WARRENTON, Va. -- Betty Jean Vera came clutching a sheaf of yellowing papers, rolled tight and wrapped with string, which she had found in a musty trunk in her attic. The author was a young Confederate soldier.
"He was riding his horse and stopped at a home in Culpeper County," said Vera, a retired teacher. "And he saw a young lady carrying fresh biscuits in the yard. She dumped them in his haversack and he rode off because the Yankees were coming.
"And after the war, he came back and courted her, and married her, and they had five children. And he is my great-grandfather."
Next came Lindsay Grant Hope, a Realtor, with another Civil War diary. The cover was moldy with age, the pages dog-eared and frail, the writing flowery and precise. It belonged to her great-great-grandmother.
"Fort Sumter has been bombarded and captured!" the diarist wrote of the Confederate attack that started the war on April 12, 1861. "Hurrah for the success of the first blow!"
But Hope's ancestor soon penned "sad tidings," "melancholy facts" and "heart-rending news" as the conflict raged and the carnage mounted for four terrible years. The Union and Confederate armies battled so often across northern Virginia that this tiny crossroads changed hands 67 times.
Those haunting voices and other poignant portraits of America's bloodied past are public for the first time now. Archivists are visiting 129 cities and towns across Virginia to digitally scan long-hidden journals, letters, maps and other Civil War records into an online database before they disappear forever.