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.”

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