Sunday, September 27, 2015

Throwback Civil War Sunday - Civil War Penmanship

This past week, a Facebook post went viral.  It was a picture of a young schoolgirl's homework with a warning that she shouldn't be writing her name in cursive, and that she has been warned before.

I am not going to comment about the post - I have a feeling there is a lot more to this than the post mentioned, and this is not the place to interject my educational opinions.  However, the debate about teaching cursive will obviously heat up because of this post going viral.

This boils down to:  should cursive writing be taught in school?

Many parents and teachers do believe that cursive writing should be taught in school.  I am one of them.  Not teaching cursive (and how to read cursive) shuts the student off from many historical documents.  Further, the overall art of penmanship should be taught.  If you look at handwritten documents from United States history, I am amazed at the quality of penmanship.

Recently, I was amazed by the handwriting of my mother in law's new doctor.  This doctor was educated in Pakistan.  Her cursive writing is a thing of beauty.  I wish I could post it online, but it has personal information on it.

Seeing that doctor's list reminded me of a Civil War post from 2012 , which I would like to share with you again.

Civil War Sunday - Civil War Penmanship and Dr. Charles Leale

 (Matthew Brady photograph of Abraham Lincoln in the basement of the Tioga County Historical Society, Owego, NY November, 2011, salvaged from the September 2011 flood..  Photographed, not too skillfully, by me.)

This past week, some exciting news was announced - the report of the first doctor to reach Abraham Lincoln after he was shot was found.  The doctor was Dr. Charles Leale,a doctor who had seen Lincoln speak several days before.  For some reason, Lincoln's face fascinated him and he decided to go to Ford Theatre that fateful night of April 14, 1865, to study Lincoln further.  Accounts say he was only about 40 feet away from Mr. Lincoln when he witnessed the assassination.

Of course, it is always exciting for historians to have a source document found.  But, to me, what is more exciting is the availability online of the document itself.

For example, doctors have wondered if Lincoln's life could have been saved by modern medicine. As of 2007, the answer would have been "yes but with a lot of brain damage".  Now, we have an exact account of the medical measures taken.

From my point of view, though, what fascinated me the most was the document itself.  If you look at it, you will see it is beautifully written.  Not only is the writing that of an educated man, but the quality of penmanship is breathtaking to the modern reader.  For example, I would never win an award for my penmanship.

I had to do some research.

Handwriting was a main form of communication during the Civil War.  Those fortunate enough to be schooled spent countless hours practicing penmanship.  There were no typewriters commercially available (to the best of my knowledge) until right after the Civil War, although they had been invented.  Many documents were handwritten.   Part of judging how educated a person was consisted of judging penmanship.

Each side, Federal and Confederate, wrote countless letters, battle orders, and the like. Some kept diaries. Most all of these were handwritten.

What I found is that there were two main styles of writing during the Civil War era, "Copperplate script" and "Spencerian script."  I am not a graphic designer, but it seems from the small amount of research I did that both scripts, in one form or another, are still quite alive and well.

Even the instructions provided for Spencerian script sing to me.

With penmanship an instinctive skill, the writer was free to express his thoughts - and I could imagine the thoughts of Dr. Charles Leale flowing as he wrote about the fateful night of April 14 and morning of April 15, 1865. He did not talk about that night, the night he spent holding the dying President's hand, for years.  He  made his observations public in 1909, the 100th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, in a speech called "Lincoln's Last Hours".

Dr. Charles Leale died in 1932, one of the last living witnesses to the assassination.

Have you learned calligraphy?  Do you mourn the removal of cursive handwriting from elementary school curriculums?


  1. I learned cursive in the 3rd grade. By 11th grade, I had stopped using it. I find I print much faster. Considering all the time they spend on testing, something had to give. Let's get rid of all the high stakes testing and bring back cursive.

  2. I recently heard about this debate. I am personally glad that I was taught and learned cursive handwriting in school.

  3. I have mix feeling about the issue of cursive penmanship. Things do change over the years. I some what look at this way...My parents learn how to hook up team of horses to work the fields. I learn to chop firewood and I don't see someone learning that who lives in Apt in New York City. I guess in different part of world and times we learn different things....I have a letter that my Great Uncle Henry wrote during the civil war. And I have quite a few pen pals I write to....Coffee is on


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