Monday, July 28, 2014

Dear diary

Many Civil War historians begin their journeys the way I did, thinking that getting their hands on soldiers’ diaries is the key to learning what the war was really like. With few exceptions in my experience, this proves to be a false notion. Most Civil War diarists wrote sparsely and sporadically. Some, especially those who had grown up on farms, simply recorded the weather. Others made regular entries consisting of observations like “On guard duty” or “Drill and dress parade.”

Rev. Elias Nason
The real grist of human history about the Civil War is to be found in soldiers’ letters home. These tend to be candid, personal and expansive. Before Grant’s Overland Campaign in the spring of 1864, Union soldiers often rested after battle. They wanted their relatives and friends at home to know precisely what they had gone through, and their letters often show this in detail.

There are exceptions – diaries written during the war that add real flavor to the daily life of military service or record the thoughts. reflections and impressions of their keepers. For this blog I have condensed two such diaries into multi-part series that are among the most frequently read posts on our-war.com. In case you’ve missed them, here are brief introductions to them with links.

The first is a home-front diary, written by the Rev. Elias Nason of Exeter, a highly political southern New Hampshire private-school town of 3,000 at the time of the war.  This diary is interesting in its own right, but it has anothe distinction: It was published during the war. Nason, who turned 50 years old in 1861, had each year’s work bound and issued shortly after he finished it. The first volume was titled Brief Record of Events on Exeter, N.H., during the Year 1861 Together with the Names of the Soldiers of this Town in the War.

Nason introduced the diary by writing that the year would always be remembered for the “most stupendous and wickedest rebellion the world has ever known; and as every correct history of the country must devise its sources in a measure from the current events of the individual towns which make up its sovereignty," he offered “this little brochure” – his first volume – “as a New Year’s Offering to our patriotic and worthy citizens.”

Here are links to the posts from Nason’s diary: 1861, 1862 and 1863.

*

The diary of Capt. Robert Emory Park of the 12th Alabama Infantry is different from Nason’s but equally rich. What I have condensed in three parts is the portion of the diary covering Park’s time in captivity after his capture at the third battle of Winchester on Sept. 19, 1864. I added a fourth post giving his account of the 1863 invasion of Pennsylvania and the battle of of Gettysburg.

Only 17 when the war broke out, Park remained a Confederate diehard till the war’s end. In his diary he was candid and expansive about his views of slavery, the American flag, the nation’s history, the 1864 election, Sherman’s March, the taking of Richmond, Lee’s surrender, the Lincoln assassination and the capture of Jefferson Davis. He also records his uneasiness at having to take the oath of allegiance to the United States required of prisoners for a ticket home.

The three posts on Park’s diary are here, here and here. His Gettysburg experience is chronicled here.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

A swerve, and a new adventure

My life has taken another swerve, which accounts for the slowdown in posting on this blog. Earlier this month I was hired as administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes with a Sept. 1 start date.

Given the responsibilities of this job, chances I can continue blogging about the Civil War seem slight. But I hope you’ll bear with me a bit longer and maybe check out some of the posts you've missed during the last 20 months. There are now more than 250 posts in all.

Perhaps a new blog will emerge with the new job, or maybe I will find a way to keep delving into Civil War subjects.

Meanwhile, here are the top 10 posts in hit count from the last two months – and below the top 25 all-time.










      
              To Richmond at last (part one)

Readership has continued at a good clip, for which I thank you. The top 25 posts now range in hits from 1,030 to 208. One post – Why couldn’t Franklin Pierce keep his mouth shut? – zoomed up in the rankings during the last month, moving all the way to fourth place.






















              History’s touch (20)

23 (tie). A Gettysburg photo album (new to list)

           A Gettysburg Journal, part 4 (23t)

           Together again: They rode with Cross at Gettysburg (new to list)

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The book that made Bill Heinz rich

On a cold, crisp winter’s day nine years ago, Eric Moskowitz and I went to a nursing home in Bennington, Vt., to meet W.C. Heinz, the writer. We both admired Heinz’s boxing writing and World War II reporting. We hoped to pick up some tips at the feet of a master.

Moskowitz, now an ace reporter for the Boston Globe, recorded the interview and transcribed it. We were both disappointed that Heinz had dementia and often lost his way answering questions, but I am glad Eric preserved what he did say that day. One of his best stories was about the writing of M*A*S*H, a minor work in a life of gems but the one that made Heinz rich.

The Nevada after being hit at Pearl Harbor.
I pulled the transcript out recently because of the hubbub surrounding the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Heinz was off Normandy that day on the Nevada, which had been repaired after nearly sinking at Pearl Harbor.
He told us how World War II correspondents sent their stories home from ships or from the field. At sea, they placed stories in synthetic waterproof bags with lead weights in them. When a courier came alongside, they tossed the bags in the water, where the courier fetched them with a hook. Should the bags escape the hook, one purpose of the weights was to sink the newspaper copy, keeping it from the enemy. Heinz did not recall losing a story using this method.

Transmitting from a moving army on land had no such perils, other than the obvious one that the best correspondents were those who worked nearest the front. “Eisenhower had a great idea,” Heinz said. “They moved the transmitter right up with the press – one in every army.” The military used encryption to transmit the stories so that the Germans could neither interrupt nor intercept them.

Heinz dedicated his first book to George Hicks, a well-known radio broadcaster who was on the USS Ancon, the communications command ship during the landings on Omaha Beach. On that day Hicks’s “report went out first and was heard all over the world,” Heinz said. After the two of them became buddies, Hicks told Heinz, “Your stuff is so good, you know, you’ll be a very successful writer.”

Time proved Hicks right. The proof is in two anthologies: What A Time It Was: The Best of W.C. Heinz on Sports and When We Were Young, Heinz’s best stories from World War II.

Yet even Hicks could never have predicted the source of his friend Willie’s greatest success. Heinz wrote two books about doctors and ghosted an autobiography of Vince Lombardi, the Green Bay Packers’ football coach. He found Lombardi obtuse. When Moskowitz asked him what Lombardi was like, Heinz said: “Lombardi was easy to work with for one day. After the first day, he said, ‘How long is this going to take?’ ”

The book, Run to Daylight, sold well, but Heinz was still working up to his breakthrough.
J. Maxwell Chamberlain, a cardiac surgeon, had helped him write his first novel, The Surgeon, Chamberlain introduced him to Richard  Hornberger, a doctor from Maine who had written a novel about his experiences at army field hospitals in Korea.

Heinz with his typewriter.
Heinz showed the manuscript to his wife Betty, who was from Montpelier and had a strong sense of propriety. When she laughed at certain passages, Heinz decided to take on the project. He wrote Hornberger, and soon they were working together.

Heinz described Hornberger as  a “shy man.  . . . He said, ‘I want to get this goddamn book published.’ ” He told Heinz he didn’t care about the money – Heinz could have it all. Heinz wouldn’t hear of it and offered Hornberger the better portion of a 60-40 split.

Heinz drafted three chapters and showed them to an editor at William E. Morrow, who offered an advance of less than $5,000 – “not very much but you take it,” Heinz said.  It took about a year to finish the manuscript. The two men worked under the joint pseudonym Robert Hooker. Hornberger’s “characters were all what I call ‘stick people’ – you know, they had no dimensions to them. He wanted to be a writer, but he wasn’t, really.” Heinz turned the characters into “living human beings.” He also did what he could to provide Hornberger’s episodic story with structure.

M*A*S*H came out in 1968. The film appeared in 1970, its screenplay written by Ring Lardner Jr., and won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.The television series ran from 1972 to 1983.

M*A*S*H: Bill Heinz's goldmine
For Heinz the popularity of book, film and TV show meant royalties, royalties, royalties. “The money started to grow very rapidly,” he said. He described the weekly checks as “ridiculous . . . enormous . . . It was a hell of a lot.”

Heinz’s career as a sports writer had ended by then. He was in Miami in 1964 to cover Cassius Clay’s challenge of Sonny Liston for his heavyweight boxing title. When he heard after the fight that a serious infection had hospitalized his daughter Barbara, he rushed to her side. But the infection killed her at age 16.

Bill and Betty Heinz moved to Dorset, Vt., with their younger daughter, Gayl. In time the Heinzes used the M*A*S*H windfall to establish the Heinz Family Trust to support the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. It is now known as the Barbara Bailey Heinz and Gayl Bailey Heinz Fund.

I asked Heinz, who died in 2008 at the age of 93, whether he didn’t find it ironic that after all the stirring reporting and writing he had done from battlefields and sporting arenas , it was a rewrite job that had made him rich.


“I suppose so, but it doesn’t bother me,” he said. “Heh heh heh. Oh no, I don’t want to go around saying, ‘Hey, I wrote this or that.’ But I do get trapped all the time into the M*A*S*H thing.” Whenever he gave a talk about his career, people asked, “Where did Mash come from?”

Friday, June 27, 2014

Occupying Richmond (part three)

This drawing from the April 22, 1865, cover of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper is fanciful. Capt. George A. Bruce
of the 13th New Hampshire Volunteers requisitioned the carriage Lincoln rode in. In his account, excerpted here,
he wrote that it was not an open barouche and that the streets were empty when Lincoln rode through Richmond.   
Capt. George A. Bruce of the 13th New Hampshire rode across the bridge from Rockett’s Landing into Richmond proper beside his division commander, Brig. Gen. Charles Devens. “The feeling of gratitude in the breasts of the freedmen” overwhelmed them. Former slaves gave them “such a welcome as king or conqueror never knew.” Devens’s eyes filled with tears and his voice quavered as he said to Bruce: “This is a great sight for us to behold – the deliverance of a race.”

Postwar photo of George A. Bruce
When the column reached Main Street, all bands were called to the front, and the men paraded to “Yankee Doodle” and “Rally round the Flag.” The refrain “Down with the traitor and up with the stars” stirred every Union heart. Heading toward Capitol Square they marched to “Battle Cry of Freedom.”

On Capitol Street, Devens’s brigade moved back to the front and stacked arms. “Sweeter music never reached the human ear than the rattling of those Union muskets on the pavements of Richmond as they dropped upon the ground,” Bruce wrote.

For all the thrill of triumph, the troops had marched right into a calamity. Residents fled their burning homes and carried whatever they could to the square. Black and white men, women and children of all ages crowded together with their sofas, carpets and beds, their toys and mirrors, pots and pans strewn around them. The sick lay on makeshift beds.

The fire seemed to strengthen the wind, and on the wind rode cinders from one rooftop to the next. It was “blowing like a hurricane,” Bruce wrote. The heat and smoke made it hard to breathe. Above the fury on the Capitol lawn stood George Washington on horseback. The city had dedicated the majestic sculpture by Thomas Crawford three years before Virginia seceded from the Union. As Bruce watched, firebrands – burning chunks of wood – thumped against it.

Anarchy ruled the city. No one organized an effort to put out the fire. Mobs fought for food wherever they could find it. Shoulder to shoulder with white people, freed slaves joined in, eager to test their liberty. Their doors flung open, convicts walked out of jail and prison. Looters first raided the standing buildings nearest the fire and moved away as the flames approached.

Brig. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel, commander of Bruce’s division, set up inside the Capitol. Brig. Gen. George F. Shepley, who had been the first colonel of the 12th Maine Volunteers, was appointed military governor. Devens took command of the troops in the city.

Edward H. Ripley (1862 photo)
But the man given the task of restoring order in Richmond was a 25-year-old brevet brigadier general from Vermont named Edward H. Ripley. “No one better fitted for such an important and delicate task could have been found,” wrote Bruce. He described Ripley as “a scholar, a gentleman in the true sense of the word, and a soldier of much experience and proved courage. Tall, possessed of a fine figure and an open and attractive countenance, with an eye that beamed with kindness and inspired confidence, he possessed a maturity of judgment beyond his years.”

The Union men worked as a team. Soldiers gathered all the fire engines they could find and fought the fire. They organized a police force and posted sentinels on every street. By noon, printers from the ranks were producing circulars announcing the temporary rules to meet the crisis. Only soldiers needed to protect the public and property were allowed inside city limits.

By nightfall the fires were dying out. Because the streetlights were not lit, the stars shone bright. Capt. Bruce walked alone for hours through the streets “of that proud but conquered capital, past the luxurious abodes of wealth then knowing the first pangs of hunger, past doors where had proudly entered, and as proudly departed, great military heroes, the tread of whose armies had made the continent to tremble and filled the world with their fame, past homes but yesterday tenanted by the rulers of an empire, now fleeing to escape the threatened punishment of their acts.” He walked “through narrow lanes and filthy alleys where dwelt the sons of toil upon whose humble roofs the calamities of the war had fallen with a double stroke, consigning fathers and sons, with all the savagery of an unpitying fate, to their untimely graves.”

The next day, April 4, at about 3 p.m., Bruce was resting on the steps of the governor’s mansion. The wife and daughter of Gov. William “Extra Billy” Smith were upstairs with a female friend who had been trapped in Richmond by the advance of the Union army. Shouting in the streets drew nearer and nearer. Smith’s daughter came to the window and asked Bruce what was going on. He went to find out.

On the other side of the house he saw President Lincoln in the road with his son Tad, sailors guarding them on all sides. “The uproar was caused by thousands of freedmen who thronged about and followed their emancipator,” wrote Bruce.

When he told Miss Smith what he had seen, she disappeared from the window without a word. A note from Devens at Jefferson Davis’s house asked him to bring a carriage and come meet Lincoln, who was holding an informal reception. Afterward Lincoln, Tad, Devens and Admiral David Porter entered the carriage and rode off with 25 officers galloping along. The streets were empty in town, but a quarter mile out carriages and hacks had gathered to see the casket of Confederate Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill placed in a hearse. Hill had been killed at Petersburg.

The Crawford statue of George Washington. in Richmond's Capitol Square 
Lincoln’s carriage also stopped in Capitol Square to see Crawford’s statue. The sculptor has Washington facing west and pointing a baton in that direction. Lincoln gazed at the statue and said, “Washington is looking at me and pointing to Jeff Davis.” On the way to Porter’s ship he stopped again to look upon the ruins of Richmond.

From Bruce’s perspective, Richmond changed utterly the moment it ceased to be the capital of the Confederacy. Men in rebel uniforms no longer walked the streets. Union soldiers jailed the 2,000 soldiers who did not retreat with their army in Libby Prison and Castle Thunder. Visitors “poured into Richmond to see something of war now that it was ended.” Bruce calculated there were enough members of the U.S. Congress to hold a session in the former Confederate capitol.

Vice President Andrew Johnson: big talk, no action
Bruce was assigned to record the proceedings of criminal trials. A commission was trying a man for murder in the Senate chamber one day when Vice President Andrew Johnson and former senator Preston King of New York walked in. The court recessed to greet them.

Johnson sat beside Bruce and began to rail against the men who had started the rebellion. What he most feared, he said, was the tender heart of President Lincoln. “If I was president, I would order Davis, Lee, Longstreet and all the most prominent leaders before a military commission, and, when convicted of treason, they should be hung,” he said, pounding the desk with his fist.  

“Nine days later he was president of the United States,” Bruce observed, “and not one of them was even tried.”

News of Lee’s surrender reached Richmond on April 10. Bruce applauded the restraint of northern leaders – Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Sen. Charles Sumner, Lincoln – in limiting the celebration, lest they offend former Confederates, now fellow citizens again. “The spirit of Lincoln, ‘With malice towards none, with charity for all,’ has gradually won over all feelings of enmity and distrust, and become national,” Bruce wrote.

Two months passed before the day Bruce had been longing for. “Never can I forget that pleasant morning in June when, in obedience to orders from the War Department, in company with three New Hampshire regiments, I embarked on board a steamer at Richmond for our homeward-bound voyage to Boston. . . . We sailed down Virginia’s imperial river to the ocean, and saw for the last time her blue hills fade away in the distance. I began to experience that strange sensation of awe and uncertainty that comes over one as he stands on that mysterious borderland between one sharply contrasted mode of life and another.”

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Taking Richmond (part two)

Contemporary colorized engraving of the burning of Richmond. The fires began as an effort by troops under Lt. Gen.
Richard S. Ewell to burn the city's tobacco, cotton and food  to keep them from the Union army. Residents enraged
by the burning of the food rioted and looted. In the end Ewell's men could control neither the mob nor the fires.
[Part one of this account is here]

Well before dawn on April 3, 1865, and before great fires lit the sky at the horizon, Capt. George A. Bruce of the 13th New Hampshire Volunteers noticed the silence. He had been on watch all night, but this was no routine shift. Rebel deserters coming into the Union camp had reported that Robert E. Lee’s army was retreating, opening Petersburg and Richmond to capture. 

Bruce was in charge of the sentinels who stood guard at the front line beside their campfires. All had heard news, or at least rumors, of Lee’s withdrawal. “Every soldier was standing, with musket leaning against the ground, peering into the gloom, with every faculty strained to catch some note in confirmation of the glad tidings,” Bruce wrote.

Occasionally he heard the baying of a dog in the distance, but there was no other sound.

Soon the sky above Richmond caught the garish light of the flames below. “The whole northern circle of the heavens” glowed, Bruce wrote, and then another line of fires appeared above the James River.“While we were standing almost speechless, wondering at the scene, just to our left a huge volume of smoke like an illuminated balloon shot high into the air, followed by an explosion that shook the earth under our feet. The echoes rumbled heavily along the banks of the river and then died away in the distance.”

This was the explosion of the rebel ironclad Richmond – the first of many explosions that destroyed the Confederates’ James River fleet.

Bruce’s division commander, Brig. Gen. Charles Devens, had given him authority to act if the need arose. And now it had, it seemed to Bruce. He ordered the pickets forward, and no opposing picket line rose up to meet them.

Bruce and Cpl. George Duncan of the 9th Vermont rode through. Bruce stopped a deserting Confederate soldier and ordered him to guide them to the rebel entrenchments. They passed through three sturdy lines of obstructions with buried torpedoes between them and then reached long, parallel rows of empty tents. Bruce retraced his path and led his men forward. He lost one man, a Vermonter who strayed from the march route and stepped on a torpedo. Beyond the rebel tents Bruce re-formed his skirmishers into a line.

As the day broke, Bruce secured Confederate forts and batteries, leaving sentinels at each along the half-mile of the corps’s front. Devens sent orders not to advance, but Bruce rode back to tell him the order had come too late. He found the general at his headquarters and said he had already taken Fort Gilmer and the rest of the Confederate line. Devens shook his hand and said, “Hail to thee, Count of Gilmer.”

It was 5 a.m. Devens sent word to Gen. Godfrey Weitzel, the corps commander. By 6 Weitzel had ordered the division on to Richmond. Devens told Bruce to use his pickets as skirmishers, and Bruce pushed them as fast as he could. It took little prodding. The men “pressed on joyously, with a quick step and light hearts,” he wrote. “It was a refreshing march in the pleasant hour of a delightful morning.”

Along the way they saw green fields and an occasional abandoned farmhouse. They picked up rebel stragglers by the dozen. One saluted Bruce and asked how much the Union army was paying for arms and equipment.As Bruce’s men neared the Confederate capital’s inner defenses, they ascended a hill and got their first good view of Richmond.

“The city was wrapped in a cloud of densest smoke, through which great tongues of flame leaped in madness to the skies,” wrote Bruce. “A few houses on the higher hills, a spire here and there half smothered in smoke, and the hospitals to the east, were the only buildings that could be seen.

“Added to the wild tumult of the flames, ten thousand shells bursting every minute in the Confederate arsenals and laboratories were making an uproar such as might arise from the field when the world’s artillery joins in battle. But just on the verge of this maelstrom of smoke and fire, cattle were grazing undisturbed on the opposite hillside, and I saw a farmer ploughing in a field while cinders from the burning capital were falling at his feet.”

Rockett's Landing on the James River near Richmond
His men halted on the outskirts of Richmond at Rockett’s Landing, a port for the rebel capital. Soon an open barouche approached carrying Joseph Mayo, Richmond’s mayor, who had come to surrender the city.

His message read: “The Army of the Confederate Government having abandoned the City of Richmond, I respectfully request that you will take possession of it with an organized force, to preserve order and protect women and children and property.”

Mayo’s brother, who was with him, told Bruce a mob had taken over the capital and no one was fighting the fires. The brother owned Powhatan, an estate on the James River nearby. Bruce sent a soldier with him to ease his fears that his mansion and plantation would be looted and destroyed.

Flag captured from the CSS Hampton by Capt. William J. Ladd
Bruce now saw Devens’s division – his division – marching up behind the skirmishers to occupy Richmond. The leading brigade entered first, moving rapidly because of the flames, explosions and chaos ahead. The brigade's commander, Edward H. Ripley, of Rutland, Vt., had risen from the rank of private in the 9th Vermont Volunteers to brevet brigadier general.

Among the working-class residents of Rockett’s Landing, Bruce first observed how the war had affected southern civilians. “Handkerchiefs and strips of cotton cloth as flags of truce were pinned on the door-casements of the houses, from which women and children came out with piteous appeals for food,” he wrote. The Union men had nothing to share but returned as soon as they did.

Capt. William J. Ladd -- first to Richmond? 
Midstream in the James the soldiers saw a Confederate flag flying above a gunboat. Capt. William J. Ladd of Portsmouth, N.H., Bruce’s tent-mate and another 13th New Hampshire officer on Devens’s staff, rowed out to the boat and retrieved the flag. Just as he returned to shore, the gunboat exploded.

After the war, many men claimed to have been the first Union soldier to enter Richmond that morning. Bruce had read obituaries of “soldiers in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts who had gained the reputation in their own locality of being thus distinguished.”

Bruce had his own candidate for the distinction and firsthand evidence to support his choice. At 3 a.m., when Bruce realized what was happening, he sent a note back to Ladd to join him immediately. At about 5, Ladd, who had a fast horse, rode off toward Richmond with a 9th Vermont major. The major turned back, but Ladd rode on, reaching Capitol Square before 6. A Confederate sailor tried in vain to stick him with his cutlass before he returned to Devens’s headquarters. Many postwar histories identified Maj. Atherton H. Stevens of the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry as the first man to enter Richmond, but Bruce saw Stevens and his squadron far from the city at 5:45 a.m.

“Whatever of honor or distinction attaches to the man who first entered the Confederate capital belongs, without a doubt, to Captain Ladd,” Bruce wrote.

Monday, June 23, 2014

To Richmond at last (part one)

Accounts of the capture of Richmond in early April of 1865 were plentiful. By then, the Union soldiers knew that destroying Robert E. Lee’s army was their real mission, but capturing the capital retained great symbolic meaning.

The story I used in Our War was that of Charles “Carleton” Coffin, the Boston Journal correspondent from Boscawen, N.H. He risked life and limb to reach Richmond on April 3 and was richly rewarded for his effort. The next day, he marched through the city’s streets with Abraham Lincoln as freed slaves fawned over the president.

But another New Hampshireman, George A. Bruce, was there even before Carleton. Bruce, who was from Mont Vernon, was a 25-year-old captain in the 13th New Hampshire, one of the first Union regiments to enter the city. He wrote a report the night of April 2 and a full account soon after.

Many years after the war, still seeking to correct errors in the way the events had been portrayed, he wrote “The Capture and Occupation ofRichmond.” He presented the paper to the Military History Society of Massachusetts on April 15, 1915.

This is a condensed first part of Bruce’s story, taking the reader up to his realization that he is about to head into the rebel capital.

Brig. Gen. Charles Devens
Bruce had already gone to some trouble to correct the assertion that U.S. Colored Troops were the first to enter the city. Except for an African-American cavalry regiment that arrived in the city an hour after a brigade under Brig. Gen. General Charles Devens got there, no African-American soldiers got within two miles of the city.

Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler started the myth by speaking of the poetic justice in former slaves first occupying the Confederate capital. George Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln’s wartime secretaries, used the claim when they published their Life of Lincoln in Century Magazine. On Bruce’s advice, they scratched it in the book.

Bruce assured his listeners that his account relied only on documents he had written at the time, not from “a record made up from memory stretching back through the haze of half a century.”

Since mid-1864, the two armies had faced each other south of Petersburg and Richmond from 30-40-mile lines of trenches broken only by the Appomattox and James rivers. The distance between these lines varied from 100 yards to a mile. “So close was the contact that we could almost feel the pulse and hear the breathing of the hostile army,” Bruce wrote.

The Union men sensed that the war was near its end, but the winter and spring were cold and wet. Soldiers built houses of pine from nearby forests and warmed themselves with log fires. In December the Union armies reorganized. The 13th New Hampshire wound up in the 24th Corps in Gen. Devens’s division of the Army of the James. The African-American troops became the 25th Corps.

Bruce described the next three months as a period of “watchful waiting,” with large picket details at night and a full line of battle in the trenches each morning at 5. A tacit truce between the two sides – where the white troops were stationed at least – forbade firing by the pickets.

For the first time during the war, great numbers of Confederate soldiers began to desert to Union lines. It was “a very poor night when none came in,” Bruce wrote, and one brigade welcomed 40 deserters in a single day. “So eager were the later conscripts to escape the perils of the service that the prejudice of the color line was ignored.” Many deserted to the 25th Corps, “happy when having gained the protection of their former slaves.”

The deserters shared information aplenty. They described Confederate defenses, the strength of rebel armaments and the location of buried torpedoes. They reported that despondency had overcome southern troops and civilians alike. Bad news reached them almost daily, as Union armies captured Nashville, Savannah, Charleston, Wilmington, N.C.

The last snow fell on March 24, “what we call in New England the robin snow,” wrote Bruce. Three days later, the Army of the James, except for Devens’s division and a division of African-American troops, moved south of Petersburg. These two divisions, under Maj. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel, were left to hold the lines north of the James.

Devens moved to Weitzel’s headquarters. As a member of Devens’s staff, Bruce moved with him. Because the telegraph line terminated there, Bruce began to see Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s messages and orders to Weitzel.

On April 1, Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan’s troops turned Lee’s right at Five Forks, opening the way for an attack along the entire line the next day. This was a death blow to the Confederacy, and the day itself, a Sunday, seemed glorious to Bruce.

“In Virginia the spring comes forward suddenly and with greater splendor than in our more northern latitude,” he wrote. “It seemed to me that a more perfect day could not have dawned on the earth since the creation than that battle-Sunday about Petersburg. The sky was cloudless, and through the hushed air I heard distinctly for the first time the church bells of Richmond some seven miles to the north, and at the same time, though less distinctly, the subdued murmur and roar of the battle fifteen miles to the south.”

Brig. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel
At 11 a.m. he climbed a pine tree. He saw the Confederate works and could tell resistance to the Union attack was slight. He reported this to Devens, who sent him to Weitzel. The general cautiously observed that once the Union troops were in firing range, “we should find plenty of rebel heads showing themselves.” Weitzel, in Bruce’s view, was “an officer of much ability, but lacked confidence and the spirit of enterprise.” Bruce correctly guessed that Lee was about to retreat.

Devens put Bruce on night watch. Although the telegrams stopped, two deserters showed up in the middle of the night. Lee’s army was leaving, they told Bruce. He reported this intelligence to Devens, who ordered him to try to take the Confederate works opposite him if he could easily do so. Bruce rode to the brigades and then to the pickets to prepare them for the task.

“It was a warm, still night,” he wrote. “A soft wind, touched with the perfumes of earliest flowers and the first buds of spring, was moving gently from the west. The sky to the zenith was free from clouds, but toward the horizon a bank of smoky mists had settled, as is usual in that climate during the later hours of night.

“I cannot express the emotions with which I was stirred, as I rode alone through the night, with no sound heard and no object seen save the stars above and the wavy swells of the dusky earth beneath, with full authority, and with a full determination, to set in motion the right wing of the army, which I well knew would result in the immediate occupation of the Confederate capital and the speedy fall of the Confederate Government itself.”

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A voice from the past speaks to the future

The letterhead on one of the letters written by Willard Templeton of the 11th New Hampshire Volunteers.
Bringing the Civil War home to history students in any state that fought in it is so easy that you wonder why more teachers don’t do it. One who has is Graham Warder, an associate history professor at Keene State College.

Warder arranged with the New Hampshire State Library to lend the letters of Willard Templeton to his college’s Mason Library. Warder’s students set about to scan, transcribe the letters and post them online, a challenging job but also a rewarding one.

Templeton was 20, about the age of the students, when he enlisted in the 11th New Hampshire Volunteers during the summer of 1862. He lived in Hillsboro, about a 40-minute drive from the college. Templeton wrote about 140 letters from the field to family and friends.

In 1864 the 11th and two sister New Hampshire regiments joined a brigade under Brig. Gen. Simon G. Griffin, a native of Nelson, even nearer to Keene. At Spotsylvania on May 12, Templeton was wounded. Two and a half months later, he carried the colors into the battle of the Crater before Petersburg. Poor leadership by top generals turned this into a Union debacle for the Union, but Griffin’s men fought better than most. Templeton was killed in this battle.

Templeton was a keen observer eager to let his family and friends know just what he was going through. Letters home were uncensored and became a chief source of news on the home front. Soldiers lacked a sense of the big picture but were not shy about sharing camp rumors.

Contemporary newspaper map of the siege of Vicksburg.
In mid-June of 1863, the 11th took the steamer Imperial down the Mississippi River to join in Grant’s siege of Vicksburg. It was one of eight steamers in the squadron with gunboats along to protect them. Writing from onboard on June 13-14, Templeton painted his brother a vivid picture of his journey.

After a 170-mile voyage the first day, they reached Greenville, Miss. “We are now down where the guerrillas fire into the boats passing down,” he wrote. “A few miles above here a boad loaded with soldiers was fired into yesterday & several were killed a number wounded the boat disabled.”

The guerrilla attacks had prompted Union forces to burn the town. Now it looked desolate – “old chimney stacks shared [charred?] frames & ash heaps are about all that is left except negrow huts these are not disterbed.” They had passed through immense hardwood forests but as the heights along the river gave way to lower banks, they began to see plantations. “The negrow huts make quite a village so that the boys jokely ask what city is that.”

Templeton believed that Grant needed them. He was “feeling anxious to get there We want to help capture Vicksburg.”

They got their wish the next morning. “We have got in sight of the city of V & have seen the flashes heard the report of Grants big siege guns,” Templeton wrote.

This letter, transcribed by Michael Nevins, is just a slice of the life of one Union soldier. But as the Keene State students no doubt found out, the slices add up. The letters also prompt further inquiry. What did the 11th New Hampshire do at Vicksburg? Does Templeton write about his part in the siege? How did the siege turn out? Why was Vicksburg important?

More schools – high schools and colleges – should take advantage of such resources. The family of Willard Templeton saved his letters for posterity, as did families all across the North and South. How better for young people today to begin to understand their nation’s catastrophic civil war than through the witness of people their own age?