Saturday, June 29, 2013

A Gettysburg Journal (2)

This is the second post from my recent trip to Gettysburg. One segment chronicles the first phase of a quest to find the death site of Col. Edward E. Cross, the first commander of the Fifth New Hampshire Volunteers. Some background is in order before we start.

The Fifth fought in Rose’s Woods just east of the Wheatfield on July 2, 1863. Cross was the regiment’s brigade commander that day. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second Corps ordered his First Division, including Cross's brigade, from Cemetery Ridge to the Wheatfield to check a threatened Confederate breakthrough.

The 5th New Hampshire monument in Rose's Woods
rests on the spot where Col Edward E. Cross was
standing when he  was shot on July 2. He was ordering
a charge though the Wheatfield at the time.
At the Wheatfield, Cross’s brigade waded into the wheat and captured rebel pickets in the field before halting on a slight ridge. With his men exposed, Cross decided to order an attack on a Confederate line behind a wall ahead. He told his regimental commanders in the Wheatfield to move out when they heard the bugles of the Fifth New Hampshire.

Cross entered Rose’s Woods and was giving the attack order when a marksman’s ball hit him in the belly button. He was carried to the rear of the Union line and died in a field at 12:30 a.m. on July 3.

Several officers of the Fifth described his death scene, including the area where he died. For Our War Tom Jameson of Houston, Tex., supplied me with the only firsthand account I have read of Cross's actual death. It was in a letter from Jameson’s ancestor, Capt. Frank Butler, to his family. Butler had ridden to Gettysburg beside Cross with another officer, Charles Hale, on the other side. Hale later wrote a detailed account of Cross at Gettysburg, including the moment Cross walked into the woods to find the Fifth and deliver his order to charge.   

Mark Travis and I tried in vain to find Cross’s death site before we wrote My Brave Boys, our history of Cross and the Fifth.   

June 21, 2013

The best of the day was walking the battlefield with Monique [my wife]. We first set out in search of the field hospital where Colonel Cross died. He was shot in Rose’s Woods six or seven hours earlier and transported back by ambulance to a field between the Taneytown Road and Baltimore Pike. “That’s a lot of territory,” my friend Michael Birkner, a Gettysburg College historian, said when I told him what we were about.

We started at the visitors’ center, where the ranger sent us on a wild goose chase. We wound up at the 11th Corps hospital at the Spangler farm. We looked at other promising ground in the area, climbing Powell’s Hill and checking out what turned out to be regimental markers.

I say “promising” because the land looked like what the officers who visited the dying Cross described: slightly rolling ground, mostly cleared field but with boulders here and there, and big ones.

A fellow at the Spangler farm who seemed to be an expert on such things said the Second Corps hospital, where Cross would have been taken, was nearby. There was no marker identifying it, and the building on the site, the Granite Schoolhouse, was now just a cellar hole, he said.

Because of heavy rains in Pennsylvania this spring, the foliage is lush, the grass high, and the guy didn’t like our chances of finding it. He was right. It is on none of the maps we brought today, and we drove the length of School House Road slowly without seeing it. But I think we’ll find it before we go.


From the Baltimore Pike we drove around to the Peach Orchard on the Emmitsburg Road. After gazing at all four sides of the Second New Hampshire Monuments, an elongated pyramid on a pedestal, we walked through the Peach Orchard toward the Wheatfield.

The 2nd New Hampshire marker stands in the southwest
corner of the Peach Orchard. The Emmitsburg Road is
visible in the background. On July 2, the regiment
supported an artillery battery here until enemy forces
overwhelmed it and crushed in Sickles's 3rd Corps line.

My purpose was to see the premise of my Our War chapter on the battle from a different perspective. This was a reverse perspective, from the Third Corps position up to Cemetery Ridge, where the Fifth spent most of the day before rushing to the Wheatfield, rather from Cemetery Ridge looking down toward the positions of the Second and Twelfth New Hampshire on Emmitsburg Road.

This had several benefits. It was a hot day but a clear one, providing sight lines that could not have existed once the shooting started on July 2 and battle smoke hung over the field. As we walked east toward the Wheatfield, we looked up and saw the Fifth’s position on Cemetery Ridge. That position was the vertex of a triangle, the two base angles being the Wheatfield, where the Fifth headed from the ridge, and the Peach Orchard, where the Second fought. We were walking on the line between the base angles.

Seeing things this way dissolved the chaos of the battle itself and gave me another way of considering the battlefield and the battle.

Similarly, we could look east as we walked and see how three critical points on that part of the field – Peach Orchard, Wheatfield, Little Round Top – formed a relatively straight line. Martin Haynes of the Second New Hampshire looked back from the Peach Orchard during the fighting and described Little Round Top (though he didn’t know its name) as an erupting volcano.

Along this line, it is not too much to suggest, the fate of the Union was decided on July 2, 1863.

Next: The real Pickett’s Charge

On July 2, the 12th New Hampshire Volunteers fought near the Klingle Farm on the Emmitsburg Road. A 3rd Corps
regiment, the 12th collapsed under simulaneous attacks from its front and its left flank. Its left was vulnerable after
the 2nd New Hampshire and other regiments in the Peach Orchard faced a similar attack from two directions. The
12th's monument is visible to the right of the white shed on the right. It faces the Emmitsburg Road.

Friday, June 28, 2013

A Gettysburg Journal (1)

A Gettysburg farm near the rise on which the eternal Peace Light was erected in 1938, the battle's 75th anniversary. 
This is the first of a series of journal entries I made during several days of roaming the battlefield at Gettysburg:

June 20, 2013

Our friends Michael Birkner and Robin Wagner were out when we arrived, so we headed up to the Peace Light, which is near their house. From there we walked out Confederate Avenue into ground contested on the first day of the battle, July 1, 1863. The sun was shining, the temperature in the 70s. A woman on a tractor was cutting hay in the field.

The 17th Pennsilvania Cavalry monument at Gettysburg.
Since time was short, we didn’t go as far as the Gen. John Reynolds statue and McPherson’s Ridge, instead looping around to the observation tower near the road. We climbed it just as a tour guide was finishing his spiel about the first day at Gettysburg with the story of Confederate Gen. Richard Ewell’s failure to take Culp’s Hill. The guide had been reading about the battle since boyhood, he said, and had changed his mind several times about Ewell’s culpability (no pun intended) in this.

The tour guide was a Carolinian, and the group had come up from North Carolina that morning. After saying that the next day he would lead the group on a tour of Gen. James Longstreet’s actions on the second day of the battle, he called for a prayer. He said how much he loved the idea of praying on federal property, to which his audience chuckled and nodded. He then read an eloquent prayer that blended God, flag and the Lost Cause.

I wish I had heard more of what was obviously a southern narrative of the battle. It would be interesting to hear the story as filtered through the Red-Blue, Evangelical-secular humanist, white southerner-Obama’s America divide of our time. From the little I heard, his different perspective seemed strongly based in interest and knowledge

I just read Allen Guelzo’s account of the first day’s fighting in Gettysburg: The Last Invasion. I liked it, and I was also comfortable with it. For all of Guelzo’s good research on the Confederate side, his book tells the story of a Union victory and is driven mainly by the accounts of the victors. I wondered, for example, how the Carolinian tour guide would handle slavery, race and politics as they relate to the battle -- subjects Guelzo handled very well in his book. 

Part 2: Looking for the spot where Col. Cross died.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Gettysburg: the terrain as teacher and informer

I am nearing the end of a five-day stay at Gettysburg. I've been busy attending sessions of the Civil War Institute, an annual seminar on the war, at Gettysburg College. Today I'll lead a tour of Col. Edward E. Cross and his brigade on the south end of the battlefield.

In addition to the lectures and discussions, I've made time each day to explore some aspect of the battlefield. I've been here 20 or 30 times before, but for all the reading and listening I've done, it is the battlefield itself that remains the best teacher and informer.

Just one example: In Our War I wrote a chapter on three New Hampshire men who fought on July 2. I had been in the spots where each of them fought -- the Peach Orchard, the Wheatfield, the Klingel Farm -- many times before. But this time I have twice I walked the road from the Peach Orchard to the Wheatfield and learned new things about how their actions intertwined on that day and how landmarks on the battlefield related to each other geographically.

I keep a journal and have been writing accounts of my battlefield walks throughout the Civil War Institute conference. Over the next few days I'll share some of my observations along with photos my wife Monique and I have taken. I'll also share some of the views of speakers here who have studied the battle far more closely than I have.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Gallery: Old Soldiers (1)

The afterlife of many Civil War soldiers centered on the Grand Army of the Republic. In an era in which fraternal organizations flourished and only men could vote, the GAR became a powerful political force as well as a place where veterans could socialize among fellow veterans and look to the needs of their one-time brothers-in-arms. The federal pension system that provided income to many of these men and their families was a forerunner of the social programs that serve all Americans today.

John Wesley Adams, chaplain of the 2nd
New Hampshire from late 1863 until the
regiment disbanded in December 1865. 
Of course, the Civil War veterans are long gone, but in many towns and cities in New Hampshire and other Union states, GAR halls remain. Often put to new uses, they were once symbols of the strength of the various GAR chapters.

Adams during the war.
The chapter in Somersworth, in the eastern part of New Hampshire near the seacoast, was Littlefield Post No. 8. As of 1902, its membership was 68, and an inspector found it robust and active.

The other day, two of my re-enactor friends, Dave Morin and Dave Nelson, shared a collection of photographs of the old soldiers of the Somersworth area – men from both New Hampshire and Maine. Nelson photographed these images courtesy of the historian of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, a still-active successor of the GAR.

I’ve done a little research on some of them and will post a few
galleries of these men here. The first group comprises veterans of the 2nd New Hampshire Volunteers, which fought at both Bull Run battles, on the Virginia Peninsula, at Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Drewry’s Bluff, Cold Harbor and Petersburg. The regiment lost 337 men killed, mortally wounded or from sickness.

Joseph B. Read, a 27-year-old Vermont native who lived in Somersworth when the
war broke out, joined the 2nd New Hampshire as a corporal. Wounded at Second
Bull Run and again -- severely -- at Gettysburg, he left the regiment in late 1863
for a captain's commission with the 19th U.S. Colored Troops.

Jared P. Hubbard joined the 2nd New
Hanpshire as a private in August
 of 1862 and served until just after
the war's end. He made sergeant.
Alonzo F. Austin of Somersworth was 18
when he volunteered in 1862.
 He served as a private  in the 2nd for
 nearly three years.

Andrew G. Bracy. who was also 18 when
he enlisted in 1861, rose to lieutenant.
He was wounded at the second battle
of Bull Run.
Alden C. Kidder enlisted at 18 as a
private at the start of the war. He was
captured at the first battle of Bull
 Run. He served his 3-year term and
mustered out after Cold Harbor in 1864.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Staying in the moment at Gettysburg

One challenge in writing Our War or any other Civil War history is to suspend knowledge of what came next. If you’re going to stay in the moment and keep your characters there, you can’t tell the story with the outcome in mind. As I read Allen Guelzo’s account of the July 2, 1863, fighting in his new Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, I was thus curious about where, in Guelzo’s view, things would stand when the day ended.

Pvt. Martin Haynes of the 2nd New Hampshire
In Our War, my chapter on the second day at Gettysburg, follows three New Hampshire soldiers to the battlefield and through the day. They are Pvt. Martin Haynes, Sgt. Richard Musgrove and Col. Edward E. Cross, and each served in one of the three New Hampshire infantry regiments that fought on July 2.

I try to show through their experiences how the fates of their regiments intertwined. All three regiments fought on the Union left, Haynes’s 2nd New Hampshire and Musgrove’s 12th in Dan Sickles’s 3rd Corps, Cross’s 5th with the rest of his brigade in Winfield Scott Hancock’s 2nd Corps.

Sgt. Richard Musgrove
The basic story as I saw it was this: The advance of the 2nd New Hampshire to the Peach Orchard and the 12th to the Klingle Farm, both on the Emmitsburg Road, drew the 5th New Hampshire from the south end of Cemetery Ridge to the Wheatfield. The collapse of the Peach Orchard, at great human cost to the 2nd New Hampshire, opened the 12th’s left flank to attack as that regiment was already in peril from a Confederate frontal attack. The Peach Orchard collapse also made the 5th’s position in the woods near the Wheatfield untenable.

Haynes and Musgrove were keen observers of the fighting and its aftermath; Cross, as a beloved commander, was keenly observed. I loved weaving their stories together.

Col. Edward E, Cross
The conclusion I reached after night fell over the left end of the Union line was that chaos reigned. Amid the carnage, groans and gasps, Haynes and Musgrove joined the search for wounded men from their regiments. Cross lay gravely wounded in a field hospital behind the lines. As far as these three soldiers knew, the Union army had suffered another catastrophe. The able veterans of all three regiments had, in the end, run for their lives. Casualties were horrific.

Let us take a look at how Guelzo dealt with this moment in Gettysburg: The Last Invasion.

Historians sometimes use a quotation from Maj. Gen. George Meade, the Union commander at Gettysburg, to indicate that from his perspective all was well that night. The quotation is this: “Yes, but it is all right now, it is all right now.”

Guelzo puts this comment in its proper context. Meade made it not at the end of the day’s fighting but earlier, as an expression of his relief that reinforcements had arrived just in time to plug a breach in the Union line – one of many close calls that day. I should add that while giving Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the 20th Maine their due, Guelzo praises many similar brave and fortuitous moments that day. He points out that after the war Chamberlain had the time, motive and skill to burnish his regiment’s deeds and his reputation.

Later, Guelzo makes a stronger case than most historians have that Meade wanted to pull back after the July 2 fighting rather than remain and fight on July 3. Firm, near-unanimous advice from his subordinate generals convinced him that he had to stay. The point is, at the end of the second day, Meade was not confident he had won a thing.

And how could he have been? In assessing Army of the Potomac casualties, Guelzo looks closely at the record. Thomas L. Livermore, a 5th New Hampshire man who served as head of the 2nd Corps ambulance corps at Gettysburg, did a careful study of Union casualty numbers after the war. He counted 3,903 dead, 18,735 wounded and 5,425 missing at Gettysburg for a total of 28,063. Meade told a congressional committee there were more than 20,000 casualties on the second day alone.

Here is how Guelzo sums up the situation after the last shot was fired on July 2:

“The Army of Northern Virginia had dealt its Union counterpart a series of blows which, purely in terms of casualties and human destruction, had the unhappy Army of the Potomac as thoroughly on the ropes as it had ever been. The 1st Corps and the 11th Corps had been crushed down to the nubs on July 1st; on July 2nd, the 3rd Corps and the 5th Corps, along with an entire division of the 2nd Corps, had been ground into oblivion.  By moonrise on July 2nd, George Meade had only the 12th Corps and the 6th Corps in any sort of fighting shape, along with four brigades of Hancock’s 2nd Corps. . . .

“It must have occurred to George Meade that perhaps the stand at Gettysburg had been a big mistake, after all.”

My three soldiers in Our War would have agreed. They all served in units that Guelzo rightly describes as “ground into oblivion.”

Like practically all our readers, both Guelzo and I know what happened on July 3, but the men we wrote about, from Private Haynes in my case to General Meade in his, did not. Although Pickett’s Charge decided the battle and proved to be a turning point in the war, the outcome was very much in doubt when the Union generals gathered at Meade’s headquarters late the night of July 2.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Edward E. Cross: humbug and true grit

Edward E. Cross stood out in a crowd. There was a lot of vertical to him, not much horizontal. He was keen-eyed, fidgety, more graceful on horseback than on foot. Prematurely bald on top, he grew a tawny beard nearly as long as his face. Growing up in Lancaster north of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, he imbibed Shakespeare, went to work for the local newspaper, and took a keen interest in all things military.

Edward E. Cross, ready for the wars.
Cross developed a dualistic world view: Life was full of humbug, one of his favorite words, and yet life demanded discipline and order. He came of age in a young country. He revered its past, especially the Revolutionary legacy of his grandfather, Richard Everett, while embracing Manifest Destiny, the dominant nationalistic idea of his time.

He considered white Protestants superior and thought their values should rule the country. No friend of slavery but no friend of black people or abolitionists either, he also looked down on Mexicans and Irish Catholics. He thought American Indians should either be confined to reservations or wiped out to make room for national expansion. A powerful writer and blunt speaker, he loved to bluster, skewer, and romanticize, but a substantial core lay beneath his posturing and political cant.

Cross was a self-made man in the American mold. Born and raised in a far corner of the United States, he took to the road before he was 20. Curiosity and wanderlust pointed him west, but even as he established himself as a journalist in Cincinnati, he found ways to travel to neighboring states, to the South and to Washington and the other political centers in the East. Eventually he took the first printing press to the Arizona Territory.

In an age of horses and trains, Cross saw far more of the continent during his short life than most Americans do in today's much more mobile society. He was no idle tourist. Without a safety net he had to make his own way wherever he went, in Cincinnati, in Washington, in the Arizona Territory, in Mexico.

By the time the Civil War came, he had made and remade himself several times. He had been a crack political reporter, travel writer, editor, trail hand and silver mine supervisor. He had chased Indians in Arizona with Richard Ewell, the future Confederate general. Experience and study had made him a keen military analyst.

For Cross, the war was the opportunity of a lifetime. He was just 29 when he came home to command the Fifth New Hampshire Volunteers, but everything he had done in life had prepared him for the task. He was a leader – all-seeing, demanding, knowledgeable, fearless, and confident. He understood what it took to make a regiment work. He was quick to root out shirkers, malingerers, drunks and men who thought they deserved commissions or promotions on the basis of their fathers’ prominence and political connections.

Because he had conquered difficult challenges as a young man, Cross eagerly chose men of 19 or 20 for positions of authority and trained them to lead. His regiment had the advantage of months in the field before it faced its first battle, and Cross used this time to prepare the officers and men. When the Fifth New Hampshire had to fight, it was ready.

Preparation did not protect Cross’s men from harm, but it gave them their best chance on the battlefield. As he knew, the ability to act as a unit made the whole more powerful than the sum of its parts. The colonel’s response to being in a tight spot was to attack. After the Fifth’s many battles under Cross had reduced its number from a thousand men to a hundred, its corps commander referred to these survivors as “refined gold.” It was no exaggeration.

That commander was Winfield Scott Hancock, and he made the comment at Gettysburg, where the Fifth New Hampshire fought with valor at great cost on July 2, 1863. This was also, as Cross had predicted, his last battle. 

[This post is adapted from my foreword to a new biography of Cross, Colonel Edward E. Cross, New Hampshire Fighting Fifth, a Civil War Biography, by my friend Robert Grandchamp.]

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Love letters

Last week I spoke at the Washington (N.H.) Historical Society and enlisted my wife Monique to speak, too. Together we read a dialogue from the letters of Julia Jones, Washington's favorite daughter from the Civil War era, and Samuel Duncan of Plainfield, N.H.

In Our War, I use their correspondence to show how, with Duncan gone to war, they fell in love by mail. Often families preserved soldier letters over the generations, but letters to soldiers from their sweethearts were usually destroyed. Duncan kept Julia Jones's letters, thank goodness, as she was a keen observer about everything from the war and politics to the customs of wash day.

Julia Jones had strong opinions
and the ability to express them.
Jones grew up in East Washington, where her father Solomon was a prosperous shopkeeper. He sent Julia, a superb musician with a sharp mind, to the New London Literary and Scientific Institution. She became a teacher and principal. Twenty years old when the war began, she was pretty and popular. (More photos of Julia here.)

Jones's family had connections with leading Republicans, including John C. Frémont, the 1856 presidential nominee. Her older brother Amos, a colonel, served with Frémont until mid-1862, when Frémont resigned his commission.

When Jones met Duncan in February 1862, he was a 25-year-old tutor at Dartmouth College. He joined the 14th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry as its major that year but chafed at the regiment’s dull assignment as prison guards. When the opportunity came in 1863, he took command of an African-American regiment, the 4th U.S. Colored Troops. He led a black brigade during the battle of New Market Heights in 1864 and the taking of Wilmington, N.C., during Sherman's 1865 sweep north from Georgia.

Duncan met Jones at a party or ball. It was customary during the 1860s to keep photo albums made up of small studio pictures known as cartes-de-visite. Duncan promised to send a picture of himself to Jones. It was two months later, on June 21, 1862, that he made good on this promise.

That was the beginning of their correspondence. Here is a sample:

Duncan: “I fear lest it may be presumptuous of me to offer this card for an album that contains so many of the handsome and distinguished of the National Capital; and lest, too, our acquaintance was so limited that I may have passed entirely from your recollection: but the promise! Fidelity in the execution of promises must override the dictates of prudence and judgment.”

Jones: “Quite a commotion was created among the notables of my photographic album the other day by the announcement from me, in glad surprise, that Tutor Duncan of Dartmouth College was about to become one of their number. John P. Hale glanced smilingly & would have extended a hand, I’m sure, had he not been deprived of that same by the artistic cloud. Old father Pierpont looked, for all the world, just as if he were going to wink & say, ‘I’ve heard of him’ – while the distinguished Sumner, who is said to be totally indifferent to everything but abolition & his own promotion, gave you something like a very cordial bow. . . . I need not alarm you with the rage of a young officer, who tries to look daggers, swords and revolvers; nor flatter you with the blushes of several pretty young ladies, who declare that your entrée was ‘so unexpected.’ ”
Duncan: “Didn’t you romance a trifle about the commotion in your album caused by the arrival of the Tutor? He never made so much disturbance before, and never expects to again to his dying day.”

[Gen. George B. McClellan’s army seemed on the verge of capturing Richmond at this point in the war, and Duncan rejoiced at the news.]

“It does seem as if the beginning of the end were already at hand – as if the ruinous structure of southern independence must soon crumble, and our brave soldiers be released from their dreadful toils and sufferings to return once more to their cherishing houses.”

[Jones answered on a Monday, washing day. By then McClellan had retreated from the gates of Richmond.]

Jones: “How is it with you now about McClellan? Is he still your Hero? My policy is to claim superiority for him until he proves himself inferior – after which – I invest no more faith in any General. . . . I don't like being indebted to the Rebels for all the lively incidents of the War. I wonder how an American Joan of Arc would prosper? . . .

“If any twenty-four hours of the week’s calendar are to be looked upon apprehensively, it’s the twenty-four hours immediately succeeding the peaceful Sabbath. That bristling, bustling, boiling, scrubbing Monday! In the words of the Episcopalian litany, ‘Good Lord deliver us’ from any more to-days.”

[Duncan had by now joined the 14th New Hampshire regiment and was stationed in Poolesville, Md. The Emancipation Proclamation had just taken effect. A key test of the proclamation would come in New Hampshire's gubernatorial election in March 1863.]

From his letters and his pose in this photograph, it is clear
that Samuel Duncan had a high opinion of himself. 
Duncan: “Our warfare so far has been mainly directed upon the barnyard fowls, the beehives, & roasters of the good sesech population of Poolesville; and we have shown ourselves valiant champions, too.

“I hope that the scales will soon turn; and now that the great act of justice has been done that victory will reward our gallant men. In the election I hope the Democrats will experience the signal defeat they so richly deserve.”

Jones: [On Election Day, May 10, 1863] “All morning long I’ve been watching them pass – the voters – traitors and loyalists, Republicans and sinners, for this is the never-to-be forgotten Town Meeting Day. If I were a man, I’d make the Copperheads deplore their dilemma too. Being a woman I must quietly fold my hands & wait the issue.”

[Duncan did not answer her letter promptly, and when she called him on it, he told a white lie: He said his letter must have been lost in the mail.]

Jones: “Your excuse reminds me of the story of the Prodigal Son, with me playing the tender-hearted old Father, so pleased to see the truant back that the deserved reproof is quite forgotten. I  am willing to believe almost anything to oblige you, Major Duncan, but do not expect me to rely on everything if you are addicted to making such apologies as may be found in your last letter – when you pretend to have answered my last letter or at least to think so – all moonshine!”

Duncan: “Does my friend of friends, my pet child, saint – imagine that I would or could so long neglect her – with plenty of time at my command? O never – so intense my love. I would write & write & write an uninterrupted strain of devotion – till our glorious meeting swallow up that delight in still more entrancing ones.

“It’s merely impossible for me to write you an ordinarily sensible letter. You are not on my calendar of material effects – you belong with light, fleeting clouds – & to me the palpable part of the poetry of sunset & of the chaste holiness of moonlight. So my pen recoils at the grave language of earth & will indite only the more graceful & beautiful words when speaking of you.

“Now for a secret – Can you keep it – or like a real woman, will you let it out? I’ll trust you and try you. . . . I am to become the colonel of a colored regiment. I don’t know your ideas of negro regiments, but I think I can serve my country better there than where I now am. I am thinking of having one company of octoroons (feminine) – how would you like the command of the company?”

Jones: “’Tis true I should not like to have a regiment of octoroons, but I think it just as noble to command colored troops as white – more so – even – because say what people may about equality of the blacks and whites – a white officer does make some sacrifice of his own feelings – to command blacks or to have any intercourse with them otherwise. So, Samuel Duncan, soldier, when you assume the responsibilities of your new position, you will do so with the hearty ‘Godspeed’ of Julia Jones, civilian.”

Duncan: “As you suggest, I would choose whites for my associates (octoroons of the feminine gender no exception), but I am equally agreed that it is as much to a man’s credit and honor to lead a black regiment, so long as he does it successfully, as a white one.”

[Two years into their correspondence, they remained playful, but a turn toward love was unmistakable.]

Jones: “But one girl in the universe knows how to love properly & that girl I – & no one in the wide world was ever so completely environed, encompassed & enshrouded in another’s love as you in hers – that is – mine. Two more foolish, more sincere & more happy lovers never graced anything this side of Eden before. . . . The idea of your being able by any effort of your mind – however strenuous, to forget me, is very painful, & I can’t harbor it at all.

“Your letters thoroughly convince me of your sincerity – & I am so jubilant. There was another man who made a little love to me and promised to break off with his fiancée but then married her instead. Lord deliver me from being a party to a similar contact! Don’t for a moment hesitate to ask me for a release, if you wish it – & if you don’t receive a full, unhesitating one – Julia Jones is not herself, I assure you.

“I do love a man in uniform. The idea of two armies clashing satisfies both my sense of the grand and of the awful. As you pursue your glory, please think also of your safety. Oh I do admire a brave man, Colonel Duncan – & I believe you are one.”

[With this letter she sent him a photograph of herself.]

Duncan: “I should be loath to deny that the miniature you sent me doesn’t stir the waters a little deeper. When it arrived, first I took off the gilt frame work, to see if I could get at anything that would speak – it seemed as if the living original could not be far off. That wouldn’t work. Next a powerful magnifier brought out the picture life size with great beauty and clearness. Then I held it up beside my own sunburnt, ugly phiz, & looked into a mirror, to see how the two would appear together: – and then – well! I fell to musing, and what my tho’ts were, you conjecture if you can.”

[Seven months later Duncan came home a wounded man. He spent the holidays with Julia, and at last they sealed their love with a kiss. Nevertheless, he returned to the war front filled with foreboding. Here is what he wrote her three weeks later:]

“I cannot quite dispossess myself of the notion that there may have been a prophecy to me in that sweetly sad song you sang to me the last evening of my stay. I stopped at the hospital in Philadelphia on the way back to my regiment and visited a skating park. None but those who have stood upon the bloody field where the human harvest was bending before the sickle of the reaper Death as he reaped with resistless might, can understand my feelings as I gazed upon this carnival of pleasure. Can it be that there is war in the land? I mused.

“I look upon our parting with the full & present conviction that it might be a last farewell. God grant it otherwise; but if it be his will that more should fall in our holy cause, who shall hold his life above the sacrifice? . . . What greater fullness of life can there be than that of an earnest patriot fallen amid the clash of arms? Not by years or wealth, but by noble action, should life be measured.”

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Most popular posts

Readership at continues to grow. Thanks so much. The posts for which I ask questions of Civil War historians seem to be popular, with four in the top ten. I’m noodling more such posts and will make contact with other historians later this month when I serve on the faculty at the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College.

Here are the current top ten posts, that is, those most often called up by visitors. The numbers at the end indicate how many months a post has been on the list [in brackets] and what its rank was last month (in parentheses).

1. Farewell, my teacher (new to list)

3. My friend Chester [3] (1)

10. History’s touch [2] (8)

Just missed: Exeter’s Civil War general,  A love of music, a way with words (3), A gruesome death,  Emails from afar and a happy coincidence (4).

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

July 2, 1863, Rose's woods, Gettysburg: It was 'the greatest blow the old 5th ever got'

George S. Gove of Raymond, N.H., was one of the stalwart soldiers who made the 5th New Hampshire Volunteers a crack Union regiment. He was wounded three times in the right shoulder, pretty much in the same place. He wrote regularly to his sister, Julia Parsons, and described these wounds.

After the Fifth's first battle, on June 1, 1862, at Fair Oaks, Va., he wrote: "A musket ball passed thro my left hand between the 3rd & little finger bones & then into my right arm below the shoulder, stopping against the bone & was taken out. My arm was not broken. . . . My wounds were very sore & painful for a day. I could not raise either arm not even feel myself. I can take care of myself very well now."

George S. Gove as an officer in the 5th.
At Fredericksburg, after the 5th's harrowing march toward Marye's Heights, Gove went beyond the Stratton House, where many of the Union attackers sought cover, to follow the colors. He advanced very near the Confederate firing line behind a stone wall. Here is how he described it to Julia:

"I had not held the flag more than half a minute, before I was hit in the shoulder by a piece of shell & knocked down. One of the two men was shot down. The other picked up the Banner & ran back to the house and fences. Most of our [regiment] -- what there was left -- had got behind the house and fences. I lay about 30 yds in front of them & about 30 yds from the rebel rifle pits.

"I was between two fires. It was horrible. The bullets flew over me like swarms of bees. They were continually striking all around me. Two bullets hit me, one in the back & one in the leg. They probably were spent balls & only bruised the skin, and then the shells which our batteries threw over burst over me and pieces from them kept falling all about me, I felt that any moment might be my last.

"I lay there over an hour. I did not dare to get up to go back. [When] our boys stopped firing & the rebs slacked theirs, I crawled back to the house."

Gove's letters are part of the Parsons Family papers at the University of New Hampshire. He wrote the following letter to Julia Parsons a week after being wounded for the third time, at the Battle of Gettysburg:

                                                                            U.S.A. Hospital,
                                                                            Chestnut Hill, Phila. Pa.
                                                                            Thursday July 9, 1863

Dear Sister

Here I am with a bullet hole in my arm made there the 2nd day of July at Gettysburgh. I believe I have not written since leaving Falmouth, but I cannot now give you an accounting of all our long weary marches thru Va. & up thru Maryland. The 25th of June we were at Thorofare Gap, Va. From there we made forced marches to Gettysburg.   

One day we marched over 30 miles. We got to Gettysburg the evening of July 1st. There had been fighting that day between [by] the 1st & 11th Corps. The next morning we took our position in the center. Till 3 oclock P.M. nothing happened to disturb the quiet except occasional picket fireing.

At 3 o’clock the 3rd Corps went forward on our left & the fight soon commenced. We remained inactive till 4½ o’clock & then moved over to the left of the 3rd corps & went in, soon found the rebels in the oak woods & the work became hot. We drove them at first, but they had the advantage of position & we had to pull back some. They picked off our men very fast from behind trees & rocks.

After fighting about an hour we were relieved by another brigade. Just before we were relieved, I was hit in my right arm, the ball entering close to the shoulder & about 2 [inches] from the old place, passing outside the bone & coming out on the backside. It is not a [serious] wound at all & has given me very little trouble thus far. It will probably take two months to heal.

For fighting men like George Gove,
the loss of Col  Edward E. Cross
at Gettysburg was a big blow. 
Co. K went into the fight with 13 men & had 2 killed & 7 wounded. We were color Co. & suffered worse on that account. One of our men was killed with the colors in his hands. Gilman Johnson came out unharmed. He is a lucky boy. The whole regt suffered severely, losing over 90 out of 160, but its greatest loss is Col. Cross. He was shot thru the bowels & died that night. He had been in command of the brigade & would have been a Brig. Gen. in a few days. It is the greatest blow the old 5th ever got.

The greatest fight was Friday [July 3], but of that I know nothing. I staid at the Hos. there till Monday & then walked 7 miles to Littletown & took the cars. We [were] all night on the road, arriving in Baltimore Tuesday morning. Here we got breakfast & had our wounds cleaned and took the cars to Philadelphia. Got supper & in the eve took the cars for this place. Chestnut Hill is a very pretty place & it is a splendid Hos. There are over 2000 patients here.  It is 9 miles from the city. A  R.R. to the city passes close to it. 

No furloughs are granted from here. It seems to be my luck every time to get into such a place. However I rather think I shall spend at least 30 days at home before I go back. I  shall stay here 2 or 3 weeks perhaps & then take leave go home, report to the regt where I am & when my wound is well go to the regt.

I wrote to Mother yesterday.  I have not rec a letter or paper or heard one word from N.H. for 4 weeks. We got no mail after leaving Falmouth – Write soon right away.  I am very anxious to hear from you.

My arm plagues me some about writing & it makes it ache.

Give my love to all.  Direct your letters to
                                                            U.S.A. Hospital Ward 44
       Chesnut Hill   Philadelphia, Pa

       Geo S. Gove

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Confederacy lives

Check out the sermon and prayers in this video from Kevin Levin's blog, "Civil War Memory." As Mr. Levin points out, the sermon begins about 10 minutes into the video.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

'We will make it a war of extermination'

No matter how eloquent or illiterate Civil War soldiers were, they wanted people back home to see and understand their experiences, thoughts and feelings. As I wrote Our War, I did my best to honor this wish by sharing their words with their posterity 150 years later. My muse was Oscar D. Robinson.

Sgt. Oscar David Robinson, ready for the war.
Robinson, initially a sergeant and later a young officer in the 9th New Hampshire Volunteers, had the skill to describe events so that you could see them. In my experience as a newspaper editor, this is an innate ability, but Robinson was also a smart, well-educated young man.

Born in Cornish, N.H., he lived in nearby Plainfield when he enlisted during the summer of 1862. He had graduated that June as the valedictorian of his class at Kimball Union Academy. He and several classmates arrived in Lebanon to join a company of the 9th New Hampshire on July 25. They marched under a banner made for them by the female students at Kimball Union. It read “Amino et Fides” – “Courageously and Faithfully.”

The experiences of Robinson and the 9th are chronicled in two chapters of Our War. One took place just weeks after they enlisted, as they were thrown with too much equipment and almost no training into the battles of South Mountain and Antietam. The other occurred nearly two years later, when they were battle-hardened soldiers fighting in Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign.

I want to give you a taste of Robinson’s writing early and late in the war, but first allow me to describe the moment he became my muse. He and his comrades were double-timing up South Mountain for their first battle when they, like all green troops, realized they were carrying too much stuff. Before long the mountainside behind them was strewn with overcoats, knapsacks, blankets and anything else they did not need to fight.

Robinson joined the others in tossing things away, but there was one thing he refused to part with. As he described it, he had wrapped his pen, ink, paper and diary in his “housewife,” a soldier’s sewing kit, and rolled the sewing kit into his blanket. Now, on the run, he loosened his blanket strap, “gave my ‘roll’ a shake and caught the article in question from the inner contents and let all the rest go.” “All the rest” included his food. His first battle had forced him to set priorities, and he had decided that writing was more important than eating.

I took this preference as my inspiration.

Here is more from his diary entry that day, which included a bayonet charge with an outcome that surprised the men of the 9th New Hampshire:

“Many of our men needed instructions in loading their guns. Several of them, having loaded, discharged them into the ground which so enraged Col. Fellows that he whispered some pretty hard words. . . [Once the men had reached their position on South Mountain, they were ordered – with bullets flying over their heads – to fix bayonets.] By this time there was no little confusion. Men and officers shouted orders promiscuously. We had never before marched left in front, and the rear rank very naturally suspected something was wrong when they discovered themselves to be in the front rank & most exposed to bullets.  . . . We pushed on, our new sabre bayonets gleaming in the sunlight, and were making a noise hideous enough to frighten all rebeldom. Whether it was the noise or the long line of glistening bayonets or the random shots fired on reaching the woods, something drove the enemy from his strong position before us and we got the praise of it.”

Oscar D. Robinson later in the war, as an officer.
His epaulets, or shoulder straps,  are stored with
his papers in the Rauner special collections
at Dartmouth College, his alma mater.
By April 15, 1865, Robinson was a grizzled veteran who thanked his lucky stars that he and his brother, also a soldier, had survived. Many of his friends, including several of his old classmates, had not. His diary entry that day captured his feelings – and most likely those of many other Union soldiers – about the war’s great aftershock:

“Cold rainy & disagreeable. 9:30 P.M. The wind howls and moans over the forests. The campfires gleam fitfully in the darkness; great, jagged, dark clouds hang low around the horizon deepening the sable fall of night. But a deeper, darker, sadder gloom than that of the natural elements tonight hangs over our nation. We have just received the awful intelligence that our President has been assassinated and mortally wounded. Great God! To what have we come? Our Chief Magistrate murdered! War is terrible as it has existed, but if such are to be the crimes of our beaten foe we will make it a war of extermination and carry it on till not a Southerner shall curse the country with his existence.”

After the war Robinson graduated from Dartmouth and taught, in succession, English literature, math, natural sciences and the classics at the high school in Albany, N.Y. As the school’s principal beginning in 1886, he was appointed to “The Committee of Ten,” along with the presidents of Harvard, Vasser and several state universities. The committee’s charge was to improve and standardize high school curriculum nationwide to serve the needs of both college-bound and working-class students.

As of 1891, Capt. Robinson still kept and cherished the “Amino et Fides” banner that he and his Kimball Union classmates had been presented on graduation night as they headed off to war.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Unpacking the new 'Gettysburg'

Later this month I will spend nearly a week in Gettysburg. I’ve been there many times before, but the battlefield is so vast and the battle was so long that there is always something new to see and learn there.

And what better way to prepare for battlefield walks and explorations  than to read Allen C. Guelzo’s Gettysburg: The Last Invasion? I’ve read many books on the subject and especially admire Stephen W. Sears’s 2003 Gettysburg, which I consider the bible of the battle. But Guelzo is such a fine writer and historian that I opened his new book with great expectations. I’m halfway through – far enough along to offer some observations here.

I’ll make four points now and reserve the right to make more later:

1.  Guelzo does a solid job of integrating the experience of African-Americans into his history. Of course, they were part of that history, but they have often been absent from its telling, or nearly so.

I did not know before reading Guelzo that when Robert E. Lee’s army sacked Chambersburg, Pa., as its invasion began, Confederate soldiers took the time to seek out, capture and enslave free black people. The black population of Gettysburg expected no less, and many of them fled before the arrival of the enemy.

Guelzo also does an interesting analysis of the role slaves played in the relative strengths of the contending armies. Confederate regiments had used slaves from the war’s outset to perform menial tasks which, in Union regiments, were assigned to white soldiers. By the estimate of one observer, 20-30 slaves traveled with each rebel regiment. Guelzo figures that contrary to Confederate lore, Meade’s army at Gettysburg may well have had fewer “effectives” (soldiers shouldering arms) than Lee’s.

2. Guelzo's curiosity about the nuts and bolts of Civil War armies pays big dividends. Want to know the role of skirmishers and how they were supposed to space themselves? Want to understand proper technique for cavalry or the specifics of artillery ordnance? Guelzo pauses often in his otherwise brisk narrative to ponder and answer such questions.

3. Guelzo understands and elaborates on the political differences and personal history that caused so many bruised egos (and questionable decisions) during the war and during the battle. Politics played a huge role in the trust, or lack of trust, among general officers, and Guelzo explores the leanings and grudges of all the important ones at Gettysburg.

4. Guelzo takes on the big controversies that surround Gettysburg to this day and offers not only his best judgment but the documentary evidence behind it.

For example, he carefully debunks the postwar claim by Lee worshipers that Gen. James Longstreet was to blame for the defeat at Gettysburg. This claim rests on the assertion that although Lee wanted Longstreet to attack at dawn on July 2, Longstreet dallied, giving Meade’s army time to increase its numbers and shore up its position. Guelzo finds nothing in the contemporary record to substantiate this assertion. While refuting the smirch on Longstreet's reputation, he does not let Longstreet entirely off the hook, calling him out for exaggerating the facts in his own defense after the war.

On this and other controversies, you may buy Guelzo’s argument or not, but if you disagree, you had better bring evidence and not just passion to the debate.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Farewell, my teacher

Unless you count Mim Anne Houk’s Nashville accent and upbringing, which would be a stretch, this post has nothing to do with the Civil War. Consider yourself forewarned.

Mim Anne Houk on June 25, 2011, her 85th birthday.
Mrs. Houk, as I have thought of her since she was my English teacher during senior year of high school, called me Thursday night to tell me she had just entered hospice care. Today her son emailed me that she had died early this morning. She was 86 years old and had been through many trials of old age, but I thought she would live forever. She didn’t want that; she told me on the phone that she was ready to go. The expectation of immortality was my selfish fantasy, one shared by other former students who kept in touch with Mim over the decades.

I am a journalist, so of course the word “hospice” sent me into obituary mode. I have been around long enough to have written many eulogies, and I could not get Mrs. Houk out of my mind anyway.

We first met at Clearwater (Fla.) High School in the fall of 1963, nearly half a century ago. She was 37, I was 17. Her Advanced English course started with Beowulf and marched through Chaucer, Milton, Matthew Arnold, Christina Rossetti  and the Brownings. I think we made it to Dylan Thomas but can’t say for sure because I often daydreamed or nodded off in class. But there was never a doubt that my teacher loved poetry and wanted me to love it, too.

And yet it was not the teacher-student relationship that endeared me to Mrs. Houk. It was the world she and her husband Wes opened up to me.

I grew up a transplanted northerner in the segregated South, whose customs I found restrictive and exclusive. Though honest, responsible, proud and patriotic, my father was a high school dropout – a man who, especially after his heroic service during World War II, preferred not to look far beyond the horizon. My mother was a gem, my moral compass, full of love and understanding. But because my older sister had died in childhood, she watched over me with a tenacity that I came to resent as I entered my teens.

One night in 1964 or '65, I showed up uninvited at Mim’s house. She asked me in, and I immediately began to spill out my troubles, hopes and dreams. A teenage night owl, I went on for hours. I can only guess what she actually thought of my babbling, but she was such a sympathetic listener that I kept coming back, barging in and bending her ear.

Wes and Mim lived in a long, low Florida house with a fenced front yard full of wild subtropical plants and trees. Everywhere on the walls inside hung Wes’s paintings, the work of an artist with a roving creative mind. Wes taught art at the University of South Florida in Tampa. He had graduated from the University of Iowa’s renowned writing program, and he made his art students write, write, write. He loved music and would one day introduce me to the Steve Miller Band and Pavarotti. In 1962, although I did not know this at the time, he was one of the few USF professors to stand up for a colleague accused of homosexuality in a Florida legislative committee’s witch-hunt for campus subversives.

Mim loved to talk about the year she and Wes had lived with their children in Florence. Perhaps it was there that she became interested in film – an interest that blossomed into a passion and, in time, a specialty. I followed her advice and went to see Blowup, Juliet of the Spirits, Dr. Strangelove and The Grapes of Wrath. She also regularly wondered aloud if I had read Wilfred Owen or Emily Dickinson or Thomas Hardy. Like Wes, she spoke of Giotto, Manet and Rembrandt as though they were good friends.
After high school I flunked out of college and got drafted. This seemed like a disaster, possibly even a fatal disaster. Only in retrospect did I discover that it led to the first mature decision of my life: I seized it as a chance to further my education and see the world.

At the time, however, the U.S. Army seemed like prison to me, and I had agreed to a four-year sentence. After the army taught me Russian for a year, I found myself stuck in a remote dorf in West Germany intercepting Soviet military radio communications. My girlfriend had long since sent me a “Dear John” letter, and the main pastime for soldiers was drinking.

Mrs. Houk became my lifeline. She wrote me regularly, and every now and then she sent me a box of literature. I devoured O’Neill’s plays, Owen’s poems, Dostoevsky, Hardy. My letters to her, as I was reminded 25 years later when she kindly returned them to me, were full of whining and self-pity.

I also grew up. I took advantage of being in Europe and visited art museums and historical sites. I learned German well enough to talk my way out of a speeding ticket. Then I learned Flemish and fell in love with a Belgian woman, Monique, now my wife of 43 years.

In 1969, Mim’s husband Wes and their daughter Claudia went out of their way to visit Monique and me and take us out to dinner in Kassel, Germany. It was Monique’s first contact (other than me) with the strange world she would soon inhabit. When we got home as a married couple, one of our first visits was to the Houks. Monique and Mim were buddies ever after.

I made my peace with my old hometown, and we lived there seven years before moving to New Hampshire. When we made winter trips to Clearwater over the years, we always visited the Houks. We saw Mim in March for our usual talk about life, good books and movies, spring training, our children and hers. Her son Tim was coming soon for their annual feast of March Madness.

What a great teacher Mrs. Houk was. She made my life so much better than it would have been without her. She – and Wes, who died a few years ago – showed me how wide the world could be before I knew enough to take its wonders in. That world is smaller without them.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The art of war

Sanford Robinson Gifford's "Sunday Morning at Camp Cameron near Washington, May 1861" 
The painting is iconic – so much so that Jimmy Carter had it hung in the Oval Office during his presidency and Ronald Reagan left it there for his two terms. A chaplain stands on a hillside before a pulpit draped with the Stars and Stripes. Troops in the motley uniforms of Civil War regiments encircle the chaplain. In the background is the capital they have sworn to defend. 

The painting, titled “Sunday Morning at Camp Cameron near Washington, May 1861,” is by Sanford Robinson Gifford, an American landscape painter of the Hudson River School. Modest in size, the work is one of many wonderful pictures in “The Civil War and American Art,” which opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York this past week. My wife Monique and I saw the exhibition last month in Washington and recommend it highly.

Winslow Homer's "A Visit from the Old Mistress," ca. 1876.
That is not to say I am without quarrels with the show. On a quick tour, visitors might be most taken with the huge American landscapes of the period. The curator, Eleanor Jones Harvey, sees in their approaching storms and fiery skies a direct connection with the national tragedy of the Civil War. The pictures are majestic and captivating, but I think Harvey reads too much into them.

There is also an important element absent from the exhibition. Most American civilians experienced the Civil War visually through sketches of camps, marches and battles by newspaper artists. If the familiar photographs of Civil War dead soldiers warrant a place in this show, as they do, the best of the newspaper sketches do as well. But they are missing in action.

Perhaps the most famous of the sketch artists was Winslow Homer. He is well represented in the exhibition – not through his newspaper work but with 13 of his wonderful paintings. Some of these are familiar, including “Sharpshooter on Picket Duty,” which appeared as a drawing for Harper’s Weekly in November 1862. To see them again is to be reminded of what an American master Homer was.

But there is more Homer here. In the mid-1870s, during Reconstruction, Homer returned to Virginia to paint pictures of African-Americans in the “new” South. In composition and content, these convey a wary hope for more equal relationships between whites and blacks. As things turned out, the wariness was well-founded, the hope not so much: the Jim Crow era was already taking shape.

"Flag at Fort Sumter" by the Confederate artist Conrad Wise Chapman 
And yet Homer’s pictures are wonderful as both art and social artifact. The longer you look at them, the more you see – and think.

That is true of other painters in the exhibition, even though none of them have Homer’s gifts. One is Conrad Wise Chapman, a Confederate soldier whose works I had never before seen or heard of. Many of these he painted in Charleston Harbor while it held out against the Union siege for month after month. Chapman was a well trained artist, good at color and composition, but what makes his pictures truly interesting is their documentary value. The Museum of the Confederacy has a fine web exhibit of his paintings here.

For documentary purposes, of course, nothing beats photographs. In addition to the famous battlefield bodies in the exhibition, there are lesser known photos by George N. Barnard during Sherman’s devastating march through the South.

All in all, "The Civil War and American Art" is a three-fer. It rewards three kinds of viewers: students of the war, visitors with even a passing interest in American history and lovers of art. It will be on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York through Sept. 2. Its companion exhibit, “Photography and the American Civil War,” will also be up during that period.

George N. Barnard's photo of Columbia, S.C., taken from the capitol in 1865 during Sherman's raid.