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“The Sorrow of Our Nation Was Ours Too”

Under normal circumstances, when you are simply living your life in all its chaotic glory, trying to find time to make dinner and fold laundry, it can be easy to forget that you’re a historical actor. This past year, however, as we grappled with a global pandemic, racial injustice, and political turmoil, it was clearer than usual that we were, in fact, in the midst of history. But more than all the dramatic headlines and late night fretting over foreboding public health charts, it was my four-year-old son that made me stop in my tracks and realize the weight of the moment. Walking down our street, he was tiptoeing over the cracks in the road and turned to me to exclaim, “Don’t step on the cracks! They’re full of virus!” And my breath caught, not just because I viscerally saw how his young mind was using play to process the anxiety and fear of this time, but because I knew if I didn’t write that down, it would be lost to history. He’s too young to document his own life, so I share my historical record with him.

Looking at archival collections with a careful eye, pausing to notice how children enter into the documentary record produced by the adults around them, you find evidence of their lives and their impact woven through all different kinds of sources. Which makes sense! In the present, children are everywhere, filling parents’ days with their chatter and imaginative play, challenging their teachers and making them laugh, shining light for all of us to follow. But when they can’t write for themselves or save their own history yet, you have to look to others to help tell their stories. Thinking of my son jumping over “virus cracks” or building a Lego facemask as a way of telling me how he was living in our own historical moment, I was reminded of a letter in our Continental, Confederation, and United States Congress Collection. “I was just informed that the Shot and Kentledge [slabs of iron] which were cast by Messr. Faesh and Company and deposited at Elizabeth Town are wasting daily by Children and others throwing them in the Creek and burying them in the Mud,” an exasperated James McHenry wrote in 1797. As Secretary of War he had been turning his attention to the military supply system, but he may not have been expecting to have to deal with the threat of playful youth who turned to his stores for entertainment. Military and political collections are full of these moments that give glimpses of children, reminding us that histories of pivotal moments or grand strategies can skim over the fact that kids were likely nearby, active in the same spaces, being impacted by these events, and sometimes causing trouble.

Front and back views of a photograph of a girl wearing a dress; handwritten notes on the back.

[Daughter of Thomas Hughes?], carte de visite, 1862.

Even when children were not physically present during tumultuous events, we can still catch sight of them through the records of those who loved and missed them. Thomas Hughes served with the 28th Iowa Infantry Regiment during the Civil War, leaving his wife and at least five children back home. His 11 surviving letters tell of his wartime experience, but most only contain passing references to his children, sending prayers for their safekeeping, kisses, and assurances of his love. His commitment to his family is clear, but the depth and texture of his longing for them is obscured by the limitations of language. How much heartache lies behind the platitude, “Kiss all the dear children for me”? A photograph contained in the collection helps us better understand how Thomas Hughes’ Civil War service was colored by his role as a father. A well-worn carte de visite of a child, possibly his daughter Anna who would have been about 10 when this photograph was taken in 1862, bears the inscription on the back, “Carried by Father thru the War.” Missing his daughter, Thomas Hughes kept this small talisman of home close to him as he served in the Vicksburg and Red River campaigns. Anna Hughes was nowhere near the front lines, but her father carried her with him as he waged war, and this photograph hints at the profound ways parental love and longing shaped soldiers’ wartime experiences. Even in their absence, children were shaping the world around them.

Indeed, visual sources provide powerful glimpses into children’s encounters with the historical drama of the day. Military artist Richard Short produced two sets of views while stationed in Canada in 1759, which were later engraved in London. One set depicted Québec on the heels of the English siege of the city during the French and Indian War. While we can certainly wonder at the artistic liberties Short may have taken, his work suggests a high level of destruction and disruption in Québec during an already turbulent time. Looking closely at the figures populating the scene, you’ll notice a number of children playing amongst the ruins, seemingly using a beam like a seesaw. Short’s view hints at the resilience of the city’s youth during war and uses their everyday playfulness to contrast with the devastation around them. We can’t know for sure whether Short actually witnessed kids cavorting amongst the crumbling buildings, but it’s suggestive about how children have turned to play across the centuries as they confront and live through trauma.

Full black and white print of damaged and ruined buildings; an area of detail is outlined in red.

A careful eye is needed to note the requisitioning of debris for youthful diversions in A View of the Bishop’s House with the Ruins, as they appear in going up the Hill from the Lower, to the Upper Town, by Richard Short (1761).

A group of children uses beams as a seesaw, playing amid ruined buildings.

Sometimes, though, the weight can be too much, and they can’t bring themselves to play. In 1946, 90-year-old Clara E. Paulding wrote about when she learned about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Just nine years old at the time, she recalled seeing her friend’s mother “sobbing bitterly in a rocking chair” before telling them of the tragedy. “[A]fter a while we went to the barn where we had meant to play house. We couldn’t. The sorrow of our nation was ours too.” A powerful reminder to make space in our histories and in our hearts to attend to the emotional impact events have on the youngest among us, Clara Paulding’s remembrance in the John E. Boos Collection sits extra heavily with me. The sorrow, joy, or fear we read about when we learn of grand events belongs not just to the leaders of nations or the adult citizens, but to all of us. Attending to that fact often means looking for children’s voices nestled within other people’s records, and it requires that we tell their stories, not as asides or comic relief or as a way to humanize their parents, but in their own right. In some ways, there are parallels between parenting and doing responsible research. Respecting the children in our own lives often means trying to hear what they’re saying from their perspective, not disregarding something as silly or small because that’s how it may appear to us, but instead trusting it’s important and big to the child experiencing it. That same tenet holds true for how we approach the historical record. And so, I look to accounts of children playing as a profound way to understand historical disruption and trauma, just like how I’m careful to step over the cracks in the sidewalk while I walk alongside my son.

—Jayne Ptolemy
Assistant Curator of Manuscripts