Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A love of music, a way with words

My friend Hutch, second from right, surrounded by Prides: my late dad Charlie, me (beer in hand), my twin cousins Don and Ron.  All but Dad worked as journalists.

My favorite radio station is celebrating its 25th anniversary. It is a one-man operation known in recent years as WKIT (We’re Keeping In Touch). The one man – sole proprietor, playlist impresario, equipment manager and DJ – is Alexander C. Hutchison.

Hutch is a former newspaper reporter, editor and publisher with an eclectic taste in music. He records programs rich in variety, emails the playlists to friends and sends CDs to those who ask for them.

I’ve known Hutch for 60 years and been a beneficiary of his hobby for 20. I mention him here because a recent WKIT offering focused on American wartime music. The closing number was the “Ashokan Farewell,” Jay Unger’s haunting waltz, which became the theme of Ken Burns’s The Civil War in 1990.

On WKIT the waltz served as background music to a reading of a letter written by Maj. Sullivan Ballou of the Second Rhode Island regiment. The Burns series made Ballou’s beautiful farewell to his wife the best known of the millions of letters written by soldiers during the war.

Ballou wrote just before the first battle of Bull Run. He was mortally wounded a few days later.

It happens that the ground where an artillery shell took his life was occupied a short time later by the Second New Hampshire regiment. In Our War I write of the Second’s experience on Matthews Hill and later on Henry Hill. This regiment and Ballou’s were in the brigade of Rhode Islander Ambrose Burnside, then a colonel, later a general.

After one talk on my book, a listener asked if I had found any letters to match Ballou’s in eloquence and emotion. I found many letters full of anguish, pain, yearning, resignation and love, but the closest to Ballou’s was one Mark Travis and I used in My Brave Boys, our book on the Fifth New Hampshire.

James Larkin
Lt. James Larkin wrote to his wife Jenny in Concord just before he went into the regiment’s first battle at Fair Oaks, Va., on June 1, 1862. The couple had two small children whom they called Bubby and Belle. When I read this letter to audiences, I can barely get through it without choking up. Read it aloud and feel its rhythms, and I think you’ll see what I mean. Here's the heart of it:

“As the contending armies seem now to be on the eve of a fierce battle, and many a brave form will be layed silent in Death, and Thousands of homes will be called to mourn for loved ones slain, it is not unreasonable to supose that I may be among the number who shall fall on that day. Still I have no fears. On the contrary I feel I shall come out safe & be restored to your loving embraces once more.

“But if it is ordered otherwise I feel that I should leave some advise and a consoling word for I am not unmindful of the greate responsibility which rests upon you in bringing up those Darling little ones. Many is the hour I have lain and thought of these things in the stillness of night before and since I left you.

“It was a greate sacrifice for me to leave you, & you thought it could not be possible I could do it, thinking so much of my children as I did. But the greate love I bore them, & you, was one of the principal reasons which led me to leave you. For in connection with the duty I felt I owed my country I felt I owed as greate a duty to my family.

“Times were hard. I thought if I could save a few hundred dollars to enjoy with my family hereafter, benefit my health, & at the same time serve my country, I should be discharging a solemn duty to my family and my country. But you will say you would prefer poverty with me, to riches without me. But I am to proud to see you and my children want for anything which I could possibly get.

“If I fall you will come in possession of ($1500) fifteen hundred dollars by my life insurance, & with what other property you have will with carefull use & investing it at good advantage enable you to suport yourself & Children & educate them respectfully. But above all things Dear Jenny be watchful of their moral training that there may never be a blot on their dear name or character. Oh with what ceaseless vigilance should you watch over little Bell that she may grow up to womanhood as spotless and pure as she is now. I can see her now, the same little pure Angle that she was the first time I pressed my lips to her sweet mouth. You may think I am partial to her, but I love darling buby just as well. But a boy can make his way through the world easier than a girl. But I would not have you be less careful with his morals.

“The little dears will never know their father, but Jenny, if such a thing is possable, after leaving this earth I shall ever be with you & them to assist your trying and lonley journy through this short life until we meet where partings will be no more.”

A few minutes before crossing the Chickahominy River for battle, Larkin signed his letter: “Good by Dear ones. Yours in Death and Life.”

Unlike Ballou, Larkin survived his first battle and many more. He rose to lieutenant colonel before serving out his three-year enlistment and returning home. In 1868 he led Concord’s first Memorial Day parade.

Alas, Larkin also suffered from his years of exposure to the elements, camp illnesses, marches and battles. An ornamental painter before the war, he could not do this work afterward. He left his job painting Concord coaches and lived much of his postwar life destitute despite a small pension.

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