With e-mail, instant messaging, cellular phones, as well as land-line telephones, we of the 21st century don't need to write letters to communicate and keep in touch with friends and family. But during the Victorian era, writing long letters was an important form of communication.
During the Civil War, with families being separated for long lengths of time, letters became vital for both the soldiers and their families back home.
According to Bell Irwin Wiley, author of: The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union, "... letter writing was one of the most pervasive of camp diversions." Civil War regiments sent out an average of 600 letters per day.
Letter writing soldiers often had to improvise. They wrote by candlelight, sitting on the ground, using another soldier's back or a knapsack as a writing surface. They also used such things as "... knees, tin plates, books, cracker boxes or drumheads." The Life of Billy Yank ... p. 184.
Writing paper varied in quality from fancy stationery to ruled pages torn from record books. While men preferred to write with pen and ink, they often had to rely on lead pencils. Soldiers Blue and Gray ... p. 105
They wrote about such things as battles, health, weather and new places and people they'd seen and met.
Soldiers also looked forward to receiving letters from home. One New Jersey soldier wrote in a letter to his family: "You can have no idea what a blessing letters from home are to the men in camp. They make us better men, better soldiers." Soldiers Blue and Gray ... p. 114
Men who felt they hadn't received letters from their loved ones frequently enough would write angry letters home, demanding their loved ones write back to them.
Some of the most beautiful love letters were written by lonely soldiers to their wives and sweethearts.
The following is an excerpt from a letter written by Union soldier, Sullivan Ballou to his wife, dated July 14, 1861, while contemplating the possibility of his death in battle:
"But O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the garish day and in the darkest night--amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours -- always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by." http://www.civil-war.net/pages/sullivan_ballou.asp
Click the above link for the complete letter, plus samples of others.
Another site where you can find samples of actual Civil War letters is:
People of the Victorian period were sentimental and their letters show it.
Sources: The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union by Bell Irwin Wiley
Soldiers Blue and Gray by James I. Robertson, Jr.