s Secretary of State for War) and delivered to General Sir John French (commanding the British Expeditionary Force in France) just a few months into the war.  Such a document might have been thrown away after its purpose had been served, or even deliberately destroyed to prevent any diplomatic problems should it come to light.  But Squier kept the letter, only to have it become just another anonymous piece of paper in his collection until I rediscovered it.

Signal-army-mil George Squier (2) OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My Favorite Archive Find: Candice Shy Hooper

**This is, hopefully, the first in a series of guest posts–I’d love to hear about your best, favorite, surprising, provocative and inspiring archive finds.  Please email me ([email protected]) if you’d like to share!

In 2008, I received my Masters degree in History from George Washington University (after thirty years working on and around Capitol Hill).  Since then, I’ve been working on a manuscript about how the wives of four of Lincoln’s generals influenced their husbands’ Civil War careers.  One of them is Ellen Ewing Sherman, and I have spent many hours exploring the William T. Sherman Family Papers Collection in the University of Notre Dame Archives.  (

Much of the collection is online – the archivists have done an exceptional job of digitizing originals and transcripts of hundreds of letters between Ellen and her husband.  Even though Sherman told his wife (as he was heading to Manassas in July of 1861) that he would tear up her letters because “every ounce on the march tells,” he did not.  He saved nearly all of them, and with the hundreds of his she saved, the collection includes one of the most extensive and intimate views of the war.
The collection also includes their diaries, articles they wrote, financial papers, sketches by Sherman, and the papers of their children.  In addition, the collection includes the papers of Thomas Ewing and those of several of his sons, Charles Sherman (WT’s father) and some of John Sherman’s papers. It is a treasure.  Thanks to the archivists’ work, most all of it is accessible anywhere you have WI-FI. But, of course, some items can be viewed only in the Archives themselves, and I knew I had to go there to see them.
In mid-September of this year, I was able to visit the Archives, thanks to a generous travel grant from the Cushwa Center at Notre Dame ( The major focus of my visit was an item I noted in the finding aid –  a box named “Objects” that had not been scanned (nor was there online a list of items in the box).   It turned out that there are actually three archival boxes in that category, containing fascinating artifacts owned by Ellen and Sherman.  In the third archival box, I found a mystery – a small cardboard box, labeled (in General Sherman’s granddaughter’s handwriting) “Seal of Confederate prison in S.C.”
Opening the box, I was absolutely floored.  Inside is a wooden version of a rubber stamp, one that would be used to validate or endorse official papers.  In overall shape, the stamp itself is similar to a roughly carved wooden pestle (as in mortar & pestle), about three inches long, cut flat at one end, where the actual stamp area is carved.  The shape of the stamp is an oval about two inches at its widest part. The words on the stamp are very finely carved, but in reverse, of course, and that is likely why the label on the box is wrong. Eleanor Sherman Fitch read it read it forwards instead of backwards.  “S.C.” is actually “C.S.”
Around the edges, it says:
Inside those words is carved:
This is the seal of Henry Wirz, commandant of Andersonville Prison, in Georgia, the only man who was executed for war crimes during the Civil War.  In the summer of 1864, Sherman attempted to free prisoners at Andersonville, but the force he sent was defeated. He later wrote, “I don’t think I ever set my heart so strongly on any one thing as I did in attempting to rescue those prisoners.”
There is nothing in the archives to indicate how Wirz’s seal got into the Sherman papers, nor have I ever seen any reference to this item in any biography of Sherman that I’ve read.  I’d love to know if anyone else knows about this.
One important footnote – The images appear with the permission of the University of Notre Dame’s Archives.
seal1 seal2

Who gets to name wars?

I had an interesting question from a student in my European Warfare, 1337-1815 course today. He said he’d heard that wars were named according to a formula of sorts: the second of the two countries mentioned was the victor. In other words, the Austro-Prussian war was won by the Prussians, the Franco-Prussian war by the Prussians, the Sino-Japanese war by Japan, the Russo-Japanese war by Japan, and so on.

I admit I was taken aback. I’ve never come across such an idea before, although I have pondered when various wars gain a formal name, shifting from “the present war” to the “Great War” to “World War I”.

We must win World War I!

We must win World War I!

Or the recent preference for naming (small) wars after the military operational nomenclature (e.g. Operation Iraqi Freedom…), or the historical amnesia that leads people today to refer to the second U.S. war against Saddam Hussein as simply the “Iraq War” (“Gulf War II”?).

So I replied to the student with some skepticism:

  • “What about all those wars that don’t explicitly mention the belligerents at all? If the rule does exist, does it only apply to wars between two, and only two, countries?”
  • “What about wars whose names change over time, e.g. the War of the League of Augsburg becoming the War of the Grand Alliance becoming the “Nine Years War?”
  • “What about the wars that are called different names, depending on the country?”
  • “Besides, who exactly would be in charge of ‘officially’ naming a war? Was there some naming committee that met and named the wars? Kinda like medieval heralds who met after a battle to agree on what to call it?”

Looking back, I think I usually thought about war names in terms of convenience rather than signaling real historical meaning: which country names had a good ‘combining form’? China (Sino-) or Japan (Japo-??). But that clearly is inadequate, since the Franco-Prussian war could just as easily be the Prusso-French war. So now I’m not so sure.

Needless to say, I am willing to chalk it up to somebody leading my student astray with a shaky generalization from a few cases, but perhaps someone here can enlighten me. Have you heard of this idea? Has anyone written a detailed study of the naming of wars? Is it possible this is, or was, a real convention? Is it possible that all these war names were chosen (in English obviously) at around the same time, and that there was a convention used, at least at that time? Or maybe the first war named with this formula was copied for later wars? I don’t know if this Google Ngram Viewer chart helps or not:

Ngram Viewer: compound war names

Any illumination would be appreciated.