Sunday, March 1, 2015

As night fell on Fredericksburg

Writing an official report of a Civil War regiment in battle was a daunting task. Battle was chaotic. No colonel could get all the facts or double-check everything his subordinates told him. No matter how omniscient he might seem to his men or perceive himself to be, he could not witness enough in the heat of battle to know how his men had performed or understand his regiment’s role in the larger outcome.

Col. Aaron F. Stevens was seriously ill at Fredericksburg.
Worse, the report was a deadline writing job with inherently conflicting goals: to give a narrative of what happened while making his troops – and by extension his leadership – look good.

Below you’ll find Col. Aaron F. Stevens’s report to New Hampshire Gov. Nathaniel S. Berry about the 13th New Hampshire’s role in the battle of Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, 1862.  The battle was a debacle, with Gen. Ambrose Burnside sending wave after wave of Union troops uphill toward an impregnable Confederate position. Stevens submitted his report nine days after the battle.

In introducing it, it would be churlish to point out every inflated assertion or omitted fact. I will say that the casualty figures for Stevens’s regiment did not reflect the pitched, desperate battle his report described. And I will quote briefly from two other sources, a comprehensive history of the battle and a letter home written by one of his men.

The history, Francis Augustin O’Reilly’s The Fredericksburg Campaign, reports that Stevens “was too sick to keep up with his regiment, much less keep order.” He had lost 20 pounds and, to his men, looked 10 years older. Too sick to ride his horse, he had dismounted and walked until he plunged into a bog and was stuck up to his knees. One of his men pulled him out, and he lay on the ground to rest until his horse could be brought up.

A “jumbled mass” of Stevens’s men did attack the wall that protected the Confederate line at Fredericksburg. And because it was dark and the rebels thought the battle was over, the soldiers of the 13th New Hampshire managed to get close to the enemy before a rebel volley sent most of them tumbling back. But it was an inglorious retreat, successful mainly because the rebels could not see them in the dark and fired high.

Here is a report by a young private, Joseph Prime:

“Well, we formed in line of battle of our whole Brigade, the 25th N.Y. Reg., and the 13th N.H. Reg and the 10th N.H. next. Well we charged to within 20 yards of a battery (in the dark) when we were met by a regular blaze of rebel musketry and were shot down like everything when the 25th N.Y. broke and run through our ranks and caused the 13th to break and run and we received a destructive fire from one of the New York Reg or some other Union Reg.

Piece of piano key sent home from Fredericksburg by Private Joseph Prime.
“And we all pitched into a deep gulley or ditch after running some thirty yards and lay there until the firing ceased when we got out and run the best way that we could till we got behind a hill where we reformed and marched back to the city and slept on our arms that night. . . . I guess there is about 35 that is killed, wounded, or missing. . . . There was just four wounded out of our company and none killed. By the way there was a piano in Fredericksburg and I am going to send you a piece of the Ivory from one of the keys of that piano to remember Fredericksburg by.”

Here is what Col. Stevens reported to the governor of New Hampshire:

Headquarters Thirteenth Regiment N. H. Vols, Opposite Fredericksburg, VA., December 22, 1862.

To His Excellency Nathaniel S. Berry, Governor of New-Hampshire:

Gov. Nathaniel Springer Berry
Sir: I have the honor to report to you the operations of the regiment under in command since their departure from Camp Casey, near Fairfax Seminary, Virginia, including the battle of Fredericksburgh, on the thirteenth inst.

My regiment moved from Camp Casey on the first inst, with the First brigade of Casey’s division, consisting of the Fifteenth Connecticut, Thirteenth New-Hampshire, Twelfth Rhode Island, and Twenty-fifth and Twenty-seventh New Jersey volunteers, under command of the senior Colonel, Dexter B. Wright, of the Fifteenth Connecticut volunteers.

The first day we reached Uniontown, some two miles southerly from Washington City. We encamped the second day near Piscataway, and the third day about six miles northerly from Port Tobacco. We passed Port Tobacco about noon of the fourth day, and encamped for the night some six miles west of that place. The fifth day, in the midst of a cold and violent snow-storm, we encamped about one and a half miles from Liverpool Point, or Bluebank, as it is sometimes called, a point on the Potomac nearly opposite Acquia Creek. On the morning of the sixth day, we broke camp and marched to Bluebank, where we were detained some eight hours awaiting transportation; the soldiers during that time being exposed to a keen, cold, and piercing wind which swept down the river and across the plateau where they were halted.

My regiment was ferried across the Potomac about six o‘clock Saturday evening. The weather was extremely cold, and the men suffered much from its severity. From Acquia Creek, where we landed, we marched about two miles and encamped in a ravine well sheltered from the northerly winds, but filled with snow. The baggage of the field and staff-officers, including their blankets, mess-chests, eatables, etc., was, through the inefficiency and neglect of the transportation officials, left on the Maryland side of the river, and notwithstanding the faithful exertions of brigade and regimental quartermasters, was detained from us nearly two days. Consequently we were without blankets or shelter for two nights of intense cold weather. The result in my own case was an attack of illness from which I have not yet recovered, though I have had the good fortune thus far to be able to be on duty. I was, however, only a sufferer in common with others. In this encampment we remained until the next Tuesday afternoon, when we moved to this point, reaching here Wednesday afternoon. Our brigade was then broken up, and my regiment was assigned to the First brigade, (Colonel Hawkins,) Third division, (Brig-Gen. Getty,) Ninth army corps, (Brig-Gen. Wilcox,) in Major-Gen. Sumner‘s right grand division. This brigade is composed of the Ninth, (Hawkins's Zouaves,) Eight ninth and One Hundred and Third New York, Tenth and Thirteenth New-Hampshire, and Twenty-fifth New-Jersey volunteers.

On Wednesday evening we received orders to be ready to move the next morning. Thursday we were in line all day, ready and waiting orders to move and listening silently to the heavy cannonading and sharp musketry, principally on our right, or watching the smoke, rising from the burning buildings of Fredericksburgh, directly in our front. Just after dark we moved to the river, and crossed, without opposition, the pontoon bridge near the lower end of the city. My regiment took up its position for the night in Caroline street, one of the principal streets of the city, and threw out two companies, company B, Capt. Dodge, and company E, Captain Julien, as pickets toward the enemy.

This position we occupied until Saturday morning, the two companies on picket-duty being relieved by company C, Capt. Bradley, and company G, Lieutenant Forbush commanding.
At an early hour on Saturday morning, the eventful and disastrous day of the battle, we took up our position with the brigade under the hill on the bank of the river, just below the bridge which we crossed on Thursday night. Here we remained under arms the entire day, our position being about a mile distant from the line of the enemy's batteries. Occasionally, during the day, fragments of shell from his guns reached us or passed over us, falling in the river and beyond, doing but little damage. One of our own guns, however, on the opposite bank of the river, which threw shells over us toward the enemy, was so unfortunately handled as to kill two men and wound several others in our brigade. After what your Excellency has read and heard concerning the battle of Fredericksburgh, I need not say to you that the fierceness of the fight during that long, bloody and disastrous day exceeds any description of which my pen is capable.

As yet all the accounts which I have seen or read from Union or rebel sources approach not in delineation the truthful and terrible panorama of that bloody day. Twice during the day I rode up Caroline Street to the centre of the city toward the point where our brave legions were struggling against the terrible combination of the enemy's artillery and infantry, whose unremitting fire shook the earth and filled the plain in rear of the city with the deadly missiles of war. I saw the struggling hosts of freedom stretched along the plain, their ranks ploughed by the merciless fire of the foe. I saw the dead and wounded, among them some of New-Hampshire’s gallant sons, borne back on the shoulders of their comrades in battle, and laid tenderly down in the hospitals prepared for their reception, in the houses on either side of the street as far as human habitations extended. I listened to the roar of battle and the groans of the wounded and dying. I saw in the crowded hospitals the desolation of war, but I heard from our brave soldiers no note of triumph, no word of encouragement, no syllable of hope that for us a field was to be won.

In the stubborn, unyielding resistance of the enemy I could see no point of pressure likely to yield to the repeated assaults of our brave soldiers, and so I returned to my command to wait patiently for the hour when we might be called to share in the duty and danger of our brave brethren engaged in the contest.

By stepping forward to the brow of the hill which covered us, a distance of ten yards, we were in full view of the rebel stronghold — the batteries along the crest of the ridge called Stansbury Hill and skirting Hazel Run. For three fourths of an hour before we were ordered into action, I stood in front of my regiment on the brow of the hill and watched the fire of the rebel batteries as they poured shot and shell from sixteen different points upon our devoted men on the plains below.

It was a sight magnificently terrible. Every discharge of enemy's artillery and every explosion of his shells were visible in the dusky twilight of that smoke-crowned hill. There his direct and enfilading batteries, with the vividness, intensity, and almost the rapidity of lightning, hurled the messengers of death in the midst of our brave ranks, vainly struggling through the murderous fire to gain the hills and the guns of the enemy. Nor was it any straggling or ill-directed fire. The arrangement of the enemy’s guns was such that they could pour their concentrated and incessant fire upon any point occupied by our assailing troops, and all of them were plied with the greatest skill and animation. During all this time the rattle of musketry was incessant.

About sunset there was a pause in the cannonading and musketry, and orders came for our brigade to fall in. Silently but unflinchingly the men moved out from under their cover, and when they reached the ground, quickened their pace to a run. As the head of the column came in sight of the enemy, at a distance of about three fourths of a mile from their batteries, when close to Slaughter’s house, it was saluted with a shower of shell from the enemy’s guns on the rest of the hill. It moved on by the flank down the hill into the plain beyond, crossing a small stream which passes through the city, and empties into Hazel Run, then over another hill to the line of railroad.

We moved at so rapid a pace, that many of the men relieved themselves of their blankets and haversacks, and in some instances of their great-coats, which in most cases were lost. By countermarch, we extended our line along the railroad, the right resting toward the city, and the left near Hazel Run. In the formation of the column, the Twenty-fifth New-Jersey had preceded my regiment, and at this point their line covered my front.

As we passed the brow of the hill, and moved down on to the line of the railroad, the enemy opened fire upon us from his batteries with renewed vigor. At the same time our batteries in the rear were answering his, and the heavens were illuminated with exploding shells from front and rear. Having extended our lines along the line of the railroad, the Twenty-fifth New-Jersey took the shelter afforded by the right embankment of the railroad, and my men the partial cover afforded by the left embankment.

It was for a moment only. The words, Forward! Charge! ran along the lines. The men sprang forward, and moved at a run, crossed the railroad into a low muddy swamp on the left, which reaches down to Hazel Run, the right moving ever higher and less muddy ground, all the time the batteries of the enemy concentrating their terrible fire and pouring it upon the advancing lines.

Suddenly the cannonading and musketry of the enemy ceased. The shouts of our men also were hushed, and nothing was heard along the line save the command: Forward, men — steady — close up. In this manner we continued to advance in the direction of the enemy’s batteries. I moved on the right of the regiment, Lieut.-Col. Bowers in the centre, and Major Storer on the left. From some cause the left wing of the Twenty-fifth New-Jersey separated from the right, and the left of my line passed forward and took the advance, the right of the Twenty-fifth still having the advance of my right.

In this way we moved forward, until within about twenty yards of the celebrated “stone wall" at the foot of the hill, on the crest of which, according to rebel accounts, was placed the well-known “Washington batteries.”

I do not speak at random of our position. I verified it by subsequent observation, and by the report of a brave and intelligent soldier, sent by myself on the Thursday following the battle, with our burial party, and who assisted in performing the last rite upon some of our dead who lay there. I am proud to say that the regiment which I had the honor to command, in connection with the right wing of the Twenty-fifth New-Jersey, gained a point much nearer the stone wall and the rebel guns than any of our forces during that unfortunate day and that the officers and men advanced firmly though rapidly to the attack, and were withdrawn only in the face of a fire which, during the whole day, had successfully repulsed the desperate bravery of chosen and veteran troops.

Before we reached the point of which I have been speaking, we came to an irregular ravine or gully, into which, in the darkness of the night, the lines plunged, but immediately gained the opposite side, and were advancing along the level ground toward the stone wall. Behind that wall, and in rifle-pits on its flanks, were posted the enemy‘s infantry — according to their statements — four ranks deep, and on the hill, a few yards above, lay in ominous silence their death-dealing artillery. It was while we were moving steadily forward that, with one startling crash, with one simultaneous sheet of fire and flame, they hurled on our advancing lines the whole terrible force of their infantry and artillery. The powder from their musketry burned in our very faces, and the breath of their artillery was hot upon our cheeks.

The “leaden rain and iron hail" in an instant forced back the advancing lines upon those who were close to them in the rear; and before the men could be rallied to renew the charge, the lines had been hurled back by the irresistible fire of the enemy to the cover of the ravine or gully which they adjust passed. The enemy swept the ground with his guns, killing and wounding many — our men in the mean time keeping up a spirited fire upon the unseen foe.

The firing at last gradually slackened; and as no further orders came to us, I withdrew my regiment with others, and re-formed it deliberately some few rods in the rear, taking with us such of our wounded as we could find on the field. We remained some half hour, until we received orders to fall back to the town, which was quietly accomplished without further loss.
On our return we halted at the railroad, and found that our wounded, under the care of Assistant-Surgeon Sullivan, assisted by Chaplain Jones and the members of the band, had been removed and placed under the shelter of the hill, in rear of the railroad. They were, as soon as possible, removed to the hospitals in the city, and properly cared for.

In looking back and reviewing the scenes of that memorable day, I am happy to assure your Excellency that I see no reason to feel otherwise than proud of the conduct of the officers and soldiers of my command. I know of no officer present on the field who did not come unmanfully and bravely to the duty with which he was charged. The men, with one or two exceptions, behaved admirably, not one leaving the field, though stricken with a fire so terrible and sudden.

I desire to refer particularly to Lieut.-Colonel Bowers and Major Storer in terms of commendation for their intrepidity and coolness in the advance and attack. With particular pride and pleasure I call your attention to the services of Assistant-Surgeon Richardson, who, in those dreadful days, proved himself an honor to his profession and an invaluable aid to the army in its hour of suffering. While I look with shame and horror on the conduct of men calling themselves surgeons, attached to regiments of other States, I am proud to say that I know from personal observation that for two days and nights after the battle, and at times when the shells of' the enemy were falling around him, Dr. Richardson pursued his arduous duties in the hospital and out of it, unremittingly, and with a fidelity and ability that has endeared him to me personally, and gained him an enviable distinction among his professional brethren in the army.
Dr. Sullivan, though suffering from illness, was assiduous in his attention to the suffering of our regiment and the wounded on the field of battle. Surgeon Twitchell was not present, being detained in Washington and arriving here on Tuesday after the battle. I sincerely regret his absence at a time when his distinguished abilities and experience would have rendered him so useful to the poor and suffering victims of the day's carnage.

Sunday and Monday following the battle, we occupied our old position in Caroline street. I received orders on Sunday to be ready to move again to the attack, and the position of the battalion lines was assigned; but the plan of renewing the attack was abandoned during the day. Monday night my regiment was thrown out as pickets on the line of the railroad, and to the south of it, along Hazel Run, which position, aided by a detachment of two companies of Berdan's sharp-shooters, was held until half past two o'clock Tuesday morning, our pickets continually exchanging shots with those of the enemy. We were then withdrawn, and returned to our old encampment on this side of the river.

I have the honor to furnish your Excellency herewith a list of the killed, wounded, and missing, and also a list of officers absent at the time of the action. I will add that many of my men were injured and bruised by being thrown down and trampled upon by the lines in front, but are not included in the list of casualties.

I am happy to say that in most instances the officers and men of my regiment, though they have suffered severely from exposure to cold and in diet, are recovering their health, strength and courage, for the great work still before the army of the Republic—the suppression of the rebellion.

I have the honor to remain, very respectfully, your Excellency's obedient servant,
A. F. Stevens, Colonel Thirteenth Regiment, New-Hampshire Volunteers.

List or Casualties in Thirteenth regiment New-Hampshire volunteers, at the battle of Fredericksburgh, Va., December Thirteenth, 1862.

Company D, Private Lorenzo Phillips; Company H, Private James Knights.

Total, two.

Company A—Lieut. B. C. Carter, slightly in leg; Private N. W. Gray, thumb shot off.
Company B—Corporal Geo. Cochrane, shot through wrist.
Company G—Privates H. B. Neely, in leg; Wm. Bridgdon, in knee; L. F. Smith, in hand; Geo. V. Celburn, in back.
Company D—Sergeant A. J. Sherman, in foot; Corporal M A. Taylor, in ankle; Privates Thaddeus Quimby, in neck; James J. Young, in head; Charles Hoyt, in finger.
Company E—Lieut. James M. Durell, in head; Privates Henry Nutter, in arm; David Chapman, in head; David Hogan, in hand.‘
Company F—Sergeant E. E. Locke, in hand; Privates, A. Stevenson, finger shot off; Charles Leathers, in ankle; Gilman Hall, in foot.
Company G—Corporal Edwin Ware, in thigh; Private Jacob Chamberlain in side.
Company H—Private C. C. Fuller, in foot; A. Jordan, in head; C. Cilley, in leg; Wm. McKinnon, in finger.
Company I—Lieut. M. A. Shaw, in foot; Corporal Wm. B. Huncklee, in head; privates, L. G. Parker, in side; M. Tull, in leg; H. Butler, in back; K. J. Chaplin, in head.
Company K—Privates, II. Hunnefelt, in finger; John F. Mulligan, shot through leg.

Total wounded thirty-four.

Missing and not since heard from, company F; J. F. Welch; company H, privates, Alvah Warren, Henry M. Woodbury; company K, privates John K. A. Hanson, John Harmon, Henry G. Thompson. Total missing, six.

Officers Absent from the Battle: —Surgeon George B. Twitchell, detained at Washington; Captain N. D. Stoodley, sick in Washington; Captain Luther M. Wright, sick in quarters; Lieutenant G. Gillis, Adjutant, sick, and on furlough in Nashua, N. H., Lieutenant Edward Kilburn, sick in Alexandria; Lieutenant W. H. H. Young, sick in quarters.

[My thanks to Dave Morin, researcher extraordinaire, who sent me this report and the CDV portrait of Col. Stevens.]

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Four more faces of the Fighting Fifth

Francis W. Butler of the 5th New Hampshire Volunteers, winter 1861-62
It has been 13 years since the publication of My Brave Boys, the book Mark Travis and I wrote about the 5th New Hampshire Volunteers under Col. Edward E. Cross. It was our first book, and the memory of seeing it for the first time still makes me smile.

When we started our research eight years earlier, more than one person knowledgeable about the regiment warned us that we wouldn’t find enough about the 5th to write a book. On the contrary, we discovered a wealth of letters, diaries, memoirs and newspaper accounts to bring the men and their experience to life.

Captain Richard R. David, 39, of Wolfeborough
But little did we know how much more was out there. The internet age has created a bonanza of new primary source material. Not least are dozens of CDVs – wartime studio (or “salon,” the word used at the time) photos of the men. The soldiers distributed these to friends and family. The portraits were cherished, especially when their subjects happened to die, which, of course, was a common outcome.

Nowadays there are collectors galore of CDVs, and identified soldiers are especially coveted. My friend Dave Morin and I check regularly online, especially on eBay, for new faces of New Hampshire soldiers. The other day Dave found a run of four photos of 5th officers on eBay and shared them with me. I had never seen any of them, although three of the four men had star turns in My Brave Boys and one an even larger role in Our War, my 2012 book about New Hampshire’s Civil War experienced.

I’ve reproduced the four pictures in this post. They are Frank Butler, Richard R. Davis, Jacob Keller and James B. David. The eBay seller told Dave they came from the photo album of a daughter of Capt. Richard Welch, another 5th officer.

All four of the CDVs are signed, and all were taken at the Mathew Brady studio in Washington, D.C. They were taken during the winter of 1861-62, before the regiment had fought its first battle. Maybe the four officers went together to the studio while the 5th was stationed at Bladensburg, Md., where Col. Cross was preparing his men for war.

Lt., later Capt., Jacob Keller of the 5th was an immigrant from Germany
Butler is the soldier I know best. His descendant, Tom Jameson, a Texan, lent me a large notebook of Butler’s wartime letters for Our War. In the book I tell Butler’s story through the letters, which are descriptive and candid.

Butler was a bright, articulate man who left the 5th to go to signal school. He later returned to the regiment as a captain. He rode with Cross to Gettysburg. Still later, while serving as a staff officer for Gen. “Baldy” Smith before Petersburg, Butler was wounded in the leg. He made it home to New Hampshire, where he underwent an amputation and died.

Richard R. Davis of Wolfborough, N.H., joined the 5th as captain of Company H at the age of 39. He served under Cross at the Battle of Fair Oaks but resigned and went home in late July 1862, after the Seven Days.

Jacob Keller was German by birth and a stalwart officer. He immigrated to the United States in 1855 at the age of 28. When the war broke out, he joined the 6th Massachusetts, the three-month regiment attacked by a mob in Baltimore on April 19, 1861. Keller returned home to Claremont, N.H., where he enlisted in the 5th New Hampshire and was commissioned as Davis’s first lieutenant in Co. H.

Lt. James B. David ran afoul of  Col. Cross and was sent packing.
Later, he became a captain and transferred to command of the ill-fated Claremont company, Co. G. Of the battle of Fair Oaks on June 1, 1862: Keller wrote: “We fought so close that if a little nearer the powder of the one would have burned the faces of the other.” At Fredericksburg, where his company was nearly destroyed, a ball shattered his right arm.

Lt. James B. David of Company K was from Amherst, N.H. When I showed his picture to Mark Travis, he responded: “Can’t you just see Cross hating this guy? On looks alone, all politics aside.”

David and his captain, Richard Welch, whose daughter apparently collected these CDVs in her album, shared the ignominy of being booted out of the 5th by Col. Cross on Feb. 15, 1862. Their records read: “Disch. incompetency.” Company K’s first sergeant, Thomas L. Livermore, had borne the brunt of Welch’s and David’s callous and babbling leadership. Of their ouster, he wrote in his memoir: “The consternation of our two officers was exceeding, and their calamity must have weighed very heavily.”

[More faces of the Fighting Fifth here, here, here and here.]

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Gotham greets Granite Staters

A New York stopover on the way to war:

More on the 7th New Hampshire here.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

When a soldier's vote was a loyalty test

Sgt. Wesley Knight, loyal Republican
Can you imagine a military unit off at war in which American soldiers care deeply about who is elected governor of their state? This brief letter from a sergeant from Londonderry, N.H., during the Civil War shows how much times and circumstances have changed. 

It was written the day after state election day in New Hampshire in 1863. In this blog I have written about this election from several angles, but this letter deals with a different question: How invested were the soldiers in the outcome?

The sergeant who wrote the letter was Wesley B. Knight of the 4th New Hampshire Volunteers. This regiment had arrived on the South Carolina coast in late 1861, moved on to Florida and returned to occupy Hilton Head Hilton Head six months before Knight wrote.

Knight, who was 28 years old at the time, was a Republican. What was at stake in the March 10, 1863, election was whether his party held the governor's office. Otherwise President Lincoln might have to deal with a peace-leaning Democratic governor. 

The candidates in New Hampshire were Joseph Gilmore, the Republican, a Concord railroad magnate; Ira Eastman, the Democrat, who favored making peace with the South; and Walter Harriman, a colonel running as a War Democrat to siphon votes away from Eastman. The only issues in the election were war policy and the Emancipation Proclamation, which had just taken effect.  

Note in Knight's letter the detail with which he reports the voting in his regiment. Also, his description of a fellow sergeant from Londonderry, 29-year-old Edward P. Moore, voting for a Democrat. In Knight's view Moore had changed. He was not simply expressing an opposing point of view. He was disloyal.

Beaufort. S.C.
Mar. 11th, 1863

Friend Clark,

As I was at leisure today I thought I would improve a few moments in writing you a few lines. My health is good at the present time & has been most of the time since I left N.H. the last time. The boys from L [Londonderry] are all well & enjoying themselves well and mostly contented but want this thing put through & have it finished up.

I suppose yesterday was a stirring day with you in N.H. It was somewhat so here. We held meetings in most all the companys and I believe that Gilmore was ahead in our Co. K. Harriman stood 24, Gilmore 26, Eastman 12. In Co. D. Gilmore had 40 to 2 for others.

How do you think E.P. Moore went? He voted for Eastman. He has changed a great deal I am sorry to say. He is losing confidence of the Co. officers by talking as he does. We have three loyal men for our company officers.

About my Colt, if you can sell it to a good advantage you may sell him & if the paymaster does come around to pay us take out those is due you & pay for selling him & pay the rest to my wife and her father. I did not want to sell him but I see no prospect of my getting home until my time is up so I have made up my mind to sell him. I know you will do as well as you believe & take out enough to pay for all of your trouble.

We are expecting to leave for Charleston every day. We have been under marching orders for more than a week. We are waiting impatiently for orders to move. I want to go to that hot hole of the Rebel and wipe it out. When we start I shall have a good supply of matches on hand to help burn the place if I live to get there. I will close now sending my regards to yourself & family.

I remain as ever yours &c,

Sergt. Wesley B. Knight
Co. H. 4th Regt.

N.H. Vols.

At 23 acres, the Florence, S.C., prison was one of the largest in the rebel system. It opened in September 1864. Of the 15,000-
18,000 prisoners in six months of operation, 2,802 died. Because of lost records, 2,167 of the dead lie in unknown graves. 
However disappointing Knight found Edward P. Moore's political views, Moore gave his life for his country. He was wounded July 27, 1864, near Petersburg, Va., and died three weeks later.

Knight suffered a similar fate. He was captured May 16, 1864, at Drewry's Bluff near Richmond and died five months later at the Confederate prison in Florence, S.C.

[Thanks to my friend David Morin for the transcription and Knight photo.]

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The new bride

Julia Jones was an eloquent and sometimes saucy letter-writer. When she came through Concord, N.H. after her
winter wedding, she was perhaps dressed as she is at left.
Julia Jones was a young educator from East Washington, N.H., who had many suitors during the Civil War. She came from a prominent local family in this west-central New Hampshire town, which can be reached by a winding, up-and-down road from Hillsboro to the southeast and an even hillier road from Newport to the north. Washington was, in other words, isolated.

Jones’s tart, witty letters betray an independent streak and a sense of self that attracted several Civil War officers. These included Edward E. Cross and Frank Butler of the 5th New Hampshire, but the one who won her heart was Samuel Duncan of the 14th New Hampshire.

Col. Samuel A, Duncan
Though their letters, including those written after Duncan became colonel of the 4th U.S. Colored Regiment, Jones and Duncan fell in love. Before the war they had met only once. Shortly after the war they married.

Especially because of Jones’s distinctive voice, writing the story of this romance for Our War was a delightful challenge. You can get a taste of it in this earlier blogpost – from a dialogue my wife did with me at the Washington Historical Society a couple of years ago.

At that presentation, one listener pointed out an error in the epilogue of my book. I had written that after the war Duncan and Jones were married in Washington, D.C., where he worked. In fact they were married in Washington, N.H., my listener said.

This error was deflating to its author. I’d not have made it had I found a letter that recently came my way.

The letter was written by Henry J. Crippen, a Concord, N.H., lawyer, educator and businessman. Like Julia Jones, he was a graduate of the New London Literary and Scientific Institution (later Colby Academy, now Colby-Sawyer College). A native of England, Crippen went on to graduate from Dartmouth in 1861. He taught at Concord High School and, also like Jones, became an elementary school principal. He left education to study law under Henry P. Rolfe, a Concord politician (Douglas Democrat) and attorney.

At the time Crippen wrote the letter in question to Kate Carr in Bradford, N.H., he was working in the auditor’s office of the state of New Hampshire. His letter is dated the last day of 1867. Jones and Duncan, who had been made a brigadier general near the end of the war, had been married that Christmas.

Here is what Crippen wrote to Carr near the end of his chatty New Year’s greeting:

“Julia Jones was married to Gen’l Duncan on Christmas. She passed through here on her wedding tour but said she could not stop as she was ‘under military orders.’ ”

It is pleasant to think that the Victorian gaiety of this brief paragraph suggests that the wedding was the happiest day in the life of Julia Jones.

[For the story of my belated discovery of the photo at top and other images of Julia Jones, see this post.] 

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Short letter, tragic story

Capt. John A. Cummings
Sometimes a short letter says a lot – especially if you know the conditions under which it was written. Here is a letter from John A. Cummings, a Peterborough, N.H., captain in the 6th New Hampshire Volunteers. It was found recently by my friend Dave Morin, who has an impressive digital archive of New Hampshire Civil War material.

Near Antietam Creek
September 28, 1862

Dear Mother:

We are lying in camp here on the bank of the Potomac. The rebels are opposite and occasional dashes at them are made by our troops. There has got to be one more great slaughter somewhere this fall. It may be near here but probably the theatre of operations will be changed soon and our army will move into Virginia again by way of Washington. We seem to have severe battles and both sides claim a victory but no decisive results come from it. I am sick and tired of it sometimes; it seems so much like nothing but huge butchery. We have got the best of them now however and the spirits of our soldiers begin to recover from the depression caused by the defeat at Bull Run. Write me often.

With love to all,
I am Your Son,
John A. Cummings

Cummings's mood was downcast. Eleven days before he wrote, his regiment, the 6th New Hampshire, had fought at Burnside’s Bridge at Antietam. The northern spin on this bloodiest day in American history was that the Union army had won a great victory. Yes, Lee had escaped to fight another day, but Union troops had turned back the Confederate invasion of the North

Unlike many soldiers who wrote home of this battle afterward, Cummings expected “one more great slaughter” sometime in the fall. He wrote of battle as “nothing but huge butchery” and dismissed claims of victory after battles that decided nothing.

As it turned out, he was right about the immediate future. One of the most useless slaughters of the war was indeed on the horizon – at Fredericksburg, Va., in the late fall.

Kate Cummings
But as a reading of his wartime letters at the Peterborough Historical Society makes clear, Cummings’s sour mood was excusable for personal reasons. In Our War, I told the story of how his wife had drowned after a steamer she was taking to visit him collided with another ship and sank in the Potomac. This occurred just six weeks before the Sept. 28 letter to his mother.

What’s more, less than a month before he wrote the letter, his regiment was hammered at Second Bull Run. Sixty-six officers and men from the 6th died in that battle, including many of Cummings’s friends. And the result was a decided rebel victory.

Two weeks later, the regiment fought at South Mountain on the way to Antietam.

All this compounded Cummings’s grief over the loss of his wife, Kate Cummings, whom he had married only the previous fall at the 6th New Hampshire’s training camp in Keene. The couple had no time for a honeymoon. John Cummings marched to the train station with his regiment on a snowy Christmas morning, and off the 6th went to the front.

Here are excerpts from the Cummings letters in the summer of 1862, beginning with this one written by the captain on Aug. 9 to his sister Ellen. The regiment’s major, Obed Dort, had left for Baltimore to pick up Kate Cummings and his own wife, Julia, and bring them to Newport News, Va.

Already plans for the Cummings reunion were going awry as the captain and the 6th had been ordered to join a gathering campaign in Virginia.

Lt. Col. Charles Scott
“Major Dort succeeded in getting permission to go to Baltimore the Thursday before we left to meet the women and Friday night we got orders to pack up and go on board transports Saturday morning, Cummings wrote his mother. “Sunday morning we passed them going down the Chesapeake. I never felt more in my life than I did then, but it was impossible for me to remain behind. Maj. Dort came right on and rejoined us again Tuesday but could not bring the women with him. He left them in good quarters near [Lt. Col. Charles] Scott and his wife [Sophia Scott] at Newport News. They were going to remain there till we could write them what to do.

“Day before yesterday I went back to camp to see if Col. [Simon G.] Griffin wouldn’t let me go back down there. His orders were not to let officers leave. . . . I have got room engaged at a farm house close by, but have not much hopes of her getting here. There is so much red tape business about it. It is the best opportunity now that we are guarding the bridge to have her with me there has been since coming out here. The accomodations are much better than at Newport News.

“But now to get her here is the question. Once here she could go home any day [if his regiment was called away]. And thus I am placed in perplexing circumstances. I think sometimes I will go to her anyway but then I should have to give up my place in disgrace here, and possibly she may be able to get here quite well without me. . . .  If Kate could have come one day sooner I could have brought her right along with me as well as not.” 

Two days later, Cummings wrote his mother that he had left Newport News on Aug. 2, the day before Kate’s arrival, and was still guarding a Potomac bridge near Fredericksburg. He was “in a continual worry” about Kate reaching him.

“I write to her every day but do not know if she gets my letters,” he wrote his mother. “I had rather give anything than not see her since she has taken so much trouble to come but the soldier is nothing but a machine in the hands of his general to be sent wherever he pleases. I am helpless unless I choose to run away and disgrace myself.

That night, Aug. 11, Kate Cummings wrote to him. Lt. Col. Scott had managed to get the women, as well as the soldiers recuperating from sickness at Fortress Monroe, a steamer for the journey to rejoin their units.

“Tonight a boat came, in which we are to sail tomorrow at ten or eleven,” Kate Cummings wrote her husband. “I felt when I started from home something was to happen.” So far things hadn’t worked out, “but I hope the future part of my journey is to be different. We are to go as far as Aquia Creek as we can not go any farther toward you.” She planned to go to Washington and wait to hear from him. 

Sophia Scott
“I can not go home without making one more effort to see you. . . . I write this so if I never arrive at my destination, you may know I started. If I have good luck I hope to reach you before this does.”

On Aug. 15, John Cummings wrote to his mother from Culpepper Court House: “By a telegraphic dispatch from Lt. Col. Scott I have just learned of a terrible steamboat disaster and that his wife, Maj. Dort’s, and my wife are among those lost. I am going to the scene of the disaster immediately if possible. God help me, and sustain her parents.”

Two days before, on Aug. 13, the two ships had collided. Among the 78 people drowned were Kate Cummings, Sophia Scott, Julia Dort and 11 soldiers of the 6th New Hampshire.

On Aug. 27 Capt. Cummings wrote from Alexandria that he had not seen Lt. Col. Scott, who had gone to recover his wife Sophia’s body. Maj. Obed Dort was in Keene for 20 days’ leave and had fallen ill. Cummings soon learned that he would resign.

Cummings was haunted by grief and a desire to join Kate in death. “I cannot help but think I shall go to her soon,” he wrote his mother. “If it should be so, do not think of it otherwise than as a relief and blessing to me.”

Stuck in Alexandria, he missed his regiment’s fight at Bull Run.

On Sept. 20 he wrote his mother the details of the 6th’s fight at Antietam. Kate’s father had gone south in hopes of retrieving her body, and Cummings was eager to know if he had. But his charge across Burnside’s Bridge under enemy fire was much on his mind.

“Mother,” he wrote, “I used to read of Napoleon’s battles and think it would be glorious to have a chance to take part in a battle. I have had it. . . . O what a time it was. I had to run over dead & wounded men to get back.”

He was still grieving in late October. “If I should chance to be killed, or rather it should be my destiny to die here, do not feel bad about it, mother,” he wrote. “Remember there is pleasure in the tho’t of joining her, and that I died happy believing that we were again to meet. – All the sorrow I feel at the thought of death is that there are those who will mourn for me, but we must go sometime and as we pass on one by one those who are left must weep by turn.”

Cummings remained in the army beyond the war’s end, leaving it as a cavalry major. After the war, he lived in Somerville, Mass., where he was publisher of the Somerville Journal and served as mayor for three years beginning in 1878. He died in 1887 at the age of 48.

Kate Cummings’s name, along with Sophia Scott’s, is on the roll of the dead on the pedestal of Peterborough’s Civil War memorial. 

Thursday, January 1, 2015

New Year, a thank you to readers

Looking down from Broadway at W. 96th St. on one of the last days of 2014/

Just after midnight, New Year's fireworks over Manhattan.
As the New Year clicked in, this blog surpassed 58,000 pageviews. Thank you for reading.

I’m also nearing my 300th post. Because I’m now working full-time again, you can expect more variety and less volume on this blog. The blog began with a fairly tight focus on New Hampshire’s Civil War experience, but almost from the beginning I wrote occasional posts about other interests: the World Wars, poetry and poets, art, music, personal experience.  

Recently, in a long series of posts that starts here, I told my family’s World War II and postwar experiences through letters. It is a story with a sad ending, and if you missed it, I hope you’ll make time to give it a look.

Meanwhile, I wish you all a Happy New Year. The photo above was taken from our balcony looking south toward midtown Manhattan. We were glad to witness the scene from a distance rather than freeze with the throng in Times Square.

Here are the top 25 posts on the Our War blog from the last two-plus years on the basis of pageviews. The order has changed modestly since I last posted a list in November. The range of pageviews now runs from 1,184 for No. 1 to 278 for the three tied at No. 25.

9. A Gettysburg journal (part 3) (9)

           A Confederate captain’s diary, pt. 3 (returns to list)