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.                     

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