Monday, December 31, 2012

Franklin Pierce, ghostwriter

Franklin Pierce faced a personal dilemma that affects few men. As an ex-president, his inclination was to stay above politics. But a century and a half ago, when President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became law and Union war efforts reached another low ebb, he couldn’t hold his tongue.

On Jan. 2, 1863, Pierce was in Andover, Mass., at the home of his wife Jane’s sister. Jane was sickly and often stayed there. The proclamation had taken effect the previous day. Pierce took pen in hand to write to John H. George, his political pal back home in Concord, N.H.

When I found this letter to George in Pierce’s papers at the New Hampshire Historical Society, I was excited to see such candor from the ex-president, even though his opinions seemed intended only for George’s eyes.

Pierce took a harsh view of  Lincoln's proclamation
But something about the words and phrases seemed familiar to me. During earlier research, I had copied many articles expressing the editorial views of New Hampshire newspapers about the proclamation. The Democratic New Hampshire Patriot loathed Lincoln and attacked the proclamation without quarter; Republican papers either favored it or, fearing its unpopularity in their closely divided state, kept mum about it.

After finding the Pierce letter, I went back to these articles, and great was my reward. There, in the Patriot of Jan. 7, 1863, under the headline “Emancipation Proclamation,” was Pierce’s letter. It was unsigned, and I originally took it to be the editorial position of the Patriot. But now I knew who the author was.

So Pierce found a way to have his cake and eat it, too – to have his say while appearing to keep the respectful silence about public policy that is traditionally the duty of an ex-president. Later in 1863, he became so incensed with Lincoln’s presidency and the conduct of the war that he spoke out openly. For the moment, however, he was content to ghostwrite his opinion.

Here is the heart of the letter and subsequent Patriot story:

“The last proclamation of the President caps the climax of folly and wickedness. No ingenuous man can say hereafter – ‘If the administration means this’ – ‘if the administration contemplates that.’ The demands of civilization, the most obvious dictates of humanity, honor and common honesty, to say nothing of patriotism, commands the withdrawal of support promptly and irrevocably.

“We know what Mr. Lincoln means, so far as he can be said to have a meaning of his own – We know what Mr. Sumner & the whole band of abolitionists throughout the land mean and Mr. Lincoln has been and is to what his limited ability and narrow intelligence [allow] their willing instrument for all the woe which has thus far been brought upon the country and for all the degradation, all the atrocity, all the dessolation and ruin which is only too palpably before us.

“It is not that the Constitution, which the abolitionists have for twenty years & more denounced as ‘a covenant with death & a league with Hell,’ is now at the bidding of that party, deliberately violated & defied by the national executive sworn to maintain it. It is not that the people have been made to contribute to the overthrow of institutions which from childhood they have respected & revered by being taxed presently & prospectively to an extent hitherto unknown. It is not that five hundred thousand men have been induced to take their places in the ranks of the Army under false pretences of a purpose solely to uphold the Constitution and preserve the Union and that one hundred thousand of them at least have poured out their life & blood for the consummation of an object to which they never did give & never could have given their approbation.

“All this would have been sufficiently replete with a degree of wrong, disgrace & honor which admits of no expression. But what will the world say of a proclamation, emanating from the President of the United States, not only in defiance of the fundamental law of the Country for the upholding of which he ought to have been willing to pour his own blood, but in defiance of all law human & Divine which invites the black race in six entire states and parts of parts of several others to use and with all the barbaric features which must be inseparable from a successful servile insurrection to slay & devastate without regard to age or sex, without any condition of restraint except that the homes smouldering in ashes shall be the homes of the descendants of men whose fathers fought with our fathers the battles of the Revolution, and whose fathers with our fathers formed & adopted the Constitution now scoffed & defied; yes, and one other, that the women and children brutally violated & slaughtered shall be white women & children.

“What will the civilized world say when they read these words sent forth by the President of the United States and countersigned by the Secy of State! They will say, and the bitter thing is that they will say justly, that a crime so fearful as that proposed was never before contemplated by any nation, civilized or barbarous.

“If it be not too late for the people of the United States to utter a voice which shall terrify duplicity and overcome fanaticism – if it be too late to rescue the Republic from ruin financially & politically – is it too late to stay the restless march of barbarism, to save such remnants of honor as may warrant as to claim & deserve a place among the civilized peoples of the earth.

“But I will say [no] more now. My heart is sick of the contemplation.”

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Check this out

Dave Morin shared this link with me. Good tale of a Barnstead soldier of the 8th New Hampshire regiment.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Dear readers

The little girl was maybe 11 and had pigtails and big brown eyes. I was sitting at the signing table just inside the door of the Water Street Bookstore in Exeter on Saturday when she dragged her father in by the hand. She glanced at the small poster about Our War on the table. She turned to her father and said, loudly and with conviction: “Daddy, we’ve got to buy this book for Grampa!”

Her father was more circumspect. He pulled out his cellphone, took a step away from the table and called someone, possibly his wife. No one answered, it seemed. The little girl pulled him back toward the table. It was three days till Christmas, and the father gave in. Before I signed the book, I asked the girl if her grandfather liked history. Yes, she said, her eyes beaming. I felt okay then. At least there was a good chance he’d read it.

The encounter with the girl and her father stuck with me from a two-bookstore swing in which I signed 30 or 40 books and talked with several prospective readers.

I worked on Our War for years, most of that time searching in quiet archives or writing and revising in front of a computer. Although I shared chapter drafts with trusted readers, the act of writing a book is in some ways like Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic. You’re alone, you think you’ll make it but aren’t sure, and you hope there’s a big crowd waiting at the other end.

One difference is that the crowd, in the case of a book, comprises readers, not mere spectators. Since Our War came out, I have made maybe a dozen author appearances. I’ve spoken at libraries, bookstores, a church, a school and the New Hampshire Historical Society. I’ve emerged from the hibernation of my Lone Eagle fantasy to engage potential readers in conversation about why they should read my book.

This is the author’s dream come true. I am out to sell the idea of my book – a very human history of the war as it was lived by soldiers and civilians – and the book itself. But what I am really after is a sense that is out of an author’s reach during the months and years of research and writing. Then, one day, a stranger says to you, “I read your book, and . . .” Until that happens, the book isn’t really finished.

It made my smile yesterday to think of the little girl with pigtails giving Our War to her grandfather and telling him she had met the author. I hope she was right that this was the perfect book for him. Above all things a writer cherishes readers.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Christmas to remember

Good news sometimes arrives during the holiday season in Our War: homecoming for a soldier blinded in battle and imprisoned at Andersonville, the return of a prisoner of war who walked hundreds of miles through enemy territory, kisses and sweet nothings (at last!) for a couple who had fallen in love by mail.

Col. Edward E. Cross
But my favorite story about Christmas during the war involves a party in the camp of the Fifth New Hampshire regiment in 1861. The Fifth had yet to fight a battle and was living in an already desolate patch near Alexandria, Va., known as Camp California. The timing of the move there had spoiled the men’s plans to celebrate Thanksgiving, but for Christmas their colonel, Edward E. Cross, renewed and enhanced the celebration plans.

Mark Travis, my co-author of My Brave Boys, wrote the scene. He is more recently the author of Pliney Fiske, a novel based on the Fifth’s experiences. Here is the way he described the 1861 Christmas festivities in his “Winter’s trials” chapter of My Brave Boys:

Drill was canceled for Christmas Day, and Cross ordered athletic entertainment in its place. It was the regiment’s first day off duty since gathering in Concord. At ten o’clock, there was a five-hundred-yard footrace, with a first prize of four dollars and a second of two. A wrestling match followed, with prizes of its own. Dinner was oysters and bread, followed by a visit from the Fourth Rhode Island, which produced a contest, too. “The R.I. Regiment gave us a treat of fun in the shape of a ‘Race in a Bag,’ ” Lieutenant [William] Moore wrote his father. “Five men from each wing of their Regiment were placed in a large bag which was made fast around their necks. – Taking their places in line, they started for the goal. Some went to the ground, ‘heels over head,’ to the amusement of all present. Only two reached the goal and were declared worthy of prizes.”

At three o’clock, the Fifth formed for the day’s main event: the chase for a greased pig, provided by the colonel himself. “We formed in a square,” wrote Sergeant John McCrillis, “and poor piggy was let loose. After a few minutes he was seized by Pat Rowan, but escaped. Soon he was seized and carried away by a member of Company I.” A jumping contest concluded the day.

It was difficult to be so far from home on a holiday – “Oh, how I should like to be with you tonight,” Lieutenant [James] Larkin wrote his wife Jenny – but this was a Christmas that drew the Fifth together. Moore approved because the men never got out of hand. “There were no drunken broils or fights so common among a large concourse of men,” he wrote home. The regiment’s camp song would be dated to this Christmas Day, twenty verses long and sung to the tune of “Camptown Races.” One verse went like this:

Our Colonel, he’s a perfect brick, du da, du da,
And with him the boys are bound to stick, du da du da day
Our major, too, his name is Cook, du da, du da,
Is a first rate man with an ugly look, du da du da day.

We’re bound to march all night,
We’re bound to march all day,
We’re the boys from the Granite State,
Some hundred miles away.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

My friend Chester

Chester McMullen and I on his dad's boat off Grand Bahama Island in 1963.

A high school friend of mine died on Nov. 28, and I have been thinking about him. His name was Chester McMullen. We lost track of each other long ago, when he went to Vietnam. A Marine courier, he got caught behind enemy lines during the Tet Offensive.

I learned this from a mutual friend – Tim Ohr, also aVietnam veteran. A few years ago, when Tim wrote a novel based on his war experience titled Under the Gun, he used an excerpt from Chester's letter during Tet as his epigraph. Here it is:

Phu Bai February 7, 1968

Please. I do not
wish to hear
and I
have nothing
to say
to anyone.
Chester and I emcee the 1964 senior assembly
Behind us are Wallace Charles and Sarah Brown
and Bob Biles and Cindy Darling.
In our high school in Clearwater, Fla., Chester was a brilliant kid who did not necessarily apply himself to classwork. Possibly that is why we were friends. He was an ace debater and public speaker, and he introduced me to Catcher in the Rye, On the Road and other books considered subversive in those days. His dad took us on a boat trip to the Bahamas when I was 16, and together Chester and I emceed the senior assembly at school. I know little about his life after his discharge from the service except that it was difficult.

I mention his death here because I think the snippet Tim Ohr used from his letter says a great deal about my generation’s introduction to war. I was in the army from 1966 to 1970. I was a cold warrior, managing to stay out of Vietnam, but in the last few months of my hitch, I served on the funeral detail in a support company at Fort Gordon, Ga.

I fired the 21-gun salute at funerals in Georgia and South Carolina where we men in uniform were not a welcome sight. This was especially true in African-American cemeteries. The war had been lost by then, but young men were still dying in Vietnam and coming home in body bags. Wives and mothers wailed as the slaps of our rifle fire echoed in the distance and the concealed bugler began blowing Taps. These rituals may have brought some closure to the families in the short term, but losing husbands and sons to a lost cause cannot have been easy.

In the many years since then, I have visited the D-Day beaches and cemeteries in Normandy, the battlefields at the Somme and Verdun, the trenches at Ypres, the American cemetery at Belleau Wood, a dozen or more Civil War battlefields and thousands of soldiers’ graves. From the Civil War through the current war in Afghanistan, I’ve seen a similar arc in the public reaction to war. It invariably runs from enthusiasm to despair.

The bitterness of Vietnam does not color my view of all wars, but I remain skeptical of the spin that war is a glorious enterprise. Whether at Cold Harbor or Belleau Wood or the Bulge or Heartbreak Ridge or Hue or Kandahar, war breaks the human spirit.

In researching Our War I read the wartime letters of dozens of New Hampshire soldiers. Many couldn’t wait to fight and defeat the enemy in 1861. Without exception the realities of war stilled these first stirrings of their hearts. Those who survived the carnage would have understood just where my friend Chester McMullen was coming from when he wrote home in 1968.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Exeter's Civil War general

[You might also like this entry.]

When I go somewhere in New Hampshire to speak about Our War, I try to include a bit of local Civil War history. While writing the book, I purposely named the hometowns of most of the characters. Especially early in the war, soldiers from one city, town or area tended to volunteer together and to serve in the same company or regiment. This created both cohesion in the ranks and a link between the companies and the people back home.

On Saturday at 11 a.m., I’ll be at Water Street Bookstore in Exeter for a signing. This is a great independent bookseller in a bookish town. The last time I was there, in 2009, it was to sign Abraham Lincoln in New Hampshire, my update of Elwin Page’s classic 1929 history. My most important addition to the story was a recently discovered newspaper story about Lincoln’s speech in Exeter. Page had found no contemporary account of this speech.

As I sat in the store on a lovely autumn day, I watched how the light of the afternoon sun played on the red brick of the building across the street. About halfway through the session, I realized this was the Exeter town hall – the building where Lincoln had spoken.

In Our War, the most prominent soldier from Exeter is Gilman Marston. He had been a lawyer in town for 20 years and was a sitting congressman when the war began. He and another congressman, Mason Tappan of Bradford, commanded the first two regiments from the state, Tappan the First, Marston the Second. The First fought no battles, came home and disbanded after three months. The Second became one of the hardest-fighting regiments in the Union army.

Marston figured prominently in the regiment’s first battle, at Bull Run. For my chapter on this, I drew mainly on what the men wrote about it at the time. There was a lot to choose from. A day or two before the battle, Marston told a visitor to the Second’s camp that he had only one complaint about his men: “They are too intelligent. They are constantly writing home.”

The Second changed positions often during the battle before joining the ignominious stampede back to Washington. Mainly the men found themselves targets of an enemy they could not see to fire on. It was frustrating, not to mention dangerous. Marston was shot just below the right shoulder during the battle and fell on his face. Despite the pain of this wound he surprised his men by returning to battle after it was bandaged.

Nevertheless, many officers blamed Marston for the Second’s miserable experience that day. “Our commanding officers didn’t seem to know what to do,” wrote Ai B. Thompson, a lieutenant from Concord. “Marston is plucky and rash but he was not born to command.” Doubting that Marston knew a single thing about military tactics, Capt. Simon G. Griffin, a native of Nelson, joined the other company commanders in signing a petition calling for Marston’s ouster.

Griffin later regretted the petition, calling it “an outrageous act of insubordination.” And Marston proved himself to be a capable leader, rising to brigadier general and leading men in many major battles before the war’s end.

After the war he returned to the U.S. House, served as a state representative and filled out a U.S. Senate term for 3½ months. He died in 1890 at the age of 78 and is buried in Exeter.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Better late than never

One worry when I started working on Our War was that I would find too few women’s voices for the stories I wanted to tell. One of the first large letter collections I examined eased my mind. These were the letters of Samuel Duncan and Julia Jones at the New Hampshire Historical Society.

Jones makes several cameos in the book and plays a lead in one chapter. She met Duncan, a Dartmouth College tutor, only once, and briefly, before he went off to war with the Fourteenth New Hampshire regiment. They fell in love by mail. I wrote about their romance in a chapter titled “Waiting for Cupid.” It is dated Christmas 1864, when they finally got together and realized their love was real.

Jones had no dearth of suitors. She lived with her family in East Washington, N.H. Her father Solomon was a prosperous merchant and prominent Republican. Julia was educated at the New London Literary and Scientific Institution, a forerunner of Colby-Sawyer College (that’s appears to be her 1861 graduation picture to the right). She taught school and became a principal. Early in the war, her brother Amos was an aide to General John C. Frémont, the 1856 Republican presidential nominee, and Julia knew many major political figures of the day. In the Duncan-Jones letters, the couple often joked about the famous faces in her fat photo album. Several officers had eyes for her, including Col. Edward E. Cross of the Fifth New Hampshire.

Jones was an astute observer of war news – far more so than Duncan, who tended to think each new commanding general was the great leader the Union army had been lacking. Jones shot down his Pollyanna pronouncements, preferring to wait and see how McClellan or Burnside or Hooker performed in battle before draping them with laurels.

Between the lines she also expressed frustration as a woman in being barred from political participation. On the day of the critical 1863 gubernatorial election, she looked out her window in East Washington and saw the men heading for Town Meeting to vote. “All morning long I’ve been watching them pass – the voters – traitors and loyalists, ’Publicans and sinners, for this never-to-be-forgotten Town Meeting Day,” she wrote Duncan. “Being a woman, I must quietly fold my hands & wait the issue.”

Unfortunately, I found no picture of Julia Jones for my book. This was not for want of trying. I located what I think was the Jones house in tiny, remote East Washington but could find no one to ask about her. Later, on a drizzly summer day, I toured the charming Washington Historical Society museum and asked volunteers there and in the society’s headquarters next door about a picture of her. No luck.

Now I’m kicking myself for giving up. Our War had hardly been out for a week when Thomas Talpey, a Washington resident, contacted me. Within days, he had forwarded me photographs of Jones. The keeper of the photos is Samuel and Julia Duncan’s great-great-granddaughter, Nancy Grandin of Simsbury, Conn. On the left Julia poses with her brother Amos. The ones at the top of this post appear to be 1860s CDVs.

Jones turned out to be the first of many strong women who became characters in Our War. I’m grateful to Thomas Talpey and Nancy Grandin for sharing these pictures. I wish I’d had them before the book came out, but I’m pleased now to put a face to Julia Jones’s name.

Friday, December 14, 2012

A class act

Ruth Bidwell's social studies class at Chichester Central School kept me on me toes.
The oldest question about the Civil War is why it was fought. The answer is more complicated than many people want to think. Some southerners argue that it was about the rights of states to form their own institutions without interference from the federal government. Some northerners think the Union army was a gang of righteous abolitionists who marched south to free the slaves. Both arguments are flawed.

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of discussing this issue with Ruth Bidwell’s alert, engaged eighth-grade students at Chichester Central School. They had been learning about the Civil War in class, and they grilled me about it.

The students were especially interested in the gory parts, as young people (and some adults, too) tend to be. One young man, who identified himself as the son of a gravedigger, wanted to know who buried the bodies.

In answering his question, I tried to teach the students about frame of reference. We live in a land of plenty in which most people have at least the necessities and many have too much stuff. Civil War soldiers often wanted for simple things. They did not live in a consumer society like ours, and as soldiers they learned to travel light. That is why bodies on the battlefield – friend or foe – were often robbed before they were buried. Men needed boots, coats, pants, writing paper and food, and the dead offered a free supply of them.

As for burials, they were haphazard, often depending on who held the ground once the battle ended. Shallow graves and mass graves were the norm.

The young man who asked about the war’s cause was certain it was slavery. I told him that at bottom this was true: No slavery, no war. Perceived northern threats to slavery and to the political power of slaveholding states were explicit reasons for secession. Northern resistance to the expansion of slavery into new American territories led to the formation and success of the Republican Party in the North.

But (and it’s a big but) very few of the volunteers who poured out of the villages of New Hampshire and other northern states to join the Union army were abolitionists. They saw the nation as a young and precious gem. They feared its breakup into smaller, lesser countries – the kind of competing nation-states that fragmented many European countries during the mid-19th century. Many volunteers had grandfathers who had fought in the American Revolution, and they saw saving the Union as a sacred, inherited duty. Heirlooms from the Revolution – old coats, muskets, war booty – were treasured in many households.

The Emancipation Proclamation, whose 150th anniversary is Jan. 1, did make ending slavery the explicit aim of the war. But as I show in Our War, soldier acceptance of this cause was slow and sometimes grudging. It is important to remember that for decades leading up to the war, newspapers of all political stripes stereotyped black people in racist terms. These prejudices stuck (and, unfortunately, we still live with them). As Lt. Edmund Dascomb of Greenfield wrote to a Manchester newspaper: “Is it strange when a portion of our press tell us that we are ‘fighting for a pack of n-----s’ that many are found to believe it?”

The most President Lincoln could hope was to persuade soldiers that his proclamation, along with the enlistment of free black men into the Union army, would shorten the war. Many soldier letters I read during my research contained sentiments like this one from Private John Burrill of the Second New Hampshire. Writing to his parents in Fitzwilliam on Jan. 1, he said he expected the war to end with “no great difference in the n----- question from what there was when we commenced.” He did not oppose slavery but was willing to see it abolished. “I believe in putting away any institution if by so doing it will help put down the rebellion, for I hold that nothing should stand in the way of the Union – n-----s or anything else.”

I was in the eighth grade in Florida when I first took American history from a stern and demanding teacher named Owen North. When it came to the Civil War, Mr. North was Mr. South. I loved listening to him, but at the age of 14 I’m sure I wasn’t ready to debate the nuances of the war’s causes. Ruth Bidwell’s students seemed well prepared to do so. Visiting with them made my day.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Being there

Once again our grandchildren grace our Christmas cards. The photo of Eleanor and Henry shows them during an excursion with Grammy and Grampa to Manassas. The Bull Run battlefield is near their home, and the picture was taken on a brutally hot day last June.

It was Eleanor who found the plaque marking the spot on Matthews Hill where the Second New Hampshire Volunteers joined the fray on July 21, 1861. We followed the regiment’s path over the hill’s brow. Then, as the kids ran down a mown swath through the slanting field, I tried to identify the positions the Second took on the hill that day.

Before us a mile away was Henry Hill. Late in the battle, the Second marched south down the Sudley Road to this hill. We took the same route by car, and with the help of rangers at the visitor center, I figured out where the regiment had been positioned there.

My one disappointment that day was that the suburban sprawl, strip malls and battle-related tourist joints made it difficult to get a true impression of the ground the regiment covered to reach the battle from Washington and to reach Washington on its headlong retreat.

But for a historian who writes about Civil War battles – or anything else, really – there is no substitute for being there. If you make the effort to experience and understand the ground where the soldiers camped, walked and fought, it improves your vision when you sit down to write.

For Our War I made many journeys. Here are brief accounts of three:

n  For a chapter on an execution at Fort Ellsworth on Shuters Hill in Alexandria, Va., my son Sven and I visited the fort. The condemned man, a New Hampshire private named William F. Murray, had murdered a civilian in cold blood, and General Irvin McDowell decided Murray’s fate should serve as an example. He ordered thousands of troops to witness it. In my chapter, I wanted to include what Murray saw from the scaffold before he was hanged. Going to the spot allowed me to write that he had a clear view down King Street, Alexandria’s main thoroughfare and the scene of his crime.

n  For a chapter on the Seventh New Hampshire at the battle of Olustee (Florida), my wife Monique and I visited the battlefield twice. A lot hasn’t changed: the flatness of the land, the sparseness of the population, the directness of the road to it from Jacksonville, the remoteness of the field and the color and smell of all those pine trees. The battlefield could be better marked, but walking the ground improved my sense of the horrors the Seventh wandered into.

n  For the Gettysburg chapter, I walked from the southern end of Cemetery Ridge to the Wheatfield and Rose’s Woods. I walked out the Wheatfield Road to the Peach Orchard and from there up the Emmitsburg Road. My tour covered the ground occupied by the Second, Fifth and Twelfth New Hampshire regiments on the second day and gave me confidence to move them around the battlefield in my book.

But because Eleanor and Henry were with us, the trip to Bull Run is the one I’ll remember.Of course, I can’t slight the other grandchildren, Grace and Jackson, who are also on our Christmas card this year. That’s them to the left and below – also on a historical excursion, this one to the Calvin Coolidge birthplace at Plymouth Notch.
No Disney with Grampa and Grammy for these kids!

Monday, December 10, 2012

The ever-changing past

The story of the Fifth New Hampshire Volunteers at Fredericksburg is one of the most courageous and brutal of the war. The Fifth was far from the only regiment to march up the hill from town toward Marye’s Heights, but the bravery of its performance and the magnitude of its losses were breathtaking.

I have told this story twice. My Brave Boys, which I co-authored with Mark Travis, covered the Fifth’s history from 1861 through its return to Concord after Gettysburg. It was my privilege to write the Fredericksburg chapter, and I found many letters and accounts written by the soldiers to guide me.

Col. Edward E. Cross, the first commander of the Fifth, is also a major figure in Our War. During the decade after My Brave Boys came out, I learned more about Cross. Robert Grandchamp, a dogged young researcher and member of the Fifth New Hampshire re-enactors, shared many of his finds during his work on Col. Edward E. Cross, New Hampshire Fighting Fifth: A Civil War Biography. Other sources also provided new information about Cross, especially his prewar days in Arizona.

Col. Edward E. Cross
And then there was Fredericksburg, which Cross barely survived. He wrote at least three accounts of it. In focusing my Our War chapter on him, I used details of a long letter he wrote in June 1863 to his friend Murat Halstead, a correspondent for the Cincinnati Commercial. Halstead knew Cross before the war and had visited him and slept in his tent just before the battle.

The Our War chapter included other new material. The Parsons family gave the letters of George S. Gove, a 21-year-old sergeant from Raymond who fought bravely with the Fifth, to the Milne special collection at the University of New Hampshire last year. I also found a moving letter written by three wounded veterans of the Fifth. The three provided the ending to my chapter, writing of Cross: “A better man to look after the welfare of his men never wore the eagles. Were we to enlist for a score of times, we should go under Col. Cross each time.”

But the information just keeps coming. David Morin, an early Fifth re-enactor, is a vacuum cleaner for new material about the Fifth. Check out his photo collection here. Since Our War came out, Dave has shared several things with me, including two letters about Fredericksburg.

In one, 30-year-old Lieutenant Janvrin Graves of Tuftonborough writes that the body of Edward E. Sturtevant, the Fifth’s major, was found and buried on the field along with those of Capt. William Moore of Littleton and Lt. Charles Ballou of Claremont. Written to Moore’s father, the letter asserts that Moore’s pockets were “rifled of all their contents by the rebels.”

I have long believed that Sturtevant, whose clothing was also rifled, was never identified because he was mangled by an artillery shell. Graves did not claim he had seen the body – only that those on a burial detail said they had. And I think Graves was wrong about who stole the belongings of Moore, Sturtevant and many other dead Union soldiers. On the basis of where the bodies were, the thieves were almost surely their Union comrades. 

The great-great-granddaughter of Charles Hale shared another letter with Morin. Her name is Megan Hale-Raber, and she lives in Suquamish, Washington.

Charles Hale as a corporal.
Hale, a 21-year-old from Lebanon and a Fifth New Hampshire corporal at Fredericksburg, survived the war and was later a guide at the Gettysburg battlefield. Generations of historians (including me) have used his account of Col. Cross at Gettysburg. Hale’s Fredericksburg letter, written to his mother, describes the battle as “horrible, terrible, beyond description” and gives an eyewitness account of the heroic death of James Perry, his captain and fellow townsman.

Here it is:

Near Falmouth December 18, 1862

My dear Mother,

I wrote you a few hasty lines day before yesterday, thinking at the time to write you again soon. Yesterday I tried several times to write and give you a description of the engagement as I saw it, but I failed in accomplishing it. Such were the circumstances connected with it. It was horrible, terrible beyond description. I can see in it nothing but a useless slaughter. The noblest, bravest hearts that ever fought were sacrificed. I was on the field from the time we entered till after the stars began to shine, and such scenes as I there saw may we never be called again to witness.

I did not see Captain Perry fall, did not know that he was struck till I was hit, and in going back a merciful providence directed my steps and there he lay in the mud at my feet. It was near a small brick house; a slight board fence screened us from the sight of the sharpshooter, but afforded no more resistance to the bullets than a sheet of paper. I couldn’t move him to a safer place, so I determined to stay with him. At first, he was insensible, but Lieut. Graves of our regiment gave me some whiskey with which I moistened his lips. Soon he began to revive and in a short time was perfectly rational. The fatal bullet had passed through his lungs. He knew he must die, and his only regret was in leaving his wife and little one – wished me to tell his friends he died like a true soldier holding the stars and stripes – he had just picked up the Flag and had it in his hand when hit.

Perhaps Mr. Cheney would like a list of the casualties. It is not so that I could it today but if I have time perhaps I will send it soon. I would rather you would not make any portion of what I write public, that is to publish it. My duties are rather more confining than I would wish, still it goes smoothly. Our regiment is so small now that but little is required of us.

My health continues. The scratch on my thigh does not trouble me and is losing its soreness. Father’s dear kind letter I received before we recrossed the river. The papers came yesterday. Please write to me often dear mother and remember to pray for your boy. Your prayers have been my shield in these trying scenes. I know it must be so. Remember me to inquiring friends.

Yours affectionately,

I wish I had had these letters before I wrote Our War – or, better yet, before I wrote My Brave Boys. At the same time I am heartened that 150 years after these dramatic events in our history, new material continues to emerge.

This is the way of history: The past keeps changing.                     

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Capt. Butler, saved for posterity

Frank Butler, a 6-foot-6 21-year-old from Bennington, N.H., joined the 5th New Hampshire Volunteers in the fall of 1861. With the encouragement of his regimental commander, Colonel Edward E. Cross, he went to school and became a signal officer. His promotion to captain was dated Dec. 15, 1862, the day he arrived at Falmouth, Va., at the headquarters of Franz Sigel, a Union major general of German descent already known as “The Hero of Pea Ridge.” The next day Butler wrote his family a letter. He wanted them to know the truth about the Battle of Fredericksburg, which had been fought nearby on Dec. 13.

“The papers may gloss it over,” he wrote, but “those that have witnessed the sight since will all say 10,000 Union troops were murdered. That is the name: ’Twas not a battle, ’twas murder. The enemy did not lose 10 men.”

Butler’s numbers were exaggerated, but his assessment of the battle was not.

He stood at the signal station observation post looking through a glass. “The rebs could be seen strip[p]ing our dead – rifling their pockets, &c., &c., just as plain as I can see a man in Grandfathers yard. Our men lay bare in the streets stripped of everything.”

Butler blamed Washington politicians for the defeat. “The people will never know 1/2 the truth. I never yet thro' all our reverses [have] been the least discouraged but fell, back on the idea that 'Uncle Sam'  when awake & earnest could whip them in 1 month. But they have fought like vengeance and with good heads to guide & sincerity for their purpose have beat us all out. We have good men enough & good officers in the field . . . but Washington with all its officials was sunk. 'Tis damnably shameful. I never was so angry.”

Yesterday I had the privilege of delivering copies of Captain Butler’s papers, including this letter, to the New Hampshire Historical Society. Tom Jameson, a descendant of Butler's, lent me the papers to use in Our War. It was his wish that researchers have access to Butler’s letters home, letters to him and other papers associated with his military service during the Civil War. Jameson is also giving a set of the papers, in two handsome leather-bound volumes, to the historical society in Bennington, Butler’s hometown.

I tell Butler’s story in the July 30, 1864, chapter of Our War titled “A race with time.” He rode to Gettysburg with Colonel Cross and was present at Cross’s death, so I also quoted him extensively in the July 2, 1863, chapter “Three soldiers at Gettysburg.” And Butler’s friend, Herbert B. Titus of Chesterfield, wrote Butler a colorful account of being shot at Antietam, which I included in the Sept. 17, 1862, chapter “Rush to battle.”

Tom Jameson was one of eight people who lent me the papers of a soldier (or soldiers) in the family.  What a thrill it was to be the first historian to use most of these papers. It is equally gratifying to know that Tom and some of the others intend to give their papers to public archives.

It has been distressing in recent years to see many collections of Civil War letters dispersed one by one through sale on eBay. Apparently people make more money selling them individually, but this scatters the letters to the four winds and makes it impossible for historians to follow a soldier’s story over time.

Thanks, Tom, for the use of the Butler letters – and thanks for recognizing the importance of giving them to posterity.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Not so minor, Mr. Haynes

Thursday night at 6:30 p.m., I’ll be discussing my book with what I hope will be a good crowd at the Manchester City Library.

This event gives me a chance to talk about some of the many Manchester soldiers in Our War, including Martin Alonzo Haynes, a brave, articulate young man. Haynes was a private in the Second New Hampshire Volunteers, the first three-year regiment from this state. He is featured in three battle chapters in my book: first Bull Run, Gettysburg and Cold Harbor.

Perhaps his role in the Gettysburg chapter best illustrates the approach I took in writing Our War. I had no interest in writing a comprehensive chapter on the battle’s second day. What I was after was a chapter in which I could show how that day’s fighting affected three individual New Hampshire soldiers – one each from the three infantry regiments that fought there. I also wanted to show how the fate of each of those regiments affected the fates of the others.

I chose Col. Edward E. Cross from the Fifth New Hampshire. Although Cross led a brigade of the Second Corps that day, his old regiment was in that brigade. I chose Sgt. Richard Musgrove from the Twelfth. He left a rich memoir of his service at Gettysburg and elsewhere. And I chose Haynes, a cub reporter before the war and his regiment’s historian after it.

Among Haynes’s published works my favorite is A Minor War History Compiled from a Soldier Boy’s Letters to “the Girl I Left Behind Me.” Published in 1916 in Lakeport, N.H., it comprises the wartime letters Haynes wrote to Cornelia Lane, his girlfriend when he left for the war, his wife at the time of the Gettysburg battle (he married her on furlough in the spring of 1863).

Only 60 copies of A Minor War History were printed. You can read it here. Although such online publication is useful, during this 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the Haynes book is one of several New Hampshire letter collections and memoirs that deserve to be reprinted with fresh introductions.

In the meantime I was blessed to find Haynes’s letters and other writings and to give him a star turn in Our War.

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Lincoln assassination: a favorite find

A good turnout and a fun discussion of Our War last night at Gibson's Bookstore. Concord is lucky to have Gibson's to serve readers and promote conversation about books. Of the many engaging questions from the audience, my old friend Byron Champlin asked a no-brainer. In fumbling and mumbling around to answer it, it was I who suddenly became a no-brainer.

The question was this: What was the best discovery in your research for Our War?

Later, in the comfort of my living room, I thought of a dozen good answers, but one stood out. Here it is:

My chapter on the Lincoln assassination tells the story through the experience of Benjamin Brown French. French, who was from Chester, N.H., was Lincoln's commissioner of public buildings, including the White House and the Capitol. He was at Lincoln's bedside shortly before the president died. His duties in the aftermath of the death included taking charge of Lincoln's body until if left Washington, helping with details of the funeral and tending to Mary Lincoln.

In poring through the vast record Brown left -- a fascinating journal published years ago as Witness to the Young Republic, his correspondence, articles he wrote for various publications -- I came across a letter he wrote to his son Frank a few days after Lincoln was shot. Therein, I learned something new to me about the assassination.

French had been in charge of security for Lincoln's inauguration on March 4, 1865. In his April 24 letter to Frank French, Benjamin wrote that John Westfall, a D.C. cop he had hired as part of the security detail, reminded him just after the assassination of an incident during the inauguration. On the way through the Capitol rotunda to the east portico, where Lincoln was to deliver his address, French saw a man jump into the procession right behind the president. He sent Westfall to confront the man.

When Westfall grabbed the man’s arm, he “began to wrangle & show fight.” French stepped in to help. The man grew “very fierce & angry” and said he had a right to be there. In the end, the two let the man go. By then Lincoln had moved on.

After Lincoln was shot six weeks later, Westfall showed French a photograph of John Wilkes Booth. French recognized him  at once as the man who had broken into the procession. “He gave me such a fiendish stare as I was pushing him back, that I took particular notice of him & fixed his face in my mind, and I think I cannot be mistaken,” French wrote.

French and Westfall both believed they had stopped Booth from killing Lincoln at the inauguration.

Other historians have seen this letter, but none of the assassination books I checked mention the incident or further investigate French's claim.

So, to me, French's letter was an exciting find, and I hope I used it well in Our War.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

At Gibson's Bookstore

I have a reading, discussion and book-signing for Our War tomorrow night (Nov. 29) at Gibson's Bookstore at 27 South Main Street in Concord. Hope to see you there! (For those who don't know it, Gibson's is one of Concord's jewels.)

And here's a preview of coming blogs posts: One of the great things about writing a book about real people in the Civil War is that you almost always begin to find out more about them (and others) right after the book is published. That has happened to me several times already, and in coming days I'll share some of these finds.

They include:

-- A photograph of the alluring Julia E. Jones of East Washington, New Hampshire, who had several suitors in the book before she settled on Colonel Samuel Duncan.

-- A letter mentioning the burial of Edward E. Sturtevant, New Hampshire's first Civil War volunteer, at Fredericksburg.

Stay tuned!

And if you have pertinent information about characters or stories in Our War, please don't hesitate to share it. Thanks.


Friday, November 2, 2012

War and reunion

Over the next two weeks I have several events scheduled around New Hampshire to introduce readers to Our War: Days and Events in the Fight for the Union. The first one is Wednesday, Nov. 7, at 7 p.m. at the Kilton Public Library in West Lebanon.

This presentation will be special for me because I'll be joined by my old sidekick, Mark Travis, publisher of the Valley News. Mark and  I newspapered together for many years in Lebanon and Concord. We were both interested in the Civil War, and in the late '90s we researched and wrote My Brave Boys, a history of the Fifth New Hampshire Volunteers under Col. Edward E. Cross. After the book was published in 2001, we had a blast giving talks about it around the state and beyond.

In pursuing our authoring interest, we've taken different trails since. While I was working on Our War, Mark finished his excellent novel, a Civil War mystery called Pliney Fiske. On Wednesday, we'll team up again to talk about both books and about the different ways history and fiction seek to discover truths about the past.