What do you do when that perfect topic for an important college research paper turns out to be not so perfect?
If you’re Micheal Larson, you come up with an even better idea, ace the assignment and 30 years later turn your research into a long-dreamed-of book.
The UW-Eau Claire graduate recently published “Dear Delia,” a writing project he began thinking about when he was still an undergraduate student three decades ago.
A Civil War buff and history major, Larson planned to do a required research project on a company of men from Chippewa Falls, Company A, Seventh Wisconsin Infantry. He had to discard that plan because he couldn’t find enough primary source material on Company A to complete the assignment.
However, through that initial research, he discovered a soldier in Company F, Captain Henry F. Young, who had written many letters to his wife and father-in-law in southwestern Wisconsin during the war.
“As I read Young's letters, I was captivated by his range of interests from camp life, politics, military leadership, finances and his dry sense of humor,” says Larson. “While I did not use too many of his letters in this undergraduate project, I vowed to return for a thorough examination at some point in the future.
“Little did I realize it would be nearly two decades before I was in the position to complete this work.”
“Dear Delia” chronicles the story of Young, an officer in the Iron Brigade, as told through 155 letters he sent home to his loved ones. His powerful insights help readers see the Civil War as he did, Larson says.
In his letters, Young describes many aspects of his military service, sharing details about what he sees and his reactions to it. He touches on everything from the camaraderie among the troops to the brutality of the war, as well as his observations about the military’s leadership and tactics, and his opinions about the 1864 presidential election.
What comes across, Larson says, is Young’s patriotism and his willingness to sacrifice everything for his country.
“It had always been my goal, even as an undergraduate, to do something with the letters,” Larson says of sharing Young’s letters in the form of a book. “Little did I realize the amount of work involved with such an undertaking.”
A lifelong history buff, Larson earned his bachelor’s degree from UW-Eau Claire in 1986 and his master’s degree in 1997.
He now teaches American history in the Menomonie School District.
Larson credits his late grandfather, a World War II veteran, for his lifelong interest in history.
“Even as a young man, I read books on our founders, the Civil War, and, with the death of my grandfather, World War II,” Larson says. “While UW-Eau Claire stoked this passion, especially with great professors, it was an interest that was already present on my arrival on campus.”
While “Dear Delia” was just recently published, Larson’s been using Young’s letters in his teaching for many years.
“As a history teacher, I strive to make the past come to life,” Larson says. “Nothing can help accomplish this more than using the words of those who lived it, and the trick is for teachers to bridge the past to the present.
“Young's letters, never far from my mind, are a great resource in my Civil War unit, and best of all, a natural fit to how the war was experienced from one of our own Wisconsin men.”
Published by the University of Wisconsin Press, “Dear Delia: The Civil War Letters of Captain Henry F. Young, Seventh Wisconsin Infantry,” was co-edited by Larson and John David Smith, a professor of American history at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.
Larson will discuss “Dear Delia” during an April event on UW-Eau Claire’s campus. He will speak at 4 p.m. April 10 in the Special Collections and Archives area of McIntyre Library.
Photo caption: Blugold Micheal Larson recently published a book based on research he started three decades ago while he was a UW-Eau Claire history major.