Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Civil War: 'It was not my fault,' Buchanan insisted

Except for the U.S. presidents who came from the same families, it is hard to think of two presidents more closely linked than New Hampshire’s own Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan of Pennsylvania. They were Nos. 14 and 15, the so-called Doughfaces – northern politicians with southern views. Their feckless performance and political ineptness are sometimes blamed for bringing on, or at least hastening, the Civil War.

In a few days, I’ll post a professional appraisal of Pierce’s inability to hold his tongue during the war. For today’s post, I turned to my friend Michael Birkner, a Gettysburg College historian, for a peek at Buchanan, his fellow Pennsylvanian.

Quist and Birkner's new book
With John W. Quist, a historian at Shippensburg University, Birkner has just co-edited a book of essays on various aspects of the Buchanan presidency. The title is James Buchanan and the Coming of the Civil War. For anyone interested in the political crisis that led to the war, this is an excellent primer – and good reading, too.

One of my favorite chapters is an edited transcript of a 2008 panel discussion moderated by Quist and including two sages of 1850s American politics, William W. Freehling and Michael F. Holt. The discussion is not only crisp and enlightening; it's also funny.

Just one example: To a question about the prospects of slavery expansion into the western territories, Holt ends his answer with this observation: “If you draw the 36-degree, 30-minute line and extend it to the Pacific Ocean, as Buchanan wanted to do in the 1840s, it would hit the Pacific Ocean at the 18th fairway of the Pebble Beach Golf Course.”  

Michael Birkner wrote the book’s epilogue, “Buchanan’s Civil War.” I asked him this question about it:

In your essay on Buchanan’s life during the Civil War, you identify his main preoccupation as shoring up and burnishing his reputation as president. What might he have done differently to stave off the war, and how effective a case did he make in his own defense on this issue?

Here is Michael’s answer:

In sitting for interviews recently in connection with the opening of his presidential library, George W. Bush was repeatedly asked how he thought history would judge him, especially on his Iraq policy. Bush’s response was characteristic of the man: he wasn’t going to second-guess himself. He would let the historians sort things out. He was not worried about it.

What a difference from the approach of the 15th president, James Buchanan, during his retirement years!

Michael J. Birkner
Elected on the promise of defusing sectional tensions and quelling “agitation” on the slavery question, Buchanan departed the White House in March 1861 with tensions at fever pitch and the Union broken. Barely a month later, secessionists in South Carolina opened fire on a few “brave and hungry men” led by Major Robert Anderson at Fort Sumter. And the great war came.

“It was not my fault,” Buchanan repeatedly told family, friends and all who asked about his role as president in the events leading to war. If there is any thread that runs through Buchanan’s retirement years (1861-68), it is his determination to vindicate his conduct as president in all particulars, especially the secession crisis.

Mike Pride asks what Buchanan could have done differently, if anything, to stave off the war. This question goes to the heart of a central, ongoing debate among scholars about the degree to which the Civil War was inevitable, and the degree to which it was brought on by blundering politicians like Buchanan.

My own sense of the matter is that both answers have merit. There’s no doubt, for example, that Buchanan’s patently unethical intervention with the justices deciding the Dred Scott case was a blunder that cost him political capital. His vindictiveness toward Illinois Sen. Stephen A. Douglas (who had campaigned faithfully for him in 1856) was another blunder.

Buchanan’s stubborn and misguided policy on Kansas, in which he sided with a small minority of slave-owners there on technical grounds as they sought to make Kansas a slave state, was probably his greatest mistake of all. It split the Democratic Party on sectional lines and thereby paved the way for the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Lincoln’s election triggered southern states’ secession and made the war inevitable, given that Lincoln was not going to compromise on his fundamental principle of no slavery extension, period.

What if Buchanan had not blundered as he did? Would the war have happened anyway?

We cannot know that for sure, as there are no do-overs in history. However, it seems evident that if Buchanan had taken a more even-handed line on the slavery question, and had he accepted popular sovereignty in Kansas, he would have been assailed and rejected by southerners, just as Douglas was when he fought Buchanan’s pro-southern Kansas policy. Consequently, whatever Buchanan did, the Democratic Party would have divided, the Republicans would have gained the White House, and the war would have happened.

Did Buchanan make a good case for himself in his memoirs, published early in 1866?

Not by my reckoning. His refusal to see fault in anything he did, his legalisms, and his stinging attacks on abolitionists as the cause of sectional tensions (while letting slave-owners off the hook) do not pass a credibility test.

It seems fair to say that controversial presidents are wiser to follow George W. Bush’s approach than James Buchanan’s.  Self-justifying memoir or no, Buchanan has occupied the basement among presidents ever since he left office.  With Bush, time will tell.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Front-page story

In the fall of 1863, Private William S. Marston of the 3rd New Hampshire Volunteers sat down to write a letter home to Exeter. “Mother,” he began, “I think you will be as well pleased to have me send you a New South and write on the margin that I am well, as you would be to have me write a long letter.”

Scribbled in pencil, Marston’s letter in the margins of the newspaper's front page hangs today in a frame on the wall of a gallery at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. It is part of an exhibit called “Blood and Ink: Front Pages from the Civil War.”

The New South, the optimistically named newspaper on which Marston wrote, was a pro-Union weekly published from 1862 until the war’s end out of the post office at Port Royal, S.C. Union troops had captured and occupied the port in late 1861. It became the headquarters of the Army of the South. The army’s postmaster, the Bostonian Joseph H. Sears, edited and published the paper.

After the white residents of Beaufort and the surrounding area fled, former slaves and northern cotton speculators took their land. Abolitionists, including Milton and Esther Hawks, both doctors from Manchester, N.H., came down to help the liberated slaves. The New South reported on these developments as well as battles, skirmishes and military movements in the area.

Marston wrote his letter on the paper’s Oct. 24, 1863, edition, which you can read here. Union troops, including Marston’s regiment and the 4th and 7th New Hampshire Volunteers, had taken Forts Wagner and Gregg on Morris Island after a summer of bloody fighting and siege. Marston’s mother no doubt enjoyed The New South’s report on how quiet things were now.

Like most newspapers of that time and well into the 20th century, The New South used jokes and anecdotes, known as fillers, to even out its columns. Here’s one from the Oct. 24 paper: “Two sailors were sitting on the gunwale of their shop drinking grog. ‘This is meat and drink,’ said Jack and fell overboard as he was speaking. ‘And now you have got washing and lodging,’ cooly remarked Tom.”

In a postwar memoir called Anecdotes of the Civil War in the United States, Edward D. Townsend, an assistant adjutant general working under Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, wrote about the triumphant moment to which Sears and his printing operation contributed.

Henry Ward Beecher
On April 14, 1865, exactly four years after Union soldiers had abandoned Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, Townsend directed the ceremony reclaiming of the fort. The speaker was the country’s most prominent clergyman, Henry Ward Beecher.

Sears, who was still the publisher of The New South, used his printing operation to produce programs for the grandees invited to the event and copies of Beecher’s speech for the press covering it. Sears apologized to Townsend for the quality of the printing. “I regret that our type and presses can do no better work,” he said. “My excuse is that the sand, which frequently rises in clouds here and penetrates even to the sacred precincts of our sanctus sanctorum, pays no regard to types and presses, and they soon wear out.”

When Townsend asked Sears for the printing bill, Sears replied: “Allow me to present this job to the United States.”

The flag-raising at Fort Sumter, where the war had begun, played second fiddle to a much bigger story in the papers that weekend. Just hours after Beecher spoke, John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre. The president died the next morning.

As for Private Marston, who wrote to his mother in the margins of the newspaper, he had been wounded at Secessionville, S.C., on June 16, 1862. At about the time he wrote his mother, he transferred to the Signal Corps. He was discharged at Hilton Head, S.C., on Aug. 17, 1864. He lived till 1910 and is buried in Exeter.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The generational history gap revisited

The other day during a short trip to Washington, D.C., Monique and I revisited Camelot, provoking further concern about the generational history gap.

The Newseum's Kennedy exhibit will be open through Jan. 4, 2014.
The occasion was the John F. Kennedy display at the Newseum, the cavernous media museum on Pennsylvania Avenue. We began with the images that helped create Camelot: family, campaign and White House photographs shot by Jacques Lowe, a freelancer given access to Kennedy and his family from 1956 to 1962.

The pictures are lovely, the exhibit superb, even offering visitors a chance to finger through digitized contact sheets and blow up their choices. And yet I wished the museum had pointed out prominently the mythical nature of the pictures. Kennedy, after all, was not the wonderful husband and family man depicted here.

Nov. 22 will be the 50th anniversary of the assassination. This national tragedy is observed on one of the Newseum’s upper floors. I was 17 when Kennedy was shot and have written about that day before (you can read it here). Having visited Dealey Plaza and the museum in the Book Depository, seen the Zapruder film a hundred times and edited a newspaper through years of conspiracy theories and anniversaries, I thought I was Kennedy-ed out. But I found myself returned to that day during the Newseum’s blow-by-blow account of how Americans first learned the news from Dallas.

Then, as we toured the rest of the assassination display (Oswald’s shirt, objects from his pockets, the UPI bulletin that JFK was dead), we heard loud young voices wisecracking, laughing and cutting up. A dozen or so boys 13 and 14 years old seemed oblivious to the solemnity of the story told by the pictures and artifacts of the assassination.

Their behavior shook Monique and me out of our reverie, and they would not shut up. Monique’s career as a middle-school teacher included many museum trips with students. Near the end of the exhibit, she turned to one of the boys as he joked and jostled with his pals. “It’s not funny,” she said.

A moment like this makes you feel your age. Why should young people today respect the memories of those who have lived with the Kennedy assassination for half a century? It is as ancient to them as the Garfield assassination. And the tools and products of media of the early 1960s – teletype machines, clunky cameras, black-and-white television, live broadcasts in which people off-camera whisper the latest bulletins to the anchor? Gutenberg, anyone?

Still, our pique hadn’t subsided the next morning when we set off for a walk down the National Mall to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

We were standing in front of Panel 9W and had just found Robert L. King on line 122 when a group of girls of middle-school age came up to speak with us. For a project on their trip to Washington, the girls were asking people at tourist attractions what being there meant to them.

I told the girls I had known many men named on the wall and visited them as often as I could. I did not know Robert Louis King, but I was on the Army funeral detail that buried him in Anderson, S.C., in July 1970. Twenty-five years after firing three shots at his grave, I called his family and wrote a newspaper column about him.

I told the girls at the wall what I remembered about him, including how much he loved his ’57 Chev. They listened respectfully, asked good questions, took notes and made a wall-rubbing of King’s name.

So this was the other side of the equation. No doubt prompted by parents or teachers, these young girls went looking for the meaning of the past and found a piece of it in me. And we left Washington feeling a little less curmudgeonly about rising generations than we had just the day before.

On the same subject . . .

In response to my recent post about trying to convey the importance of history to our grandchildren, my friend Al Hutchison  emailed me the following:

Your latest blog entry reminds me that for some time now I’ve been quietly alarmed over the lack of history knowledge that shows up so often in my conversations and readings. I was struck after Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation was published by tales I heard of young people being amazed to learn that the geezer down the street was actually a tail gunner or fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

The teaching of history has too often been left to football coaches and others who read their textbooks the day before the next lesson.

I curse myself that I never quizzed an uncle who was in one of the great naval battles of World War I. I was able to quiz my father, who had even more wartime adventures than my uncle, but I didn’t take notes.

A true story: Just before I retired from a newspaper career in 1999, I was invited to speak to a grade school class in Berlin, Vt. I told the class that we’d put on a mock press conference and that they’d be the reporters and they could ask me any question they wanted (they knew I was a journalist and that’s about it). It all went very well, but one moment stands out.

“What was the biggest story you were ever involved in?” a boy asked me.

“Oh, I suppose it was the assassination of President Kennedy,” I replied.

“You were ALIVE then?” the kid asked.

I should have reminded him it was JFK’s assassination, not Lincoln’s, I was talking about, but I wasn’t that swift.

You might wonder what my “involvement” was: The afternoon of the assassination I put out what I’m sure was the very last EXTRA the Evening Independent of St. Petersburg ever published. [Read all about it here.]

Sunday, April 21, 2013

History's touch

Yesterday we took two of our grandchildren, Grace and Jackson, to Wild New Hampshire Day at the Fish and Game Department in Concord. The kids cast fishing lines, fired an air rifle, met a falconer, a furrier and many nature experts, and seemed to have a great time.

The wait to fire the air rifle was long. While Grace and my wife Monique went to watch retrievers show their stuff, Jackson and I held our place in line. As we waited, I recognized an old friend passing by and called him over. We had chatted earlier, but I wanted Jackson to meet him.
The friend was Russell Elwell, a Pembroke man whom I interviewed six years ago for a book called We Went to War. The book, which I wrote with my newspaper colleague Meg Heckman, compiled oral histories of many New Hampshire World War II veterans.

Russ had been a waist gunner on a B-29, flying bombing missions over Japan from India, China and the Mariana Islands. On a run to Omura, Japan, antiaircraft fire damaged his plane and wounded the pilot and flight engineer. The plane ran out of fuel over a mountainous area of China, and Russ bailed out with the rest of the crew. He landed in the garden of a goateed Chinese farmer who smoked a clay pipe. The oral history in the book tells the story of Russ’s long journey to safety.

As Russ shook hands with my 9-year-old grandson, I had déjà vu. The moment that came flashing back happened nearly 60 years ago, when I was a Cub Scout. One night at the log hut where we Cubs gathered for meetings, the guest speaker was one of the last men who had fought in the Indian wars of the late 19th century. The only thing I remember about his visit is that he shook each of our hands. His hand was large and gnarly, but his face was kind.

Often when I give talks on my books, people ask where my interest in history came from. The whole answer is complex, but part of it is the memory of meeting the Indian fighter. It was significantd because it involved actually touching the past. Also, perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but most of my work in military history deals with common soldiers, not generals. Certainly that is the case with Our War, and it was also true of We Went to War.

It troubles me that so few young people come to the talks I give about these books. Whether I speak to two dozen people at a town library in New Hampshire or hundreds in an auditorium, the vast majority of my listeners are 70 or older. If I were a local history teacher, I would give my students extra credit for attending such a talk, but I have given up on that idea.

Quiet Moment at Bull Run (by Monique Pride) 
I hope my own grandkids will be exceptions to this rule. As I related in an earlier post, Monique and I take them to historical sites whenever we can. 

Eleanor and Henry, our oldest son’s children, now live in Cairo, and their mom and dad have already steeped them in antiquity.

Last summer, on our visit before they left for Egypt, we took Eleanor and Henry to the battlefield at Bull Run. Accompanying this post is a painting Monique made of them inspecting a stone marker not far from the Henry House, which is in the background.

There is no way of knowing whether Jackson’s handshake with Russ Elwell will be meaningful to him – whether he’ll someday think of it as the touch of history. But I’ll nurture the idea as best I can. It was certainly a special moment for his grandpa.        

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Did Abraham Lincoln really free the slaves?

Thomas Ball's familiar statue of Abraham Lincoln freeing a slave.
You probably learned in junior high school that he did. And even if you haven’t seen Thomas Ball’s 1877 statue, “Emancipation,” in Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C., or near the Boston Common, you are probably familiar with the image.

During the last half century, however, American historians have made the case for a different emancipation narrative. They argue that by fleeing to Union armies and to contraband camps and later by volunteering for military service, the slaves freed themselves. This argument diminishes Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which was, after all, a legalistic document that freed only slaves in Union-occupied southern territory – and not even all of them.

I decided to ask an expert about the controversy this revisionist narrative has caused. The expert is Allen C. Guelzo. Known as a superb lecturer and a fine writer and historian, Guelzo is the Henry C. Luce professor of the Civil War era at Gettysburg College, Years ago, over lunch, he pulled a small box from his pocket to share with me. Inside was the pocket Bible carried during the Civil War by a soldier from the 5th New Hampshire Volunteers. I had recently co-authored My Brave Boys, a history of the 5th under Col. Edward E. Cross, and I was thrilled to hold this relic in my hand.

Lively narrative prose and innovative research are the hallmarks of Guelzo’s Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America and Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America. Although I am a devotee of Stephen Sears’s Gettysburg, I can’t wait to read Guelzo’s Gettysburg: The Last Invasion. It is due out next month, shortly before the 150th anniversary of the battle.

Although I sensed from the subtitle as well as the text of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation what Guelzo’s answer would be, I asked him this question:

What is your view of the argument some historians make that President Lincoln’s role in emancipating slaves was less important than the self-emancipation of slaves who fled to the Union lines and, in some cases, joined the Union army?

Allen C. Guelzo
Here is Guelzo’s response:

“For a century after the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln’s claim to be the Great Emancipator stood virtually unchallenged, and especially among African-Americans, who revered Lincoln as their Liberator. But as the Proclamation approached its centennial, emancipation had been followed by segregation, Jim Crow laws and racial terrorism, and a vast disenchantment with Lincoln and his Proclamation settled in. Beginning with Vincent Harding and Barbara Field, a ‘self-emancipation’ thesis emerged which questioned the importance of Lincoln’s role in black freedom, and emphasized instead the many ways black slaves freed themselves.

“Part of this thesis recognizes an element of truth: black slaves did not merely wait to be freed, or to receive freedom purely as a gift from white men. From the outbreak of the war, they fled northward, or to wherever Union military authority prevailed. They gathered in ‘contraband’ camps, served as teamsters, cooks and laborers for the Union armies and eventually volunteered for combat service in those armies after 1863.

“But another part of the ‘self-emancipation thesis’ was political: it embraced the notion that self-emancipation is the only authentic emancipation, and it sought to underscore the validity of black agency in a conflict which had for decades been interpreted largely as a white man’s war.

“But the ‘self-emancipation thesis’ suffered at many points from fully as much naïveté as the traditional storyline of Lincoln as the new Moses, single-handedly leading the slaves to freedom. Slaves who ran north for freedom, either to the army or the cities, were indeed making themselves free, but only free de facto. In law, they were still simply fugitives, and liable to rendition under the terms of the Fugitive Slave Laws of 1793 and 1850.

“And if the Civil War had ended at any point short of an unconditional Confederate surrender – if, for instance, George McClellan had won the presidential election of 1864 and opened negotiations with the Confederacy to end the war – it is very likely rendition of those fugitives would have been a condition the Confederates demanded. To get peace, I am not sure a McClellan administration would have been able to resist that demand, or that war-weary Northern whites might not have complied. It might not have amounted to a very successful rendition program, but rendition of fugitive slaves had been a condition of our peace treaties with the British after the Revolution and the War of 1812.

“Lincoln’s Proclamation, however conditional and limited it is in specific terms, did this one incontestable thing: it declared the slaves it itemized free de jure. They now became legally free, and it was a free status which could be (and was) defended in court. It may be wondered just what legal significance a de jure proclamation might have when its subjects were securely behind Confederate lines. On the other hand, law has never lacked for effect merely because enforcement has yet to catch up with it.
“Lincoln was not the sole proprietor of freedom – even Lincoln’s de jure freedom had to be carried on the point of the Union armies’ bayonets, and the fugitives and ‘contrabands’ helped to destabilize an institution which could not stand much instability. But far from diminishing Lincoln’s role, these events only underscore how vital a part the Emancipation Proclamation played in the overall equation of liberty.”

Monday, April 15, 2013

A little-known story; an appearance in Plymouth, N.H.

The New York Times blog for the Civil War sesquicentennial offers many terrific, little-known stories. Here is a recent one. Thank you, Dave Morin, for calling it to my attention.

On Tuesday (tomorrow) at 7 p.m., I'll be at Pease Public Library in Plymouth, N.H., to talk about Our War. My presentation will focus on the book's chapter on the death of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The soldier's story behind the love story (2)

Second of two parts

The last post here took Private George W. Ladd of the 2nd New Hampshire Volunteers from the war’s first major battle at Bull Run to the brink of the Peninsula Campaign. Ladd’s regiment steamed from Point Lookout, Md., to Fort Monroe on the tip of the Virginia Peninsula on April 6, 1862, to join Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s march west to capture Richmond, the Confederate capital.

Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan
(Little Mac), commander of
the Peninsula Campaign.
The 2nd took part in the siege of Yorktown, the battle of Williamsburg, more fighting closer to Richmond, and the Seven Days battles. It lost 18 killed, 62 wounded and 23 missing at Williamsburg on May 5. A year earlier, Ladd’s Company B, known as Goodwin’s Rifles, was 100 men strong when it mustered in New Hampshire. At Oak Grove on June 25, 1862, Goodwin’s Rifles went into battle with a roster of 42 and lost 22 killed and wounded. Less than a week later, the regiment fought at Malvern Hill.

I am grateful to Richard R. Long, a great-grandson of Carrie C. Deppen, Ladd’s girlfriend, for chasing down the manuscript of Ladd’s letters after they were sold out of his family. Long edited Dearest Carrie and saw to its publication. He also lent me Carrie’s photograph for Our War.

We pick up Ladd’s story on the Peninsula, where the days of sleeping on a comfy semi-permanent bed came to an end.

Camp Wilderness, Crab Point, 7 miles from Yorktown, Va., April 16, 1862:

“We have got some portable tents and each man carries a piece about as big as a sheet and we can button them together and make them as large as we please. If we had orders to leave, we could be ready in 5 minutes. We have to sleep on the ground now.”

Camp Grover, Williamsburg, Va., May 11, 1862:

“Last Sunday at 12 noon, our division started in pursuit of the Rebels with 6,000 cavalry and 6 batteries in advance. We marched till dark and then encamped. . . .

On the Peninsula, Gen. Joseph B.
Hooker led the division that included
the 2nd New Hampshire.
“At 7 o’clock the next morning [May 5], we got under way, our (Hooker’s) division being on the advance. Suddenly we came on their pickets and the regts. halted. Our brigade was a good ways ahead as the others had not started. Gen. Hooker sent sharpshooters to the front and we (Co. B) went forward and deployed into the woods and then began step-by-step to drive in their pickets and sharpshooters. To Co. B belongs the honor of firing the first gun on our side of the battle. They had cut down a large piece of woods and they were hid in behind the logs but we drove them into their fence. In front of their fence was a large, level field and they had it full of rifle pits and we got into them and picked off their gunners and officers. Our Co. was very fortunate, considering the exposure we had to their sharpshooters, as we had but few wounded and we held the ground for several hours till we received reinforcements. . . .

“After we got out of ammunition, the Mass 1st and our Co. charged into the woods to drive out some La. Tigers who were trying to outflank the New Jersey boys, and a rebel capt. said, ‘Don’t fire – you will kill your own men,’ and so we got close into them (it was in the woods and ruined) and they poured in a fire at us. One of our company who was taken prisoner at Bull Run and had been released was hit with 2 bullets in the heart, and six others of Co. B were wounded and a bullet grazed my arm and side, and one went through my dipper in my haversack, and then we went in and the way they ran was a caution. One of our boys killed the captain who spoke to us and got his sword. Our Co. turned the tables on them for they took 10 prisoners at B. Run and we took 13 of theirs and an orderly sergeant. . . .
“The next morning it was all clear and nice, but what a scene. Hundreds of our boys lay dead and hundreds of treacherous Secesh.”

[The Co. B soldier who had been captured at Bull Run and shot in the heart at Williamsburg was probably George C. Emerson, a 24-year-old private from Candia. The Battle of Williamsburg had no clear winner. The 2nd New Hampshire was part of the 41,000-man force McClellan sent into action against 32,000 rebels. Casualties were 2,300 Union soldiers, 1,700 rebels. Afterward, Joseph E. Johnston continued the Confederate withdrawal toward Richmond.] 

[Letter fragment, probably from Harrison’s Landing, Va.] July 10,1862:

[Apparently, like many soldiers, Ladd had believed a month earlier that the taking of Richmond was imminent and written as much to Carrie. That letter or those letters are missing from the manuscript. The letter from which the following excerpt was taken was written after McClellan’s retreat across the Peninsula, known as the Seven Days battles. Ladd was not alone in blaming politicians for the retreat, but history has placed more of the blame on McClellan’s excessive caution – the “slows,” to use Lincoln’s word.]

Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, a Rhode
Islander, was the 2nd New Hampshire's
brigade commander at First Bull Run.
“As to when Richmond will be taken, I cannot say. But, Carrie, I am as confident of success as I was at Fair Oaks and I was not the only false prophet, was I? Everybody thought that the city would soon be ours and God knew it was not this army’s fault that we didn’t succeed. If the powers at Washington would only leave us alone and give us the troops we wanted ere this we would have been in Richmond. . . .

“One year ago today we were in Fairfax on our way to Bull Run under Gen. Burnsides. When I came back to Washington then, I found a letter from you. . . . Of the 1,041 men who belonged to our regt when we came to Washington, but about 200 are left and we had over 300 join us before we came to the Peninsula.”

Berkley Place, Va., Aug. 8, 1862:

“I see by the Philadelphia Inquirer that 300,000 militia are to be drafted – bully for that, says this army. I am glad to see that a new leaf has been turned over as it is hard to fight and know that it is doing no good. But a new policy is to be inaugerated and I think that now the war will be speedily brought to a close. We have had too many traitors and drunkards for officers in our army. . . .

“I have read a number of times about girls having enlisted in regts., and I presume there are many here in this army now. Two were found in Gen. Pope’s army a short time since, who had enlisted with their lovers, but I shouldn’t advise anyone to do that. Rather romantic, is it not? But then few could stand the hardships that they would have to undergo if they were disguised although I think you would be worth a dozen of some soldiers we have in this brigade who are always playing sick or something is the matter so to get rid of duty. . . .

“Much love to you and sweet kisses. Dream of me, love.

Most truly yours,

This is Ladd’s last known letter to Carrie Deppen. He was shot at the second battle of Bull Run three weeks later, on Aug. 29, 1862, and died in a hospital in Georgetown four weeks after being wounded. In a letter to Ladd's mother in Concord, Lt. William W. Ballard of Ladd’s company wrote:

“He has fallen like thousands who left their quiet homes to lay down their lives if need be on the altar of their country, but their memory will ever be green in the hearts of a grateful people as the pines on the Hampshire hills. Their names will be honored through all times.”

As far as I know, Ladd’s name is on no monument in Concord or elsewhere. [As Richard Nixon would have said, this statement is no longer operative. Check out this post for an update.] 

After the war Deppen worked as a railroad telegrapher in Myerstown, Pa. This was her hometown when she went with her dad to cheer on the train carrying George W. Ladd and the 2nd New Hampshire.  She married William A. Fisher in 1867 and they had two daughters.

Carrie Deppen Fisher lived long enough to aid soldiers and their families as a Red Cross volunteer in Myerstown during World War I. In 1919, at the age of 73, she was stricken with apoplexy. She died three weeks later.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The soldier's story behind the love story (1)

First of two parts

Some of the events that became the 50 days of Our War fell into my lap. One of these was the story of Carrie C. Deppen and George W. Ladd.

It all started on eBay. One day, an auction listing came up for a book called Dearest Carrie: The Civil War Romance of a Myerstown Girl and a New Hampshire Boy, by Richard R. Long. I bid, and I got it.

Carrie Deppen (courtesy of Richard R. Long)
Myerstown is in Pennsylvania. Carrie was the daughter of Judge Gabriel Deppen. On a mid-June day in 1861, he took her to Lebanon, Pa., the county seat, to cheer for one of the many troop trains passing through on the way south. George W. Ladd of West Concord, N.H., was on the train. He was a private in Goodwin’s Rifles, Company B of the 2nd New Hampshire Volunteers.

Ladd tossed a card out the window. On it he had written his name and regiment. Carrie Deppen picked the card up and wrote him a letter, beginning the romance in the title – a romance by mail. They never spoke or met.

My chapter in Our War focuses on the relationship that developed between Carrie Deppen and Susan Abbott, George Ladd’s mother. The purpose of this blog post and the next one is to share comments about his service and the war from Ladd's letters to Deppen that do not appear in the book. He was an articulate, well-read young man of 22, excited to be in the army and dedicated to the Union cause.

These excerpts follow the 2nd New Hampshire from its first fight at Bull Run to its second fight there, during which Ladd was mortally wounded. At the end I’ve added information about what became of Deppen. I’ve read a lot of Civil War letter collections, and as I think these samples will show, this is a superb one. Dearest Carrie was published in 2004 by Masthof Press in Morgantown, Pa. It is worth reading cover to cover if you can find a copy.

Camp Sullivan, Washington, D.C., July 24, 1861 (three days after the battle of Bull Run):

Chaplain Parker is on the right in this photo.
“The rebels poured in on us from masked batteries from all sides but our army hurried everything before us until the rebels were reinforced by fresh troops and some officer-less troops gave the alarm and our whole army fell back, but it was not as bad as represented. The city folks were afraid that Beauregard [Confederate commander at Bull Run] would attack Washington, so Gen. McDowell [Union commander] ordered us into the city where we arrived about noon Monday and they call it 62 miles, and as we had no rest from the time we marched which was 15 miles from the scene of the conflict, why such a worn-out lot of soldiers was never saw in W. [Washington], I trow. But we are getting over it nicely and shall soon be ready to wipe out that defeat if you can call it such. . . .

“I am thankful to say I escaped without a scratch to show. Well such is the fortune of war and it may be my turn next but it I am shot it is one consolation that I died fighting for one of the most glorious causes that ever existed.”

[As described in an early chapter of Our War, the 2nd New Hampshire was one of the first Union regiments on the field at Bull Run and one of the last to leave. Its men suffered terribly on the chaotic retreat. Ladd rationalizes and exaggerates in his account  a common fault in soldier letters, especially letters about battles.The retreat to Washington was a little over 30 miles, not 62. There was fear in the capital, but the Union army’s return there was not merely a dutiful response to orders from above.]

Camp Sullivan, Washington, D.C, Aug. 4, 1861:

“I will parade at 5 reveille and we drill by comp. for one hour, then breakfast, then at 9 o’clock the guard is detailed, 8 men in each comp., and the rest loaf . . . Then we go on dress parade 1½ hours, then supper and at a half past nine, tattoo is beaten when the rules are ‘lights extinguished’ but the boys will blow them out and light them again. We have footballs for each camp, and baseballs, clubs, dancing – are you a dancer? And we have some splendid singers in our regt. and also a fine band who nightly discourses sweet music to us and which reminds us of home on the commons. There, the bands played, gave promenades, concerts, and although I am no musician, I love music, don’t you, Carrie? . . .

“It is most [almost] time for [church] service, but we have to go by companies. . . . I wouldn’t miss hearing our chaplain (Rev. Parker of Concord, my own city [Henry E. Parker, erstwhile pastor of South Congregational Church]) as he I a good and brave man. During the battle just a fortnight ago . . . he was on the battlefield in the midst of shells, and was shot while taking care of the wounded and didn’t leave the hospital till all that could be taken away were in ambulances. Such a man deserves praise and he has endeared himself to the regiment.”

Camp Union, Bladensburg, Md., Aug. 25, 1861 (Afternoon 3 o’clock):

"We were highly honored today. Pres. Lincoln, Sect. Seward, Sect. G. Welles, Gen. Mansfield, and other distinguished guests came to our meeting we had in a beautiful grove in the rear of our tents. Then we passed review which occupied the time till 2 o’clock. . . . We are encamped on an old battlefield on which battles were fought with the British in the War of 1812, when the city of Washington was taken and burnt. Then this is an old dueling ground, where a good many foolish men have stood up and shot at each other. . . .

“There are any quantities of ‘darkies’ here of all shades . . . they are all slaves. Sunday is a holiday for them and they come in here in the afternoon at dress parade decked out in white clothes which form a striking contrast to their sable countenances. They carry all their bundles on their heads and it looks odd to me to see a lot of them with large baskets of fruit and clothes on their heads.”

Camp Beaufort, Md. Jan. 12, 1862:

“I have been in the South before the war commenced and although I love warm weather, still give me ‘our side of the Jordan’ – the Northern States.

General Henry Morris Naglee
“If I had to live here I should hire someone to take me off and kill me   or I should die by inches as this is the most forsaken country it has been my lot to sojourn in. How different from the beautiful valley of the [Susquehanna] in your own State where the R. Road winds its way.”

Camp Beaufort, March 5, 1862:

“Did I speak of our new Brigadier General? We expected to have Doubleday but we have one named ‘Naglee’ [Henry Morris Naglee] and as soon as he came in, he put on his three-cents airs and said that the brigade had to go by the army regulations as he belonged to the regulars. He had all the officers of the guard in the brigade under arrest because they went to the guardhouse to receive him when he came round one night, but Gen. Hooker let them go and some of our boys were at headquarters on guard and Naglee came home about 10 o’clock and didn’t have the countersign and the boys arrested him (as they have a right to do) and he had to send for his Agatant to let him go. He sent down to our pioneers [engineers] a plan for a guardhouse to keep prisoners in and didn’t leave any door or window in it.”

[Naglee, a West Pointer, class of 1835, had a colorful, if sometimes troubled, life. He was arrested during the Mexican War for having two Mexican prisoners killed without orders. As a brigade commander during McClellan’s Peninsula campaign, he was wounded at Fair Oaks. After the war he returned to California, where he had been a banker and brandy distiller with a large vineyard near San Jose. There he had woman troubles, leading to two public scandals.]

Camp Beaufort, March 23, 1862:

“As to sleeping accommodations, what composes my bed is this, two cedar poles run across the tent about 4 feet from the floor of the tent and on them are nailed barrel staves and then I have one blanket under and another over me and that is my sleeping apartment, (how would you like that?) and there I lie and sleep soundly and dream of – well, I shan’t tell.”

To be continued

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

War and remembrance

On July 10, 1863, just a week after the battle of Gettysburg, the journalist Charles Coffin left the Union army and rode to Antietam Creek. Coffin was from Boscawen, N.H. He used “Carleton,” his middle name, as his nom de plume. Beginning with the first battle at Bull Run, Carleton’s accounts in the Boston Journal had made him a popular war correspondent among his most demanding audience – the soldiers.

Carleton knew Antietam. He had covered the battle on Sept. 17, 1862, the bloodiest day in American history. But now he was curious about what the battlefield looked like ten months later – how it felt as a place of remembrance. The story of his return there is a chapter in Our War.

The compulsion to turn tragedy into solemn and meaningful memory lasted for decades after the war. Visit Antietam today and you will see the result.

I just finished a book about the same compulsion during and after another war – World War I. The book is Geoff Dyer’s often lyrical, usually insightful, sometimes bristly The Missing of the Somme. I’ve read a lot about World War I and visited many Western Front battlefields and cemeteries, but Dyer’s book made me think. It changed the way I’ll see war monuments, statues and graveyards in the future.
The Thiepval monument to the missiin of the Somme.
Here, for example, is what Dyer had to say about the memorial in Thiepval, France, to the missing from the battle of the Somme:

“Permanent, built to last, the monument has none of the vulnerability of the human body, none of its terrible propensity for harm. Its predominant relationship is to the earth – not, as in the case of a cathedral, to the sky. A cathedral reaches up, defies gravity effortlessly, its effect is entirely vertiginous. And unlike a cathedral, which is so graceful (full of grace) that, after a point, it disappears, becomes ethereal, the Thiepval Monument, after a point, simply refuses to go any higher. It is stubborn, stoical. Like the deadlocked armies of the war, it stands its ground.”

Our Civil War had much in common with World War I. Especially by 1864 and ’65, the weaponry had advanced much faster than the tactics. This led to slaughter and stalemate. In 1914, the age of the machine gun had arrived, but some military commanders still believed in horse cavalry and the bayonet. It didn't take long for the trenches of Petersburg to become the trenches of Ypres, the Somme and Verdun.

The difference was one of scale. As bad as Cold Harbor was, the Somme was far worse. By mid-afternoon on July 1, 1916, the first day of the battle, 20,000 British soldiers were dead and 40,000 wounded and missing. The Thiepval Memorial lists 73,367 men whose bodies – or body parts – never made it home.

The ossuary at Douaumont honors the missing hordes of Verdun.
The enormity of the slaughter resists words. After I visited the memorial more than 20 years ago, all I managed to scratch in my journal was that the nearby poppies were “symbols of life in flower but also of spilled blood.” In other words, I had to avert my gaze to try to see what I had seen. 

Near Verdun, site of similar pitiless fighting, many efforts were made after the war to bring the slaughter down to a comprehensible scale. The prevailing idea seemed to be to tell stories about individuals or squads who had accepted death without complaint.

But the dominant memorial is the Douaumont ossuary, a low structure a football field and a half long. In its center stands a phallic tower that looks a bit like a space shuttle. It houses the bones of 130,000 French and German soldiers collected from the battlefield. Eschewing the ossuary’s Latinate designation, the Germans call it a beinhaus – bone house.

The landscape around the Somme and Verdun is so well-kept that it is hard to imagine the mud and desolation in which the soldiers fought.

At Antietam in July 1863, Carleton found that battlefield already changed. Even though the war was far from won, he also understood its historical place.

To see the ground around Burnside Bridge was to understand the valor of the Union men who finally took it, he wrote. But he also met Samuel Mumma, a farmer whose barn and fields had been destroyed during the battle. Mumma had already rebuilt. A reaper was cutting grain in one of his fields. Near the Bloody Lane Carleton found the gear soldiers had left behind, but the elements had erased their names.

Headboards that marked graves had been tossed aside for plowing. There was “nothing to mark the places of burial but the deeper green of the growing corn,” Carleton wrote.   

Friday, April 5, 2013

The A list

This blog is about four months old, and I’m still trying to gauge what readers like. Fortunately I have a guide.

On my dashboard (I think that’s the term for the page on which I prepare new posts and moderate comments), there is a running readership count. There I can see the number of readers who view each page and where, by country, the traffic originates. (Not sure who’s clicking on the blog from China and Russia, but I do like to see Egypt, France, Germany and Belgium turn light green on the world map when friends and relatives check it out.)

On the basis of my newspaper experience, I’m not surprised that the most popular posts are personal, topical and opinionated. The most-read post is about a high school classmate who died recently, and the third on the list is about my musical friend Al Hutchison. No. 2 is my historian friend Michael Birkner’s look at why the Lincoln Republicans morphed into the Obama Democrats.

Here is the top ten list as it stands today (in the spirit of the college football polls, I’m adding a couple of close calls):

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Harnessing the power of the telling detail

Professor Edgar E. Stanton
Edgar E. Stanton, my favorite American Studies professor at the University of South Florida, let me do an independent studies project during my last term as a senior in 1972. The project was a journey whose particulars will surprise no one who survived the late hippie era.

My wife Monique and I had our Volkswagen van outfitted with a bed, cabinets, a fold-down typing table and iron pipes on which we mounted a front-row car seat for Sven, our 21-month-old son. Then I quit my job and off we went, up the East Coast to New Hampshire, across the country (and the Rockies!) to Oregon, down the West Coast and across the country back to Florida. We were on the road for nearly three months.

Along the way we visited Harper’s Ferry and Gettysburg, Walden Pond, Abraham Lincoln’s grave, Carl Sandburg’s houses in Flat Rock, N.C., and Galesburg, Ill., several Mormon sites, the Donner Pass, San Simeon, Dealey Plaza and many other American places. By the campfire nearly every night, I wrote about the day’s adventures.

This trip is such a happy memory that I could go on about it, but let me get to the point. What called it to mind is a lesson about writing it taught me: the power of the telling detail.

Monique, Sven and our trusty VW 
We spent a day in Dayton, Tenn., where the so-called Monkey Trial was held in 1925. We visited the Rhea County Courthouse and the house where William Jennings Bryan, a prosecution lawyer, died shortly afterward.

In town I tracked down Bud Shelton, who had been 17 in 1925  and served as one of the two student-witnesses at the trial. He testified that John T. Scopes had indeed taught evolution, violating the Tennessee state law. I asked what he remembered about Clarence Darrow, the renowned ACLU lawyer from Chicago who defended Scopes.

“He was always the first one to take off his coat,” Shelton said.

Talk about a telling detail! The Scopes trial was a media circus, and the courtroom was crowded and sweltering. But hot or not, southern gentlemen kept on their coats. By taking his off, Darrow reminded the jury that he was not one of them.

While researching Our War, I was always on the lookout for such telling details and found dozens of them in soldier letters and diaries.

The Rhea County Courthouse in Dayton,
Tenn., scene of the Scopes Monkey Trial.

The best of them “tell” by showing. Some in the book show how self-reliant people had to be during the 1860s – a soldier who squeezed berries to make his own ink, prisoners who carved chess pieces with their pocketknives or mapped a 250-mile escape route on the back of an envelope.

No detail better conveyed the men’s naïveté at the outset of the war than the reaction of the First New Hampshire Volunteers the first time they came under infantry fire – at a safe distance, thank goodness. The men ran around like children scooping up the musket balls rolling into their camp. Similarly, what could capture the coming wave of wartime grief more poignantly than the soldier’s fiancée who laid not one wreath but three on the grave of her betrothed?

Telling details often come in words spoken by the participants. Here is the way Cpl. Elmer Bragg described the Ninth New Hampshire’s first march: “It was just like walking in ashes, and we was covered all over with dust and dirt.”

Pvt. Martin Haynes of the Second New Hampshire added a sound track to his regiment’s long march to Gettysburg. What the men heard, he wrote, was the “unceasing tramp, tramp, tramp of thousands of feet, and the monotonous clatter of tin dippers ticking against bayonets and canteens.” Tick, tick, tick.

When Capt. Freedom Rhodes of the Fourteenth New Hampshire went to find his wounded brother after Antietam, he saw telltale signs of Robert E. Lee’s retreating army along the way: half-burned fences, charred spots from cook-fires and hundreds of corncobs strewn beside the road. For me, it was those corncobs that painted a picture.

The disenfranchised Julia E. Jones 
One sentence from Julia Jones of East Washington, N.H., illustrated the status of women in the 1860s. She described to a friend the scene outside her window – voters of all parties marching to the polls for a crucial state election. Then she wrote: “Being a woman I must quietly fold my hands & wait the issue.”

Pvt. Joseph S. Swain’s letter to his brother Charley expressed a nearly universal truth about soldiers. After the first major battle, at Bull Run, Swain wrote: “A man cannot tell much about anything, after a battle, for it is all a whirl, but it did not seem so in battle. I thought I could tell everything, but cannot.” This detail foretold the perception gap that grew between the warfront and the home-front during the course of the war.

Some telling details are gory. Testimony in the court-martial of a New Hampshire soldier showed how close he had been to his victim when he shot her. The wound, the witness said, was “as large as my hand. Her heart came out of the hole.” When Sgt. Ferdinand Davis of the Seventh New Hampshire lay down to have his leg wound examined, the surgeon stuck in a finger to look for the ball and turned the finger “like a well-digger’s auger.” Sgt. Robert O. Farrand was blinded by a bullet in the head, captured and sent to Andersonville. As he cleaned his wound one day, his left eyeball burst.

How crowded was the makeshift hospital where Napoleon B. Perkins of Stark, N.H., was carried on a door after being wounded at Chancellorsville? His head stretched into the fireplace, where soot fell in his face. How did a surgeon’s assistant remove the bone protruding from his stump after amputating his leg? He grabbed the bone and bent it from side to side until it broke off.

These details make us wince, but they also show us modern readers the brutality of the war and the state of medical care.

Telling details do not always tell all. The nurse Hannah Ropes clearly liked her much younger colleague, Sarah Low of Dover. She called Low sweet names in her journal, and they once sat by the fire in Ropes’s room sharing a breakfast of corncakes and beefsteak from the same plate.

Does this touching picture mean they were lovers? The details are telling, but they don’t tell us that.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Kennedy gave FDR too much credit, shortchanged Ike

When I started this blog, I hoped it would become more of a conversation than it is – more responses, more responses to responses. But at last I’ve discovered a way to start a back-and-forth: Ask two historians the same question.

The question was this: How did Lincoln Republicans of the 1860s morph into today’s Obama Democrats? My friend Michael Birkner's answer is here. Michael is a history professor at Gettysburg College specializing in 20th century history. I asked the same question of David M. Kennedy, a Stanford University historian who the Pulitzer Prize for his book on FDR's leadership during the Great Depression and World War II. His answer is here.

Birkner argues that FDR was 'weak on civil rights.'
Now Michael has written back to take issue with some of David’s remarks. This response is printed below. I welcome the thoughts of any others on this issue either as comments at the end of this post or in longer form. Either way they come, I’ll publish them as long as they don’t get personal or profane.   

“David Kennedy’s comment on how the party of Lincoln morphed over time into the party of Obama contains an equal amount of insight and surprisingly unbalanced analysis.

“Kennedy is right to say that the Democratic Party, ‘anchored for a century in first the slave and then the Jim Crow South,’ was hardly the party of civil rights for African Americans in the aftermath of the Civil War.  However, when he cites the ‘brave leadership’ of President Franklin Roosevelt on the issue of black civil rights, I have to disagree with his emphasis.

“Roosevelt was a great president – the greatest 20th century president, in my estimation – but he was weak on civil rights, justifying his refusal even to support an anti-lynching law on the grounds that to do so would jeopardize his ability to pass other worthy legislation. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802, highlighted by Kennedy, was a laudable act, but it occurred not out of courage but its opposite. FDR had declined to support equal rights in the workplace. By early 1941 he feared being embarrassed by a march on Washington led by A. Philip Randolph; consequently he issued the order to head off the march, not because he felt it morally right to do so.

Don't overlook Ike's record on civil rights, Birkner says. 
“Harry Truman deserves credit for backing Hubert Humphrey’s pro-civil rights plank in 1948, and for his executive order on the integration of the armed forces. But it took Dwight D. Eisenhower to implement the order. It was Eisenhower, whose leadership goes unmentioned by Kennedy, who supported a friend of the court brief on behalf of Linda Brown in the famous Brown case. It was Eisenhower who appointed the first African-American to executive office in the White House, as well as a raft of pro-civil rights judges in the South. And it was Eisenhower who put down massive resistance in Little Rock in 1957.

“I don’t mean to turn Kennedy’s argument upside down, especially as the Democratic Party – two-faced on civil rights for so long – eventually became the party of black civil rights, as Republicans moved in a different direction beginning in the 1960s.

“I discussed this subject in my original blog posting. The point here is that the party of Lincoln remained at least in part the party of civil rights until Lyndon Johnson introduced his Civil Rights measures in 1964 and 1965. Many northern Republicans backed those bills, but hard-core conservatives like Barry Goldwater opposed them.

“Meanwhile, southern Democrats, rebelling against LBJ’s move leftward on civil rights, began to abandon the party, the first steps in the Old Confederacy’s transformation into a Republican bastion. The rise of the Hispanic vote throws a new wrinkle into the story line, and it will be interesting to see how the party of Lincoln responds to the demographic realities of the 21st century.”