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For a quick Civil War lesson, members of the College of William & Mary community do not need to venture far from campus. Visitors to the office of Neal Wixson, Assistant Dean for Law School Admission, can brush up on their history and examine a unique wartime relic.
"My great-grandfather sustained an injury in his upper lip. That shrapnel, unbeknownst to him, stayed in his lip for almost 60 years," Wixson explained as he showed off the artifact, a tiny piece of shrapnel attached to a brass plaque about the size of a key chain explaining its origin. "In April of 1922, the family story goes, he was eating soup in a restaurant and all of a sudden this chunk of metal fell out into his soup."
This tale was one of the many impetuses behind Wixson's decision to write "Echoes from the Boys of Company 'H.'" (iUniverse 2009). In it, Wixson has collected the letters that his great-grandfather and other soldiers from Company H of the 100th New York State Regiment wrote over the course of the Civil War. "Echoes from the Boys of Company 'H'" recently won the Editor's Choice award from its publisher, iUniverse, which released the book in March.
Wixson's grandparents first showed him the shrapnel and other family Civil War heirlooms when he was 10 years old.
"I really wanted to learn more about my great-grandfather's service in the Civil War. That bubbled in me for many, many years," he recalled. "About five years ago, I started to locate letters from other members of his company."
Wixson's five-year effort included collaboration with organizations as far apart as the Buffalo Historical Society and the University of California. His daughter, Lindsey Wixson M.Ed. '04, Ed.S. '06, helped him with the painstaking task of transcribing more than 300 handwritten letters and journals that the "boys" composed throughout the war.
According to Wixson, finding prolific letter-writers from the Civil War - particularly from the same company - is very unusual. Despite their shared membership in Company H, the soldiers featured in the book had very different wartime experiences. Some were promoted, and one spent seven months in the notoriously harsh Andersonville prison. However, although their narratives differ, all of the men demonstrate a similarly evolving worldview as the war unfolds.
"Their attitudes toward the war really changed," Wixson said. "It started with a very strong sense of patriotism, speaking from the Northern troops' perspective. They wanted to see the country united but really didn't know much about the South aside from what they had read in popular literature. Their evolution of thought moved from preserving the Union to eliminating slavery."
Wixson explained that his six years as a member of the Admission Office at the Law School aided his quest to relay Company H's long and multifaceted story.
"I've read a lot of personal statements," he said. "They tell a story, so really having that interest helped me a great deal. I looked at these as really a collection of personal statements or one large personal statement that took three years of everybody's life to develop."
According to Wixson, Civil War enthusiasts in the Williamsburg area have myriad opportunities to experience the sights described in "Echoes from the Boys of Company 'H.'" The approaching sesquicentennial of the Civil War will include celebrations to commemorate the Battle of Williamsburg, in which the regiment participated. Furthermore, the surrounding region offers numerous Civil War museums and landmarks.
"This area has a real treasure trove of Civil War information. There's the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, which includes Jefferson Davis's White House. The Maritime Museum in Newport News also has a terrific collection," Wixson noted. "There are a lot of Civil War sites and Civil War battlefields within a day's drive."
"Echoes from the Boys of Company 'H'" is available for purchase locally at the Colonial Williamsburg Bookstore and the Bruton Parish Gift Shop. It is also available via on-line retailers.