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) 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

'The sand here blowes like snow in N.H.'

Brig. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s Expedition was an early Union effort to cut off access to North Carolina seaports through which the Confederacy received trade and sustenance. After 11 months the campaign faltered and was abandoned.

Simon G. Griffin became colonel of the 6th
N.H. during the Burnside Expedition.
This letter to his aunt from Private Edwin M. Sherburne of the 6th New Hampshire Volunteers tells little about the military operations of that campaign. What Sherburne does describe in charming language (and charming spelling) is what a 21-year-old from Epsom, N.H., saw as different and defining about the island where he had recently landed. The letter also detailed the health of the Epsom boys in the ranks – men whose families his aunt probably knew.

At any rate, thank goodness his aunt ignored his advice to burn the letter.

The months the 6th New Hampshire spent drilling on Hatteras and Roanoke islands prepared it for the battles that lay ahead. Before 1862 was out, the 6th had lost heavily at 2nd Bull Run, fought at South Mountain, crossed Burnside’s Bridge at Antietam and advanced up Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg. As detailed in Our War, it had also endured the blow of a ship-sinking in the Potomac that drowned several of its sick men and the wives of three of its officers. [Book excerpt on this incident is here.]

Sherburne’s letter is transcribed in full below, and afterward I update the fates of the men mentioned in it.

Camp Winfield
Hatteras Inlet, North Carolina
February 12th 1862

Dear Aunt,

I now take my pen (as I have a few leasure moments) to write you a few words how we are getting along. My health is good. I hope this letter will find you all the same.

All the Epsom boys are getting along very well. William Perkins is well & John Weeks is a little unwell. H. B. Haynes’ health is good. Benj. S. Robinson is well and in good spirits. James Marden is well. He has a lame Ankle now. He spraint his Ankle a little & is getting better.

This morning the sun rose bright. It is warm and pleasant today. We packed our napsacks and straped them on our backs, haversacks, canteens, &c & went out on Battalion Movements. There was three riggiments besides the N. H. Six & two thirds of the R. I. Battery that was out on our drill ground. They formed into a ___. We formed a halow square. The Battery was opposite of us, the 89th N. Y. was behind the N.H. 6th, the 11th Connecticut, R.I. 4th, Penn 48th is here. I believe there was four riggiments & battery that helpted formed the square.

Our commander is Gen. [Thomas] Williams. He is under Burnside, I suppose – he received a letter from Burnside last night & one of his aides read the letter before us all – that the Feds had taken Roanoke Island & Elizabeth City, 6 forts & a number thousand of arms and a lot of prisoners &c. I think you can tell me better than I can tell you about the expedition. I hope they are getting along first rate.

The 6th N.H. Color Guard
We drill now everyday. Dress-perade in the fournoon at half past eight & then we drill untill quarter to ten. We then come back to camp and stay around until one. The officers, sargents & corporals drill until noon. We go out after dinner & drill in company’s untill lately the Colonel drills us alltogether in battalion movements. It looks pretty well to see a whole rigt – or three or four riggiments – marching along together & have a band of music to go with it. We had ten drumers and ten fifers when we started from Keene, but now we have from two to four drummers & the same with fifers on dress perade. I wish that we could have a band for our riggiment. How much better a band sounds than a lot of drummers & fifers.

The New York 9th was here when we came that had a band & good music. That rigt is gone with the expedition. There is one band here now.

Today our company furnishes the guard. Our Co., a part of it, was on picket guard before. Our Co. is on guard once in ten days.

It is a warm and pleasant day today. The birds are enjoying there time in singing. There is sheep and lambs, hogs and pigs, cattle &c. that belongs to the Inhabitance. They let them run everywhere on the Island. What they live on is more than I can tell. There is live oak leaves and some stuff that they get in the swamps. The wood here is mostly live oak. The tops branch out and look some like N.H. apple trees. There is a tree here that the Inhabitance use the leaves for tea. It has a red plum the size of a curant. Benjamin S. Roberson & I has had some a number of times. I think it is pretty good for a change.

The inhabitance here dont want the trees cut down becaus as one of them said the land here would blow all away if it want for the trees. The sand here blowes like snow in N.H. Out on the beach, there is a place if it was only white, it would look like a snow drift.

The Inhabitance here rais sweet potatoes and a few cabbages. The commisare finds them flour & other stuff to live on. There houses are couriously built. There Chimneys are built out at the end. Some of them are built very well and others aint. I was in at one of the houses & the fireplace was built so that they had seats each side of the fire in the fireplace. They have no stoves or ovens to cook in. They cook over the fire the old fashion way, I should think –  put there doe into an iron pan and hang it over the fire and put some coals on top of it and they rost their potatoes before the fire. Some of them keep hens & other guina hens and others have got geese.

There is two forts on the Isl. Fort Clark is the nearest to us. Fort Hatteras is down on the point beyond Fort Clark -- west from where we stop. And now I will tell you what I have to eat. We have fritters twice or three times a day. Coffee morning & night. We have pilot bread, fresh beef, salt beef, salt pork, sugar, tea, molasses, vineger beens, potatoes, rice, had some dride potatoes once since we have been here.

Ambros Haynes of Epsom died sunday night Jan. 26th. I suppose you have herd that he was dead. He had the measels when we left Anapolis, broke out on the boat. I wrote this letter on my knee. Correct all mistakes & burn this. I like here well but I like to be moving for I can see more places. How long we shall stay here, I do not know. Uncle hasn’t goin into the army yet, has he? You & all write as soon as convient.

From E. M. Sherburne, 6th Regt., Co. I., Hatteras Inlet, N. C.

All the soldiers Sherburne mentioned were from Epsom, a town of just over 1,200 people in 1860, and all had joined Co. I. The volunteers had mustered on Nov. 28, 1861, and trained briefly on the county fairgrounds in Keene, N.H. They left the Keene train station on a snowy Christmas Day.

William B. Perkins was a 27-year-old private. He died of disease on Christmas day in 1862, precisely one year after leaving his native state. Sgt. John M. Weeks, 29, was discharged for disabilities in November 1862 and died in Pembroke, N.H., on March 1, 1864.

The Haynes brothers, Ambrose and Hiram, natives of Meredith, N.H., met similar fates. As Sherburne wrote, Ambrose died of measles on Jan. 26, 1862, at North Carolina’s Hatteras Inlet, where the regiment landed. Hiram, who was 33, became ill later that year and died in a Washington, D.C., hospital on Dec. 11.

Benjamin S. Robinson, a 20-year-old private who had moved from Lowell, Mass., to Epsom, was wounded at Fredericksburg but stayed with the regiment till 1865. He died in 1876. James W. Marden, a 21-year-old private, served out his three-year enlistment and lived after the war in Epsom.

As for Sherburne, he, too, fell ill and was discharged in 1862, less than a year after enlisting. By then he had been in military hospitals for nearly two months. Sherburne kept a diary, which you can read here. It includes an entry for the date the letter to his aunt was written.

Sherburne recovered and lived till 1916.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Aftermath of assassination

The Colby family of Springfield, N.H., sent three sons to fight in the Civil War.

Their youngest, George, died of disease in Louisiana at the age of 18. Stephen P. Colby, known by Page, his middle name, was George’s lieutenant in the 15th New Hampshire Volunteers.

The middle Colby son, Jame joined first, going off at age 24 with the 6th New Hampshire in late 1861. Nine months later he was discharged after a long hospital stay. But in 1864 he joined the Invalid Corps and later still the Veterans Reserve Corps. These units did non-combat duty to free healthy soldiers to fight.

Corporal Colby served in Washington, D.C., guarding captured and surrendered Confederate officers at the Old Capitol Prison. President Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, a Friday. During the five days beginning April 17, Colby was on duty for 18 hours a day.

He wrote his brother Page on April 22 that there was “great excitement here yet.” John Wilkes Booth was still at large. Rumors of plots and conspiracies ran rampant. Meanwhile, Washington wrapped itself in the cloak of mourning.

“All the Publick buildings and most of the Private buildings even the most wretched looking hovels are still draped in mourning," James Colby wrote to Page. “Flags remain at half mast. . . . If the President had been assassinated four years ago, it would not have shocked the nation so much for then people were expecting such a thing but now with the prospect of closing the war in a few months the blow falls heavily upon all without distinction of party.

“Even the Rebel officers we have been guarding at the Old Capitol express some regrets at Lincoln’s death, They have to respect him for his generosity toward those that surrendered. They had great hopes that others would follow Lees example and that the war would close this spring or summer.

“One thing is pretty certain. Whenever the armies meet in battle there will be bloody work unless the soldiers cool down from what they are now.”

The Colby family wartime letters wound up in the hands of Mrs. John Edmunds, Page Colby’s daughter. She gave them to Dartmouth College, where they are now preserved in the Rauner Special Collections.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

New York haiku, Vol. 6

Laura and Yuri, in our NYC apartment, before a night on the town.
Here’s another batch of New York haiku. One is the latest in a series about people we’ve met in the city. Others came from a tour of the Natural History Museum during a recent visit from our son Yuri and daughter-in-law Laura.

By the way, Monique and I walked to a late service last night at St. Michael's Church, a hidden gem on Amsterdam Avenue. On the way we noticed that Christmas trees on the sidewalks of Broadway were on sale at $19.99. Just days ago they ran $100-$200.

Merry Christmas!

In dino haiku
strothiosaurus altus
devours syllables.

Wine sale dilemma:
‘This one’s three bucks!’ ‘Imagine
what it must taste like.’

Ripped from Earth toward
gravity’s pull, the moon left
an ocean to fill.

Or, debris roved space
till Earth sucked it into orbit
many moons ago.

Herb’s gift to us is
spicy soup, hawked in basso
till spoon scrapes bottom.

Stuffed animals
glassed into idyllic nature
still draw brief glances.

Buffalo behind glass at New York's Natural History Museum.