My research on Civil War writing leads me to one conclusion. If you are literate today, it does not mean you can write — not even close to it in many cases. But if you were literate in 1863, even if you could not spell, you often could write descriptively and meaningfully.
In the century and a half since, we have evolved from word to image creatures, devaluing the power of the written word and turning ourselves into a species of short gazers, focused on the emotions of the moment rather than the contemplative thoughts about consequences and meaning of our actions. Many everyday writers in the mid-19th century were far more contemplative, far more likely to contextualize the long-term meaning of their actions. They meticulously observed and carefully described because, although photography was the hot new medium during the Civil War, words remained the dominant way of communicating thought, memory, aspiration, hope.
Imagery is the primary medium of our time, a potentially powerful host for good change and authentic understanding. But in its shadow, we have gotten lazy in our appropriation of the correct words to assuage or understand or to seek the common humanity that is in all of us. Today, throwing barbs and brickbats into the Great Din of the Internet has become as second nature as breathing, and one can do it so ubiquitously that words have become devoid of any meaningful consequence. The Great Din requires no forethought, no real calculation of purpose or result, no contemplative brake, no need to seek angles or views beyond those that reaffirm or reassure what we think right now. The best photographers still work patiently and incessantly for the right angles, the right lighting, the right moments to tell the story most truthfully and honestly. Would that more writers do likewise.