Sunday, July 19, 2015

What was Thomas Hardy like? Two post-WWI sketches

The poet Robert Graves introduced T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) to Thomas Hardy. From a nearby Tank Corps camp, Lawrence visited Hardy several times in Dorcester during the summer of 1923. He wrote Graves: “T.H. is an experience that a man must keep to himself.”

Thomas Hardy portrait, 1923
Fortunately neither Graves nor Hardy followed this dictum. Both left portraits of the venerable Hardy, who was 80 when Graves met him and 83 when Lawrence wrote his letter.

During World War I Graves survived a wound so severe that his commander confidently wrote his parents that he had died in transit to the hospital. The war office confirmed his death in a telegram. Graves also suffered from shell-shock (post-traumatic stress disorder) but was kept out of further fighting because his wound had damaged a lung. He attended Oxford after the war and lived nearby with his wife, Nancy Nicholson, and their two small children.

In 1920 the couple took a bicycle trip. They packed up a few things and pedaled across Salisbury Plain by moonlight. As Graves wrote later from notes he made at the time, they saw Stonehenge and a more recent, if less durable, landmark: deserted wartime army camps vast enough to quarter a million men.

When they realized they were near Dorcester, they veered off to visit Hardy. The old poet lived with his second wife, Florence, at Max Gate. Hardy was the son of a stonemason and had been an architect early in life. He had designed the house and written several novels and much of his poetry there.

Max Gate, Thomas Hardy's home on the outskirts of Dorcester.
Graves knew many poets of his own generation. He had saved Siegfried Sassoon, a fellow officer, from the consequences of an antiwar manifesto Saasoon wrote and allowed to be published in 1917. He had met and corresponded with Wilfred Owen. Near Oxford he shared a neighborhood with Edmund Blunden, John Masefield and others.

When Hardy came to Oxford to receive an honorary degree in 1920, Graves found him confused in speech and thought. Now, at Max Gate, Hardy was welcoming, engaging and charming.

“We took tea in the drawing-room, which, like the rest of the house, was cluttered with furniture and ornaments,” he wrote in his 1929 memoir, Goodbye to All That. “Hardy had an affection for accumulated possessions, and Mrs Hardy loved him too well to suggest that anything should be removed.”

Robert Graves, an officer and a poet
In the garden after tea, Hardy asked to see some of Graves’s poems. When Graves showed him one, Hardy suggested he remove the cliché “the scent of thyme.” Graves declined, saying Hardy and his generation of poets had so thoroughly banished the cliché from their work that it was no longer a cliché.

Hardy inquired about Graves’s writing habits. Graves replied that the poem he had given him was in its sixth draft and would be finished in two more, Hardy replied: “Why! I have never in my life taken more than three, perhaps four, drafts for a poem. I am afraid it would lose its freshness.”

Hardy told Graves he could write novels methodically but preferred poetry because it “always came by accident.” He had enjoyed writing certain chapters of his novels but in general disliked them.

Once, while pruning a tree, Hardy had conceived a novel in his head but had nothing to write the idea down on. When he finally went in, the idea had vanished. He advised Graves always to carry pencil and paper and added: “Even if I remembered that story now, I couldn’t write it. I’m past novel-writing. But I often wonder what it can have been.”

When Hardy complained about “autograph fiends,” Graves told him: “A mythical secretary should reply offering his autograph at one or two guineas, the amount to be sent to a hospital – ‘Swanage Children’s Hospital,’ he put in – which would forward a receipt.” Hardy liked the idea.

Graves could not help him with his other complaint. “He regarded professional critics as parasites, no less noxious than autograph hunters, wished the world rid of them, and also regretted having listened to them as a young man,” Graves wrote. At the critics’ behest Hardy had stopped using dialect that lacked good English equivalents in his early poems, but the critics had not let up. When he wrote, “he smalled in the distance,” a critic complained about it. What else could he have written? Hardy asked Graves.

To avoid the stigma of coining words, he had taken to looking them up in the dictionary, but even that could be problematic. He had lived long enough that sometimes he would find that an odd usage was sanctioned but on reading further discover that the “sole authority” for it was his own use of it in a long-ago novel.

Three years later, D.E. Lawrence wrote Graves a letter about his visits with Hardy, contrasting the sage of Max Gate with the raucous life in the Tank Corps camp where Lawrence then served as an officer.

T.E. Lawrence, a/k/a Lawrence of Arabia, 1918.
“Hardy is so pale, so quiet, so refined into an essence: and camp is such a hurly-burly. When I come back I feel as if I’d woken up from a sleep: not an exciting sleep, but a restful one. There is an unbelievable dignity and ripeness about Hardy: he is waiting so tranquilly for death, without a desire or ambition left in his spirit, as far as I can feel it: and yet he entertains so many illusions, and hopes for the world, things which I, in my disillusioned middle-age, feel to be illusory. They used to call this man a pessimist. While really he is full of fancy expectations.

“Then he is so far-away. Napoleon is a real man to him, and the country of Dorsetshire echoes the name everywhere in Hardy’s ears. He lives in his period, and thinks of it as the great war: whereas to me that nightmare through the fringe of which I passed has dwarfed all memories of other wars, so that they seem trivial, half-amusing incidents. . . .

“And the standards of the man! He feels interest in everyone, and veneration for no-one. I've not found in him any bowing-down, moral or material or spiritual. . . .

“He takes me as soberly as he would take John Milton (how sober that name is), considers me as carefully, is as interested in me: for to him every person starts scratch in the life-race, and Hardy has no preferences: and I think no dislikes, except for the people who betray his confidence and publish him to the world.

“Perhaps that’s partly the secret of that strange house hidden behind its thicket of trees. It’s because there are no strangers there. Anyone who does pierce through is accepted by Hardy and Mrs. Hardy as one whom they have known always and from whom nothing need be hid.

“For the ticket which gained me access to T.H. I’m grateful to you – probably will be grateful always. Max Gate is a place apart: and I feel it all the more poignantly for the contrast of life in this squalid camp. It is strange to pass from the noise and thoughtlessness of sergeants’ company into a peace so secure that in it not even Mrs. Hardy’s tea-cups rattle on the tray: and from a barrack of hollow senseless bustle to the cheerful calm of T.H. thinking aloud about life to two or three of us. If I were in his place I would never wish to die: or even to wish other men dead. The peace which passeth all understanding: but it can be felt, and is nearly unbearable. How envious such an old age is.”

Sources: Graves: Goodbye to All That; Lawrence: letters online at T.E. Lawrence studies

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Armed with horn and drums, a father and sons go to war

Nathan W. Gove
Music filled the air as the 3rd New Hampshire Volunteers marched to the train station in Concord. The regimental band “was considered particularly fine, and had German silver, bell-back instrument.”

One of the tunes it played was “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” which thereafter became the standard for departing regiments. When a town band played “Auld Lang Syne” as the train prepared to pull out of the station, the 3rd New Hampshire’s horn players responded with “Sweet Home.”

Among the departing musicians was Nathan Webster Gove, a Concord man older than most of the volunteers – old enough at 44, in fact, to have brought his two young sons along as drummer boys.

The younger boy, Nathan Marcel Gove, was 11, and played his drum with the regimental band. The older, Charles, who was about to turn 14, served as a company drummer boy. Both had been born in Derry.

Nathan M. Gove
I could find almost nothing about the girl these musical soldiers left behind them. Nathan W. Gove, born in Chester, taught handwriting and worked as an accountant in Concord. He had married Mary C. Fisk, a girl from a large Concord family, in 1839 when he was 22 and she was 19.

Had they argued about whether such young boys should be exposed to the dangers of war? Had they considered the compromise of his taking one and leaving the other? It’s hard to imagine they hadn’t. Had he fully considered the burden he was placing on her? And what did she feel about the separation? Pride perhaps, but certainly also dread.

The 3rd was the first regiment whose men received a $10 bonus from the state for volunteering. Its training camp, named after the new governor, Nathaniel S. Berry, was set up across the Merrimack River below a plateau known as the Dark Plains (now Concord Heights). It was near the river nor far from the bridge in the south of town.

The officers had wall tents, but the men’s A-tents dominated the company streets. Their uniforms were gray, trimmed with blue. They wore gray caps with visors front and back, bore Enfield rifles and carried gray backpacks.

Three members of the regimental band would make names for themselves as chroniclers of the war: the reporter John W. Odlin, a correspondent from the front; John C. Linehan, whose Granite Monthly articles told the story of the men from Penacook (then Fisherville), a village in Concord; and Henry S. Hamilton, a native Englishman whose sprightly memoir has been the subject of earlier posts on this blog (here, here, here and here).

Moore's photo of the 3rd NH band. Nathan M. Gove (above and below) straddles his drum front and center. 
The regiment camped across the river for only a few weeks before it took the train south on Sept. 3, 1861. Two months later it was present at the taking, mostly by naval bombardment, of Port Royal, S.C. It spent much of the next year camped at Hilton Head. It was there that Henry P. Moore, a Concord photographer, set up shop in 1862 and made many pictures of the men, including the band.

On July 16, the 3rd first fought on James Island, in what was known as the battle of Secessionville. It lost 105 killed, wounded and missing. The bandsmen played a role, going onto the battlefield to collect the rifles of the killed and gravely wounded.

At around the time of this battle Congress ordered Union regiments to shed their regimental bands. In August Nathan M. Gove, the drummer in the band, fell ill with malaria. On Sept. 2, a year less a day since their departure from Concord, he and the other band members boarded the Star of the South, for the return voyage.

Much as most of the musicians hated to leave their comrades, they were also glad to be headed home. They were less pleased with their sleeping quarters, a smelly hold whose previous occupants had been horses. They worried about the sick Gove and did what they could to ease his journey.

Nathan M. Gove's drum (courtesy, N.H. Historical Society).
Both Nathan W. and Nathan M. Gove returned to wartime service. The father, then 47, went south in 1864 as principal musician of the 18th New Hampshire, the last regiment raised by the state. Its colonel was less than half Gove’s age. He was Thomas L. Livermore, who had served under Edward E. Cross of the 5th New Hampshire and risen to a staff position by Gettysburg, where he was head of the ambulance corps. Nathan M. Gove returned to the 3rd New Hampshire as a drummer in 1863 and served out the war. He was 15 years old when it ended.

Charles H. Gove remained with the 3rd throughout the war. Afterward he married, lived near Concord and was active in the Grand Army of Republic, the chief veterans’ organization. He died in 1917 and is buried in the Soucook Cemetery.

After the war Nathan W. Gove served as deputy secretary of state under Walter Harriman, colonel of the 11th New Hampshire during the war and later governor of the state. Gove was promoted to secretary of state but died on Aug. 8, 1871, at the age of 54.

Gravestone at Soldiers' Home Cemetery, Grand Rapids
Nathan M., his son, married Margaret Lewis in 1873. They lived in Concord but later moved to Detroit. Nathan joined the navy with the hope that a life at sea would improve his health, which had never recovered after his wartime bout with malaria. He applied for a pension in 1891, when he was 41 years old.

“Entering the army at 11 years of age as drummer my service for nearly four years cost me my health and education and changed the whole current of my life,” he wrote. “I have never been well since.”

He entered the Soldiers’ Home in Grand Rapids in 1912 and died there 10 years later.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

One woman's war and resurrection

Vera Brittain, World War I nurse and memoirist.
Diplomacy collapsed. Hubris reigned. Blithe patriotism seized the day. War came. Because of technology, mainly the machine gun, wholesale murder in the mud masqueraded as battle. Life was cheap, gains were few. Statesmen and generals resisted plain facts, and war went on and on.

Perhaps the only good that came of World War I was the vast literature it unleashed. During the Vietnam War that literature came back into vogue, and I couldn’t get enough of it. (If you’re inclined to embark on a similar literary journey, start with Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory.) Later, my wife Monique and I visited many battlefields of the Western Front, including the Somme, Ypres and Verdun.

Now, during the centenary of this war, we are reading and rereading a few of its classics. One of my favorites is the postwar memoir of Vera Brittain. She was a feminist and a war nurse. Like thousands upon thousands of young women of her time, she suffered devastating personal losses during the war. In 1933, using her copious diary, she wrote a heartbreaking book called Testament of Youth. (The diary itself, published as Chronicle of Youth, is also excellent.)

A war of machine guns and gas masks.
Testament of Youth tells the story of Vera Brittain’s war and her painful resurrection from its sorrows. While rereading it, I was tempted again and again to share excerpts in this blog. In the end I chose these four brief ones.

The horrors of war. In 1917, during the now-forgotten Cambrai offensive, casualties became heavy. The field hospital where Brittain worked had to wake patients in the middle of the night and turn them out of their beds to sleep on the floor in order to make room for new masses of badly wounded men. At this stage of the war, a new and terrible weapon was in common use. Brittain wrote in her diary:

“We have heaps of gassed cases at present who came in a day or two ago; there are 10 in this ward alone. I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a holy War, and the orators who talk so much about going on no matter how long the War lasts and what it may mean, could see a case – to say nothing of 10 cases – of mustard gas in its early stages – could see the poor things burnt and blistered all over with mustard-coloured suppurating blisters, with blind eyes – sometimes temporally (sic), sometimes permanently – all stick and stuck together, and always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing and they know they will choke. The only thing one can say is that such severe cases don’t last long; either they die soon or else improve – usually the former; they certainly never reach England in the state we have them here and yet people persist in saying that God made the War, when there are such inventions of the Devil about.”

Wartime jokes: As in all wars, black humor was common. Brittain recorded this example of the wry logic of trench warfare:

Three men in Vera Brittain's life: Edward Brittain, her brother, Roland
Leighton, her fiance, and Victor Richardson, her friend.
“When you are a soldier you are one of two things, either at the front or behind the lines. If you are behind the lines you need not worry. If you are at the front you are one of two things. You are either in a danger zone or in a zone which is not dangerous. If you are in a zone which is not dangerous you need not worry. If you are in a danger zone you are one of two things; either you are wounded or you are not. If you are not wounded you need not worry. If you are wounded you are one of two things, either seriously wounded or slightly wounded. If you are slightly wounded you need not worry. If you are seriously wounded one of two things is certain – either you get well or you die. If you get well you need not worry. If you die you cannot worry, so there is no need to worry about anything at all.”

The “lost” cause: Brittain often raises the central questions whose answers became less and less clear as World War I ground on, becoming a gruesome tragedy with a life of its own. Why are we fighting? Why can’t we stop? The best answer, she suggested, may have come in a British marching song sung to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne.”

“We’re here because
we’re here because
we’re here because
we’re here.”

Beautiful writing. Because Brittain quotes often from the diary and wartime letters, the book is long, but she often expresses a thought with startling clarity. Here is the view from 15 years after the war:

“Whenever I think of the War to-day, it is not as summer but always as winter; always as cold and darkness and discomfort; and an intermittent warmth of exhilarating excitement which made us irrationally exult in all three. Its permanent symbol, for me, is a candle stuck in the neck of a bottle, the tiny flame flickering in an ice-cold draught, yet creating a miniature illusion of light against an opaque infinity of blackness.”

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A singular death at Cold Harbor

When the dawn came up on June 4, 1864, the men of the 13th New Hampshire Volunteers found themselves 500 feet from the enemy lines at Cold Harbor. For three days the piney sand where they lay had been a slaughter ground, especially for the Union army. The 13th would remember this day for the death of a single officer, Lt. Aaron K. Blake of Brookfield, N.H.

The 13th New Hampshire's tattered flags.
If you go to Cold Harbor today, you can see remnants of the trenches the soldiers dug to shield themselves from withering fire from trenches across the way. The warfare there was a harbinger of World War I, although the Cold Harbor trenches, like those that remain at Spotsylvania, are much closer to each other than those at Ypres, the Somme and Verdun.

The 13th arrived at its new position after dark, too late to dig proper trenches. Some of them lay in small pits left by the pickets who had been there before them. In the pitch-black night they enlarged the holes with bayonets and spoons. In front of the holes they stacked a few logs and the bodies of dead soldiers – their own and the enemy’s – “anything to keep the rebel bullets back,” as the regimental historian S. Millet Thompson wrote. They solidified these barricades with sand.

From first light, the 13th’s colors, planted in the ground, became an easy and popular target for rebel marksmen. When a bullet split the staff of the national colors, David Bodge, the color sergeant, fixed it with barrel staves and a strap from his knapsack. Years later, he wrote that this repaired staff could still be seen with the regimental colors at the New Hampshire State House.

The regiment was under fire most of the day, even during the afternoon rain showers. Six men were wounded, and only Lt. Blake was killed.

Private William B. Luey of Columbia, N.H., who was attached to the 13th and had himself been wounded on June 1 at Cold Harbor, wrote the details in his diary:

“Aaron K. Blake, of A, is shot through the upper part of his head to-day, a rebel bullet entering and exposing the brain. He is laid near the Pine at first, close to the north side of it, and breathes almost all day. He is utterly unconscious, making no sign when spoken to or touched – every effort being made to revive him – and can suffer no possible pain; yet he is strangely nervous, breathing more quickly when a shell strikes the tree, or near him, or the noise of the firing increases. Later in the day he is moved to the covert way, a few feet to the south of the Pine, where about 5 p.m. he quietly ceases to breathe; and dies without showing any sign of consciousness or of suffering from the time when he was struck.”

Blake’s 21-year-old cousin, Pvt. George P. Blake, also of Brookfield, served in the 13th’s Company F. After two weeks of constant fighting, it was he who wrote to his aunt and uncle, Aaron’s parents, to share the details of their sons death.

Here is his letter:

June 19, 1864

Dear Uncle & Aunt,

I wrote to father the sad news of Aarons death, the particulars of which I could not at the time enumerate. His company and regiment were in the advance holding a line of rifle pits in close proximity to the enemy. Watching carefully the doings of the enemy, he advanced bravely to the line and having seen that there was a sharpshooter whose unerring eye had picked off many of our boys, brought his rifle to bear on him and fired. After firing he remain[ed] to[o] long to watch the effect and another sharpshooter fire[d] his rifle, the fatal bullet of which caused the death of one of our country’s bravest sons, who through all the privations of a soldiers life was never heard to grumble and whose sense of duty was highly commendable.

He was much liked in his company both as an officer and as a companion, always endeavoring to cheer the hearts of those who were weary of a soldier’s life and had forgotten their duty to their country. His fate has been like that of many others in winning for the 13th N. H. Regt. laurels which it will ever be proud of, and a name as unperishable as has ever been gained since this cruel war commenced. He was noted for cleanliness, never being seen in a filthy condition, even when under great adversities. His place in the ranks has been but very seldom vacant. In fact he was a perfect soldier, being admired by both officers and men. It hardly seems possible to me that he is dead, for whenever I visited the regiment, he was sure to call me, and whenever I had any news from home he took great delight in telling me of it.

His effect[s] were taking care of a part of which I have in my own possession and will send to you at the first opportunity. Lt. [Charles B.] Gafney* has his watch and one or two other trinkets which he will send you. He was buried near Coal Harbor by the side of many of his regiment and a slab was erected to denote his final resting place.

The loss of him is I am well aware a very severe blow to the heart of his parents and the fact of his being so watchful to promote your ever[y] interest seems to hold his memory more dear. He never [k]new what hit him, being senseless from the first. George G. Ricker watched by him until he was dead and then marked his place of burial. George Ricker is reported killed.**

Your affliction is I am well aware more grievous than I can imagine and you have my heartfelt sympathies in enabling you to be up against this dire misfortune.

But he is dead and his grave which is all that is left remains for future generations to look upon as an altar upon which was slain one whose many bright hopes are blasted and who is I trust in that place of rest where wars and rumours of wars can never disturb his holy slumbers. My love to all and may the Almighty in his infinite goodness enable you to bear with Christian fortitude your affliction and assist you in this time of earthly woe.

Adiew and may God Bless You
Your Nephew,
Geo. P. Blake

*Gafney, 21, Of Ossipee, N.H., had enlisted as a private but was promoted to second lieutenant in September 1862. He was severely wounded on June 15, 1864, at Petersburg, but later made captain, served out the war with the 13th, and lived in Rochester.

**Ricker was a private from Brookfield, the Blakes’ hometown. He was killed the same day Gaffney was wounded, in an action known as Battery Five.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

A father writes home from the war

In honor of Fathers Day, here is an excerpt from one of the best New Hampshire Civil War soldier letters I ever found. It was written by Lt. James Larkin to his wife Jenny. They had two small children, Bubby and Belle, and the lieutenant was thinking about the burden his absence placed on his wife.

James B. Larkin
Larkin had been an ornamental painter in Concord before the war. He and his family lived in a small house that I drove past often during my years as an editor in Concord. As he relates in the letter, one reason he took a commission in 1861 was that he was struggling to support the family. 

Larkin wrote to Jenny from the Virginia Peninsula just before the 5th New Hampshire Regiment’s first battle, at Fair Oaks on June 1, 1862. Here is what he had to say:

“As the contending armies seem now to be on the eve of a fierce battle, and many a brave form will be layed silent in Death, and Thousands of homes will be called to mourn for loved ones slain, it is not unreasonable to supose that I may be among the number who shall fall on that day. Still I have no fears. On the contrary I feel I shall come out safe & be restored to your loving embraces once more.

“But if it is ordered otherwise I feel that I should leave some advise and a consoling word for I am not unmindful of the greate responsibility which rests upon you in bringing up those Darling little ones. Many is the hour I have lain and thought of these things in the stillness of night before and since I left you.

“It was a greate sacrifice for me to leave you, & you thought it could not be possible I could do it, thinking so much of my children as I did. But the greate love I bore them, & you, was one of the principal reasons which led me to leave you. For in connection with the duty I felt I owed my country I felt I owed as greate a duty to my family.

“Times were hard. I thought if I could save a few hundred dollars to enjoy with my family hereafter, benefit my health, & at the same time serve my country, I should be discharging a solemn duty to my family and my country. But you will say you would prefer poverty with me, to riches without me. But I am to proud to see you and my children want for anything which I could possibly get.

“If I fall you will come in possession of ($1500) fifteen hundred dollars by my life insurance, & with what other property you have will with carefull use & investing it at good advantage enable you to suport yourself & Children & educate them respectfully. 

"But above all things Dear Jenny be watchful of their moral training that there may never be a blot on their dear name or character. Oh with what ceaseless vigilance should you watch over little Bell that she may grow up to womanhood as spotless and pure as she is now. I can see her now, the same little pure Angle that she was the first time I pressed my lips to her sweet mouth. You may think I am partial to her, but I love darling buby just as well. But a boy can make his way through the world easier than a girl. But I would not have you be less careful with his morals.

“The little dears will never know their father, but Jenny, if such a thing is possable, after leaving this earth I shall ever be with you & them to assist your trying and lonley journy through this short life until we meet where partings will be no more.”

A few minutes before crossing the Chickahominy River for battle, Larkin signed his letter: “Good by Dear ones. Yours in Death and Life.”

Maybe he really did believe, as he wrote in his opening paragraph, that he would survive the battle; maybe he just said it to soothe his wife’s fears. But in fact he lived through the battle and several more and rose to be lieutenant colonel of the 5th. The war took a severe toll on his body, as his pension record shows, but after three years he came home to his Jenny, Bubby and Belle.

In 1868, he led Concord’s first Memorial Day parade on Main Street.  

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The short but deadly war of Orvis Fisher

A Civil War letter came to hand this week that reminded me of a surprising, if macabre, discovery during research years ago. Mark Travis and I found the note in question at Carlisle Barracks, Pa., while working on My Brave Boys, a history of Col Edward E. Cross and the 5th New Hampshire Volunteers.

Miles E. Peabody died in 1864.
Private Miles E. Peabody, who linved along the North Branch of the Contoocook River in Antrim, became a prominent character in the book because he had written so many letters. In one batch of these letters, we turned up a note written after Peabody died of after a long illness in 1864. A fill-in-the-blanks form letter from his embalmers, it had been attached to his coffin before it was shipped home.

The note was intended for either the undertaker in New Hampshire “or friends who open this coffin.” 

It read:

“After removing or laying back the lid of the coffin, remove entirely the pads from the sides of the face, as they are intended merely to steady the head in traveling. If there be any discharge of liquid from the eyes, nose or mouth, which often occurs from the constant shaking of the cars, wipe it off gently with a cotton cloth, slightly moistened with water. This body was received by us for embalmment in pretty good condition, the tissues being slightly discolored. The embalmment is consequently good. . . . The body will keep well for any length of time. After removing the coffin lid, leave it off for some time, and let the body have the air.”

Later, I couldn't help but  read this passage aloud at several book events. It seemed almost like poetry, its vivid phrases, simple words and quiet pace instructing but also mesmerizing. Audiences listened in rapt silence. And the author of the note stuck the landing. After reading that final phrase, “. . . and let the body have the air,” I had to take a breath. The audience often murmured.

For all its practical advice, this little poem conveys the meaning of the Civil War as well as any of the many gory accounts of death in battle I’ve read. It connects the dead with those who mourn them – the “friends who open this coffin.” Defying reason, it turns the mind to the notion that the corporeal state is eternal. “The body will keep for any length of time.”

The letter that woke this memory was provided by my friend David Morin. It was recently published with substantial genealogical information on Cow Hampshire, a New Hampshire history blog.

Amos. S. Billingsley (1818-1892)
Amos Stevens Billingsley, chaplain of the 101st Pennsylvania Volunteers, wrote the letter. Billingsley, a Presbyterian minister and missionary before the war, had been captured and held at Libby Prison in Richmond in 1864. After his release he was assigned to the Union military hospital at Fortress Monroe on the tip of the Virginia peninsula.

The subject of Billingsley’s letter is Orvis Fisher, a 1st New Hampshire Cavalry private who had a short yet fatal term of service. A father of four from Fitzwilliam, N.H., he enlisted on March 22, 1865, and began to show symptoms of meningitis three weeks later.

Here is Billingsley’s letter to Fisher’s wife, written on April 20, as the Union army was ending the last hopes of the Confederacy. Billingsley seemed to be under some regulatory obligation to withhold the date of Fisher's death from his wife, Sarah. It was April 18. Billingsley employs the standard biblical balm. but like the embalmers’ instructions to the friends and family of Miles Peabody, his letter seeks to soothe with reassuring details about Fisher’s earthly remains.

U.S. General Hospital,
Fortress Monroe, Va.
April 20th, 1865

Mrs. O. Fisher
Bereaved Friend,

Man being born unto trouble this life is full of trials, yet in all the Saviour says “Be of good cheer, let not your heart be troubled.” Only trust in God and He will make all things, all these trials, afflictions and loss work together for your good. Rom 8:28.

Your husband Orvis Fisher Co. K 1st N.H. Cav died very recently in this hospital of disease of the brain. He was well cared for, neatly laid out and interred in the burying ground here with Christian ceremony and military honors. A head-board, containing his name, date of death, company, regiment, marks the spot where his mortal remains now lie.

These remains may be procured in the following manner. You have only to leave an order with the nearest Express office whose Agent will cause the body to be forwarded from here to any address you may furnish him. The expense of this may be learned at the office as the Co. assumes the charge of the entire business. The same person, who has the charge of the burials, sees to the disinterment of bodies for transportation. By writing to Dr. E. McClellan you may obtain receipts to sign and return, after which you will receive the effects of deceased, if any there be.

The exact date of death we are not at liberty to give, but it may be had by addressing the Adjt Genl at his office, Washington. A lock of his hair was preserved which you will please find enclosed. I saw him often on his death-bed, but he was unconscious, so much so that I could not get an expression of his religious feelings.

He was so for a week ere he died, says the Ward Master who wrote you several days since his death. . . .  May God comfort you in this sad trial.

Your Sympathizing Friend,
Chap. A.S. Billingsley


Fisher’s body was later moved to Hampton National Cemetery in Virginia. Sarah Fisher received a pension and a stipend for her two younger children.

Monday, May 25, 2015

A young veteran in Washington's whirl, 1866

John Charles Currier was shot in the face not once but twice during 1864, the second ball shattering his jawbone. Somehow he survived to live a long and eventful life.

Currier was a native of Auburn, N.H. He graduated from Pinkerton Academy, then set out for Iowa, but returned after the Civil War broke out. In 1862, as a 19-year-old, he enlisted in the 11th New Hampshire Volunteers as a private and was soon promoted to second lieutenant.

John Charles Currier
Future posts on this blog will tell of his wartime experience and his life in California, which began in the late 1860s after a remarkable journey.

This post consists of a long letter Currier wrote to his sister Mary in early 1866, less than a year after the war ended. He had been hired to work in the Treasury Department. He writes here of the burgeoning postwar federal bureaucracy, but he also describes the thrilling social life of a gainfully employed 22-year-old veteran in Washington.

He goes out on the town most nights in search of contacts with the leading politicians and military leaders of the day. This letter recounts a Feb. 6 reception in Andrew Johnson’s White House. The man charged with introducing him to Johnson turned out to be Benjamin Brown French, a longtime Washington functionary who, like Currier, hailed from Chester, N.H. French makes several appearances in my book, Our War.

The Hattie in the first paragraph was soon to become Currier’s wife. His descriptions of Washington life are exciting. He is star-stuck by the national leaders he meets and sees. Perhaps the most touching content of the letter is his expression of grateful, loveing feeling for his sister.

February 7th, 1866

My dear Sister,

I don’t really believe I deserve such a castigating you gave me for I have endeavored to write you as often as any of the family, all of whom seem to expect a separate letter from me at least once a week. Before me is a letter just received from Nattie wherein I am belabored for not writing her more frequently. Now please take into consideration the fact that I am not the free and independent young man I was four months ago.

Seven hours daily of my time must go to Uncle Sam or else my desk will get such a pile of books on it that I have to work nights to keep it clean. Just now the 2nd Auditors Office is overwhelmed with business. Applications come in from every quarter of the country for settlement of accounts. More than a wagon load of letters has to be answered daily. The Government are anxious to have the claims of the soldiers settled and the answers forwarded. Eight hundred clerks drawing the quill in this Office alone. Two hundred more are scattered through the different branches of the houses, six hundred of whom are ladies. And yet that is not enough to keep the work up to date. Many work every night till into the small hours. This Treasury has come to be a “Big Thing.”

Do you know that one could not count our National debt in a lifetime if it was in twenty dollar bills? What a load then upon the shoulder of Secretary McCulloch. I think the Treasury is now the heart of the Country and as it throbs so throbs the Country. The War Department is fast dwindling down to a Peace basis and Stanton the “Comet” of our war is fast losing his “Occupation.” There could not have been found in our broad land another man equal to the Secretary of War for his position, his great mind immediately grasped the issues and put our vast armies in the field ready for service with a celerity truly wonderful.

Foreign nations look upon him with awe and wonder. And what man would have withstood so long and fearlessly the many attacks upon him from all parts of the country. At one time the press were all howling at him like wolves at a huge bear whom they are afraid to grapple with, but he worked on unflinchingly in his clear path and now this country see the wisdom of his course and honor him accordingly. However I did not sit down to write a paragraph. I began with a protest against your damnation of my delinquency (Whew! Those two words made my head ache.)

Benjamin Brown French
I know dear sister you have always been a kind, blessed sister to me and I appreciate the many kindnesses from you and your watchful caring for me during my youth, before we both our left our home. You were always the first to chide me when I did wrong and applaud when I was right. I have in my journal a maxim you gave me when I started for the west the first time, one I never have forgotten. You wrote it yourself. And dear Mary besides the counsels of my father and mother none ever had such weight with me and have affected my life like yours. You know you always governed me in my boyhood and I can truly say that much of the ambition which has guided me during the last four years was due to your training.

How do you think I love to write to anyone more than you? I have said this much, for the first page of your letter seemed to convey the opinion to me that you believe I did not think of sister Mary as often as the rest of the family. I am glad you are pleasantly situated keeping house. Must be more agreeable than boarding.

Washington is full of life and gayety. Foreigners, Southerners, and wealthy Northerners are here in great numbers. The parlors of the wealthy throng nightly with beauty and fortune. The notions of pleasure can be filled to fatuity with Opera, Receptions, Parties, and half-a-dozen other fashionable amusements. The city seems to be one grand whirl. I go out about every night, more for the sake of seeing our public men than for anything else. I have plenty of invitations. 

Last night attended the Presidents Reception. At half past eight the stream of silks and broadcloth commenced pouring into the garden solons of the White House and so continued till midnight. I was in at nine and a half. A more brilliant assemblage I never saw before. The “Blue Room,” “East Room” and halls were crowded with the ‘elite’ of the Capitol and of the nation. Among the Generals was Grant, Sherman, Meade, Meigs, and Logan, members of Congress were sandwiched between double slats. Wells of the Navy, Stanton, Nolan, and all the rest of the cabinet were there. The President and daughters remained in the “Blue Room.”

Andy looked well, has a determined eye, straight black hair and a very dark complexion. He gripped my hand warmly. B.B. French, who does all the introducing, after the crowds got through handshaking, took me by the arm and told the President the whole story of my getting shot twice in the face &c. Andy said –  “Well Cap’n I suppose there is not a parallel case in the whole country,” said “twas a great cause” &c. I was so obfuscated I couldn’t say much. And I now had to take it all day from my comrade for that five minute chat with the President. Mrs. Patterson and Mrs. Stover, daughters of the President, receive very graciously. 

[Thanks to my friend David Morin, who transcribed this letter and clued me in to Currier's life. Together we've developed a lot of information about him to fuel coming posts about him.]