She found a picture for her daughter’s assignment rather quickly. But she also stumbled upon something else: Buried in the clutter was a small leather box containing a trove of letters from her great-great-grandfather, an Irish immigrant named Florence Burke, to his wife and children. They were written, to her surprise, from the front lines of the Civil War.
“You never know what you’re going to find in your attic,” Alden said. “If that project hadn’t come up, I would have never gone up there and found them.”
Now, after years of researching her family history and writing a historical fiction novel based on the 19 letters, called “Yours Faithfully, Florence Burke,” Alden has given them away.
Last week, the Andover resident donated the letters — along with two photographs — to Boston College’s John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections, during an event at the school. The library will preserve, archive, and digitize the letters so students and researchers can use them for years to come. The ceremony was cosponsored by The Éire Society of Boston.
Burke, Alden’s ancestor on her father’s side, moved to Western Massachusetts from Ireland in 1848 to escape the Great Famine.
He arrived here with his brother from County Cork, shortly after his wife, Ellen Daly, came to the United States with her own family. The couple would go on to have three children.
A tenant farmer, Burke enlisted in the Union Army in January 1864, after the son of a wealthy banker traded Burke a small piece of land in exchange for Burke taking his place as a soldier, according to the Irish Times.
“He was making a gamble,” Alden told the Globe. “He was hoping they would get a better life.”
Though he had his family’s best interests in mind, life certainly did not improve for Burke as he set out for war.
While Alden described the letters as beautifully written, the words crammed on nearly every inch of some of the pages, they told the story of a man who made the ultimate sacrifice for his loved ones.
The messages were penned from places like a camp near Brandy Station, Va., and capture Burke’s struggles and concerns as he fought as an Army private.
“Dear Wife,” an excerpt from one letter reads, “I am taking the favorable opportunity of writing these few lines to you hoping to find you in good health [as] I am not at present. My health is pretty bad these couple of weeks I do not know what is the matter with me. . . . Thinking of you and the children and all is coming down as a load on my heart.”
A snippet from a second letter, written from Cold Harbor, Va., on June 12, 1864, says, “My dear and loving wife. I once more take my pen in hand in order to let you know that I am still living thank God for it. I hope you and the children are well.”
Burke continued, “We are close to the Confederate enemy only 100 yards from our entrenchment. Keep good courage and do not be fretting [as] I am doing the same hoping I will see you once more. Good bye.”
Burke died in the Battle of Petersburg.
The Burns library is “widely regarded as the most comprehensive of its kind in the world,” Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn said in a statement, making it the right place for the documents.
Christian Dupont, a Burns librarian and associate university librarian for special collections, agreed, and said the school welcomes the addition of the letters to its historical artifacts.
“We have a particular mission to collect Irish and Irish-American resources,” he said. “The letters that Ellen and her family will be donating fit right in with our collecting profile.”
Alden, who earned a teaching degree from Pepperdine University, said her life’s path was rerouted after discovering these mementos, taking her to schools, libraries, museums, and organizations where she has given talks and hosted presentations about her family’s rich history.
Spending so much time with the letters has worn them down. It’s also made parting ways with them bittersweet — though she knows they’ll be in good hands at “one of the best Irish studies colleges in the world,” where they can be shared with others.
“It’s going to be really sad to let these go,” Alden said. “It’s either that, or we put them back in our attic for 160 more years.”Steve Annear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.