By Jeff Gallatin
Letters are often a window into other times, and Westshore historian and author Dale Thomas provides an enlightening view of an area Civil War veteran and his comrades by utilizing the soldiers’ letters home in his latest book.
Thomas, a 31-year social studies teacher at Bay High School, current vice president and archivist for the Olmsted Historical Society and member of the North Olmsted Landmarks Commission, will speak at noon this Friday at the Cleveland Public Library in downtown Cleveland about his fourth and latest book. “Civil War Soldiers of Greater Cleveland: Letters Home to Cuyahoga County” was published by The History Press and released this summer.
Thomas said he uses a narrative style in this book, utilizing the letters home of Nathan Hawkins and other members of the 103rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry to tell the story of the men and their unit during the Civil War.
“I used the narrative style by design in this particular book,” Thomas said. “It’s a little different than my two for the ‘Images of America’ books, ‘North Olmsted’ and ‘Then & Now: Olmsted,’ which has copy and a lot of pictures. This one tells the story of people with the letters, and (I) thought this was a better approach for this kind of book.”
One of the first pictures in the book shows the home Nathan Hawkins built in 1853, at what is now the corner of Lorain Avenue and West 210th Street in Fairview Park. A carwash now occupies the site. With the narrative approach, Thomas focuses much of the book on Hawkins and his communications with his family and friends, and does not reveal what happens to Hawkins until the end of the book.
“It’s a more personal approach to this book since we have a lot of detail on individual people in this book,” he said.
Thomas said much of his fascination with area Civil War soldiers stems from when he found two grave markers for Ohio Civil War veterans in a Fairview Park cemetery.
“They were markers and not actual graves, because they’re buried elsewhere, but they certainly got my interest,” he said.
Thomas’ interest as a historian in the era as well as his interest in the area soldiers in turn led him to the Olmsted Historical Society.
“I wanted to get the chance to look at the soldiers’ letters, which the society had in its possession,” he said. “You have to be careful because of their age and condition.”
Paul Schumann, a past president of the society who serves with Thomas on the landmarks commission, lauded Thomas and his work.
“He’s very thorough. He’s gone through just about everything the society has,” Schumann said. “He makes everything interesting when you talk to him. He also is the best researcher on the commission.”
Even though as a historian and teacher Thomas was aware of the Civil War’s overall history as well as much of the 103rd OVI and the men in it, Thomas admits he was drawn in even more while reading the letters and doing research.
“It’s very personal, because they are writing to the people they care about,” he said.
Thomas said he’s also glad that he’s scheduled to talk about the book during the same week as Veterans Day, which honors living and dead service men and women.
“When I realized that the event was the same week, I was pleased and found it appropriate,” he said.
He’s also glad to be speaking at the Cleveland Public Library – one of the pre-eminent public libraries in the United States.
“I’ve been going there since I was a kid, and have spent many hours there,” he said. “I’m really honored that I’m getting to speak there.”