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!


  1. Great to include the grandchildren! I have two little Rebels living in Arlington, VA, whom I am trying to enlist on the Union side before they know it.;-) They were impressed with 'Uncle Len's' rifle when I showed it to them over Thanksgiving. And, as Nathan, 9, said to a little boy who showed him a toy pistol, "My grampa has a real gun and if was used in the Civil War. That's Grampa Zeke right over there."
    I hope to take them on battlefield hunts when they get a bit older [now 5 and 9.]
    Jim McPherson said that he even did some 'on the ground' or water, travels when he was writing his recent book on the Civil War navies. Don't think he went down in a submarine or rode an ironclad while 'damning the torpedoes' but did visit the forts and went on the water quite a bit.