I am frequently asked by students and faculty: where do our rare book collections come from? While we have purchased many extraordinary books since the early years of the University of Michigan, many of our treasures were bequeathed by grateful alums. The reasons why they donated these artifacts are often fascinating, revealing little-known stories that shed light not only on the history of our institution but on our country at large. The book featured in this post is a rare seventeenth-century edition and Latin translation of Homer's Iliad. According to a letter we found inserted in our copy, while in a camp near New Orleans, and in the second year of the Civil War, Capt. William Wirt Wheeler of the 6th Michigan Volunteers wrote to his former professor of Greek at the University of Michigan, James Robinson Boise, that he “was able to save from the flames of a gentleman’s library a copy of the Odyssea and another of the Iliad,” and that he was sending these two volumes to his beloved professor as a “very small tribute of respectful remembrance from a former pupil who had need of all your indulgence blundering through his Greek at college.”
Camp near New Orleans LA
Sep. 29th 1862
Professor James Boise
University of Michigan
Dear and respected Sir.
During the course of my peregrinations in this war, I was able to save from the flames of a gentleman’s library a copy of the Odyssea and another of the Iliad and I have waited a long time for an opportunity to send them to you. One of my Sergeants having been promoted Lieutenant of one of the new Regiments from Michigan will leave them at Ann Arbor for you.
I presume you may have in your valuable collection of the classics similar codices to the ones I take the liberty of sending. It may be however that such is not the case. At all events I hope you will not be annoyed at receiving this very small tribute of respectful remembrance from a former pupil who had need of all your indulgence while blundering through his Greek at college.
Lieutenant AW Chapman of my company (who graduated in the class of 1860) and I frequently, as you may well suppose, recur to those happy days spent at Alma Mater. And I can assure you that your name is first among those whom we loved and venerated. It is our hope and prayer that you may be long spared to the “boys at home” and to our honored University.
Please accept our sincere wishes for your continued health, happiness, deserved popularity, and the welfare of your family: believe me Dear Sir as ever.
Your obedient Servant
6th Mich Vols.
Upon receiving these two volumes, Professor James Boise donated them to the University of Michigan Library.
This copy of the Iliad acquired a new life by being part of the exhibit, Translating Homer: from papyri to Alexander Pope, which was on display at the U of M Library's Audubon Room (Hatcher library) from August 9 to October 7, 2012.