What started as a college research paper for Menomonie teacher Mike Larson has turned into a book published by the University of Wisconsin Press 30 years later.
Larson, who teaches global studies and U.S. history at the Menomonie Middle School, edited “Dear Delia: The Civil War Letters of Captain Henry F. Young, Seventh Wisconsin Infantry.”
The book tells the story of Young, a Union soldier who lived in Cassville, Wis., through dozens of letters Young wrote to his wife Delia over the course of the Civil War.
The book was published in February — but its roots began in 1985 at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
Larson was a history major, assigned a research paper on any topic he chose. His first plan was researching Company A of the Seventh Wisconsin Infantry of the Civil War: Nearly all its men hailed from nearby Chippewa Falls.
“Unfortunately, there were not a lot of men in Company A that wrote a lot of letters home,” Larson said. “I had to broaden out to the whole regiment ... there, I stumbled on this guy Henry F. Young.”
Young was 37 when the Civil War began. He fought in some of the biggest battles of the war, Larson said: Second Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg. He was wounded several times.
But Young’s past held a treasure trove of information: 155 detailed letters, most between four and 10 pages long. The Wisconsin Historical Society had them all.
Larson used a few of the letters for his paper — but “it left me with a longing to look at those later in life. Little did I know it would go about two full decades before I’d really truly dig back into it,” he said.
In 2003, 18 years after that research paper, Larson picked up the project again. He spent several years transcribing all 155 letters, keeping Young’s writings faithful to the original letters.
“He wrote well, but he didn’t always punctuate, (and) his spelling was reasonably good,” Larson said.
In 2015, Larson took the next step and added information to each letter: “If (Young) mentions a person, say Bill Tremblay, who’s Bill Tremblay? I spent two years going through every person, place and event to add that as a footnote to each letter.”
In 2016, Larson submitted a portion of the book to the University of Wisconsin Press. Two days later, he got a reply: Send us more.
Finishing a first draft took Larson through 2016. Final approval came from the University of Wisconsin Press in September 2017. John David Smith, a professor of American history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, wrote an introduction for the book, and “Dear Delia” was published in February 2019.
What makes Young a fascinating bellwether of Union soldiers’ beliefs is the captain’s change of attitude about African-Americans throughout the course of the war, Larson said.
“Most Union soldiers did not go to war to fight (against) slavery. They went to war to preserve the Union,” Larson said. “They didn’t grow. They could have cared less. They weren’t there to liberate anybody.”
But Young’s letters show the Union captain gaining respect for the African-American soldiers who fought with the Union.
“You can kind of detect that he sees that this war, there’s a bigger issue involved here,” Larson said.
Young has no direct living descendants — his son Harry died in 1944 — but Larson hopes to one day meet an indirect descendant of Delia Young.
With his first book finished, Larson is pursuing another idea: Exploring Wisconsin’s Eighth Regiment, or the Eagle Regiment. The regiment’s Company C was from Eau Claire, he said.
“Wisconsin was very loyal to the cause. Ninety thousand Wisconsin men enlisted in the war, and 12,000 of them died,” Larson said. “They did their duty, and it cost them their lives.”
“Dear Delia: The Civil War Letters of Captain Henry F. Young, Seventh Wisconsin Infantry” can be purchased at the University of Wisconsin Press website (uwpress.wisc.edu) or on Amazon.