Friday, March 29, 2013

Coming home

With Meg Heckman, my journalistic colleague, I interviewed dozens of World War II veterans for an oral-history project and book called We Went to War. I also helped Steve Raymond, a survivor of the Bataan Death March, write his memoir, Too Dead to Die. One common thread in these veterans’ stories was this: “I just wanted to do my job and go home.”

During my research for Our War, I saw the same sentiment in the soldiers’ letters as the Civil War ground on. For my final chapter I went looking for a man who represented this near-universal wish of soldiers in all wars.

The man I found was Ransom Sargent of New London, a fifer in the 11th New Hampshire Volunteers. Sargent married a local woman, Maria French, in August of 1862 and mustered into his regiment 17 days later. Then, for more than a thousand days, he did not see her.

Sargent’s letters to Maria, transcripts of which are in the Rauner Special Collections at Dartmouth College, often express his yearning to touch her or look into her eyes. In 1865, as the war neared its end, he wrote:

“Oh! I could read your thoughts sometimes, dear Maria, and what joy it gave me for I knew that tender look of passion was bestowed only on me. You are my only hope of happiness in the future. All my plans and bright anticipations could never be realized if you did not share my joys.”

My chapter on Sargent, called “Homecoming,” has three points: the “I just want to go home” attitude of the soldiers, the transition from war to peace on the home front, and the efforts of the citizenry to welcome the soldiers home.

Two recent events, one personal, the other a local news item, reminded me of this “Homecoming” chapter.

The personal event was an encounter at a restaurant with a stranger around my age who was wearing a Florida Gator cap. I told him I had gone to Florida, and he asked me when. I said I had only attended for two years during the Vietnam era, then been drafted. He said, “Thank you for your service.”

That is a common expression these days, but no one had ever said it to me. I thanked the man for thanking me. But as sincere as I meant to be, neither his thanks nor my response altered my feelings about coming home in 1970.

Then I began to read about an event in Concord tomorrow to welcome home Vietnam veterans. I hope lots of veterans and citizens show up, and I hope the veterans feel the love.

I am not a veteran of that war. I served in the army at its height, but rather than accept the draft, I enlisted for four years in exchange for a guarantee of language school. I learned Russian, trained on special radios, and went to Germany to intercept and analyze Soviet military communications in East Germany.

In early 1970, I married Monique Praet, a Belgian teacher I had met in Germany. A short time later, I received orders to come home. I had been in Germany for two years by then. It had been a terrible time for my country, marked by unending, unwinnable war, political violence and assassination. I, meanwhile, had come to appreciate the European mentality, which, for obvious reasons, was skeptical of war.

I packed my duffel bag, put on my dress uniform and caught my flight home in Frankfurt. Monique flew to Florida, where my parents lived. My military flight landed early in the morning at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. There we boarded buses for the Philadelphia airport for flights to our next stations. Mine was Fort Gordon, near Augusta, Ga.

My mother Bernadine with Monique and me
outside the military chapel near Cologne,Germany,
 where we were married on Jan. 31, 1970.
That morning in the Philadelphia airport was my homecoming, and I will never forget it. From the moment I walked in wearing my uniform, the civilians in their double-knit suits and bell-bottoms, miniskirts and flowery blouses, had two reactions to my presence. Some looked at me with scorn, as though I had just returned from spearing Vietnamese babies and hoisting them on my bayonet. The others stared straight through me. I felt hated, invisible.

The moment I realized my uniform made me a pariah, I found a restroom and changed into civvies.

The ironies of this experience were thick. I had never been to Vietnam. While many of my brothers-in-arms had, and while I admired their courage, I knew many – perhaps most – had gone to war against their will. Personally, I had always opposed the Vietnam War and identified with the peace protesters.

In the last months of my enlistment, one of my duties was the funeral detail. I was on the firing squad for the burial of half a dozen men killed in Vietnam. More than 40 years later, thinking about this can still move me to tears.

I hope the Vietnam War veterans who turn out tomorrow find some satisfaction and closure in Concord’s belated welcome.

As for my Civil War fifer, Ransom Sargent, he marched and played in two parades in downtown Concord in June 1865, and he wasn’t thrilled about it. “They kept us parading up and down the street until dark, as tired as the men were,” he wrote Maria Sargent after the first one. He thought – hoped – the next day’s parade might be rained out, but no such luck.

When it was over, the burning ambition of nearly every soldier came true for Ransom Sargent: He hopped a train to New London 30 miles away and went home to his Maria.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Faces from the Fighting Fifth, one more time

Capt, Frank Butler of Bennington was a favorite of Col.
Cross. He served in the Signal Corps and on the staff of
Gen. William F. Baldy Smith. Our War tells his story
through his letters.
Here is the final installment (for now) of Fifth New Hampshire photographs. Thanks again to Dave Morin, an original member of the Fifth New Hampshire re-enactors, for supplying these:

Surgeon William Child of Bath.
Lt. Daniel K. Cross of Hanover helped the badly
wounded Col. Cross (no relation) off the field
at Fredericksburg.
Lt. Charles O. Ballou of Company G, the
Fifth's Claremont company, was killed at

Capt. James B. Perry of Lebanon died at Fredericksburg.

Augustus D. Sanborn joined the
Fifth as an 18-year-old corporal
from Franklin in 1861 and quickly
moved up the ranks.

Ira McL. Barton, a captain from Newport, quarreled with Col. Cross
and left the regiment in 1862. He later served in an artillery regiment.

Twice wounded, Col Cross's
brother Richard rose to lieutenant
colonel but was cashiered
in August 1864.
Samuel R. Leighton of Dover joined
the Fifth in 1862, rose to corporal
 and served till war's end.

Monday, March 25, 2013

More faces from the Fighting Fifth

In response to my recent posts featuring pictures of Fifth New Hampshire soldiers (here and here), Dave Morin had a few of his own to add. Dave is a charter member of the Fifth New Hampshire re-enactors, a group that cares deeply about the regiment's history. Many members have equipment once owned by Fifth soldiers. Dave has collected images of the regiment for many years. He kindly shared his collection with me to share with you.

Here is the first batch:

The strapping Corporal Miles Peabody of the Fifth grew up near the family sawmill on the
 Contoocook River's North Branch in Antrim. He despised the Emancipation Proclamation
but re-enlistied anyway for a bonus. He got sick and died in Alexandria, Va., in late 1864. 

Lt. George Nettleton of the Fifth captured the flag of the Fourth North Carolina at Antietam. Three months later, after Nettleton was killed at Frederickburg, the flag was displayed in Claremont, his hometown, at the request of his wife. 

Thomas C. Parker of Hanover
first entered the Fifth as a 19-year-
old musician. He re-enlisted in 1864
and was killed at Cold Harbor.
David R. Roys, who joined in  Claremont  in '61
as a drummer, was wounded at Antietam. 

Maj. William W. Cook of Derry resigned from the Fifth a month and a half after
being wounded at Fair Oaks on June 1, 1862.
Charles Dodd of Boston was the Fifth's first adjutant. He was wounded at
Fredericksburg and left the regiment six months later in 1863.
Richard Fletcher of Lancaster was among the last
Fifth volunteers, serving only a few months in 1865.
Pvt. Philip Wilkins of Littleton died of
disease during the Fifth's first winter.

This photo of Fifth officers, probably taken at Point Lookout, Md., in 1864, is from the papers of  Capt. Charles Hale. Megan Hale Raber, Hale's great-great-granddaughter, shared the photo with Dave Morin.  Hale is second from left in the back row. Third and fourth in that row are George Gove and Gus Sanborn. In the center, front row, is Thomas Livermore. The rest are unidentified, although the man at bottom left may be Richard Cross, brother of Col. Edward E. Cross.
Charles T. Moody of Claremont enlisted in the Fifth
as a musician in 1862 and served till war's end.

Robert Clark Cragin was shot in the testicle
during the Fifth's fight at Gettysburg. He
survived and fathered children after the war.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

March Madness

In 2008 I retired after nearly 45 years of daily deadlines as a journalist. It seemed to me then that one key to a happy retirement was to stay busy doing things I liked. But as my wife often reminds me, I also need to learn to say no.

Every once in a while I don’t need reminders. This is one of those times. Between volunteer committee work, this blog, writing deadlines, interviews with poets, Easter with family and talks about Our War, my calendar is full the next 10 days.

I’m looking forward to the talks about the book.

The first is at the Pease Library in Plymouth, N.H., on Thursday at 7 o’clock. There I plan to tell one of my favorite stories in Our War – about the day Nathaniel Hawthorne died in Plymouth.

My main reason for including this chapter was to show another side of Franklin Pierce, the former president who lived in Concord throughout the Civil War. Pierce’s pro-southern, anti-Lincoln politics are on full display in the book. The Hawthorne chapter shows a different side of Pierce. A loyal friend of Hawthorne’s since their days together at Bowdoin College 40 years earlier, he tried to help the dying Hawthorne by taking him on a leisurely tour of northern New Hampshire. Hawthorne was beyond cure.

At 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 3, at Concord’s City Auditorium, my friend Mark Travis will join me for a program examining in fact and fiction Concord and the village of Penacook during the 1860s. The fact is mine, the fiction his. Mark, who is publisher of the Concord Monitor, wrote the novel Pliney Fiske: A Civil War Mystery, which is set in Concord just after the war. The roots of Pliney lie in our experience together writing My Brave Boys: To War with Colonel Cross and the Fighting Fifth.

We look forward to our reunion on the Audi stage. Hope to see you there.

Friday, March 22, 2013

One American city, two cemeteries, two flags

The legend on the 14th's monument
reads: New Hampshire erects this monument
to the members of her brave sons of the 14th
Regiment who fell in battle Sept. 19, 1864,
upon this field and are here buried in one
common grave. Fifty-four men of the 14th
were killed or mortally wounded that day.
On a recent afternoon my wife and I wanted to visit the Confederate cemetery in Winchester, Va. We had found the city's national cemetery, where we walked amid hundreds of Union army graves and paused at the obelisk honoring the 14th New Hampshire Infantry. From the south end of the cemetery we could see the Confederate monuments a hundred yards away, but we couldn't figure out how to get to them. Two fences stood between us and the graves, and the entrance to the other cemetery was nowhere apparent.

The next morning we drove to the visitors' center in Winchester and watched a video about the battles in and around the city, part of the 1864 Shenandoah Valley campaign. In one scene in the video we noted that  the Confederate graves we had seen beyond the two fences were decorated with the Stars & Bars. Scores of flags rippled in a light breeze under a bright sun, flashing their red, white and blue.

The Confederate flag is perhaps not as ubiquitous as it once was in the South, but you see it often. Sometimes it is worn or waved or plastered on pickup truck bumpers as a symbol of pride and defiance. As an outsider in a region where progress in racial harmony is often evident, I see the flag as divisive. Its proponents may be innocent of any racist intent in defending and displaying it, but it is not just a symbol of regional solidarity in the fight for independence from the Union. It also signifies nostalgia for a slave-holding society.    

I asked the woman at the visitors' center in Winchester what day the flags were placed on the Confederate graves. She didn't know. Memorial Day and Veterans Day? Surely. The Fourth of July? I wonder.

The last words on this marker at the Stonewall Cemetery are
"These Honored Remains: Destiny's Debris When  Diplomacy Fails."
The woman gave us a map to Mount Hebron Cemetery, the site of the Confederate graves, but we still had trouble finding the entrance. As we walked along the fence enclosing it, we saw a young African-American man and asked for help. He told us the way in, and since we were headed in the same direction, we walked together for a block or two.

I asked him if he knew about the Confederate flags on the soldiers' graves and whether reverence for the Stars & Bars bothered him. He smiled and said he hadn't thought about this and didn't involve himself in such questions. He was a bright, friendly young man. I wish I had known him well enough to probe beyond his safe answer, but I didn't. I did read two things into his bemused expression: he had an opinion, and it was naive of a white stranger to ask him about it.

The vast Mount Hebron Cemetery is divided into four parts over 56 acres. The Confederate soldiers -- 2,576 of them -- are buried in the Stonewall Cemetery. The most prominent monument there is a tall white column with a soldier on top, a memorial to unknown soldiers buried in the mound beneath it.

The Shenandoah Valley supplied the South with food and the Confederate army with a safe route for its invasions of Maryland and Pennsylvania. It was Stonewall Jackson who defended the valley until May 1863, when he was killed at Chancellorsville.

Markers like this one ring the statue in Stonewall Cemetery.
In 1864, Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan's Army of the Shenandoah opened a campaign that gave the Union control of the valley. The decisive battle is known as third Winchester, or Opequon, after a nearby creek. The Fourteenth New Hampshire fought well in this battle, at great cost. The battlefield is well-preserved and well-marked, with an excellent trail through it.

Hundreds of the soldiers who lie in both the Union and Confederate cemeteries in Winchester are unidentified -- known but to God, as the saying goes. Some were buried in makeshift graves elsewhere and moved to Winchester later. Many of the Fourteenth New Hampshire dead are buried in a mass grave, their sacrifice marked by an obelisk on which they are named.

According to the 14th's roster, Private
Eben H. Dale of Sandwich was wounded
at third Winchester and died of his
wounds on Nov. 23, 1864.
What I found odd about our visit to these two cemeteries was the difference in upkeep. The national cemetery was dedicated in 1866, and men working for the WPA during the New Deal era seven decades later renovated and upgraded it. Today, it is well-groomed, and the headstones of white marble remain clean and readable. At the Stonewall Cemetery, which was dedicated the same year, many stones are rough and dark -- possibly just concrete slabs. Any words on them are illegible, and the stones tilt every which way.

As my wife Monique and I visited these Confederate graves, we gave them the same respect we had paid the Union dead across the street. Young men who die in battle are flesh and blood, their deaths tragic no matter their causes.

It did cross my mind that it would be no sacrilege at this late date to place the Stars & Stripes rather than the Stars & Bars beside their headstones on the appropriate days. That way, everyone could honor their sacrifices as Americans, not as the rebels and traitors the Union soldiers considered them.

(For a fascinating, if sharp-edged, discussion of modern southern attitudes toward the Civil War, see this article at

Many gravestones in the Stonewall Cemetery stand askew, any words on them smoothed by time and the elements.  

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Our Frank

Franklin Pierce came home to Concord, N.H., after his presidency and lived there throughout the Civil War. An engaging challenge in writing Our War was to show Pierce, like the other people in the book, as a real, multidimensional person living through the nation’s greatest crisis.

Pierce is the central character in two chapters and appears in several others. In reading his letters and other source material, I developed a strong impression of him.

Politically, he was an ideologue. He had inherited his father’s anti-federalist views. He favored weak national government and respected the constitutional compromises that gave states the authority to establish institutions, including slavery. This made him a Doughface president – a northerner with southern views. He claimed to deplore slavery personally and to think it would eventually die out, but in the meantime he fervently believed northern states must respect southerners' right to keep slaves.

Above all, Pierce feared a civil war if the compromises that supported slavery broke down. He also rationalized his position through fear-mongering. Should the slaves gain freedom, he often said, southern whites would be at their mercy. Savage freedman would destroy property and kill and rape to avenge their years of bondage. Politicians of both parties had used this argument to put down abolitionist agitation in the North for decades.

Pierce was the leader of New Hampshire’s Democratic Party. Before his presidency, the party held power most of the time. Pierce was so rigid about northern Democrats supporting the South on slavery that he personally cast some who strayed from it out of the party. His small-tent partisanship caused a Democratic schism during the mid-1840s when Sen. John Parker Hale and others resisted extending slavery into Texas and other western territories. Pierce tried in vain to destroy Hale’s political career.

On the other hand, Pierce could be a sympathetic character. This was particularly evident in his relationship with Nathaniel Hawthorne. The two had been classmates at Bowdoin College during the 1820s.  Never was Pierce’s loyalty and friendship more on display than during Hawthorne’s final illness in 1864. Because the story involved some of the giants of 19th-century American culture, showing this side of Pierce in Our War was a rewarding experience.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Gallery: Faces of the Fighting Fifth (part two)

James Larkin of the Fifth 
[For other Fifth faces, see here, here and here.]

Here are more faces from the Fifth New Hampshire. Nearly all come from cartes-de-visite -- CDVs -- made in the photography salons that shot up all around the country in the 1850s and '60s. The war created a business boom for these salons as men going off to fight and their loved ones lined up to be photographed. The soldiers wanted to leave their families images of themselves -- called "shadows" in the vernacular of the day -- and carry pictures of their loved ones with them to the war front.

Our War includes a chapter called "Picture man." The title character is Henry P. Moore, a photographer from Concord who took his camera and equipment to Hilton Head, S.C., in 1862-63 There he set up a salon in a tent in the camp of the Third New Hampshire Infantry. Moore took group pictures in camp and also shot on location. His images of soldiers, sailors and slaves remain well known today. The New Hampshire Historical Society published a book of Moore's photos in 2000 and has a marvelous collection of them..

James Larkin, an officer in the Fifth New Hampshire, also had the photography bug. He shot pictures during the regiment's first winter in the field at Camp California, near Alexandria, Va. His letters home, also now at  the New Hampshire Historical Society, mention this avocation. The last I heard, a family in Virginia owned several of Larkin's pictures.

It is doubtful Larkin was able to keep shooting (pictures, anyway) once the Fifth began moving and fighting. In the spring of 1862, he was ill on the Virginia Peninsula, where his brother Albert died of disease. Larkin went along with the regiment, sometimes by ambulance,  for the fights at Fair Oaks and during the Seven Days. He also fought at Antietam and brought the remnant of the Fifth down Marye's Heights after the battle of Fredericksburg. Before his three-year enlistment ended, he had risen from lieutenant to lieutenant colonel of the regiment.

Here are more faces of the Fifth:

Jonathan C.S. Twitchell, brother of O'Neil (see part one), served as a
first sergeant in the Fifth. He was wounded at Cold Harbor. 
Cpl. Frederick Barrett of Winchester was hit
on the Fifth's march up Marye's Heights.
He served his full term with the Fifth  
Eldad Rhodes of Northumberland in postwar photo.
A  severe wound at Antietam ended his service
 with the Fifth. As recounted in Our War, not long after
 the battle, Eldad and his brother Freedom visited the
place along Bloody Lane where he was shot.
Wounded at Fair Oaks and  at nearby Cold
Harbor, Norman D. Corser survived the war.
George Gove of Raymond was wounded three
times in the same shoulder but fought
 three years with the Fifth.  
Welcome A. Crafts of Milan served in the
Second New Hampshire before joining the Fifth,
where he rose to lieutenant colonel.

George Bucknam and his fiancee Rosie Smith. He was a Concord printer
before the war, and she lived in Hanover. Our War tells Bucknam's
sad story as a private in the Fifth. 
Charles Phelps of Amherst joined the Fifth at the age of 19.
 As a sergeant at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, he shot the
 rebel who had shot Col. Edward E. Cross.
 Later that day Phelps was killed.

Charles Hapgood of Amherst joined  the Fifth  as a captain in 1861. He commanded the regiment
at Gettysburg and won his colonel's eagles  six days after Cross was mortally wounded there. 
John T.H. Downs, a native of Canada, was drafted from Milton, N.H.,  in 1863
 and served in the Fifth till war's end.  He was wounded at Cold  Harbor.
Here he wears his G.A.R. duds after the war. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Come visit with me at River Run Bookstore in Portsmouth

Charles Towle
On Wednesday at 7 p.m., I'll be at a book-signing event at River Run Bookstore in Portsmouth.

Among other things, I'll be talking about the first New Hampshire soldier to make an appearance in Our War. He is the man pictured here. Charles Towle was living and working north of San Antonio, Texas,  when the war broke out. During his long journey home to Portsmouth to volunteer, he survived a run-in with a band of desperadoes intent on hanging him. He made it home and enlisted in the Fourth New Hampshire Volunteers.

I used the story of this journey to open my introduction. I closed it with a wonderful quotation from Towle. Because he had some military schooling and was well-liked in Texas, he had been offered a commission in a Texas regiment before he started north. Although he was sympathetic to the Southern view, he turned it down. Here is what he wrote:

"I am a Union man. I could not fight against the promptings of my heart. I could not fight against that flag."

Towle corresponded with Charles W. Brewster, editor of the Portsmouth Journal, and wrote an extensive journal detailing his war experience. These papers are at the New Hampshire Historical Society.

Hope to see you a River Run.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Gallery: Faces of the Fighting Fifth (part one)

[More faces of the Fifth are here, here and here.]

It will come as no shock to regular readers of this blog that my favorite Union Civil War infantry regiment is the Fifth New Hampshire Volunteers. More than a decade ago, Mark Travis and I walked in their footsteps and drove their march routes from the Virginia Peninsula to Gettysburg. Together we wrote My Brave Boys, the history of the regiment under Col. Edward E. Cross.

Mark and I chose Cross's regiment in part because we're from New Hampshire and the Fifth is our state's most celebrated regiment. But our reasoning was not entirely or even mainly parochial. Consider this quotation from Regimental Losses in the Civil War: 1861-1865, William F. Fox's 1889 study:

Col. Edward E. Cross
"The one regiment, in all the Union Armies, which sustained the greatest loss in battle, during the American Civil War, was the Fifth New Hampshire Infantry. It lost 295 men, killed or mortally wounded in action, during its four years of service, from 1861 to 1865. . . . The losses of the Fifth New Hampshire occurred entirely in aggressive, hard, stand-up fighting; none of it happened in routs or through blunders. Its loss includes eighteen officers killed, a number far in excess of the usual proportion, and indicates that the men were bravely led."

In Our War, I continued the story of the Fifth with a wealth of new material. Chapters follow Col. Cross's experiences in Arizona, at Fredericksburg, at a political convention in Concord and at Gettysburg. The book recounts the lives of Edward E. Sturtevant and Frank Butler, both officers in the Fifth, and George Bucknam and Eldad Rhodes, both enlisted men.

Over the years I've also had the good fortune to come across many images of men of the Fifth. I like looking at their faces. Many have a wariness of the camera -- not surprising in an age when photography was new. My friend David Sullivan, a photographer and artist, speculates that their usually grave expressions may not necessarily be a reflection of their state of mind. Possibly they -- or their photographers -- knew that holding a smile for the long exposure time of 1860s cameras was harder on the jaw and cheeks than looking serious. Then again, they were going to war and no doubt wanted to be seen as fearless warriors.

Here are several of the images I have gathered (more will follow in a later post):

Albert G. Cummings, an officer from Enfield,
was wounded in battle three times. 
Everett S. Fitch of Hanover served out his
three-year-term, mostly as an officer.

Lt. Robert S. Dame, a Portsmouth native
who enlisted from Concord, was wounded
and captured at Cold Harbor.
Wounded as a private at Fair Oaks,
 Albert Miner of Croydon later won
a commission in a heavy artillery regiment.
Samuel G. Langley of Manchester was
the Fifth's original lieutenant colonel
 but left the regiment in late 1862. 
Maj. Edward E. Sturtevant, the state's first
volunteer, fell at Fredericksburg.
Charles A. Hale of Lebanon was with Col. Cross at Gettysburg
and wrote an account of the experience after the war.  
O'Neil R. Twitchell, an officer from Dummer,
was wounded at Antietam. He served
with the Fifth throughout the war.
John S. Ricker of Milton, who rose to major
of the Fifth, was seriously wounded during
the regiment's last battle, at Farmville, Va.