A new online archive of Civil War correspondence promises to shed light on historical varieties of nonstandard American English. Two linguists, Michael Ellis (Missouri State University) and Michael Montgomery (University of South Carolina), have teamed up with historian Stephen Berry (University of Georgia) to create “Private Voices,” an archive of letters from Civil War soldiers. Based on correspondence collected by Ellis and Montgomery as part of the Corpus of American Civil War Letters, the Private Voices archive focuses on the writing of soldiers who were “untrained in spelling, punctuation, or the use of capital letters,” according to the press release announcing the launch of the site (which you can read here).
Soon after news of the archive was shared on the American Dialect Society mailing list, Jonathan Lighter (author of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang) began looking for hidden treasures. He swiftly turned up a letter from 1862 in which the author, an infantryman from Virginia, appears to express a violent sentiment: “I want to kick ass.”
You can read the whole letter here. The writer was John B. Gregory of Pittsylvania County, Virginia, serving in Company B of the 38th Virginia Infantry. His letter is dated Feb. 17, 1862, from a camp near Manassas Junction. (This was in between the first and second battles of Bull Run, or the battles of Manassas as they were known in the South.) In the letter, Gregory writes to the folks back home, “old capen gilburt is doun her doing All he Can to get us to volenter Agan he Think evry one orter stay” (i.e., “Old Captain Gilbert is down here doing all he can to get us to volunteer again; he thinks everyone ought to stay”). And then, in between the lines right above “one orter stay,” Gregory adds, “I want to kick ass.”