Thursday, January 3, 2013

A victim of honor

Experience at soldiering sapped the naïve patriotism and optimism most volunteers brought to the army in 1861. Private George Bucknam is a case in point. I’m going to tell you a bit of Bucknam’s story today because I just heard good news about the family papers that Sue Bucknam and her brother Charlie allowed me to use in Our War.

Sue lives in Moultonborough and is a graduate of the University of New Hampshire. She and Charlie, who lives in Vermont, have decided to donate the papers to the archive there. It is run by Bill Ross, the capable special collections director and a Civil War scholar. UNH has a Civil War course in which students will have a chance to research George Bucknam’s papers. 

George Bucknam and his fiancee, Rosie Smith.
What these students will discover is the record of a soldier of the Fifth New Hampshire regiment who was badly wounded but lived to fight again. George and his brother Warren were printers before the war. At one time they lived at Pleasant and Spring Street in Concord. George volunteered in the late summer of 1861 and was wounded during the battle of Fair Oaks, Va., on June 1, 1862.

His captain, Edward E. Sturtevant, wrote Warren that “the ball – which I should think was a musket ball – entered his body just below the ribs and passed through his body and came out opposite where it entered.” Sturtevant initially considered the wound fatal.

The story I tell of George in Our War recounts his anger over his medical treatment. Here is what he wrote about his long stay in the tent hospital on Davids’ Island in Long Island Sound:

“Warren, this is decidedly the meanest hole that ever any body got into. . . . Sick men die here for want of proper care. . . . Why don’t they let them go home where some kind hand can sooth them in their dying hours, or is it better to keep them here for fear they will run away? . . .

“I am now writing in a tent where three have died, in my idea, just out of neglect, and the fourth one – it is hard to tell whether he will live or die – he is emaciated to a skeleton. He hopes to live till his mother can come and see him. What a pity to see her son, whom perhaps she has not seen for almost a year, just as he is departing this life, and know too that if he could have been allowed the privilege of going home when he first came here – that he could in all probability have been saved.

“Does it save the government any thing? Does it encourage soldiers to fight and suffer and undergo hardships? What kind of feelings does it inspire in the bosoms of soldiers, or men, generally speaking? Soldiers is an improper name for brave fellows that have laid down their lives for this country’s sake. Do men love to lay down their lives for the cause of liberty and then be deprived of the littlest privilege he can ask for – that of dying at home?”

And here is what George wrote of his stay in a convalescent home before returning to his regiment:

“It was enough to discourage the best natured man there ever was. . . . The men were without clothes to a great degree, some of them having nothing with them, and nothing on them but a shirt and pair of pants; and those articles were in horrible condition – literally moving about with lice – you ain’t just agoing to eat your dinner are you. . . . It is what knocks the gratification out of the boy – when he sees what he has got to come to if he does his duty and happens to be unfortunate enough to be a victim of honor.”

It was Deborah Bucknam, Charlie’s wife, who first contacted me about the letters. I read them not long before the news broke of Walter Reed hospital’s shabby care of soldiers wounded in Iraq. Some things don’t change as much as they should.

I don’t want to give away the ending to George Bucknam’s story here – I tell it in Our War – but I’m glad his descendants have decided to give his letters to a public archive. George was 25 when he enlisted. How fitting that UNH students only a little younger than he will be able to study his experience firsthand.

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