Monday, February 25, 2013

A tragic day for New Hampshire

The tragic story of the Fourteenth New Hampshire regiment in the third battle of Winchester on Sept. 19, 1864, is one I chose not to tell in Our War. In part I thought the book had enough battle smoke without it. I also found no letters about the battle from soldiers of the regiment. That doesn’t mean there are none, but by late 1864 newspapers published far fewer letters from local soldiers down south than they did earlier in the war.

Today my wife and I walked across the battlefield and figured out where the Fourteenth fought. It was an exhilarating experience in part because the battlefield is so well marked and because it was a bright sunny day. The third Winchester field is a project of the Civil War Trust, a nonprofit devoted to the preservation of endangered battlefields, and its partners. These organizations have preserved 575 acres of the battlefield. The many miles of trails through it are well planned and maintained, and the markers along the way chronicle the battle with clarity.

As much as I like the stone monuments at Gettysburg, Antietam and elsewhere, there is something deeply satisfying in seeing a battlefield without postwar adornments. Key points of the Winchester battlefield were called First Woods, Second Woods and Middle Field. These seem vague and unhelpful until you survey them from the rolling farmland where the armies clashed. Among other such useful information, small trail-side plaques tell where the woods actually began in 1864 as opposed to where they begin now.

We also visited the U.S. National Cemetery in Winchester. Tens of men from the Fourteenth New Hampshire lie buried there around a simple obelisk. Others have well-preserved gravestones.
The curious thing about the cemetery is that it is separated by a fence and road from a Confederate cemetery -- a city cemetery where people continue to be buried. The Union soldiers lie to the north, the rebel soldiers to the south. Confederate flags sometimes stand at the graves of the rebel dead.

Stay tuned for a more detailed post, with pictures, telling the story of the Fourteenth at Winchester and our visit to the city. Sept. 19, 1864, was a sad day for New Hampshire, but at least those who died here sacrificed their lives in a victory. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

A taste of Union army fare among friends

Though not much loved, hardtack was a staple of the soldiers' diet. 
Fall, winter and spring, Jim Kinhan and Ginny Mierens put on a weekly themed lunch for senior members of South Congregational Church in Concord. As I learned this week when I was guest speaker at the lunch, theirs is a creative endeavor.

Because my topic was New Hampshire in the Civil War, Ginny made a meal consisting of foods the soldiers ate: hardtack, old-fashioned mac and cheese, ham and apples, cucumbers cooked in a gravy of vinegar, fat, onions and flour, and a cabbage seasoned with tomatoes, onions and rendered salt pork. (The "tack" in hardtack, by the way, is British naval slang for "food"; the "hard," as we learned, needs no explanation.)

Ginny made strong coffee, enriched with chicory, and for dessert we had gingerbread.

If the Union soldiers ate this well, someone at my table remarked, no wonder the North won the war.

Edward E. Sturtevant
This group was the perfect audience for my talk. It happens that the first volunteer from New Hampshire, Capt. Edward E. Sturtevant, brought several of his recruits to South Congregational Church on the Sunday after President Lincoln’s call for the first 75,000 northern troops of the war.

Henry E. Parker, the pastor, noted their presence from the pulpit. He had been at the church for 11 years by then and had witnessed many scenes of personal and even public grief. But, he said, the tears he saw in his congregation this day sprang from “emotions the like to which were never felt here.”

The 40-year-old Parker went to war two months later as chaplain of the Second New Hampshire Volunteers. Sturtevant served out his three months with the First and then joined the Fifth. Both are important characters in Our War, and it was fun to weave their back stories together in my talk.

The two left behind many rich letters about their experiences before and during the war. Parker’s letters are available in an impressive web archive assembled by Lawrence Brown.

Here are two letters from that archive, both written by Franklin Pierce. Before his presidency, Pierce served on the South Church pastor search committee that called Henry E. Parker.

Henry E. Parker
In the first letter, written three months before the war opened, it is easy to see the pro-southern sympathies that made Pierce a target of Republicans. The “Clay” he refers to is Clement Claiborne Clay, a U.S. senator from Alabama who resigned his seat in January 1861.

Andover Mass
Jany 23, 1861

My Dear Sir—
I return here – with Mr Clay’s pleasant letter, which Mrs Pierce read with satisfaction. I did not write to him – Indeed I had no heart to do so. The telegraphic column Monday morning announced the retirement from the Senate of the Senators from Alabama, Missi, & Florida. To us, the departure of Gov. Fitzpatrick, Gov. Davis, Mr. Clay & Mr. Mallory was one of the most painful steps of this fearful march. They were all sincere, union loving men and feel, with their constituents, that they have been driven out by long continued aggression and vituperative assault, on the part of those from whom they had a right to expect fair dealing, if not paternal regard. It would be a great mistake to receive the fact that some of them retired in tears as evidence of weakness or selfish apprehension. Few men of truer patriotism, more varied learning or higher statesmanship have ever filled the vacated seats. Besides this so far as Mrs Pierce and myself are concerned they were our tried esteemed personal friends. The gun-powder talk and military preparations at the North are producing their natural results in the border slave labor states. I presume you have seen the slip which I clip from one of the evening papers. My cough continues to be more or less troublesome and wearing but I think it will pass away in a few days.

With Kindest regards to Mrs. Parker & the children

Yr. friend
Franklin Pierce

This second letter was written three days after the first Bull Run battle. Chaplain Parker took care of many wounded men on the field that day, but for all the carnage he witnessed, he was even more dismayed by the Union army’s headlong retreat to Washington. The Col. Marston mentioned in the Pierce letter is Gilman Marston, the congressman who commanded the Second New Hampshire. He was shot in the shoulder during the battle but recovered. Most of Parker’s  letters about his war experience were written to his wife Mary. The Parkers had a one-year-old son.

July 24, 1861

My Dear Sir—
The accounts yesterday and the day before would seem to indicate that the return of the Federal Army from Bull’s Run to Washington was unexpected and rapid. I hope it was not too much for your rather delicate health and that this new phase of life may on the whole rather contribute to physical vigor than otherwise. I was glad to see by the telegram yrday that Colo’ Marston's wound is less severe than was at first supposed. Will you present my kind regards to him –

I made a pleasant call on Mrs Parker, yesterday – She was looking well, but the little boy has been suffering a good deal from teething – but I should not give you domestic items as Mrs P. intended to write last evening or today. Have you met Dr Gurly and Dr Sunderland or either of them at Washington? I have great respect for them both and if you see them I wish you would present me to them most kindly –

Yr. friend
Franklin Pierce

Thanks to Jim and Ginny for setting up such a great event. And thanks to the South Church audience for your interest and good questions.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

One of the most sacred places on the Gettysburg battlefield

My friend Dave Sullivan sends this photograph to complement my post the other day on the unidentified New Hampshire soldiers at Gettysburg. The task of finding and identifying the bodies after three days of fighting there was monumental. Most likely all the men buried here were killed on July 2, 1863, and served in the 2nd, 5th and 12th New Hampshire regiments. As anyone who has ever been to the battlefield knows, the section with the mass graves by state is one of the most moving places there.

Dark hour, sunny disposition

[More about Anna E. Dickinson here]

Our Civil War ancestors in New Hampshire had a cure for cabin fever. Each February they held a campaign for governor and Congress and sent speakers all over the state to entertain and arouse the populace.

Anna E. Dickinson mesmerized audiences.
Perhaps no gubernatorial election was as hard-fought or consequential as the one in 1863. I tell the story in Our War, pegging it to March 10, town meeting day, when qualified males cast their votes in the statewide election. But the campaign raged in February.

New Hampshire was at war, of course, and the White House was desperate to keep a Republican in the governor’s office. The public ardor for war had cooled. The draft, the Emancipation Proclamation, Union battlefield debacles, long casualty lists and the sight of women in black gave heart to antiwar Democrats – Copperheads. Their man, Ira Eastman, seemed likely to win.

The Republicans took desperate steps, even pushing behind the scenes for a third-party candidate to siphon votes away from Eastman. He was Col. Walter Harriman, a pro-war Democratic Unionist from Warner.

Another big decision the Republicans made was to advocate the abolition of slavery as a war aim, in effect embracing the Emancipation Proclamation. This they did not through their gubernatorial candidate, Joseph Gilmore, but through speakers sent to towns and cities throughout the state. Many of these were famous lecturers or colorful party figures. Craving social opportunities and entertainment on cold February nights, citizens of all political stripes turned out to hear them.

The job of hiring, scheduling and paying these speakers fell to Benjamin Prescott, the state party secretary. In researching and writing my chapter on the 1863 election, I had the privilege of reading Prescott’s letters to Anna E. Dickinson, who became his star lecturer. Dickinson, a Philadelphia Quaker, was just 20 years old, but her abolitionist talks mesmerized audiences.

Prescott, who turned 30 that February, acted as Dickinson's head cheerleader. During these worrisome weeks for Republicans, Prescott was just the person for the job. His letters to her brimmed with optimism. (They are in the Dickinson papers at the Library of Congress.) Here are a few excerpts:

Prescott later served as governor (1877-79).
On Feb. 18, Prescott wrote Dickinson that he was glad to hear that many Democrats were turning out for her lectures. He also explained Harriman’s nomination by so-called Union Democrats as the latest move against the Copperheads. 

“We shall whip them handsomely. A third candidate was nominated by the Convention at Manchester on Tuesday [Feb. 17] for Governor. By this movement many votes will be taken from the Democratic Party for they do not want to vote for Eastman. Some few who do not want to vote for Gilmore will also find a refuge. They will all vote for our members of Congress and most of our other Ticket. We think we know how to play our cards as well as the ‘Copperheads’ if we do not we will throw up the game. There is a visable reaction going on among the people in the state and the Democracy already feel it. Their courage is broken and they hardly know what to do.

“Everything now is working in our favor. I have always felt confident and cheerful. I believe we shall succeed in this state at the coming election. I believe we shall succeed in our struggle with the rebellion. I have faith that this country is to be purified, and that it will stand before the world ere long a truly free country. My prayer is that I may be permitted to see the joyful day when every man can stand up and say that I am free. Until that day shall come, this contest will never be ended. How few there are that look at the real issues now at stake in this struggle. The day is coming when they will see it . . .

“Persevere in your good work.”

Two days later, Prescott wrote to share glowing reports about Dickinson’s lecture in Dover and to tell her about other speakers he had deployed. He himself had gone the previous night – 150 years ago today – to hear Andrew Jackson Hamilton, the former attorney general of Texas, speak in Concord. Hamilton was a handsome man who appeaered in full uniform. “He looked like a hero, or he is, though he has not fought many battles,” Prescott wrote.

He closed with his typical cheer: “We are going to whip the Rebel in this State. Our people are thoroughly aroused.”

What is striking about Prescott’s letters to Dickinson is how sunny he remained at this dark hour for the Union cause. And more bad news – Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s defeat at Chancellorsville and Robert E. Lee's second invasion of the North – lay just months ahead.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Urgent! Telegram from Gettysburg!

In the final chapter of Our War I quote from the inaugural speech of New Hampshire Gov. Frederick Smyth on June 8, 1865. The Civil War was over, but its aftermath was much on the minds of Smyth and his constituents.

Smyth, a banker and railroad man whose father had been a storekeeper in Candia, N.H., owned a building with a theater in downtown Manchester. Abraham Lincoln had spoken in that theater in 1860 during a four-speech tour of New Hampshire that helped him win the Republican presidential nomination. Smyth introduced him that night as the next president of the United States -- an act of great prescience, as Lincoln held no public office and Sen. William H, Seward was favored, especially in the East, to win the Republican nomination.

Frederick Smyth had been on the Gettysburg battlefield.
Smyth had been elected on town meeting day in March to a one-year term. The day he was inaugurated, he was well aware that the Union war victory had conferred important duties on politicians. “The soldier has done his work, the statesman has now to do his,” he said. He spoke of the need to pass constitutional amendments guaranteeing former slaves both their freedom and the right to vote. He called on businesses to hire war veterans and citizens to erect monuments to the soldiers' sacrifices.

The new governor specifically mentioned the sacrifices at Gettysburg. Nearly two years after the great battle, Smyth said, the bodies of only 49 New Hampshire soldiers killed there had been found and only 27 identified. “This can be but a small part of our heroes who sleep upon that consecrated field,” Smyth said. (He was right: 102 men from three infantry regiments, the 2nd, the 5th and the 12th, were killed there on July 2, 1863.) Smyth asked legislators and citizens “to rescue from oblivion the names of those as yet unrecognized, whose memory is part of our common glory, and will be cherished as long as our race endures.”

What Smyth did not say was that he had personal experience at Gettysburg. Shortly after the battle, he rushed to the remote battlefield with several others to see to the needs of the living and the dead. The leader of this group was Larkin D. Mason, a probate judge from Tamworth assigned by then-Gov. Joseph Gilmore to look after New Hampshire's soldiers in the field.

Here is the telegram Smyth sent to Gilmore to report on the carnage (the telegram is now at the New Hampshire State Archives in the carefully organized Gilmore executive files):


Friday, February 15, 2013

'A means, not an end to put down this rebellion'

The Emancipation Proclamation forced soldiers as well as civilians to confront the issue of slavery. As their letters home indicated, soldiers' views ran the gamut from pro-slavery to abolitionist. But a consensus did begin to emerge once President Lincoln's proclamation was a fait accompli.

In reading New Hampshire letters, I found many where soldiers now came at the issue as a practical matter rather than a moral issue. It wasn't so much that freeing the slaves was right as it was that freeing them would hurt the rebel cause and end the war faster.

Take, for example, the opinion of a 14th New Hampshire soldier who called himself Lauren E. Bent (his real name appears to have been Lauren E. Gardner). Bent was a 20-year-old private from Winchester, N.H. I found his letters at the Historical Society of Cheshire County and quoted him in Our War.

Here is what Bent wrote to his mother and sister back home on Feb. 15, 1863:

"Perhaps you have read some letters from soldiers that are against the Government and that are discouraged but not many. Those that are are democrats that inlested for the bounty & are all the time whining about the damnd black abolishionists & the d----d nigger. No patriot will growl about the Governments freeing the slaves. It is a means, not an end to put down this rebellion. We have as good a right to confiscate the slaves of rebels as any other property as a means of putting down this rebellion. But because old Abe says confiscate the negros by freeing them they are growling about it and cursing him & the Government but do not say anything against the rebels and Jeff Davis. They are rebels themselves."

On Sept. 19, 1864, at Winchester, Va., during the 14th New Hampshire's biggest battle of the war, Private Bent was severely wounded. He died the next day.    

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Faces of Fort Wagner, Olustee and Andersonville

The recent blizzard has us thinking of Florida, where my wife Monique and I take a short winter break most years. Last year our drive south led to the greatest adventure of my research for Our War.

Our car is also dreaming of the trip to Florida.
The clash of Union and rebel troops at Olustee on Feb. 20, 1864, was Florida’s only significant Civil War  battle. On the way to the state's west coast for a few days on our favorite beach, I wanted to see the Olustee battlefield. I was writing a chapter on the Seventh New Hampshire infantry regiment’s miserable performance there. Much of the regiment fled the battlefield that day.

On our way to Florida we had stopped at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., where I read the papers of the Seventh’s brigade commander, Col. Joseph Hawley of Connecticut. In a letter to his wife Hattie shortly after the battle at Olustee, he wrote: “I nearly killed myself trying to rally the 7th N.H.” He advised her to “say nothing of their conduct.”

Pvt. Bradford Holmes of
Concord, killed at Fort Wagner.
The Olustee battlefield is just off U.S. Route 90 in the flat pine country between Lake City and Jacksonville. A state historic park situated in Osceola National Forest, it needs more modern facilities and updating in its battle interpretation. The way the field is now marked, it isn't easy to see what happened during the battle. (I wrote about these problems for the Tampa Bay Times after our visit.)

During our visit the park ranger on duty was helpful, but if we really wanted to know about Olustee, he said, Dicky Ferry was the man to see. Dicky’s hobby since boyhood had been to collect letters, diaries, flags, weapons and anything else connected to the battle. The ranger told us Dicky lived in a small town not far from Olustee.

Pvt Warren Kimball of
Salem, killed at Wagner. 
It was a warm, sunny Saturday, and we went looking for Dicky Ferry. First, we had to find the town. Because of my dumb assumption, we drove right through it the first time.

There were few people on the town's streets, but outside the library we happened upon a man wearing a jacket and tie. We asked if he knew Dicky Ferry. The name rang a bell, he said, and he thought there had been an exhibit of Olustee battle memorabilia at the local historical society. We were in luck: It turned out the historical society was open only on Saturday. The bad news was that there was no Olustee battlefield exhibit there, and the young man at the desk knew nothing about Dicky.

But then we met Sheldon Beasley, a veteran volunteer. He had gone to high school with Dicky. After a bit of pleading, Sheldon gave us an idea where we might find him.
Sgt. Alexander Stevens of
Penacook, killed at Wagner.

While searching along a rural road, we looked up a driveway and saw a small sign that read “Ferryland, Pop. 10." We turned in, stopped at the first house on the property, a handsome one-story home, and knocked on the door. No answer. I thought that was the end of the line, but Monique suggested we wait a few minutes in the hope that Dicky would turn up.

Sure enough, not five minutes later, he did.
Pvt. Thomas Healey of
Penacook, wounded and
captured at Olustee,
died of wounds.

Once I had convinced him I was a legitimate historian, he led me to his collection. It was amazing – diaries and letters in stacks, the uniform of a Seventh New Hampshire soldier, battle flags, weapons, you name it. Dicky shared all the Seventh New Hampshire material he had. For my book he also allowed me to use his letters from Confederate soldiers, including some in which the writers described killing wounded black Union soldiers after the Olustee battle.

Pvt. Oliver Abbott of
Penacook, wounded at
Wagner, died 1865. 
To me, the most astonishing aspect of the collection was a large number of photographs which, at some point during the 19th century, almost certainly graced the wall of a Grand Army of the Republic meeting place in Penacook, N.H. The GAR was the chief Union veterans’ association, and many GAR chapters honored their fallen comrades by displaying photographs of them. Much of Company E of the Seventh New Hampshire had been recruited in Penacook, and the GAR post was named after the original company commander, Capt. (later Maj.) Jeremiah Durgin.  

Pvt. Jefferson Searles
of Webster, captured
at Olustee, died
at Andersonville.
The photo collection, which Dicky had bought from a dealer some years before, included many men from Company E. Most of the pictures were copies of wartime photographs. All were identified, and nearly all of them had been killed or wounded at the Seventh’s two fiercest engagements. One was the battle of Fort Wagner, S.C., on July 18, 1863, where the Seventh went in shortly after the famous 54th Massachusetts and suffered similar slaughter. The other was Olustee, where the regiment was rushed into an untenable position covered by a large, well-formed rebel infantry force. Some of the Olustee wounded from Dicky's photo collection had been abandoned on the field and died at Andersonville.

A sampling of Dicky's photos appears in Our War, which tells the stories of the Seventh's experience at both Wagner and Olustee and of a soldier from the regiment who was blinded at Olustee and survived Andersonville. I’ve reproduced a few additional pictures with this post.

On our return trip to New Hampshire last year, Dicky allowed Monique and me to stop in again and examine material we didn’t have time for on our first visit. As amazing as these paper discoveries were, I also had the good sense to ask Dicky Ferry many questions about Olustee. He and I have our differences about the war and its causes, but in addition to being a generous man, he is a scholar of this little-known battle.

The Reed brothers of Penacook, Cpl. Selvin  and Pvt. Samuel,  Co. E,  7th NH infantry. Selvin died of disease in 1863 at age 20. Samuel was wounded at both Wagner and Olustee. He was killed at New Market Road, Va,  Oct. 7, 1864. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Emails from afar and a happy coincidence

I recently received an email from Mickey Cochran identifying himself as a reader whose ancestor had played a small role in my earlier book with Mark Travis about the Fifth New Hampshire Volunteers. Here’s what Mickey wrote:

“I have been enjoying My Brave Boys. My great, great grandfather, Norman DeFord Corser, enlisted in the Fighting Fifth at the age of 15 and is the drummer boy mentioned ‘lining up for whiskey.’ He was wounded twice – once in 1862 (where a portion of his ear was shot off) and again at Cold Harbor. He finished the war following the surrender of the South at Appomattox as a sergeant. He died in Salt Lake City on 7 April, 1933. He was active in the American Party until his death.

“Would you happen to have any information about him?”

I knew no more about Corser than I could find in the basic sources. Ayling’s Register lists him as having volunteered from Bristol, New Hampshire, in September of 1861 at the legal age of 18, but it was common for teenagers to lie about their age. Mickey Cochran later gave me his birthdate as August 24, 1846, which would mean he enlisted shortly after his 15th birthday.

Corser was in Company C, commanded by James Perry of Lebanon, a captain killed near the wall on Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg. Later his captain was John S. Ricker, another brave officer who survived severe wounds during the Fifth’s last battle of the war, at Farmville, on April 7, 1865. Peace came at Appomattox just two days later.

Corser’s ear wound, mentioned by Mickey Cochran, occurred June 1, 1862, at Fair Oaks. Cochran’s brother, De Ford, emailed me: “I have the piece of tree with the bullet that shot his ear in it.  I was told that the family used the wedge of wood with a handle on it for a gavel for many years.”

Knowing how much the soldiers cherished battlefield relics, I love such family stories. I do wonder how Private Corser got that chunk of tree. I’m not saying it’s impossible he did – the Fifth controlled much of its segment of the battleground after the Fair Oaks fight.

I found several items about Corser’s postwar life on the web and will share a letter he wrote that was later published in a family genealogical volume.

Private Norman D. Corser of the 5th NH.
But first things first: the happy coincidence.

Between emails with Corser’s great-great-grandchildren, who live in Utah and Washington state, by the way, I checked for New Hampshire Civil War items on eBay, as I often do. Many letters, documents and soldier photos sold there bring prices beyond my means, but I do bid from time to time.

And lo and behold, a period photograph – a carte de visite, as they were known – showed up recently with a bold signature across the front. It was N. D. Corser in uniform. I bought it, and here it is.

After the war Corser lived in Fisherville (now Penacook, a village in Concord) for many years. The Penacook history lists him as a member of the Knights of Pythias and as the first officer of the day for a Grand Army of the Republic post started in 1875. He married a Fisherville woman named Emma Sessions. They started a family and went west in 1879, settling in Buena Vista, Colo. Later Corser lived in Salt Lake City, where he died in April 1933.

Here is a letter he wrote from Buena Vista to a cousin back east on Feb. 10, 1888:

Your welcome letter of Jan. 28th came duly to hand, and has been read with pleasure by us all.

We would like much to revisit old scenes, and much more to meet old friends back in the East, and have to confess to a lingering liking for old New England and its advantages; for however much we may like out here, we are not prepared to admit that there is any better spot on the continent than the old “Granite State.”

Buena Vista is beautifully located, with the finest mountain scenery I ever beheld. Why, Pike’s Peak is rather small with us, for we live in the immediate shadow of those high peaks, from any one of which we can look down upon the top of Pike’s Peak. What is called the “Collegiate Range,” Mts. Princeton, Yale, and Harvard, form the western side of our valley here, which is about 6 miles in width, being in length about 30 miles.

Our town is at the northern end, and standing here and looking south, the view I do not think can be surpassed in the world, and the climate is as fine as the view; for although the mountain tops and sides lie many feet under the snow, the ground and the streets here are bare, and we have no snow. We have had thus far this winter only two snow-falls, not more than two inches at either time, and the first sunshine generally causes the snow quickly to disappear.

You would be amused at the ludicrous efforts of the people here to secure what they call a sleigh-ride when there happens to be a light fall of snow. An old box fixed on to some barrel staves seems to be quite the thing. I hav n’t had a sleigh-ride since we left New Hampshire, almost 9 years ago.

But in spite of all that, there is no lack of snow hereabouts, if you wish to find it, and snow-slides are numerous, and fatal too often when they overwhelm some poor miner or prospector who is foolhardy enough to brave them. We have not been out of sight of snow for 7 years.

We live at an elevation of 7,500 feet. We don’t realize that we are perched up more than a thousand feet higher than the top of Mt. Washington, but such is the fact.

We have as fine mineral springs within a few miles of town as can be found anywhere. Hot enough to cook eggs, and warranted to cure all the ills that flesh is heir to.

And further than this, we have minerals enough in this county to pay the national debt, and with as fine marble as old Vermont can produce, with lime-rock scattered everywhere.

Our altitude limits us as to crops. Corn does not ripen, nor will any kind of vines do well, but oats, barley, wheat, potatoes, turnips, peas, beets and such things, grow to perfection, and such cabbages you never saw! Some of our products took the first premium at Denver last fall.

Our daughter’s name is Mary Fielding Corser. I thought that I must try and perpetuate good aunt Mary’s name; if she receives a reward for her good deeds, she will sit far above some of us, I think.

Very truly yours,
N. D. Corser.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Blizzard baby brightens grandparents' day

This just in (our out?) . . . and impossible to resist even though it has zero to do with the Civil War:

The little girl in the picture is Lucy Marie Pride, born at 12:08 a.m. today. She is the daughter of Misha and Jessica Pride, our son and daughter-in-law. Lucy weighs 7 pounds, 15 ounces, stands (well, not really) 21 inches and doesn't say much yet (although she is brilliant).

Lucy is our fifth grandchild, third granddaughter. As soon as we shovel out, we're going to pay her a visit.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Ours was a smaller, more neighborly country in '61

Image from the silk banner of Goodwin Rifles.
The story of Lt. Charles Holmes at the first battle of Bull Run illustrates the intimacy and neighborly feelings of a country much smaller than the one we live in now. One of the players in the story was Abraham Lincoln’s treasury secretary, Salmon P. Chase, an Ohioan with New Hampshire roots.

Holmes served in Company B of the Second New Hampshire regiment. He was the company's orderly, a job that entailed policing the behavior of the enlisted men.

Perhaps the job was jinxed. On the way to the front in June 1861, Lt. Charles W. Walker, the company’s original orderly, died the first violent death of any soldier from a New Hampshire infantry regiment. He fell off the train, and its wheels crushed his leg. In Our War I tell the story of his elaborate funeral in Concord as an indication of how na├»ve citizens were about the cost of the coming war.

Company B called itself the Goodwin Rifles, after Ichabod Goodwin, the governor when the regiment formed. The hundred men of the company were armed with Sharps rifles, not the standard muskets carried by most soldiers. Concord men comprised the company's core, but the 28-year-old Holmes hailed from neighboring Hopkinton. 

The ladies of Concord made the Company B banner. 
Here is a snippet from a letter written on the Fourth of July, 17 days before the Bull Run battle, by Charles A. Mace, a 19-year-old private from Dover in Company B:

“We often go out target shooting, with our trusty Sharp’s rifle. . . We can often mark the centre at the distance of three and four hundred yards – with practice we soon hope to be able to do the same at seven and eight hundred yards. Stevens, Holden and Orderly Holmes are among our crack shots though some of the rest of us do not feel far behind them. Many of our boys are getting quite impatient to bring their pieces to bear on the rebel cowards. When we do, you may depend upon it, the Goodwin Rifles will do their whole duty, and never disgrace the splendid banner presented us by the ladies of Concord, and of which every man feels justly so proud.”

To this post I have added photographs of this gorgeous banner taken years ago by Dave Morin, a friend with an avid interest in New Hampshire in the Civil War. He found the banner rolled up in a dusty corner at the New Hampshire Veterans’ Association headquarters building at the Weirs. Where it is now, neither of us knows.

Mace’s letter was published in the Independent Democrat, a Concord newspaper. A few weeks later, its columns were filled with firsthand accounts of the Second New Hampshire at Bull Run and during its wild retreat to Washington. Company B had little use for its long-range rifles. For the most part the men saw little of the enemy. Holmes’s story can be pieced together from these published letters.

In mid-afternoon, more than 12 hours after the Second New Hampshire marched to battle, Holmes was shot in the shoulder on or near Henry Hill. He lay bleeding and untended on the field for two hours more. When the Union army suddenly took flight, a comrade, Private Calvin Burbank of Webster, roused Holmes and they joined the retreat. Burbank walked with Holmes for 6½ hours, staying clear of the highway to avoid both the retreating Union mob and possible pursuit by the rebels. Holmes “was bloody even to his feet,” an anonymous writer, possibly Burbank, wrote the Independent Democrat.

Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase
The distance of the first night’s walk was 16 miles. After resting beneath a tree in a pasture for several hours, the men rose and walked 16 more miles to Washington in a violent rainstorm. Possibly one of them knew Secretary Chase or someone in his family, as they wound up at his house.

The anonymous letter reports: “The Secretary sent for the best surgeons in the city, but so located is the ball in his shoulder that its removal cannot be safely effected, and the use of his arm is, we fear, forever lost to him. His father, mother, two older brothers, four older and one younger sisters live in Hopkinton; and two of his associates who fell in the battle, and one of the wounded were from the same town, all good men and true and brave as brave can be.”

Mace, the Dover private from Company B who had written to the Democrat before the battle, provided a postscript about the care of Holmes:

“For a week I have been with him and can speak from experience of the kindness of Mr. Chase and his family in doing all in their power for the comfort of their wounded guest. They often come in to inquire of him and also to inquire if there is anything they can get or do to add to his comfort. . . . Lieut. Holmes is worthy of such care – for no braver man or truer soldier marched upon that battle-field than he.” 

Holmes survived the wound but left the Second New Hampshire a few months later to serve as a captain in a regular army unit. He “retired” from service in late 1863. In 1895, when state Adjutant General Augustus Ayling’s register of New Hampshire Civil War soldiers was published, Holmes was living in Jacksonville, Fla.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

David Herbert Donald's favorite Abe Lincoln yarn

Nearly 30 years ago, I had the pleasure of auditing a course in Jacksonian America with David Herbert Donald, who won Pulitzer prizes for his biographies of Charles Sumner and Thomas Wolfe. Donald, who also wrote a superb biography of Abraham Lincoln, was a vivid lecturer. Attentive students left his class with pictures in their minds  of the bibulous, bulbous-headed Daniel Webster burying the upright carcass of his favorite bull at his estate in Marshfield, Mass., of William Lloyd Garrison fleeing an anti-abolitionist mob through the streets of Boston.

David Donald, his dog Teddy and I on a walk near his house in Wellfleet.
In 2004, five years before Donald's death, I contacted him and asked if I could interview him about his life and work. We met four times, three in his house and library on Lincoln Street in Lincoln, Mass., and once in his summer house at Wellfleet on Cape Cod. I reordered and shaped the transcripts of these interviews into an oral history focusing on how a historian with Mississippi roots developed a national perspective.

And, of course, I tried to learn from the master. The excerpt from the interviews below focuses on Donald's approach to writing. It closes with his answer to a question I'm glad I asked: What was your favorite among the stories Lincoln told? The Randall referred to here is James G. Randall, the Lincoln biographer of a previous generation who became Donald's mentor during graduate study at the University of Illinois:

I think my story-telling style came from being a Southerner where we all talk all the time and we all tell stories s stories. There is no Southerner I ever knew who didn’t say, “You know, that reminds me of your Uncle Jim, who did so and so and so and so,” and the story will go on and on, and somebody else will pick it up and go, “Yes, and you know, Aunt Mary was kin to him, and she did thus and thus and thus and so.” And the stories tend to get a little wilder and wilder with repetition.

My training in writing came primarily from Professor Randall. He was a brilliant stylist in a somewhat high academic fashion. I was his research assistant for a number of years. In his last years he was dictating his writings to me at the typewriter. So he would be thinking aloud and saying such and such. I was a fast typist, and I was typing it. He’d say, “I can’t say it that way.” He would parse it out. “Let’s try it this way . . . and try it this way.” Just hearing him think aloud about the best way of saying something has stuck with me ever since.

I compose aloud. Even at the computer, I compose a sentence, and I read it out to myself. If I can’t read it simply, then nobody else is going to be able to read it. When the carpenters were working on this addition to my house, I was working in the other room. I’d compose a couple of sentences and read them aloud and change them and do it over and over again. The carpenters took a break for coffee and were sitting under that tree out there. And on one of my breaks, I listened to them, and one of them said, “Do you think he’s all right?” And the other one said, “I guess so, you know, but he sits there talking to himself all the time.” Well, I do talk to myself all the time.

I used to tell my graduate students that I want you to read your chapter aloud to somebody else – your roommate, your wife, your partner. You might not have a wife or a partner for long if you do, but this is the best possible way – if they can’t be interested, nobody else is going to be interested in it.

When I first went to work for Professor Randall, in many ways I thought Lincoln would have been a great bore – an uncouth man telling funny, often kind of dirty stories and laughing at his own stories. This wouldn’t be a person that I would like at all. I already had my eye on Charles Sumner, who I would have found much more compatible intellectually. Over the years I’ve come to realize that Lincoln was indeed a funny man. Maybe it is just that I have matured and some of the Lincoln stories I used to hear when I was just beginning in this field that then seemed pointless now seem to be so very real.

My favorite Lincoln story he told on himself. It was one of the early Republican conventions – a meeting of editors. People wondered what he as a politician was doing there. So he got up and made a self-denigrating speech. “You’re wondering why I’m here. People often wonder why I’m here. This has been true all my life. I’m reminded of a story. I was out in the woods cutting trees in Indiana, and a woman came along riding on horseback and she looked down at me, and she said, ‘My, you are the ugliest man that I ever saw.’ And he said, ‘Yes, ma’am, but I can’t help it.’ And she said, ‘Well, you could have stayed at home.’ ” .    

Saturday, February 2, 2013

More about the Dakota Uprising and A.J. Ebell

In a bookstore last night, I picked up Scott W. Berg's 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier's End. Published recently to good reviews, the book provides good background to my Jan. 31 post, "A gruesome death." You can read reviews of 38 Nooses here, here and here.

Adrian J. Ebell, whose newspaper story about the battle of Wood Lake is part of my post, photographed Indians in Minnesota in 1862 and later studied medicine and became a lecturer in natural science. Here and here you'll find interesting sites about Ebell and his photographs. The second of those sites has a wartime photo (CDV) of him.