Dr. Bill Feis: Uncovering Secrets of the Civil War

Dr. Bill Feis transcribed 108 rare, handwritten letters from Civil War soldiers, handed down and preserved for three generations. These letters offer sketches of battlefields and unique look into the historic conflict.

The American Civil War is the most studied and written about event in United States history, and BVU’s Dr. Bill Feis, professor of history, holds recently uncovered handwritten letters from soldiers on the battlefields of the South and the homefront of Iowa. His task: digitally transcribe the 108 letters and author a book. 

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as a historian, and I haven’t been this excited about a project in a really long time,” says Feis, who has been interested in the Civil War for as long as he can remember and is considered a national expert in the field of American Civil War military intelligence. By carefully reading each letter, Feis discovered that the soldiers who wrote a majority of the letters were from southwest Iowa and stayed very connected to their family, friends, neighbors, and Iowa news throughout the War. The collection of letters was assembled years ago and has been handed down three generations. In summer of 2018, a friend of Feis’ reached out to share he knew someone with a collection of letters which provide a window to American life during the war years. 

“In order for us to understand where America is today in comparison to the past, we must go straight to the Civil War to what we did and didn’t do following it in order to reckon with ourselves.”

Dr. Bill Feis

“One of the most interesting things I’ve discovered was a letter which began with ‘From the battlefield of Shiloh’ with a sketch of the actual battlefield from his vantage point after he survived the battle.” The collection includes several sketches and maps from one of the soldiers, as well as other items such as an Iowa governor election handbill. As far as Feis can tell, no letters exist from soldiers assigned to this same regiment—making them all the more valuable. 

Upon receiving the collection, Feis asked Joan Curbow, BVU archivist, to assess the pieces to determine their condition and the best way to preserve and work with them. Feis then began the painstaking process of effectively transcribing each letter—which means aligning them chronologically and keeping the original spelling. His next step will be creating a written proposal with a sample chapter for a university press. 

When asking Feis why 150+ year-old letters matter today, his response is simple: “Besides being intrinsically interesting from a human standpoint, war (especially civil wars) reveals the worst and the best parts of human nature.” He added, “In order for us to understand where America is today in comparison to the past, we must go straight to the Civil War to what we did and didn’t do following it in order to reckon with ourselves. It was a crossroads of American history.” He points to recent conflicts over the Confederate flag, Confederate monuments, and race-based voter suppression, all of which are products of the Civil War era, and says, “The war is a touchstone with who we are as a country today, and we are clearly still struggling to figure that out.” 

Dr. Feis’ Works on the Civil War: 

  • Invited to lecture on his book Grant’s Secret Service at the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Penn., which aired on C-Span 3 American History TV in September 2018. 
  • Published Essentially American: General Grenville M. Dodge and Family (Donning Publishers, 2017)—a work commissioned by the Historic General Dodge House in Council Bluffs. 
  • Co-authored For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States from 1607 to 2012 (Free Press, 2012). 
  • Authored Grant’s Secret Service: The Intelligence War from Belmont to Appomattox (University of Nebraska Press, 2002). 
  • Written numerous articles and book chapters on Civil War military intelligence.