Monday, July 25, 2011

Beyond Words: Handwriting Analysis of Civil War Letter

Civil War history became personal for me when I found war-era letters from Southern ancestors handed down in my family. Eager to know more, and possibly under the influence of one too many television crime shows, I decided to analyze the handwriting in the letters.  I've recently been blogging about David Lindsay Welborn,whom the Confederacy assigned in 1864 to an ironclad gunboat protecting Richmond, so I tackled his letters first. 

Portion of a letter home from my Civil War
ancestor David L. Welborn. A family
member later punched the holes to store
the 1864 letter in a notebook. For the
entire letter, go to LETTERS page.
Although I'm a rank amateur graphologist, I tried my hand at one of David's letters to his father, Joseph Welborn, of Randolph County, North Carolina. I consulted a handwriting analysis book* that’s been on my library shelf for years, and discovered a rudimentary personality profile that mere words on paper could never reveal. 

But first, I assembled known facts about my farmboy ancestor.  I knew from reading the unsuccessful petition to the local conscription board that David had filed in July 1864, that he had blue eyes, black hair, fair complexion, is 5 ft. (illegible) inches, was born in Randolph, is a farmer and was raised up to the business. The petition also told me that David, at age 20, had joined the 63rd Regiment of the North Carolina Militia. David wrote at least two letters to his father soon after he was assigned to the CSS Fredericksburg patrolling the James River just south of the Confederate capital.   

David opened his brief letter, written in a schoolboy's hand on paper apparently torn from a small notebook, with this salutation: “This is from your son D.L. Welborn.” The greeting struck me as peculiar.  Surely Joseph recalled he had a child with the initials “D.L.,” but by October 1864, Joseph had three sons fighting in the war. (A fourth son, Lyndon, died in battle in November 1863.) And David, whose mother died when he was barely four years old, probably felt lost among widow Joseph’s brood of ten children. Hence, David's reminder to open his letter.

Back page of a second
letter from David Welborn
of the N.C. Militia, 63rd
Regiment, to his father
So much for the facts; time to consult the handwriting analysis book. I concluded that David, young and free of accumulated emotional baggage, was:

- Emotionally even-keeled and not depressed, not yet anyway. David’s writing follows the lines of the paper. A moody person’s words would undulate up and down, regardless of the lines.
- Extroverted and needing to be in the middle of things. David centered his large script on the paper, indicating his social outgoingness.  As for his need to be at the center of the action, this plea had already made that point:  Pleas right as soon as you get this    tell me all the news that is going on.
- Open-minded, as illustrated by the open spaces between words, and up front with his feelings, shown by the script's slant toward the right.  Of course, I had picked up on these traits somewhat when I read: I have a hard time      I got here yesterday mornin and hav been sic ever sins     night and day
- Adventurous (writing doesn’t hug the left margin), but unorganized (haphazard grouping of words), and uncertain about the future (writing doesn’t hug the right margins), but duh!
- Unreliable, as evidenced by the uneven pressure David exerted on letters and his uneven spacing between words; and, 
- Honest, with nothing to hide (no crossed out letters or “cover strokes” over letters). 

The nearly 150-year-old letter David penned aboard the Fredericksburg tells more about him than what he wrote. By studying how he wrote his letters, I learned something of who he was. And, though I never met David, because I could read beyond the words in his letters, I liked him.

I plan to scrutinize the other Civil War letters handed down in my family for clues to my ancestors' personalities.  If you are lucky enough to have old family letters or documents in your possession, why don’t you get your hands on a handwriting analysis guide, do some sleuthing, and open a personal window to America's past.     

As Emerson said, “There is properly no history, only biography.”
* The guide I consulted was “Handwriting Analysis: Putting It To Work for You,” by graphologist Andrea McNichol with Jeffrey A. Nelson. Contemporary Books, Inc., 1991.