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Civil War Letters Found in Attic Prompt Author to Discover Family Heritage

Before one fateful trip to her attic, writer Ellen Alden knew next-to-nothing about the life of her ancestors, save for the fact that her red hair was a throwback to her family's life in Ireland. 

However things changed rapidly after Alden found nineteen old letters in a leather box written by her great-great-grandfather Florence Burke to his family during the Civil War.

This discovery launched Alden into a journey into the past. She set aside her career teaching elementary school in Massachusetts to write her first novel, titled Yours Faithfully, Florence Burke.

"The whole storyline is based on those letters, and I stayed true to what my great-great-grandfather wrote," Alden explains. "And what he wrote was pretty amazing, I wouldn't want to change it anyway, and you really can't make that story up - even the very surprising ending."

Credit Photo courtesy of Ellen Alden
Photo courtesy of Ellen Alden
Ellen Alden's great-great grandfather, Florence Burke.

Florence Burke left Ireland in 1848 to escape the Great Irish Potato Famine and to follow his future wife, Ellen, to the States. After he settled in West Springfield, Massachusetts, Burke worked as a tenant farmer.

In pursuit of his American Dream, Burke enlisted after the draft law was introduced during the Civil War. This law allowed people to take the place of a wealthy man's son's conscription in exchange for a parcel of land and a small house, according to Alden.

At 35 years old, Burke signed up to serve during wartime in hopes that after it was over he and his wife could raise their two boys and baby girl on their own farm and support themselves.

It was this determination to establish a future for the Burke family that made Alden determined to tell this story. "So many immigrants...from every country go through their first struggles, but to make it beneficial for the rest of your generations - that's huge," she says.

Alden admits that it was slightly embarrassing how little she knew of Irish history. "I actually thought that the Potato Famine really was just a potato famine that they died because they didn't have enough potatoes," she says. "I didn't know that there were other things that they certainly could've done. They had all of these crops and cattle, but they couldn't have them for themselves. They had to export them."

When writing her book, Alden researched Irish and American history and also traveled to Ireland to meet with a historian from the town her great-great-grandfather was from. For Alden, getting every detail right was crucial in her mission to produce a historical novel that would be a true testament to her family's sacrifices.

The narrative structure of the novel switches between Burke's perspective and that of his wife, Ellen, based on events presented in the letters. Though most of the letters found were legible, some sections were faded beyond recognition or torn. But through her research and familiarity with the content, Alden was able to fill in the missing pieces of her family's story.

Although the Civil War caused devastation for many families, including the Burke's; Alden believes that her great-great-grandfather's decision to enlist was beneficial. Because the Burkes became landowners, their children were able to go to school beyond the fourth grade, be American citizens and enjoy other liberties given to landowners during the time.

"He did well by his kids, that's for sure," says Alden. "It was the ultimate sacrifice, but I think he'd be proud of himself. I'm not sure if Ellen would be totally on board because it was hard for her, but I did later find out that she lived to be 83... She survived and was the grandparent to lots and lots of children, and she never re-married either."

Ellen Alden will be in town this weekend to talk about her novel at Milwaukee Irish Fest's author area.

Audrey Nowakowski hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2014.