Saturday, October 3, 2015

George T. Strong describes 'an igneous night'

New York's Great Fire of 1835, as seen from Williamsburg in Brooklyn.
George Templeton Strong, the 19th century New York City diarist, loved to chase fires. He lived in a place and time place rich in fire hazard. Many a night the alarm bells, the smell of smoke or the lurid flame-painted sky called him to some ravaging conflagration.

Strong began keeping his diary at the age of 15 in 1835. That December, the Great New York Fire destroyed 17 blocks and an estimate 600 buildings. Strong made only passing mention of this fire in his diary. He missed another famous fire in 1865 when Phineas T. Barnum’s American Museum at Broadway and Ann Street burned.

The P.T. Barnum museum fire in 1865
On many another day or night, Strong rushed to the scene of a fire. Here is a typically vivid account of a busy night:

Jan. 27, 1840 – This has been an igneous evening. When I left the office at half-past seven, there was a fire in Broad Street, or rather in Water near Broad. . . . I didn’t stay to see the end of the combustion, for there were so many “soap locks” and “round rimmers” and other amiable persons there congregated, and so much hustling and swearing and rowdying going on, that I concluded to clear out – and walked out for a ramble uptown.

Got a little way up when I saw that another fire which had broken out an hour or so before in South Street was making quite a show and the temptation was irresistible so I made for the scene of action, the corner of Dover Street. I couldn’t get in front of the fire and was unable to make out whether two or three stores were burning, but it was quite a showy affair: the fire reflected on the snow and lighted up the masts and rigging of the ships, the groups of firemen on the docks with their engine and lamps, the crowd and bustle in front of the buildings, the raging fire, and just above it the cupola of Thomas H. Smith’s big store blazing away and half-hidden by the eddying smoke – altogether made quite a  display. Thomas H.’s store I think must have been saved; I didn’t stay to see the finale, being rather tired of wet feet and obstreperous rowdies. . . .

At three o’clock [this morning] I was waked by a furious alarm of fire which seemed so near and so terrible that I roused the old gentleman and we bundled on our clothes and made streaks. On reaching Wall Street we saw it wasn’t there, but the cinders were showering down like a snow-storm in Pandemonium or a “sulphur shower” in Padalon, and the fire shown as brightly on top of the Exchange and other elevated buildings as if it were only one block off.

It was the Thomas H. Smith store, probably the finest and largest, twice over, in the city, and I never saw such a scene as Peck Slip presented: the store extending from South to Front Streets was burning like a volcano, one body of fire from top to bottom. It was crammed with hemp, cotton, and tea, and the fire was so intense it was impossible to come near it.

There were only two engines and perhaps a couple of hundred men. Several other stores had caught and were burning fiercely; in fact the whole block was on fire from Smith’s store to Dover Street, but everything else sank into insignificance before the big store. It seemed as if the whole area, where the roof had been, 50 feet by 200, wasn’t wide enough for the flames to get out.

Jan. 28, 1840 – The loss last night is estimated at $1,500,000. Everything from Smith’s store to Dover Street on South and Front Streets has gone in fumo. Went down to the scene of action with George Anthon; they were demolishing walls, etc., and I noticed in pulling down a five-story brick front, entirely supported by side-walls, that a rope passed in at the fourth story window and out at the third so as to form a noose, when pulled through the wall shook and tottered and cracked in every direction, actually tore through the wall intermediate the windows, as if it had been made of wet paper, bringing out just bricks enough to come through – a pretty specimen certainly of modern masonry.

Smith’s store still burning fiercely. Two whole cargoes of tea in it just in from Canton, and I noticed the melted lead of the chests streaming down from the piles of ignited matter that are piled within the ruins. It is most fortunate that there was no wind when the fire took place. Had there been any, half the city might have been used up, as the firemen were exhausted and totally inefficient. As it is, the shipping seems to have escaped by miracle; they were mostly frozen in and couldn’t be hauled out of the docks.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Winant's war, FDR's choice, a sad demise

This is the second of a two-part post on John G. Winant, U.S. ambassador to Great Britain during World War II. Part one is here. The series was written at the time of the publication of Lynne Olson’s book Citizens of London, which tells Winant’s wartime history. A campaign is underway now to erect a statue of Winant on the lawn of the State Library in Concord, N.H., his hometown.

John G. Winant gave his all for the war effort, raising is profile in the eyes of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

‘One of the great what-ifs of American history’

Never was more demanded of the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain than during World War II. And no one could have defined the job more broadly than John Winant, the Concord man who held it throughout his country’s nearly four years at war.

Anything Winant might do to hasten victory, he did. He served as Franklin Roosevelt's chief liaison with Winston Churchill. He presented the caring face of the United States to the people of England. When Americans crowded into Britain to bomb and invade the continent, he became Dwight Eisenhower’s unofficial deputy in seeing to the needs of the GIs. As the war neared its end, his thoughts turned to the future of Europe.

Roosevelt came to appreciate Winant so much that he wanted him for a running mate in 1944. If Roosevelt had had his way, Winant would have been president.

Winant is seated left, talking with FDR before the Yalta conference in 1944.
Lynne Olson tells Winant’s story in Citizens of London, her book about the architects of the U.S.-British World War II alliance.

One measure of the lengths Winant went to as ambassador began with his reunion with Tommy Hitchcock, who had studied American history under Winant at St. Paul’s School during the teens. Their joint campaign saved the lives of many American fliers.

Hitchcock was an investment banker who had been known during the 1920s as the Babe Ruth of polo. Although polo was not exactly America’s game, Hitchcock became such a celebrity that F. Scott Fitzgerald based characters on him in two novels.

At St. Paul’s, Hitchcock admired his history teacher for his stories about Abraham Lincoln and other great Americans and for his progressive social views. Just 17, Hitchcock, like Winant, left school to join the military as an aviator during World War I.

During World War II, the Germans shot down American bombers with stunning frequency. By war’s end, 26,000 bomber crew members would be killed and many more captured or wounded.

Winant and Hitchcock shared a conviction about reducing this carnage. Once the bombers crossed the English Channel, they headed inland without fighter escorts. Winant and Hitchcock believed they needed them, and Hitchcock identified just the plane for the job. He even flew it.

The plane was the P-51 Mustang, built in California for the Royal Air Force. In speed and maneuverability, it more than matched the German fighters. All it needed was more power. A Rolls Royce Merlin engine produced in Britain could remedy that. If ever a military alliance seemed suited to fix a problem, this was it.

Tommy Hitchcock, Winant's former student and
fellow World War I aviator.
The only obstacle was official obstinacy. The Air Force brass opposed the idea, and Winant and Hitchcock lobbied for months to change minds. By one account, Winant “pushed the very daylights” out of those he thought could help.

Eventually the two men won the debate, but the brass failed to make production of the Mustangs a priority. It wasn't until early 1944, just before D-Day, that the fighters arrived in sufficient quantity to protect the bombers and, eventually, give the Allies control of the skies.

By then, a personal nightmare had compounded Winant’s many official worries. On Oct. 10, 1943, 22-year-old John Winant Jr.’s B-17 was shot down on a raid to Munster.

The fate of the ambassador’s son was unknown for weeks. Even when Winant learned that John Jr. was alive, his concern did not end. As a VIP prisoner of war, John Jr. might become a bargaining chip for the Germans or even be executed in revenge.

“For the rest of the war, Winant worried that because he was the ambassador, his son might be killed,” Olson said in a recent telephone interview.

The alliance

Winant could not allow this personal blow to slow the pace of his work.

He now had to deal with friction between the hordes of brash young Americans quartered in Britain and the Britons they had come to save. To bridge the cultural gap, Winant traveled widely to teach the British about American ways. He started a BBC radio program called Let's Get Acquainted. When he spoke with Americans, which was often, he always gave the same advice: Get to know the British.

Frequently Winant took to the streets of London to ask GIs how things were going. He lent them money, asked them to write him if they ran into problems and sometimes allowed those who couldn’t find rooms to sleep on the floor of his flat.

Ike with the Winants. John G. had married Constant Rivington Russell in
1919. Her father, a New York financier and philanthropist, died shortly before
 the wedding, leaving her a large inheritance.
Although their personalities differed, Eisenhower and Winant worked closely together. For both men, “the holy grail was that this alliance succeed,” Olson said.

Among the issues on which Eisenhower welcomed the ambassador's help was race. Generally reserved and polite, African-American soldiers tended to be more like their English hosts than like white GIs, Olson writes. The English were relatively color-blind, the Americans mired in the Jim Crow era. Racial strife among the soldiers was rampant.

Winant recruited both Janet Murrow, the wife of radio newsman Edward R. Murrow, and Roland Hayes, a famed black tenor, to travel around England and gather information about the treatment of African-American soldiers. Although Winant could not solve the race problem, he made certain a detailed report on racism in the ranks reached Eleanor Roosevelt and higher-ups in the administration.

Second fiddle

Along with the soldiers, scores of officials from U.S. government agencies invaded London. Coordinating their work fell to Winant. He seemed ill-equipped to succeed at this task. For years, observers rolled their eyes over his absent-minded blundering as an administrator. He once forgot Churchill was coming for dinner, and when the prime minister arrived, there was no food in the house.

But by one contemporary account, Winant brought harmony to the diverse work of the federal agencies in London. A reporter who wrote about the U.S. government operation was surprised at how favorably “the Winant system” compared with the bureaucratic “feuding grounds” in Washington.

As the U.S. buildup accelerated, Winant also tended to Churchill’s bruised pride. Although the prime minister had long for U.S. entry into the war, it lowered his status. Once the last great symbol of Western Europe’s defiance of German aggression, he was now the junior partner in a vast military alliance. Winant was present at the Tehran conference in 1943, where Roosevelt snubbed and even mocked Churchill while trying in vain to woo Stalin.

About this time Winant was appointed to an Allied commission to plan for the occupation of Germany. His prewar experience in Geneva and his posting in London, where several European leaders waited in exile, gave him a good grasp of the players and the possibilities. He was keenly interested in postwar planning – far more so than the Roosevelt administration, which ignored and even undermined his mission.

For these and other slights Winant blamed Roosevelt's advisers, not Roosevelt himself. “He was loyal to FDR no matter what,” Olson said.

Running mate?

Roosevelt respected Winant, too. Although the president was more pragmatic than Winant and sometimes poked fun at Winant's idealism, he also knew that Winant, a Republican, had sacrificed his political career for the New Deal at home and served the country faithfully abroad. When FDR decided to seek a fourth term as president, he floated Winant’s name as a possible running mate.

In an interview, Olson speculated that the idea occurred to Roosevelt simply because he believed Winant would make a good president. He had been loyal, hard-working, inspirational and effective. In New Hampshire, he had been popular with voters and had succeeded in several initiatives that cut against his state’s conservative grain.

The historian Allan Nevins
Michael Birkner, a historian at Gettysburg College, also shed light on the matter. Years ago, in the papers of the historian Allan Nevins at Columbia, Birkner found Nevins’s notes from a 1957 interview with Ed Pauley, the California oilman who ran the 1944 Democratic convention.

Pauley told Nevins he and other leading Democrats believed Roosevelt would die in office and found Vice President Henry Wallace too flaky to be president. Several alternatives were considered, but Pauley identified Winant as Roosevelt's first choice.

Because Winant was not a Democrat, Pauley found this “preposterous.” When Roosevelt brought Winant’s name up, Pauley attacked, saying Winant had shown no organizational skills in London and had “no ability to speak.”

Roosevelt backed down, and Pauley pushed through his crony, Sen. Harry Truman.

It is interesting to consider how different history might have been had Winant been chosen. With Truman as his running mate, FDR won a comfortable victory over Thomas Dewey. When Roosevelt died three months after the inauguration, Truman became president.

“Quite fascinating, isn’t it, that America’s greatest vote-getter of the 20th century wasn’t allowed to choose his own running mate in 1944?” Birkner said. “As for Winant, one of the great what-ifs of American history without a doubt.”
A little more than a month before FDR's death, Winant sent him this letter about a belated Christmas
gift he had found for the president.

Winant’s dream

Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945, hit Winant hard.

“He had devoted his whole political life to Roosevelt,” Olson said. “He loved him. He thought FDR had saved the world.”

The loss also threatened Winant's future. Without Roosevelt, he was suddenly cast adrift. “Once FDR was gone, there was nothing left for him,” Olson said. “It was like something of himself died when Roosevelt died.”

Winant’s postwar dream was to become the first leader of the United Nations. Olson found evidence that Roosevelt considered this possibility, but the choice of the United States as the U.N.’s home base ended any chance that its leader would be an American.

Eleanor Roosevelt, 1946 photo
Winant left England in March 1946, five years after he had arrived. He was a beloved figure, and the sendoff was huge. “I shall always feel that I am a Londoner,” he said.

Later that year, he was chosen as the lone eulogist when the U.S. House of Representatives paid formal tribute to Roosevelt. The president’s widow, Eleanor, who adored Winant, wrote him: “No one could do it better.”

Before an audience that included President Truman, Winant summed up Roosevelt's life in simple, ringing phrases. “There was never a time in the dark years of the Depression, or the black years of the war, when he lost hope,” Winant said.

A desperate man

It was Winant who was losing hope now. “He desperately wanted to help restructure the world after the war,” Olson said, “and nobody had a role for him.” He did not know Truman. His Washington contacts dried up. As the cold war replaced the hot one, his ideals about building a peaceful, cooperative world seemed na├»ve.

Winant’s personal life was a shambles. He was drained, depressed and desperate. He returned to London to renew his relationship with Sarah Churchill, who was now divorced. “He wanted to be with her, but she didn’t want to be with him,” Olson said.

A one-time prohibitionist, Winant had become a heavy drinker, according to a 1969 column by longtime Concord Monitor political editor Andy Anderson. To reduce his personal debt, which his first biographer estimated at a staggering $750,000, Winant signed a contract for a three-volume memoir. He found writing a tedious chore.

“He apparently had nothing in his life to make him want to live,” Olson said.

In 1947, Winant returned to his home on the site of the current Unitarian Church in Concord. His loneliness and fatigue shocked those who saw him. On Nov. 3, in an upstairs room, he knelt on the floor and shot himself in the head. He died half an hour later. He was 58 years old.

Winant was mourned on both sides of the Atlantic. “It is a terrible thing to consider about our postwar world that John Gilbert Winant could not bear to live in it,” wrote the Manchester Guardian in England. A New York Herald Tribune editorialist summed up Winant's legacy with these words: “He did more than people will ever know to maintain the solidarity of the two great democracies in their hour of desperate need.”

Sixty-three years after the Herald Tribune expressed this concern, Lynne Olson has at last given Winant his due.

John G. Winant's grave in St. Paul's School cemetery in Concord, NH. The reverse bears this inscription
from a speech by Winant:

"Doing the day's work day by day, doing a little, adding a little, broadening our bases, wanting not only for ourselves but for others also a fairer chance for all people everywhere. Forever moving forward, always remembering that it is the things of the spirit that in the end prevail. That caring counts and that where there is no vision the people perish. That hope and faith count and that without charity, there can be nothing good. That having dared to live dangerously, and in believing in the inherent goodness of man, we can stride forward into the unknown with growing confidence."

Monday, September 28, 2015

FDR's man in London: an idealist at war

J. Brett Grill's statue of John G, Winant. Cold? Winant would give you his overcoat.
Next spring J. Brett Grill’s statue of John G. Winant is scheduled to be installed on the lawn of the New Hampshire State Library. Winant’s perch will be a stone’s throw from the corner office where he served as the state’s governor in the 1920s and ’30s. He was the ideal governor to help New Hampshire people through the Great Depression.

As a way of honoring a man or woman who set a good example in this world, a statue is a throwback. But Winant himself was a throwback: an idealist and humanitarian whose actions followed his hopes for mankind. A cynical world dismissed him as a dreamer but could not change him.

Winant devoted himself to serving others. He was a teacher, a flier in World War I, a governor, the first director of Social Security and the U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James during World War II. To him, service was not about the offices he gained. As governor, he gave away his pocket change on his way to work. Once he even gave away his overcoat. He picked up hitchhikers and found jobs for the needy. As ambassador, he did as much as anyone could to bridge the gap between Great Britain and the United States, to reassure a suffering nation and to win the war.

Five years ago, I had the opportunity to delve into Winant’s life, and I took it. Lynne Olson, a fine historian and writer, had just brought out Citizens of London, her book about three men who shaped the British-American alliance in World War II. I read the book, interviewed Olson, did further research and wrote a two-part series about Winant for the Concord Monitor.

This firing-squad photo, as we journalists used to call them, was taken at a reception for Lynne Olson at the New Hampshire
State House in 2010. From left are Secretary of State Bill Gardner, yours truly, Abigail Dexter, then-Gov. John Lynch, Olson,
Peter Thomson (son of a former governor), Rivington Winant (Winant's son) and Dean Dexter. Winant's portrait is behind us. 
No other history story I’ve written, and there have been many, received as much response from readers as the Winant series. Credit for that goes to Olson. She had shown people for the first time what a great man Winant was. She had given a hero back to New Hampshire.

Winant had not been totally forgotten, but until her book came out, the story of his service as ambassador and his deep and crucial friendships with Churchill and FDR had never been part of the public lore about him. The stigma of his suicide in 1947 had blotted out his wartime achievements.

So, bravo for the campaign to build the statue. It’s a fine likeness and a deserved tribute. It is also a reminder that politics and public life are about service, not self-interest.

Here is part one of my 2010 series on Winant. Part two is coming soon.

FDR finds his man

From the day John G. Winant, of Concord, N.H., arrived in London as U.S. ambassador in early 1941, the White House resisted his pleas for stronger U.S. action against Germany’s war machine.
When the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor finally forced his country’s hand, Winant was so excited that he and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill danced around the room together.

Churchill is front and center, Winant right of him, hat under arm.
Winant’s three terms as governor of New Hampshire made him a revered figure in the state’s lore. He has been less celebrated for his service as ambassador.

That should change this week with the release of Citizens of London, Lynne Olson’s new book about the Americans who played critical roles in the wartime relationship between Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Olson is a former journalist with two other World War II histories to her credit.

In Citizens of London, she portrays Winant as an extraordinary man whose principles, compassion and hard work helped win the war. In her view, he lived close to power without having power himself, using the ambassadorship to strengthen the bonds between Churchill in London and Roosevelt in Washington, D.C.

For Olson, the discovery of Gil Winant, as he was known, was a pleasant but unsettling surprise.

“I had never heard of him before my research, and that is a crying shame,” she said during a recent telephone interview. “When you consider how important that alliance was, it seems incredible that one of the architects who made it happen is unknown to the American people.”

The story of Winant in London has remained incomplete for decades. When he committed suicide at his Concord home in 1947, he had signed a contract to write his wartime memoirs in three volumes, but finished only one. “He Walked Alone,” a 1968 political biography, covered the war years, but didn’t gain wide general readership.

John G. Winant in 1919, at age 30.
Even when Winant is remembered in his home state, as he was when Winant Park opened in Concord last year, his years as ambassador are usually reduced to a few lines.

Olson’s Winant is an idealist and a workaholic, a man who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the British people as the Luftwaffe’s bombs and rockets fell on London and other cities. The British adored him for it, especially in contrast to his predecessor, Joseph P. Kennedy – who, upon arriving back home in the States in 1940, declared: “England is gone. . . . I’m for appeasement 1,000 percent.”

Olson’s book examines Winant’s love affair with Sarah Churchill, a daughter of the prime minister. It recounts his devotion to Roosevelt, his effort to build the alliance and his campaign to improve understanding between the two peoples. It ends with a thorough account of Winant’s suicide.

In the book, Winant shares the limelight with Averell Harriman, Edward R. Murrow and others, but Olson returns to his story again and again.

“It is astonishing to me that virtually the entire British public knew Winant and could identify him on the street if they saw him,” Olson said. “He became a symbol to most British people of our country standing with them – even before we were really standing with them.”

Before the war

Roosevelt and Winant had a history before Winant’s appointment as ambassador. Winant was a Republican, Roosevelt a Democrat, but after Winant embraced the New Deal during the 1930s, Roosevelt made him the first chairman of the board that oversaw Social Security.

John G. Winant
Winant traveled the country promoting the new program. During the 1936 presidential campaign, when Republicans tried to derail Social Security, Winant quit the program’s board to campaign against Alf Landon, the Republican nominee.

Roosevelt then sent Winant to Geneva, where he headed the International Labor Organization, an agency founded after World War I under the auspices of the League of Nations. Its chief function was to promote fair conditions for workers.

In Europe, Winant witnessed Hitler’s aggression firsthand. He went to Prague to commiserate with the Czechoslovaks after Germany took over the country. He was in Paris the day before Hitler’s forces captured it. He traveled to England at Roosevelt’s request to report on British resolve under attack.

In Olson’s view, Roosevelt had wanted to replace the defeatist Kennedy as ambassador to Great Britain for some time. Although Roosevelt’s goal was a stronger alliance, he probably gave Winant no specific instructions. Roosevelt seemed “intentionally vague” during their Oval Office meeting, Olson said – so much so that Winant learned of his appointment only when the press told him about it afterward.

In Winant, Roosevelt knew he had found a man who could connect with the British and let them know they weren’t alone. He also understood the character of Winant, who he called “Utopian John.”

A royal welcome

Winant’s welcome in England underscored how desperate the British were for American help. In a departure from protocol for receiving new ambassadors, King George VI met him at the railroad station in Windsor and spoke with him at length.

Winant (right) with King George VI (saluting) and his wife Queen Elizabeth.
From the day Winant arrived, Churchill took him into his confidence. He did the same with Murrow, Harriman and others. “Churchill was so desperate to get the United States into the war that he tried to woo these guys just like he did FDR later on,” Olson said.

Winant didn’t need convincing. He counseled Churchill on how best to deal with Roosevelt. Determined to bring America into the war, he threw himself at his task.

“There’s no place I’d rather be than in England,” he said, and he meant it.

Winant lived modestly in London despite his station and traveled widely despite the Blitz. He became a familiar figure at bombed buildings, helping where he could. He preferred conversing with janitors and waiters to rubbing elbows with the high-born.

Though a lackluster orator, he expressed clear principles with a human touch. His message was simple: We’re with you. After one speech prevented a coal miners’ strike, a leading British newspaper compared it to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

In May 1941, two months after he came to London, Winant made it clear to the British public where he stood and where he wished his country to stand.

“We have all slept while the wicked, evil men plotted destruction,” he said. “We have all tried to make ourselves believe we are not our brother’s keeper. But we are now beginning to realize we need our brothers as much as our brothers need us.”

In 1940 and ’41, however, the government Winant represented failed to deliver on Roosevelt’s glib promises of aid to Great Britain. For the ships and other materiel and supplies it did send, the United States charged a high price.

Chequers, the prime minister's retreat, 40 miles west of  London.
Winant soon became a regular visitor at Chequers, the prime minister’s country mansion, where he was treated almost as family. Until the United States entered the war, this hospitality had a serious downside. Churchill harangued Winant mercilessly about U.S. intervention.

It wasn’t Winant who needed convincing, and Churchill came to see this. Roosevelt had promised during the 1940 election not to go to war, but Winant knew a U.S.-British military alliance was essential to stop Hitler.

Churchill told his cabinet Winant was “apparently longing for Germany to commit some overt act that would relieve the president of his . . . declaration regarding keeping out of war.”

As documented in Citizens of London, Winant was in the unusual position of representing his country while also making Churchill’s arguments to the Roosevelt administration. His allegiance to Britain’s cause raises the question of whether he ever put his own country second. Although Olson sees Winant’s relationship with Churchill as unprecedented, her answer is a resounding no.

“The interests of the United States were paramount with Winant,” she said. “There was no sign of his stepping over the line. He always had it in mind that he was representing the president.”


In response to the attack on Pearl Harbor, Congress declared war on both Japan and Germany, the two chief Axis partners. Winant was with Churchill and others at Chequers when the radio brought news of the attack. All were jubilant. One of Churchill’s private secretaries wrote in his diary that the two men “sort of danced around the room together.”

Olson stressed during the interview that Churchill and Winant weren’t reacting to the horrific details of the Pearl Harbor attack.

“They didn’t know those,” she said. “All they knew was that the United States was in the war.”

This fact made Winant’s job even more challenging. He was now a catalyst in the often caustic compound of two giant egos joined as wartime leaders. He had to prepare England for the arrival of a U.S. military force that, by late 1943, grew to more than 1.6 million men.

Lt. John G. Winant Jr. is second from right in life jacket. He is pictured with
the flight crew of  his B17 Flying Fortress. Photo was taken in August  1943.
In a city filled with exiled leaders from countries overrun by Hitler’s armies and fearful of Josef Stalin’s, he felt compelled to ponder how the world might look after the war.

As he assumed these responsibilities, Winant also faced two personal issues. One was a perennial problem: his loneliness. The other was news that, like Winant during World War I, his son, John Jr., had decided to join the U.S. Army Air Forces.

Winant was prone to depression and beset by debt. He and his wife, who occasionally visited him in London, had long been emotionally distant.

Olson quotes a woman who knew them both as saying: “He would sit up all night brooding over how to make things better. She loved to throw parties.”

In Sarah Churchill, Winston’s favorite daughter, Winant sought solace. Twenty-five years younger than Winant, who was in his early 50s, she was rebounding from a broken marriage. He fell in love with her.

Sarah Churchill
“I think both were looking for someone to talk to,” Olson said. “She was vibrant, warm, outgoing, caring, interested in others. He took comfort in just being with her.”

Especially by London standards during the war, their affair was discreet. Having forgone the ambassador’s residence, Winant lived near the embassy in a modest three-bedroom flat in Grosvenor Square. Sarah Churchill’s smaller flat was a short walk from the embassy.

They spent as much time together as possible, but few people knew of the liaison. Sarah Churchill suspected the prime minister might be one of them, later referring to it as a “love affair which my father suspected but about which we did not speak.”

When the U.S. buildup in England began in earnest, John Winant Jr.’s decision to become a bomber pilot added to the pressure on his father. At the height of World War I, Gil Winant had left his teaching job at St. Paul’s School to fly in France, an experience he was lucky to survive. Now, John Jr. began training to fly a B-17 during a period when German fighter planes and antiaircraft guns were shooting down Flying Fortresses with alarming ease.

The Air Force had no long-range fighter planes to protect the bombers from German Messerschmitts. Ignoring evidence to the contrary, the brass clung to the idea that B-17s and B-24s were so powerful and plentiful that they would prevail without fighter escorts.

From London, Winant joined the campaign to overcome this hubris, but by the time he and others finally won the argument, it was too late to help his son.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Hollow presidential campaigns: an American tradition

As we roll our eyes amid the foolery and hokum of our 2016 presidential campaign, it is worth remembering how long Americans have endured hollow politics at the highest level.

George Templeton Strong, precocious diarist
Andrew Jackson went down in history as the father of the Democracy, wresting the White House from bewigged bluestockings. But it was the Log Cabin campaign of 1840 that turned presidential politics into hoopla.

Gen. William Henry Harrison, former governor of the Indiana Territory, was the perfect candidate for the Whig strategy of avoiding divisive issues, especially slavery, and taking advantage of the hard times of the late 1830s.

Harrison’s campaign exaggerated the significance of an 1811 fight against Native Americans at the Tippecanoe River and portrayed him as a rough-hewn candidate of hard cider and log cabins.

Harrison won, but his presidency is now known only for its brevity.

When I came to New York last year for my new job, I wanted to gain at least a sense of the city’s rich history. Among the books I turned to was George Templeton Strong’s diary. Strong, a lawyer, kept the diary for nearly 40 years beginning in 1835. I’m reading the 1952 version edited by Allan Nevins and Milton Halsey Thomas. Its four volumes run to 2,250 pages. I’m still bookmarking the Civil War years and have the fourth volume to go after that.

Harrison campaign token
But today I want to share a taste of it. These are Strong’s observations of the 1840 campaign and its aftermath, begun the year he turned 20.

May 6, 1840 – Harrison is going ahead. How little one can calculate on political events. When he was nominated, I thought it the most ridiculously ruinous act that the party could possibly have stumbled upon, and now if he isn’t elected, at least he’s going ahead, far beyond the possible success of Clay or Webster and probably of Scott. It’s a pretty commentary, though, on the wisdom of His Majesty the People that he can be so bamboozled by the slang of “hard cider,” “log cabins,” and “Tippecanoe.”

May 8 – . . . I went to the office, and there met George Anthon for a Tippecanoe pilgrimage. Tonight is the anniversary of that greatest military operation of the present age, that most heroic achievement of ancient of modern warfare – surpassing all “affairs” on record from the siege of Troy down to the Battle of Brokow – to wit the raising of the siege on Fort Meigs, when the British were smitten hip and thigh by the mortal Harrison. Candidly I never heard of the affair till the last three months. But that only shows what ignoramuses we are. Just to think of the besieging army’s firing some two hundred and fifty shot in one day – and actually killing one man and wounding ten! What a regular fire-eater the old Hero must be!

Harrison almanac cover
However, the loaferage of New York not being particularly well versed in the history of this or any other age, the Battle of Fort Meigs does as well to tickle them with as anything else, and to be sure the procession and fuss tonight surpassed inspirit and numbers anything of the sort that I ever saw here – except during the excitement of election. The procession seemed interminable. I thought as the Irishmen did that somebody must have cut off the other end of it. Banners, log cabins on wheels, barrels supposed to be full of hard cider, and all sorts of glories adorned its march. . . . Of course, the Locos* disgraced themselves as usual, by a fierce attack on one banner in particular – representing Matty** shinning away from the White House with O.K. under it, i.e. “Off to Kinderhook.” Brick bats were thrown and heads broken and an attack was made on the Garden (subsequently), but the siege was raised by a few sticks and stones dropped on the heads of the assailants from above. Altogether it was a grand affair – Harrison forever!

[*Pejorative shortening of Locofocos, a faction of the Democratic Party.]

[**Martin Van Buren, the incumbent president, was seeking a second term. Kinderhook, N.Y., was his hometown. Van Buren’s nickname was “Old Kinderhook,” an echo of “Old Hickory,” Andrew Jackson, under whom he had been vice president.]

Harrison campaign coat button
Sept. 28 – Today has been great in the annals of stump oratory. The park has been disgraced by the herding together of the unshorn, unwashed, and indecent hedonism of Locofocoism, while at the Exchange has been a grand gathering of merchants of New York to hear the Almighty Daniel Webster discourse of the Militia Law, the Subtreasury and General Harrison. The crowd and jam was marvelous to behold. Webster spoke for about two and a half hours; I heard part of it, but the squeeze tightened every minute, and I eloped, out of regard to my ribs. Webster certainly has intellect stamped on his face in clearer characters than any man I ever saw.

Nov. 3 – Really, I’m beginning to wish this affair ended; the novelty of the thing is over and I’m tired of humbug, lying, spouting, wearing, O.K., and the Old Hero. Nothing but politics. The newspapers crowd out their advertisements for mendacious “returns” that nobody believes, the walls are papered three deep with humbug, banners and inscriptions dangle over every street, mass-meetings are held in every groggery from National Hall down. If the North River were actually on fire, or if a live kraken were to sail into the harbor, or if the continent were to sink into the sea, the papers wouldn’t be able to find room for the news.

William Henry Harrison
[William Henry Harrison carried 19 states, including New York, to Van Buren’s seven. He won the electoral vote 234-60 and was inaugurated the country’s 10th president took the oval office on March 4, 1841.]

April 5, 1841 – Mournful news this morning. General Harrison died on Saturday night, a few hours less than one month from his inauguration. The news was most unexpected to me, for I didn’t suppose him to be very seriously ill, and he was said on Saturday to be recovering. I confess I was never so sincerely sorry for the death of any one whom I knew of merely as a public character. Though not possessed of any great talent, I believe he was a good, honest, benevolent, right-minded man – qualities far more rare among our political people. It’s a bad thing for the Whig party – for Tyler I imagine half a Democrat – a bad thing for the country at this crisis, when the commercial interest is looking so anxiously to the movements of government and we may be on the eve of war and can ill afford any time to make new arrangements at home. . . .

Everything in the shape of a flag in the city is up today and at half mast, and I was heartily glad to see one flying on Tammany, and to see the Standard in mourning. All the papers except the New Era, the Post and the Journal of Commerce, have had decency enough to let party feeling drop.

April 10 – Weather raw, cloudy and unpropitious. Went out at twelve o’clock to see the funeral procession. The whole population of the city in the street either as actors or spectators. Houses hung with black, particularly along the line of march. Chatham Street literally hid with lugubrious drapery. I established myself in Chatham Square, and a fine sight it was to look up the rising ground towards the Park, the houses on each side shrouded with black, the dense mass of people between, and in the center of the procession pouring down, a wide stream of plumes and bayonets and dark banners. It began to pass at a little before one, moving rapidly, headed by the military – about 6000 – uniform companies and U.S. troops and Marines, then the urn, the General’s horse (hypothetical), the “pall bearers,” Martin Van Buren, and divers other great men, the civic dignitaries, all the fire companies, about 3000 men I presume – generally a rowdy set, though one of two companies looked decent, then Masons, etc. By that time it was half-past two and I was tired and it was beginning to snow, so I walked down Chatham Street to the Park, where at least one-third of the procession remained, filing slowly out – indeed it was half-past three before they were all in motion. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

14. Epilogue: Two soldiers, home from the wars

Eldad Rhodes's daughter did history a favor by writing a note on the back of this drawing made at Antietam in fall of 1862. 
[Previous post]

Freedom Rhodes, Eldad's brother
During a five-day stretch of the winter of 1863, Pvt. Cutler Edson and Sgt. Eldad Rhodes left the 5th New Hampshire Volunteers. Both were discharged with disabilities. Edson, who had been sick and despondent for nearly two months, went home on Jan 29, 1863. He was 43 years old. On Feb. 3, Rhodes received his discharge at the military hospital in Frederick, Md., where he had been convalescing after being shot through the right lung at Antietam. He had returned to the battlefield with his brother Freedom four weeks earlier.

Both men lived out their lives as veterans of one of the most celebrated Union regiments in the Civil War. Edson had volunteered as a bugler in the 5th New Hampshire on Oct. 18, 1861, as it was coming together in Concord. Eldad Rhodes had been recruited in Lancaster at the beginning of 1862 and joined the regiment in Virginia that winter. Both experienced the carnage and frenzy of battle at Fair Oaks, Va., during the retreat from the Peninsula known as the Seven Days and at Antietam. Rhodes was twice wounded. Probably after Malvern Hill and certainly after Antietam, Edson helped him from the battlefield and nursed him.

Both men were in military hospitals when the 5th made its suicidal charge up Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, 1862. And they were civilians at home as their old regiment fought on at Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, Deep Bottom, Ream’s Station, Fort Stedman, Dinwiddie Court House, Sailor’s Creek and Farmville. In the last named battle, the 5th lost 22 men and officers killed. This occurred two days before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House.  

The lives of Edson and Rhodes crossed again in New Hampshire.

Helen Rhodes Brockway's note on the back of the Antietam drawing made by her father.
That story is best told in a note inscribed on the back of a sketch Rhodes made of the two of them together near Antietam Creek shortly after the battle. In the sketch they sit together near their tent. Rhodes had been shot through the lung, and when their regiment moved from Antietam to Bolivar Heights with the Army of the Potomac, Edson stayed behind to care for him.

Note how the dapper Eldad Rhodes rests his right arm, weak
from his Antietam wound, on a draped chair.
Many years later, the drawing was the prized possession of Helen Rhodes Brockway, Eldad’s only daughter. She wrote a note on the back telling its history. Here it is:

“This was drawn by my father Eldad Alexander Rhodes, in a few weeks after he had been severely wounded through the right lung at the battle of Antietam. He is supposed to be the man sitting at the left of the table with a coat thrown over his shoulders. His right arm of course was useless. The other man is my grandfather, Cutler Edson, who was a bugler in my father’s regiment, the 5th New Hampshire. He it was who helped my father from the battle-field, and nursed him tenderly in the little tent shown in the picture. The coats hanging on the fence are the ones that were cut off from my father, and were soaked with his blood.

“This rough little sketch was sent home in a letter, and started the little romance that finally ended in the marriage of Abbie Edson to my father. It is her writing on the bottom of the picture, and I greatly desire it may be left as it is in the little frame where her loving hands placed it. Of all my pictures I think this is the dearest, as it brings my father and mother so near to me. She died in April 1893 after only eleven short years of happy life with him, when I was nine years old; and he was taken from me June 15, 1918 at the age of seventy-two years. He died from the effects of the wound he received while fighting bravely for his country. All honor to him, and to all the old soldiers who were as brave and courageous as he!

“I hope his little granddaughter Barbara Brockway will cherish this as lovingly as I have, and teach her children to love it, and her grandfather’s memory.

“Helen Rhodes Brockway”  

Eldad Rhodes was born on Jan. 10, 1841, in Northumberland, a town in Coos County, New Hampshire’s northernmost. When the war began, he was living in Lancaster, the county seat. This was the hometown of Edward E. Cross, the fiery colonel of the 5th New Hampshire, who was killed at Gettysburg.

Freedom Rhodes's grave in Lancaster
In 1876, after returning to Lancaster from the war, Rhodes moved across the Connecticut River to Guildhall, Vt., where he farmed and taught school, but he retained his New Hampshire ties. While serving as a Republican in the Vermont House of Representatives from 1878 to 1880, he was also adjutant of the Col. E.E. Cross post of the Grand Army of the Republic in Lancaster. In an age of men’s clubs, the GAR was the ultimate men’s club, a large and powerful organization of Union veterans of the Civil War.

Freedom Rhodes, the elder brother with whom Eldad had gone back to Antietam in 1863, returned to Lancaster after he resigned his commission in the 14th New Hampshire in 1863 and later served as a justice. He died at the age of 42 in 1881 and is buried in the town’s Wilder Cemetery. The grave of Col. Cross is also there.

Cutler Edson, meanwhile, returned to Enfield in 1863 but moved to Claremont in 1865 with his wife Louisa and their five children. He continued to work as a brick mason.

A farming and mill town on the Sugar River, Claremont was larger than Enfield. It had suffered great loss during the war. In Edson’s regiment alone, 89 Claremont men had enlisted in Co. G, known as the Claremont company, under Capt. Charles Long. Two years later, when the company returned home after Gettysburg, a crowd filled Claremont’s town hall for a banquet to welcome them. There were just 12 soldiers left.

Louisa Hoyt Edson
Cutler Edson died at the age of 61 in 1881. His wife, whose maiden name was Louisa Hoyt, collected a federal war widow’s pension until her death at age 90. That was in 1915, when the pension was $12 a month.

Edson’s daughter Abbie had been five years old when he went to war in 1861. Later she struck up an acquaintance with Eldad Rhodes, the younger man her father had befriended during the war. Abbie, a good student, graduated from Stevens High School in Claremont and volunteered as a Sunday school teacher. She later taught school of Claremont.

By the time Cutler Edson died, Rhodes had moved to Claremont. The following year, on Sept. 27, he married Abbie Edson. She was 26, he was 41. They had one daughter, Helen, born in 1884. It was this daughter who later wrote the note on the back of the drawing from Antietam.

Abbie Edson Rhodes was diagnosed with Bright’s disease (kidney disease) three years into her marriage. She died eight years later, on April 24, 1893. Eldad lived with Helen for the rest of his life. Beginning in 1903, he was the town weigher, charged with verifying the weight of hay, coal and other commodities. He died at home, 229 Pleasant St., on June 15, 1913, at the age of 72, and was buried nearby in Pleasant Street Cemetery.

His obituary listed the cause of death as pulmonary trouble. As Helen Rhodes Brockway wrote, he and the family believed that in the end it was his Antietam wound that killed him.

End of series, which begins here

Thursday, September 17, 2015

13. Two brothers on a mission in wartime

Capt. Freedom Rhodes with two men of the 14th New Hampshire
[previous post]

Until now Freedom Rhodes has been a bit player in the story of the 5th New Hampshire’s first year under arms as told by his brother Eldad and the bugler Cutler Edson. Because of a lucky find during my research for Our War, a bottom-up New Hampshire Civil War history, today Freedom takes his star turn.

Lt. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. of the 20th Massachusetts 
The find was a story in the Feb. 12, 1863, Independent Democrat, the Republican newspaper in Concord, the state’s capital. The headline, “My Hunt after the Sergeant – Three Hours on Antietam,” echoed the title of a story in the December 1862 Atlantic, “My Hunt after Captain.” In the magazine Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes of Boston chronicled his search for his son, Oliver Jr., the future Supreme Court justice, who was badly wounded and missing after Antietam. Freedom Rhodes’s hunt was for his brother, Eldad, who had been shot through the right lung in the same battle. The wound at first seemed mortal.

Freedom Rhodes did not make things easy for the future historian. He referred to the man he was looking for as Sergeant R. and signed his piece F.M.R. It took me a while to find F.M.R. in the fat book listing tens of thousands of New Hampshire men who went to war. Then I put the information in F.M.R.’s story together with the diaries and letters of Eldad Rhodes and Cutler Edson, lent to me by Fred Goodwin, a descendant of both. If you’ve read the recent blog posts about them, you know that Freedom and Eldad saw each other often during the first year of the war.

Freedom was the older brother, born June 28, 1838, and thus 24 years old when he went looking for his wounded brother. Eldad was about to turn 22. Before the war, Freedom worked a year as a singing instructor at Falley Seminary, a Protestant school in Fulton, N.Y. He was antislavery, perhaps even abolitionist. In an earlier letter to the Independent Democrat he asserted that soldiers were warming to the idea of emancipation and would vote accordingly if given the chance. When officers in his regiment wrote an anti-Copperhead screed calling for unity in support of Lincoln’s policies, Freedom signed it.

“Better far that the unbridled license of the press be held in check; better that individual liberty be abridged; better that all the property of rebels be confiscated; better that the shackles be stricken from every slave and the freed man arrayed against his oppressor; better that the whole Southern domain be made a howling wilderness, than that the infamous conspiracy against the rights of man succeed, and our once noble country be made the reproach of the nations,” the officers wrote.

This came from the 14th New Hampshire, a regiment Freedom Rhodes had only recently joined. He had been in the first wave of volunteers, enlisting in Lancaster, the family’s hometown, on April 22, 1861. He joined the 2nd New Hampshire, which fought at First Bull Run. He was wounded at Oak Grove, Va., during the Peninsula campaign. When ever the 2nd and the 5th camped in close proximity, he visited brother Eldad. A sergeant in the 2nd, Freedom left the regiment in the fall of 1862 for a captain’s commission in the 14th.

Freedom left the army in July 1863.After the war he was a justice of the peace for Coos County and a state representative from Lancaster. He died in 1881 at the age of 42 and is buried in Wilder Cemetery in his hometown.

Here is his story, sent from the 14th New Hampshire camp at Poolesville, Md., on Jan. 23, 1863, two weeks after he and Eldad lived it.

My Hunt after the Sergeant   

Who that had kindred in McClellan’s army will forget the silent heart-ache that possessed them after the first news of the great Antietam fight? Among the casualties of our glorious Fifth we saw the name of our Sergeant, wounded. We hoped, as who has not, that it was slight, till one night, twelve days after, a letter from his Captain told us that a traitor’s bullet had pierced his lung, and though living, the chances of his recovery were small.

Stephen Hopkins's signature on the Declaration. 
By this time the crisis must have passed, and so we waited sorrowfully until tidings came, a little note, by his own pen, not the bold stroke of his former hand, but tremulous as that of Stephen Hopkins to the Declaration of Independence, three weeks later. He was at Frederick and recovering. The 14th was to start soon, and so from that date we commenced our hunt for him.

In the Clarendon House, Washington, we met a Drum Major [Ephraim McDaniel, mentioned by Eldad Rhodes in the previous psot], who had been with him three weeks in those infernal shelter-tents, before going to Frederick. From Seneca we tried to reach him, but not a horse could be had for money, (it didn’t for once make the mare go,) and forty-five miles was a long way to walk over twice in forty-eight hours.

Then at the Cross Roads we got the horse, but the pass was not approved, because the time was too long, and the next day illness of our waiter-boy detained us till death took him where there is no war. And then once more, after we were recovered from the exhaustion of watching the boy, we were to go on Monday, but Saturday night we got orders to move for this place, the next morning. And so we were busy with stockading camp and getting in, until Monday last we once more turned our face towards Frederick.

Brig. Gen. George Stoneman. Rhodes refers to an incident
in October 1862 when Confederate Maj. Gen. J.E.B.  Stiart
evaded Stoneman's cavalry after a raid on Chamberburg, Pa.
John Adams, the husband of the colored woman spoken of in our last, was our coachman to Adamstown, thirteen miles, the nearest point to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. John showed us the road which Stuart took in his return from Pennsylvania. He crossed the river at White’s Ford below the Monocacy, not six miles from here, while Gen. Stoneman was camped here with 10,000 men!

At last our crazy old team reached the Monocacy, so near to its mouth that we could see the Potomac when we forded it, though it was seventy-five yards broad. Just below the ford is a fine aqueduct of masonry supported by seven archways, over which the Ohio & Chesapeake Canal passes. Across the stream, and we are in the trail of Lee’s army, the main body of which crossed just above its mouth. We tracked him by unmistakable foot prints, half-burned fences, countless black fire spots where they cooked, and another amusing sign of the want of provision stores, the corn-cobs beside the roads.

We passed through a beautiful tract of country of 13,000 acres, which we afterwards learned, once, about the time of the French and Indian war, belonged to a prominent Catholic by the name of Carl, which is still known as Carl’s Manor. The heirs had persistently refused to sell any of it until recently, which was the reason why it looked comparatively new.

We reached the station about noon, and learned that the train from Harper’s Ferry for Baltimore did not pass there till 2:35, possibly 3 P.M., as the train had but recently run through Wheeling, and the road was yet bad in the vicinity of Martinsburg. In a few minutes the up-train from B. came thundering along, and in obedience to a little squint-eyed Irishman, who beckoned it with a red flag, it halted just enough to set off and take on a passenger, exchange mail and leave a package of Baltimore Sun, that puts down Confederate victories under great capital headlines, and Union ones under small, lauds Seymour and slurs the President, and talks of Peace Conventions and Vallandigham’s “great speech.”

As we were in a station, express and post-office, dwelling-place and hotel, we ordered dinner and awaited distribution of the papers to the group of villagers and countrymen that had crowded the room. No Clippers were called for. A poppy-stalk fellow has caught sight of the news from Galveston and reads aloud; then the probable loss of Springfield, and the repulse from Vicksburg. The sudden flooding of a cellar with gas light could be no more perceptible that the satisfaction lighted up the moody faces of the motley group. But they contented themselves with mock congratulations over Union victories and other sinister insinuations, such as the readers of the Sun might be expected to indulge in without openly speaking their feelings.

About 3 P.M. the train from Wheeling came, and in fifteen minutes more we were at Frederick Junction. The 14th N.J. is stationed there. The remains of one of their number was sent forward on the train. We changed cars here and took the train for Frederick, where the branch terminates. We had struck the Monocacy again, and moved around a curve that coincided with a bend in the little placid river, that had shrunk to half its bigness at its mouth. This section of the country, just rolling enough to break the monotony of a prairie, and yet not hilly, was actually charming, and must be really beautiful when clothed with verdure.

The five miles more to Frederick was soon made. Up Market to 4th Street, a right-angle turn to the left, and we were on the road to the hospital. Frederick is a neat little rural city, one of the earliest settled in the State. We noticed on the market building the date “1769.”

As we emerged from the suburbs we overtook a tall, good-looking fellow limping with a cane. We thought we had seen the large brass 5 on his cap, in the Peninsular campaign, and we asked him what his regiment was. “N.H. 5th.” “And what Company are you in?” “A.” “Do you know Sergeant R?” “Yes.” “How is he?” No better, Sir.”

The humorist Artemus Ward
And we hurried gloomily on until we overtook another. He was Comp. A of the 4th R.I. Did he know Sergt. R? “Yes, had ransacked the country with him for the last fortnight.” Why the good-looking chap made us the answer he did has been a mystery. 4th R.I. offered to pilot us. We have entered the lines of the encampment, that is guarded by the Md. Reg’t., and are among an army of cripples, such as Artemus Ward says will court the prettiest girls in the country hereafter.

We wonder as we enter if he will look as pale and haggard as the majority of those we have seen hobbling about. But there is music here and there in the midst of that group, singing –

“John Brown’s body lies mouldering in the dust,
But his soul goes marching on,”

he stands. It was the same hymn that we sung together 6½ miles from Richmond, the 27th of June last, with this difference in our physical status. We had then one good right arm to his pair; now he had one good left, to our pair.

We elbowed our way into the knot of incendiary minstrels, and cuting short the last word by a slap on his shoulder (not the right because there was a bullet hole there) it was “right and left two, promenade” to bunks and “how are you?”

We determined to see Antietam, and so the next morning obtained permission to take him who is lost but is found, with us. And as early as possible we were jogging along over the magnificent macadamized turnpike that runs to Sharpsburg, a distance of 22 miles. Two or three miles out, and we began our ascent of the Catoctin Mountains, running up from Virginia, thro’ the Potomac breaks at Point of Rocks.

There was skirmishing in this pass, but no decisive conflict. From the top of this pass, we had our first view of South Mountain, eight miles in front of us. It is but the continuation of Blue Ridge, through which the Potomac breaks at Harpers Ferry. Half-way between the two rides is the sunny village of Middletown.

The picture spread out before us was grand. The valley, more fertile if possible than the one from which we had ascended, stretched southward indefinitely, and northward till environed by hills that seemed to be offshoots of both chains of mountains. There were broad lands and hundreds of comfort-breathing farmhouses standing out front the patchwork of forest and field, and a tortuous little stream that would have reflected sunbeams just as poetically as any other, had the clouds above permitted, and the church spires of Middletown, with the mountains uncultivated more than one third of the way up, and capped with snow, that transplanted our fancies to New England.

Had we not known to the contrary, we never should have suspected that two hostile armies had passed through this beautiful region only four months before. To be sure the fire-spots and corn-cobs would have excited our wonder. There was now and then the half-decomposed carcass of a horse in the fields, but they might have died of old age. It is wonderful that buildings suffered so little injury. One barn only did we see in the entire route that was burned; one that had cannon shot in its gable, and also one house was hit near the ground. The first bridge we crossed, however, showed marks of fire, as did the two next.

It occurred to us that we had never reined an animal that enjoyed the manipulation of our whip so well as our nag, and thus, tho’ we lamed our wrist in whipping, it was after 1 P.M. before we began to ascend the historic pass of South Mountain. The pike makes the rise by an easy grade, but the mountains on either side are very abrupt, particularly on the left. The position of the enemy here was certainly a strong one. No forces could have faced anything like equal numbers posted here.

Maj, Gen, Jesse Reno, shot in the chest
by a sharpshooter at South Mountain
And, for this reason, Lee was attacked on either flank, and the heaviest fighting took place two and a half to three miles to the right and one and one-half to the left, where the ascent was less severe. But little fighting took place here. Around the spur of the mountain Gen. Reno fell on the Federal, and Gen. Garland [Brig. Gen. Samuel Garland Jr. was killed not far from where Reno died] on the Rebel, side. This portion of the field was the scene of one of the most bloody struggles in the war; but we had not time to visit either of these points. Some time past 2 P.M. we gained the summit, where we stopped for dinner at a comfortable country inn. Gen. G. 
stopped here the night before the
Gen. Samuel Garland Jr.
battle, and his remains were borne here from the field. 

Our landlord had many thrilling incidents to relate. Suddenly enveloped by the contending forces and hemmed in by the mountains, it was difficult for him to escape. Until late in the afternoon his family were in the house, while the battle was going on.

When Gen. G.’s body was removed, his wife and daughter, with their servants, succeeded in following the train to Boonsboro, two and a half miles, where they awaited the coming of our forces. One musket ball shattered a pane of glass, and grazing the window frame, dropped on the floor. Musket balls hit the house in many places, and just before the final retreat down the turnpike, a fierce artillery duel ensued, for thirty minutes, which brought him between two fires, though not exactly in range. More than a hundred shots were exchanged, yet no damage was done to any of his buildings.

Unconsciously we chatted with this quite agreeable family of the battle until 4 o’clock. In the middle of the day the congealed mud and snow thawed somewhat, but during our stay the thermometer reversed steam completely, which resulted in making the roads very hard and smooth. Our nag was smooth-shod and descended with great difficulty. For a rod he would slide on all fours. Only the stiffness of his legs and joints prevented him from falling. We had six miles to go and nearly an hour was consumed in getting own where there was no snow, a mile from the top.

Our companion was certain it was not the speed with which he passed over the same distance last. It was on Monday morning Sept. 15th, the day of the battle, that the 5th N.H. led the advance down this pass at double-quick, and deployed as skirmishers right and left in the open country, driving the enemy’s rear guard to the Antietam. Boonsboro’ was reached a little before twilight. The 5th saved the bridge across the stream here. Two miles further on, we pass Keediesville, which like Boonsboro’ and Middletown, is a small compact village. Here the bridge was partially destroyed.

The Pry House
A mile more and we have reached the point of so much personal interest to the Sergeant as the place of his first three weeks’ suffering after the battle. The house of Philip Pry is engrafted into history as the place where Gen. Richardson died, and McClellan had his headquarters.

We resolved to ask the hospitalities of this spacious brick mansion. From his recollection of the kindness of its little busy housewife, our friend was sure we should be welcomed, and so we were.

The children recognized him at once. The kind hostess greeted us as warmly as if we had been members of her family. Was not he the gentleman that used to get milk of her after the battle. “Yes.” “I thought so. Indeed I am right glad to see you. I remember you. How you would totter down to the fence for it, and how I pitied you. I never expected to see you here again, indeed I did not.”

Learning that Lieut. George, of the 5th, [George Washington George, whose left foot had been amputated after he was shot in the leg during the battle] at was yet at the house of the adjoining farm, near the Antietam, having lost his leg, we called on him, and found him very comfortable, and his wife now with him.

It was at this house that Capt. Crafts did picket duty Tuesday before the battle, and where he stopped while at Antietam. He had left a metallic scabbard here that saved his leg by receiving a musket ball about midway, doubling it to a right angle. The Sergeant was authorized to get it, but the good man gave it reluctantly, for he said “he thought a heap of the Captain.”

Gen. Israel Richardson, the 5h New Hampshire's
division commander, killed at Antietam.
When we returned we were shown the room that Gen. Richardson died in, and the bed that Gens. McClellan and Hooker occupied the nights before and after the battle.

We were astir early the next morning. The first place to be visited was the strip of grass ground, above the sweet potato patch, between two elms, next to the garden fence where the Sergeant’s tent was pitched before going to Frederick. There were the blood-stained garments taken from him, the beehive that he used to eat on, and the furrowed ridge up by the garden plowing that made his pillow. Perhaps seventy-five feet and as many yards distant at one point, but sharply bending back westerly above and below, and there on its opposite bank and over that far-stretching, rolling country, was the mightiest battle-field of America.

We went to the spot where McClellan stood during the battle. Our host [Philip Pry] from this point showed us all the places of special interest. In that open oak patch Hooker fought, on the far right, two and a half miles distant. A little apart and on the left of the grove near that lone tree he was wounded. Across the open field, between this grove and another further to the left, he saw the Rebels (and he did not mince the name with Confederates, Lee’s forces, &c.) hurled in pell-mell flight by the stern columns of Fighting Joe Hooker.

Brothers Philip and Samuel Pry (undated photo)
Immediately in front of us was the centre, where Sumner fought. That was one of the corn-fields, the other was hid by a ridge. Between those two sycamores, standing alone, Gen. Richardson was wounded by a shell. Hundreds of wounded had been brought to his [Pry’s] place, and put in his stables, or shelter tents, and many died, and immediately below us in a little glen, through which a singing brook sought the quickest passage to the historic creek, and where graceful oaks overshadowed them, was their fitting burial place.

Mr. P. had caused them to be placed in rows and head-boards put to those whose names were known. More than a score mingle their ashes here. A Captain from Pennsylvania; a Lieutenant with a difficult German name from New-York; Wm. Yates, Co. B, 5th N.H.; “Unknown” (how melancholy the inscription, an Unknown gone to the Unknown) Co. B, 52d N.Y.; and yet another, Co. D, 4th N.Y.; and here is a synonym for unknown, Rebel, 5th Ga. Yet had the three met three years ago they would have known each other as citizens of the same great Republic.

Unconsciously we had tarried here far beyond our intended time. And, after receiving all the directions necessary to see the most in our limited time and the hearty good wishes of the family, we bid them adieu, and crossing the creek a mile above them, were travelling on the borders of the battle scene. We took our way to Smoketown, where Hooker first began to skirmish, and then turning to the left followed the great war path towards Sharpsburg and the centre. We took what a native said was “Bloody Lane” – which was not though – and soon reached the woods.

Thus far we had seen the battle ground at a distance. The fences that had been torn down in the fray had for the most part been repaired, but here we were on the battle ground, travelling in a great cemetery. Graves were thick here, and there were mounds that hold our enemies. The trees were not to be repaired like the fences. Their trunks mottled with bullet holes told of a terrible conflict. Some had a hundred of them!

After the battle: the Dunker Church at Antietam
Others had been there before, as the numerous rutted ways leading to places of special interest, where we had not time to visit, told us, and had gathered most desirable relics. There were unexploded shells, but we were wary. Through the timber, into the open field, into and through the next wood, and a ride of half a mile across the fields strewn with coats, hats, boots, shoes, knapsacks, cartridge boxes, &c., where graves were as thick as corn-hills, and we reach the turnpike again at Dunker Church and in sight of Sharpsburg. This superannuated brick building was completely riddled with artillery and battered by musket shots. The greatest concentration of fire was upon the adjacent twenty acres. Fences were shattered in splinters, trees broken and broomed, and whole fields tramped hard as a travelled way.

But we had not seen “Bloody Lane” and so as we turned our backs on Sharpsburg, we enquired of a boy that we came up with where it was? “Do you mean the place where the Irish Brigade fought?” “Yes.” “Right over there, sir,” pointing to the left, “take the first lane.”

Our companion [Eldad Rhodes], coming upon the field from a different direction than when in battle, and the surroundings so much changed, was partially lost. But as we turned down the pike again he recovered his bearings. We were now on the Rebel position where the attack was made.

Literally the ground was with a covered rag carpet, and as we reached an angle where another lane comes in, there was blood. Rain had fallen during the night and in a little basin that the weather had made from horse tracks were pools of water sufficient to bathe, your hands stained a brick color with human gore, shed precisely sixteen weeks before. Near by was a mound and yet a pit, a mound in the middle, but as if something beneath the mound had settled and with it (which was a fact) the outlines of the pit were traceable several yards in perimeter. And this was the charnel house of some of those whose blood still stained the soil.

The 4th North Carolina flag, captured at Antietam by George
Nettleton of the 5th New Hampshire
We alighted and walked to the place where the 5th N.H. captured the 4th N.C. colors, and stood on the spot where not a traitor’s tho’t, but a traitor’s ball, entered the Sergeant’s breast, and then we turned to the spot in the lane to which he tottered, and where he lay near an hour between two terrible armies, his blood mingling with the stream that literally flowed in the path.

As we turned to the carriage again how fervently we thanked heaven that the Heaven that the dark angel passed him thus over in his carnival. There were fragments of shells here in profusion, and gathering of the souvenirs, we regained the turnpike and crossed the Antietam unable to visit the scene of Burnside’s conflict, at the next bridge one and a half mile below. The road ran up through a ravine to the higher land and here was the scene of the 5th’s skirmishing on Monday. The stone wall on the right was their cover and the barn half way up from the stream was the one by which Col. Cross stood when his shoulder strap was shot away.

One more incident. Co. B took some prisoners on the Old Sharpsburg Road that runs parallel with the pike to Middletown, at a house a mile or more from the creek. Only one gun was taken and this was given to the owner of the place. We turned aside to make inquiries for it, and to our surprise it was there, and as our friend claimed a special interest in it, as one instrumental in its capture, we added it to our trophies, then regaining the pike at Boonsboro’ made the quickest time to Frederick possible, and the day following, by car and John Adams’ Express, we came safely to Poolsville. – F.M.R.

Next: Home from the war, an epilogue