SCIM-C Demonstration 3: A Letter from Thomas Christie to Sandy Christie (1865)

In the demonstration section below, historian Tom Ewing uses the SCIM strategy to analyze the following primary source in order to explore the guiding historical question: What was life like in the artillery during the Civil War? His analysis using SCIM was taped and transcribed. A multimedia version is also available on this page. The source to be analyzed is a letter from Thomas Christie to Sandy Christie, his brother (view original handwritten letter, Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society). The letter was originally handwritten. What you see before you is a transcription based on that original.


The first phase of the SCIM strategy is summarizing. The purpose of summarizing is to locate any information or evidence that is explicitly available within the source. The first piece of evidence available from the source is the source type, that is, I am analyzing a letter. At this point it is necessary to read through the letter to get a broad understanding of the letter's author, subject, audience, and purpose. In addition, reading through the letter will allow me to determine if there are any inconsistencies, problems, or issues of which I need to be aware.
As I continue the summarizing phase, what does the letter tell me, explicitly? The author of the letter is Thomas Christie and he is writing to his brother, Sandy Christie. However, the knowledge that Sandy is Thomas' brother is only acquired from the website where the letter was obtained, not the letter itself. There is nothing in the letter that would make me think that was his brother although it's clearly somebody that the author knows. The letter was written January 5th, 1865, during the last year of the Civil War. The letter is describing the author's experiences in the artillery.
The author, Thomas, describes a battle that takes place November 15th, a month before the writing of the letter. Thomas is also talking to Sandy about whether or not Sandy is going enlist, and if he does enlist, in which branch of service he should enlist. So in terms of a summary, we have a letter that is from a solider that is both describing what the solider is doing and also talking to his brother about the implications of him joining the military. The question to be answered next is can this letter be placed in some type of context?


The second phase of the SCIM strategy is contextualizing. The purpose of the contextualizing phase is to examine the source in more detail in terms of recognizing and locating the source in time and space. In this case, when and where the letter was written is fairly straightforward and was mentioned previously within the summarization phase. Specifically, the letter was written in 1865, in Savannah, Georgia. Why the letter was written is also clearly stated. Thomas Christie is writing his brother and telling him of a recent battle and providing his brother with guidance on enlisting.
The question of what was happening within the immediate and broader context of when and where the letter was written is interesting. In a broad context, the letter was written during the last year of the war, 1865; however, the author provides significant information regarding the local context. The author aptly describes local embattlements, a battle experience regarding his nearly being shot by a cannon, and a nearby soldier actually hit by a cannon. Further, the author's army is clearly winning its battles and taking cities. He is very proud of both the army and his contribution. Finally, the author addresses the issue of his brother enlisting. It is unclear, however, if Thomas wants or does not want his brother Sandy to enlist.


I now know who wrote the letter, why it was written, and the context within which the letter was written. Within the SCIM strategy I now move on to inferring, that is, what information may be implied or concluded from the evidence within this source? One interesting inference is the level of depersonalization that seems to be occurring. The author is discussing battles, batteries, forts, and fighting, but the armies are never really discussed as real people. The author focuses on battery accuracy but gives no indication that they are shooting guns to kill people, nor a sense that the enemy is trying to kill them.
There does not seem to be a sense that the author is aware of the overall strategy of the battle or the war itself. The author is aware of the battles and duals, but provides no sense that these battles and duals are part of a larger picture. In addition, there is no sense of the war's progress, that the war is coming to an end or is likely to continue for some time.


The progression from summarizing, through contextualizing, to inferring, always leads me to questions. The fourth phase of the SCIM strategy is the monitoring phase, that is, what questions do I have regarding my initial assumptions and interpretations or my current understandings? In this case, I have several questions. What is Thomas thinking about, but not able to write about? Since his war letter would be censored, there is probably much he cannot tell his brother. Does Thomas want his brother to enlist? How large are 32 and 10 pound guns? What is an "embrasure" and who are "Rodmans?"
Also, part of the monitoring is, of course, to wonder what happens to Christie, what happens to Sandy? Does Thomas Christie survive the War? Does Sandy Christie join the military? What was their relationship before the War? How did the War affect the separation of families?


With all four phases of the SCIM strategy complete, I am left to create a final interpretation of the source relative to the guiding historical question: What was life like in the artillery during the Civil War? A final interpretation might look like this:
This letter describes Civil War battles and campaigns from the perspective of a single soldier, whose views illustrates the fragmentary character of war. Thomas Christie describes a battle in terms of a near miss that occurred when an artillery shell destroyed a building that he had almost gone into, but could not because the stairs were damaged. He also describes one casualty of an artillery attack by enemy forces. These very specific incidents are then contextualized in terms of a final campaign in the last year of the civil war, when Northern forces were occupying Southern coastal cities such as Savannah and Beaufort. The letter also talks about the possible enlistment of the author's brother, Sandy, who is apparently eager to enlist, and is encouraged to come to Savannah and join his brother's outfit. The Civil War is thus seen in several specific ways: as a series of incidents in battle, as a broader campaign which brings soldiers to one city after another, and as an ongoing struggle that is bringing in new men to fight.
As can be seen from the interpretation above, utilizing the SCIM strategy results in a deep, thorough, and careful analysis of the primary source, as well as an insightful and well-grounded interpretation.

The Historical Inquiry project was funded by an IDDL Research Fellowship and a FIPSE grant.
Copyright © 2004-2005, Peter Doolittle, David Hicks, & Tom Ewing, Virginia Tech