Thursday, May 30, 2013

A souvenir from Harpers Ferry

Brig. Gen. Simon G. Griffin (fourth from left) and his brigade staff. Griffin lived in Concord before the war, in Keene after it. In the 1864 campaign he headed the Second Brigade of the Second Division of the 9th Corps.
During the spring of 1864, three veteran New Hampshire regiments – the 6th, the 9th and the 11th – joined two from Maine and one from Vermont in a New England brigade under Brigadier General Simon G. Griffin. A chapter in Our War begins on the late April day when these men proudly paraded past Willard’s Hotel in Washington, D.C. After they had passed the hotel balcony from which President Lincoln and Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside reviewed them, a soldier heard a spectator say: “New England troops – God bless them!”

The brigade was destined for Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign, a string of bloody battles in the Wilderness and beyond. My mission in Our War was to show through the experiences of a few soldiers in these regiments the travails of the many. One soldier I chose was Orlando W. Dimick, a 24-year-old 11th New Hampshire lieutenant from Lyme.

Recently I had the pleasure of telling a short version of his story during a presentation to the Lyme Historians, the busy historical society in this beautiful town in western New Hampshire.

Lt. (later Capt.) Orlando W. Dimick
The story is a good one. Dimick was captured at Spottsylvania the night of June 12, 1864. He spent months in officers’ prisons in the South before escaping and making his way across 250 miles of hostile territory to freedom.

One of his corporals wasn’t so lucky. The prisoner train dropped Cpl. Webster D. Huse of Enfield, N.H., off at Andersonville, Ga., where, in the prison known as Camp Sumter, he died of disease that October.

The Lyme Historians publish a fine newsletter, and lo and behold the current number (Spring 2013) contains a letter from Dimick that I had not seen.

His capture, imprisonment and escape lay nearly two years ahead. He addressed this letter to a cousin from near Harpers Ferry, Va.., in 1862 The 11th was then on the way south after its recruitment late that summer.

Dimick had left Dartmouth College after his freshman year to join the 11th. His letter shows what a clear and informative writer he was – something I benefited from when I used his account of his captivity to tell his story in Our War.

Here is the a large chunk of the letter.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Sandy Hook [Md.], Oct. 5, 1862

Dear cousin,

We are now on the Maryland side of the Potomac, about a mile below Harper’s Ferry which lies on the Virginia side of the Potomac, at its junction with the Shenandoah and between the two rivers. I went through the place yesterday and beyond it about a mile and a half to Bolivar Heights to visit the Fifth N.H. Volunteers.* The town is a desolate looking place now but looks as though it might once have been a very busy and pretty place.

The brick walls of most of the government buildings are still standing, the woodwork having been burned, except the engine house in which John Brown was taken. This, I believe, is the only one of the government buildings which remains unharmed. The other buildings were none of them burned that I saw in the village. We had to cross a pontoon bridge to get over there. The railroad bridge, which you will remember the rebels burned when they last evacuated the place, has been rebuilt so that the cars crossed last Thursday for the first time. On the walls of the engine house can be seen where were the holes which John Brown made for port holes to shoot through which are now filled with new brick. Enclosed you will find a heart which I whittled from a piece of wood that I cut from the door post of the building.

The old soldiers here are strong against Col. Miles who surrendered here and say if the rebels had not killed him, his own soldiers would have done so. You are probably familiar with the newspaper representations of the needless surrender and I believe they agree nearly with those I have heard from the soldiers here. Certainly the position of Maryland Heights is a very commanding one, and it seems to me together with the fortifications on the Virginia side and the number of men he had, he should have held the place.**

I find too, that since I came to Washington every soldier and officer that I have heard speak of McDowell pronounce him a traitor and say if it had not been for him, Jackson or at least his army would have been taken at the Bull Run battle.*** . . .

The Lyme boys are all well except Thrasher is at Washington and has had a fever but is getting better and hopes to join us soon [Edwin Thrasher, a 21-year-old private, was discharged and sent home ill two months later]. Kibbee was at Frederick City when we came from there day before yesterday [Pvt. Howard C. Kibbee, 18, was also from Lyme].

There were all sorts of rumors in camp, and have been for more than a week about peace measures which I will not relate for I take but little stock in them myself. If they are true, we shall all know at the proper time. . . .”

*Along with the rest of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s army, the Fifth was resting on Bolivar Heights after fighting at Antietam 18 days earlier.

**Col. Dixon S. Miles mounted a poor defense of Harpers Ferry. Stonewall Jackson’s men took Maryland Heights, and rebel artillery pounded Harpers Ferry from there. Miles knew his force was helpless. On Sept. 15, 1862, two days before Antietam, he was hit in the leg by an artillery shell while surrendering Harpers Ferry and his troops. He died the next day. 

***This is a reference to the Second Bull Run battle, Aug. 29-30, 1862, in which Irvin McDowell was among the generals blamed for defeat. He was also the losing general at the first Bull Run battle on July 21, 1861.

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