Saturday, December 13, 2014

New York haiku, vol. 5

With winter and the holidays coming, here is the latest installment in this series of short takes from a non-New Yorker living and learning in New York:

Cut and bound for sale,
fir trees catch snow, savoring
one last sip of life.

*

Sirens rend the night.
“In time you’ll get used to them.”
But what if we don’t?

*

The etiquette of
elevators begins with
a push-button smile.

*

Subway tip: Enter
here to exit at stairwell
seven stops uptown.

*

My editor eyes
can’t help but see each day: “We
Have Shipping Box’s.”

Sunday, December 7, 2014

6th New Hampshire Volunteers in pictures and stories

For pictures of members of the 6th New Hampshire Volunteers, look here, here and here.

And here's the story of a prison escape by a 6th sergeant.

Finally, here's what happened to a young commander of the 6th.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

New York City haiku, vol. 4

More haiku from Gotham, with apologies to William Carlos Williams for (guess which) one. Also two of these rise from a new strain about people we’ve met.

*
Atop the cold city
spikes of light meet dead of night,
heaven’s icicles.

Magda fled Poland
the day the Nazis came. Why?
‘Dad read newspapers.’

*
Climbed the subway stair
at Times Square. Looked right, then left.
This way east, no, west.

*
Everything depends
on a red boat in dawn’s mist
on the blue Hudson.

*
Roman busts a bore?
No, no! She looked, took names, shook
old Rome back to life.

*
Even here, where race
matters least, eye avoided eye
after Ferguson.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The first casualty

Col. Enoch Q. Fellows, 37, cross-eyed and deaf, was from Centre Sandwich, N.H.
A chapter in Our War followed the fortunes of a Civil War regiment thrown into battle within weeks after mustering. The regiment was the 9th New Hampshire Volunteers, and I could tell their story with confidence through letters and diary entries they wrote during and immediately after the campaign.

The regiment fought at South Mountain and then at Antietam Sept. 14 and 17, 1862. It had mustered Aug. 23 in Concord, N.H. The men’s experience in battle was what you’d expect. Overloaded with gear on the way up South Mountain, they left a trail of equipment, food and clothing. Their commander, Col. Enoch Q. Fellows, had to halt them halfway up to teach them to load their weapons. They sometimes fired without orders, and their officers formed them into a firing line against friendly troops.

In time the 9th became a crack infantry regiment, but during this week, despite all the patriotism and bravery in their hearts, the men were bumbling greenhorns.

The other day, while trawling online, I discovered a letter that Col. Fellows wrote 12 days after Antietam to Nathaniel S. Berry, the governor of New Hampshire, about the 9th’s performance. I had read Berry’s executive correspondence file in the New Hampshire State Archives during my research for Our War, but the letter wasn’t there. It is in the Gilder Lehrman Collection at the New York Historical Society.

What is interesting about the letter is that, with one notable exception, it shows how quickly men who fought battles and their commanders sought to cast their experience as glorious and noble. Why would a commander want to describe his regiment’s clumsiness and ineptitude, especially in a campaign that resulted in victory – or at least perceived victory – for his side? In war, as they say, truth is the first casualty.

Gov. Nathaniel S. Berry
“In accordance with the usual custom where regiments suffer on the field of battle, I have the honor of reporting to you the facts and particulars so far as the regiment I command is concerned,” Fellows opened his letter to the governor. He then suggested that the 9th’s long marches and hard fighting were “unprecedented in the history of any regiment which has seen but a single months service.”

As the regiment marched from Middletown, Va., to South Mountain in Maryland, Fellows wrote, “the ears of our young men were first made acquainted with the roar of artillery and their eyes glistened with eagerness to be brought into the contest.” They were, by his account, pleased to fight under “the gallant Burnside, the gen. who never yet lost a battle.”

When their brigadier general, James Nagle, ordered his men to fix bayonets and clear a cornfield, the 9th “gallantly went into the contest on the ‘double quick’ and rushed up the hill with a spirit of determination that would do honor to veterans,” Fellows wrote.

“Then was the time that New Hampshire and South Carolina blood was tested as to courage and true heroic valor. No sooner had I given the order ‘charge bayonets’ than the glistening salve bayonets were pointed towards South Carolina hearts and with a tremendous yell my regiment rushed into the fight making the whole line of battle near us echo with their cheers and hurrahs. For more than 100 rods the battling rung loud and deep above the roar of artillery and other regiments near the 9th gave it the name of the ‘bloody ninth’ for its gallantry at the famous bayonet charge.”

Here Fellows paused in his narrative to call out one of his company commanders. He identified him, too: Charles W. Edgerly, a 33-year-old captain from Dover who in civilian life had been the foreman of an engine company. He led the 9th’s Company H, many of whose men he had recruited.

Alas, at South Mountain, Fellows wrote the governor, “One officer . . . disgraced himself and it is my duty to inform you of this fact, an unpleasant but imperative duty. When the order was given to lead, previous to the battle, Capt. C. W. Edgerly of Co. H from Rochester, suddenly was taken weak at the knees and complained of being foot sore and asked Lieut. John G. Lewis to lead his company into the battle which Lt. Lewis did in a noble manner, gallantly leading them wherever there was most danger.”

Three days later at Antietam, the 9th was positioned on a hillside above the Stone Bridge, now known as Burnside’s Bridge, on the far left of the Union line. Fellows characterized the battlefield as the place where “by far the hardest fighting was done and the greatest carnage witnessed that ever happened in America.”

After four hours under fire in a perilous position, the 9th crossed the bridge. Other regiments had taken it, but this move took courage. “We crossed the bridge under a galling fire and with tremendous cheering placed our regimental colors, which were so peacefully unfurled in Concord in front of the state house, on the bloody field on the other side of the river where the rebel dead and wounded lay piled in every direction,” Fellows wrote.

As his regiment held its new position until dark, “a rebel fire of grape canister and shell was poured into our ranks and many of our brave fellows were wounded here with the exploding of shells and the terrific fire of grape which here rained upon us like hailstones falling in a hailstorm and from which there was no possible protection.”

For a new regiment of 1,000 men, the 9th’s casualties at the two battles were relatively light. They lost two killed or mortally wounded at South Mountain, eight at Antietam. Fellows nevertheless closed his account by asking that Gov. Berry give his men their due.

“And now, Governor,” he wrote, “I have given a brief sketch of what my regiment has done in a single month and would ask where there is another that has performed equal service in so short a time? In two weeks we marched 85 miles in a broiling sun, was in one skirmish and helped fight the two greatest battles of modern times for which we have received the special commendation of our Generals in Command.”

The war would inflict far more death and misery on the 9th New Hampshire. The chapter in Our War on its fights during Grant’s Overland Campaign in 1864 serves as a startling contrast to the South Mountain-Antietam chapter. The regiment, though much smaller by then, lost 55 killed at Spotsylvania Court House alone.

As for the two officers whose reputations were broken and made in Fellows’s letter to Berry, their fates matched their performance at South Mountain. The weak-kneed, footsore Capt. Edgerly clung to his rank until Feb. 27, 1863, when he resigned.

By then, Lt. John G. Lewis was dead. A native of Dublin, N.H., he was 44 years old. Long before the war he had moved to Lancaster, north of the White Mountains, where he was a farmer. As the 9th New Hampshire moved into position at Fredericksburg, Va., on Dec. 13, 1862, a piece of artillery shell struck him below the ear and severed an artery.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

New prose from an old poet

Donald Hall’s essay “Out the Window” appeared in the January 2012 New Yorker. The title did not lie. An old man stares out his window, sees what he sees and riffs on it, his mind moving amid farmhouse ghosts and on to his own slow demise.

A hundred readers of “Out the Window” wrote letters to Hall. By then, deserted by his muse, he had given up poetry. He even regretted having published his last book of poems.

He had not given up work. Age had cooled the literary dynamo he once was, but he picked up steam as an essayist, working an hour a day, then two, then three. Many of the essays found good homes in magazines and have now been collected with fresh ones in Essays after Eighty.

Hall and I are friends, and I watched this book come into being. When he declared an essay fit for outside eyes, he sent it to me for comment and criticism. These were 30th or 40th drafts. Most of my fixes were copy-editing catches, but I also remarked on structural weaknesses and flat passages, contributed an anecdote or two and consulted with Hall about the title.

As it often is in his prose, Hall’s subject is himself, past and present. Each of the 14 essays has a theme – poetry readings, smoking, “Physical Malfitness,” death, a road trip through 1952 Europe, the beards he grew and the women he grew them for. He turned 86 in September, and because of this longevity each theme provides a wide field for memory.

A few sentences in “Out the Window” describe the ground on which Hall stands in life and as an essayist:

“However alert we are, however much we think we know what will happen, antiquity remains an unknown, unanticipated galaxy. It is alien, and old people are a separate form of life. They have green skin, with two heads that sprout antennae. . . . When we turn eighty, we recognize that we turn extraterrestrial. If we forget for a moment that we are old, we are reminded when we try to stand up, or when we encounter someone young, who appears to observe green skin, extra heads, and protuberances.”

The essays run on the imagination and candor of such observations. These qualities are also the source of those hundred letters he received after the essay first appeared. He breaks the silence of his alien galaxy, speaking for a generation to all generations.

This is not to suggest that Donald Hall is everyman. He has lived a rich, full life, consorting with giants of poetry in his youth, traveling the globe, working as a rock-star professor at a prestigious university, visiting the White House with Philip Roth, talking baseball for Ken Burns’s documentary, serving as U.S. poet laureate. But there is an old man’s humility in the way he writes about his life.

And an old man’s wit. He laughs at the world, and himself. A few years ago Alexandra Petri, a Washington Post blogger, illustrated her blog with a photo of the grinning, ancient, wild-haired Hall receiving the National Medal of Arts from President Obama. She assured her readers Hall was not a yeti and invited them to take part in a caption contest. Hall’s response: “With our increasing longevity, Ms. Petri should live to be a hundred. May she grow a beard.”

At the same presentation, Obama whispered something in Hall’s ear as he hung the medal around his neck. Friends who saw the clip on television wanted to know what the president had said. But Obama had been speaking into Hall’s deaf ear. Hall told friends the president had “said either ‘Your work is immeasurably great’ or ‘All your stuff is disgusting crap,’ but I couldn’t tell which.”

The prose of Essays after Eighty is a poet’s prose. Hall is working with sentence and paragraph, not line and stanza, but every word counts. Concrete images propel his sentences, and he is a master of momentum and suspense. The reader sees or tastes a moment and yearns to know what happens next.

Hall has been a prolific poet and writer in part because he mines his own experience. He lives now with limited mobility in a small space, fearful of falling and usually alone. In these essays he has reimagined his past and plumbed his present with wry humor and a good nature.

He is the wise old owl. Hear him hoot.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Lions of Thanksgiving Day

For New York City the day had come at last. Amid bitter race-tinged draft riots during the summer, the city’s newspapers had carefully followed the performance in battle of the new black infantry regiments. Seeking to satisfy public curiosity about black soldiers, some city leaders had tried in vain to lure two such regiments to parade down Manhattan’s streets. Now, in November of 1863, the army ordered a New Hampshire lieutenant colonel to lead his black regiment into the city.

Stark Fellows had joined the army about a year earlier as a private in the 14th New Hampshire Volunteers. He was 23 years old and lived in Weare, N.H..A slight man with a full brown beard, Fellows had graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth College and postponed a legal career to fight for the Union.

He soon made lieutenant but wanted more. With the 14th stuck in Washington, D.C., guarding prisons, he followed his ambition elsewhere. He applied for a commission with a black regiment, breezed through the qualifying tests and got his wish. Free black men and former slaves from Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia came together in Arlington to form the 2nd U.S. Colored Troops. By late 1863 Fellows had his command.

Sarah Josepha Hale
When the new infantry regiment reached Jersey City on November 25, Fellows leaned on authorities to help get his men to New York. They left their baggage and horses behind and crossed to the southern tip of Manhattan, where Fellows found he had more work to do. After procuring bunks for his soldiers in the barracks at Battery Park and establishing his regimental headquarters at the Astor House, he went to his room and fell into a deep sleep.

The next morning was Thanksgiving. The holiday had long been celebrated around the country, but this year was different. Sarah Josepha Hale, a native of Newport, N.H., who edited the popular Godey’s Lady’s Book, had asked President Lincoln to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. Such a declaration would make the holiday “a great Union Festival of America,” Hale wrote the president.

Lincoln acted on the idea a few days later. Even in the midst of a terrible civil war, he wrote in his proclamation, it seemed to him that God’s gifts to America “should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people.”

Late Thanksgiving morning, as Fellows approached Battery Park after a good night’s sleep, he saw that “the ‘Nigger Regiment’ attracted unbounded attention.” People crowded into the park to peer through the iron fence toward the barracks and parade ground “like so many school urchins at a circus.”

The crowd parted for Fellows, and he passed through a line of bigwigs waiting to thank him for bringing a black regiment to the city. He initially wanted to reward the crowd by ordering a dress parade, but there was no time. When he learned the quartermaster had found a ship to transport his men to their duty station on the Gulf Coast, he ordered them to form for the march to the wharf.

Stark Fellows, whose regiment marched  through lower Manhattan.
The white people lining Broadway as the 2nd United States Colored Troops marched past disappointed Fellows. “The streets were crowded all the way, but the people were very quiet,” he wrote to a comrade.

When the regiment turned onto Canal Street and entered a black neighborhood, everything changed. Flags hung from the windows, and cheers hailed the soldiers. 

Reflecting on these spectators, Fellows observed: “It seemed that at last they could speak for themselves.” They howled and leapt and tossed their caps into the air, acting as if “the day of their deliverance” had arrived, Fellows wrote. White people farther along the route “seemed to catch the excitement,” cheering the ranks of black men proudly marching to meet their destiny.

It had already been a long war, with many festive sendoffs followed by battlefield disasters. The enthusiasms of 1861 had cooled, but on this day it seemed to Fellows that something novel and grand had occurred.

The march to the wharf was also a revelation for the soldiers. As they boarded the Continental for their journey south, echoes of gratitude, approval and even adoration rang in their ears. In the words of their commander they had been “the lions of Thanksgiving day.” 

[Stark Fellows’s account of Thanksgiving was taken from his letter to Alexander Gardiner, an officer in Fellows’s old regiment, the 14th New Hampshire. The letter was written Dec. 16, 1863, from Ship Island, Miss. Fellows died of disease on May 23, 1864, and was buried in Pensacola, Fla. Gardiner was mortally wounded four months later leading the 14th at the third battle of Winchester, Va. The letter is in the Samuel A. Duncan papers in the Rauner special collections at Dartmouth College.]

Monday, November 17, 2014

New York haikus, vol. 3

So, our friend Mary, a veteran New Yorker, says we're nuts to think about making Thanksgiving dinner in our tiny apartment. In this food-crazy city, there IS an alternative, just one more subject for a November haiku . . .

Walking on Broadway,
this way, then that, with never
a wind at my back.

*

Bagels rise, tempting
lips, puffing hips, pleasures of
the tongue, like smoke rings.

*

Kitchen holiday
gobble-gobbles in Gotham:
Thanksgiving takeout!

*

Next-table talk: Who
takes care of her kids while she’s
taking care of theirs?

*

Winter’s bite so slight
it might still seem fall till gusts
draw tears and ice ears.