A student of history's summer labor brings Norwich soldier's story back to life

Ella does some field research at the New Hampshire State House.

Ella Lubell has me on the edge of my seat, and she's telling a story that's 150 years old. 

Ella is a Norwich resident and Hanover High graduate who is leaving town in a few days to begin her studies at Yale. She spent a chunk of the summer in the company of a fellow town resident, Albert B. Nye, gently tracing her finger over lines he wrote in wartime circumstances difficult to imagine today.

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Nye was a Civil War soldier, husband and father. He left a diary of his experiences, now in the collection of the Norwich Historical Society -- "a small, leather bound, unassuming journal in an acid free box," as Ella put it.

Nye is buried in Norwich, in the Hillside Cemetery. (Photo from Emma's blog.)

Her mission: transcribing Nye's diary. She loved it. "It’s very meditative," she said. "It feels a little bit like a conversation."

The result: a series of blog posts Ella wrote that will walk readers through Nye's account, unfolding the story of his wartime service as he lived it.

I'm passionate about history myself, so talking with Ella about her project was a pleasure. Her blog is too. (You can access it here.) It is interactive, rich with context and full of insight. And she spins a pretty good yarn.

As of this writing, she has Nye in the New York Hospital in the winter of 1862, struggling to overcome a case of jaundice -- "an entire continent away from the rest of his regiment, waiting to be released and scouring the city for anyone who can help him get to New Orleans."

What awaits him is a struggle with an unfamiliar climate, death and disease -- and battle.

Ella's remaining posts -- she is planning 10, and had eight written when we spoke yesterday -- will be published on Saturdays and Sundays through the rest of August. By the time the last of the posts appears, she'll be beginning a first year of studies that will immerse her in literature, philosophy, history and political thought.

That's Ella in the middle. (Bet you could have figured that out on your own.)

While Ella is away, work on transcribing the diary -- she didn't quite finish -- will continue, and in time that effort will become a story in itself. The historical society's hope is to crowd-source the work: to post images of the remaining pages online for people to claim and transcribe themselves.

I asked her if she could actually have a conversation with Albert Nye, what she'd ask.

"I would want to know how the war affected his life after," she said. He returned home -- as soldiers do today -- to a wife and child, and resumed civilian life. Eventually he became a house painter. "I would just want to ask how those different versions of himself fit together."

At least one of those "versions of himself" was, of course, extraordinary. Now, through Ella's efforts, and in time the community's, all of us can share in it. 

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