The Louise Gilman papers consist of 21 letters written by Louise Gilman to her elder sisters Molly and Emily, one to her brother, Edward, and four letters to Lizzie (probably Elizabeth Dwight Woolsey Gilman, ca. 1839-1910) or Hattie, who may either be friends or relatives. The collection also includes five letters from Molly Gilman to Lizzie, and a copy of one letter from Samuel C. Armstrong to one of the Miss Woolseys (probably Georgeanna).
Gilman's letters to her sisters include several fine descriptions of the still unfinished grounds of the Hampton Institute and portray an interesting, though not highly detailed picture of the life of a freedmen's teacher. The eagerness of many of the students to learn to read and the enthusiasm for education, at least among some of them, comes through strongly in these letters. One letter in particular provides an outstanding description of the Institute, the teachers' rooms and the daily routine, along with a long description of a visit to a Freedman's Church and Sunday School (1869 February 21). Gilman's final lines in her description of the Sunday School capture some of the complexity of her feelings about her experience: "I have spun out a long story of all this - but how else can I give you an idea of the mixture of free-ness & pomposity, of rudeness & simple decorum in all the exercises - I wish I could give you a picture of the whole scene! Such bonnets! Such hoops!!"
A running tension in the Gilman correspondence is the mixture of admiration and respect that Gilman musters for her pupils, leavened with an air of condescension and occasional scorn. At times, it can be difficult to discern her true feelings, as when she implies that books found in the Slabtown Sunday School might have been stolen, or when she suggests that she might bring home an 18 year old African-American girl whose health and well-being might improve at the north. Gilman adds, revealingly, "'Nothing offensive or niggery about her' says Rebecca [Bacon] -- 'She don't smell bad.' She has never received wages -- & I have not doubt would be satisfied with very small wages at least till the expenses of her journey are paid" (1869 April 27).