My Moment: An obscure bit of Civil War correspondence inspired me to examine American history through the stories of everyday people
My Moment is an occasional series in which Tufts graduates from across the university share stories of personal transformation—from small moments that offered new insight or inspired fresh thinking to life-changing events that altered the course of a relationship or career. Do you have a story that you’d like to share? Let us know at email@example.com.
The summer before my junior year at Tufts, I interned at the Middlesex County Historical Society in Middletown, Connecticut. It’s my hometown, and I live there today. As a history major, I was learning the skills of academic history in the classroom. This internship gave me the chance to explore how the community interacts with history.
My role at the Historical Society was to create an inventory of the Civil War collection and to identify any items that might be of interest for future research or exhibits.
In a box of Civil War letters, I came across one letter that seemed unusual. The letter started “Dear Master David” and was addressed to David Kiddoo. It described life in a Confederate unit, talked about family members, and included other details. It was signed by a man with the same surname, Mingo Kiddoo.
Both the salutation and the signature provided us evidence. While “Master” was not a common title in the 19th century United States, it was used in the South in two situations: by white tenant farmers to refer to their landholder and by individuals held in slavery to refer to their enslaver. The signature suggested this might be the latter case. The first name of Mingo was rarely held by a white man, and enslaved and formerly enslaved individuals often adopted the surname of their enslaver. A thorough study of the letter indicated that it was most likely written on behalf of an African American man who served as a body servant for a soldier in the Confederate Army.
The term body servant refers to someone working as a personal servant for a soldier. Generally, that included tasks such as cooking and caring for the soldier’s gear. The vast majority, though not all, of body servants traveling with the Confederacy were held in slavery. Most of the others were free men of color, trying to find a way to survive in the Confederacy.
The viewpoint that the letter provided was intriguing. I had seen academic history as big picture, focused on finding large-scale patterns. But it turns out that’s not what interests me. Mingo’s letter was the entry point for me thinking of history as a collection of individual and community stories.
When we start speaking about story, we see history very differently. In one of my current projects, I have been working to identify and document African American veterans of the Revolutionary War buried in a local cemetery. In trying to tell their individual stories, we have found ourselves grappling with questions about power, agency, and financial resources. We have had to work to understand how the community functioned at the time, from all possible angles. The discussion becomes far more inclusive and far deeper.
I didn’t fully recognize it at the time, but the letter changed my approach to history. It encouraged me to love the idea of story. I now have my own business, Charter Oak Genealogy. I teach about local history, conduct genealogy research, and do French to English genealogical translation. Even today, I find that I am much more of a historian than the typical genealogist. Telling stories like Mingo Kiddoo’s not only helps his family to understand its past but also gives each of us insight into our communities, country, and world.
You can read more about Mingo Kiddoo’s letter in Bryna O’Sullivan’s 2008 article, “Dear ‘Master David’: A Letter from an African American in the Confederate Service” in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly (accessible online to members of the society or through some libraries).