James Madison Bowler was 23 in 1861. Lizzie Caleff was 21. They courted, married, had children and bought a farm. They attended dances, talked politics, confided their deepest fears – all separately, through hundreds of letters, as the American Civil War raged around them.
From the first “Dear Lizzie” in April 1860 to the final “Ever Yours, Madison,” in September 1865, the relationship between James and Lizzie “has an intimacy that’s beguiling,” says Andrea Foroughi, associate professor of History.
“In many ways, their struggles are universal, as parents, as lovers courting and then conducting a long-distance marriage. They’re about to be parents. They tease each other. She hounds him about smoking. It’s the stuff we all face.”
Foroughi’s annotated book, “Go If You Think It Your Duty: A Minnesota Couple’s Civil War Letters,” recently was published by Minnesota Historical Society Press. The book chronicles America’s deadliest war through the eyes of the Bowlers, who shared more than 230 letters while James Bowler served in the Third Minnesota Volunteer Regiment and Lizzie stayed in Nininger, Minn.
“There are no big name battles,” Foroughi said. “The Third Minnesota is the runt of the seven Minnesota regiments. Their officers surrendered at Murfreesboro, Tenn. (the infamous ‘Tennessee Surrender’). They had a shameful reputation; they were paroled as prisoners.”
James and Lizzie were both northerners; she from New Brunswick and he from Lee, Maine. He moved to Minnesota, where Lizzie’s family had relocated, and became her schoolteacher.
“His letters reveal a teacherly tone. He clearly sees himself in charge,” Foroughi said. For her part, Lizzie “goes from school girl to instant wife and mother. She starts to stand up for herself.”
The couple’s separation challenged their commitment to the war and to each other, said Foroughi, who spent eight years immersed in the words, private thoughts and personal stories of the Bowlers. In 1991, her first term as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, she was conducting research at the Minnesota Historical Society when she discovered the Bowlers’ correspondence. Descendents of their 10 children had donated the letters to the archives in 1973.
“It’s been a real treat. The letters were so rich in so many ways, and the historical society was interested in having them published,” Foroughi said. While the Civil War is a perennial favorite among scholars and historians, “there’s been a greater public interest in common people’s experience of the Civil War, especially since Ken Burns’ documentary,” she noted.
Foroughi holds Ph.D. and master’s degrees from the University of Minnesota. At Union, she teaches courses in American women’s history, Civil War and Reconstruction, American Indian and frontier history, and race and gender in the Civil War, among others. The Union Summer Research Fellowship made it possible for two students, Christopher Hartnett ’03 and Gina Markowski ’02, to help with primary-source research for “Go If You Think It Your Duty.”
Since the book’s publication last month, Foroughi has heard from some Bowler descendents, including great-great grandson Kirby Law – who sent an e-mail. It’s given her pause about what materials will be available to future authors and biographers.
“Nobody writes letters like these anymore. It was the only way to communicate,” she said of the Bowlers’ ongoing epistolary exchange. “How do you capture text messages, cell phone conversations, e-mail correspondence?”Read More