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.

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