Monday, July 29, 2013

A Yankee sergeant's great escape

The resourceful Charles W. Thurston of the 6th New
Hampshire often donned a Confederate uniform and
 "played Rebel" to help his party to freedom after its escape
from Salisbury prison in North Carolina.
Nothing better illustrates the complexities of public opinion during the Civil War than the long journeys escaped Union prisoners often made through enemy territory. Our War tells the story of Capt. Orlando Dimick of the 11th New Hampshire Volunteers, whose primary sources of sustenance during a 250-mile trek through South and North Carolina to Knoxville, Tenn., were slaves he met along the way.

But once Dimick reached western North Carolina, there were few slaves. He and his escape party had to risk asking white people for food and help. They were in luck. Dimick wrote after the war: “No higher type of loyalty existed than was found in western North Carolina and East Tennessee, where the devotion to the flag meant ostracism and persecution of self and kindred, and oftentimes the loss of property and destruction of home, and sometimes the death of dear ones.”

I was reminded of this passage recently as I read about another escape. The source was the memoir of Albert D. Richardson, a correspondent for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune. Richardson and another Tribune correspondent, Junius Browne, were captured at Vicksburg on May 3, 1863. They escaped from Salisbury prison 20 months later on Dec. 18, 1864. Like Dimick, they walked more than 250 miles with a party of escapees to Knoxville.

One of their party was Charles W. Thurston, a 25-year-old sergeant of the 6th New Hampshire Volunteers. Thurston was from Stoddard, N.H., and had joined the regiment when it was formed in Keene in late 1861. He had survived wounds at Fredericksburg and the Crater in Petersburg only to be captured on the last day of September 1864 at Poplar Springs Church, Va.

After Thurston joined Richardson and the others on the journey from Salisbury to Knoxville, Richardson found him useful for two reasons. He exhibited skill and grace in dealing with skeptical people and unexpected situations, and he had a Confederate private’s uniform.

Albert D. Richardson
Thurston had worn the uniform during his escape from the prison camp. He knew that Richardson, Browne and others had left Salisbury and decided theirs was a good party to accompany. A rebel officer friendly to the Union cause gave him the countersign and promised to lead him to freedom. Thurston walked out of the prison yard behind two rebel detectives. He pulled his hat down over his eyes and sat among rebel guards until his accomplice gave him a sign. The man led Thurston out the gate and hid him in a barn, where African-Americans provided him with food and sent him on his way.

Thurston joined Richardson’s party the next night. “Now here he was, jovial, sanguine, daring, ready to start for the North Pole itself,” Richardson wrote.

Thurston soon made the first of many daring forays on the escape party’s behalf. The escapees had been without food for two days. At about 9 p.m. Thurston “went forward to reconnoiter.” In the Negro quarters he found a middle-aged man and woman. They were catering to young people partying in their master’s house nearby. When Thurston explained that he had just come from a group of hungry Yankees, the slave couple prepared a huge supper of fresh pork and cornbread and brought it to Richardson and his crew. “In the barn, with the rain pattering on the roof, we devoured supper in an incredibly brief period, and begged the slave to go back with his basket and bring just as much more,” Richardson wrote.

And thus it went on the long journey for the escapees. In Our War I describe it as an Underground Railroad running in reverse – African-Americans helping white escapees to freedom. Whether in eastern North Carolina, where slaves were plentiful, or in the mountains further west, where the escapees had to rely on white Unionists, Thurston proved his mettle. In Richardson’s account of the escape, he wrote that “Charley Thurston was our ‘best foot,’ and we always put him foremost. With his Confederate uniform and his ready invention, he could play Rebel soldier admirably.”

The party reached Knoxville on Jan. 14, 1865, nearly four weeks after the escape. Thurston returned to the 6th New Hampshire and was promoted to first sergeant and later first lieutenant. He mustered out of the army on July 17.

Both Richardson and Thurston died shortly after the war. Richardson was shot and killed by the husband of an actress he was living with in 1869. He was 36. Thurston died Aug, 3, 1871, in Brandon, Ala., at the age of 32.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

"Doctress" Hawks? I don't think so

As I write this, I am sitting just a few miles from Newport, N.H. Newport is an inland town – not a port at all. It is a former mill town on the Sugar River with a lively downtown, a lovely common, a fine public library and beautiful old churches, large and small.

Newport reveres its native daughter, Sarah Josepha Hale. For 40 years beginning in 1837, Hale edited Godey’s Lady’s Book, making it the most popular magazine in the country. She accepted stories, articles and poems only from American writers. Under her editorship circulation of Godey’s quadrupled to 40,000 in two years and to 150,000 by the coming of the Civil War. Hale also wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and, in 1863, persuaded Abraham Lincoln to make Thanksgiving a national holiday.

Since 1856, Newport has honored her each year by presenting the Hale Medal to an author or poet with New England connections. Robert Frost was the first winner, and the list of Hale medalists remains impressive 57 years later.

The other day I happened upon an item in an 1864 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book that piqued my interest. It related to Doctor Esther Hill Hawks, a character in Our War. Hawks graduated in 1857 in a class of seven from New England Female Medical College in Boston. An abolitionist whose husband, Milton, was also a doctor, Hawks served freed slaves and black soldiers as a nurse, surgeon and teacher. 

The magazine article in question gave a brief rundown on the progress of the three women’s medical schools in the country, including Hawks’s alma mater. The 14-year-old Female Medical College of Pennsylvania and its New England counterpart, just eight years old, had each graduated about 50 doctors by 1863. The New York Medical College for Women had just opened.

Sarah Josepha Hale of Newport, N.H.
The writer of the article in Godey's, possibly Hale, also weighed in about the terminology being used in this emerging profession for women. She favored “doctress of medicine” for graduates and objected to “female” in the names of the institutions. She approved of the name of the New York school, a college for “women” – “not Females, which may mean animals, as all living creatures that bring forth young are females. Therefore, as the term does not certainly signify the human feminine, by using it, the directness of language is marred, and the dignity of the woman or lady is degraded. It seems to signify the lowest type of womanhood, as it refers only to the animal.”

The writer went on to suggest that it would be even better to call the schools “ladies’ medical colleges,” adding: “Had ‘The Lady’s Book’ been styled ‘The Female’s Book,’ would it ever have become the leading organ of magazine literature?

As a newspaper editor a century and more after this item appeared, I survived the feminist language wars and have a few scars to show for it. These battles were important. What we call things and how we say them matter. I’m glad I finally came to see that “his” shouldn’t stand for his or her. On the other hand, calling the head of a committee a “chair” still hurts my teeth.

And I'm pretty sure that had “doctress” survived in popular usage, as the Godey's writer hoped it would, it would have gone the way of stewardess and actress.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Stand your ground, circa 1864

Point Lookout, Md. The prison camp is at upper right, with the tents of the enlisted guard members outside the fence.
At about 5 p.m. on March 20, 1864, Lt. Joseph H. Wilkinson of the 2nd New Hampshire Volunteers heard that more Confederate prisoners had just reached the Union prison camp at Point Lookout, Md. They had arrived by boat from Baltimore, and it was Wilkinson’s job as the commissary officer to make sure they were fed.

Wilkinson found the prisoners standing in small groups. He made his count and turned to leave, but he hadn't gone far when some of the prisoners began to squabble about a debt. Wilkinson saw a prisoner swearing and waving a greenback. The man said he would be damned if he would accept a bill with Abraham Lincoln’s likeness on it.

5th New Hampshire officers at the prison. Gus Sanborn is top row, right. 
Wilkinson considered berating the prisoner about his crude language and behavior but decided the man was too out of control. He headed back to his quarters. Before he got there, he heard a pistol shot. He fetched the officer of the day. Together they found the man who had been cursing and carrying on lying dead on the ground.

The dead man was a prisoner named Peyton, probably Lawrence Peyton. The record wobbles on whether he was a captain or a private. Although he had claimed to have an officer's commission, he was probably a private in the 2nd Kentucky Cavalry.

The trouble that led to Peyton's death lasted less than 10 minutes. It began as Peyton walked arm-in-arm in the stockade at Point Lookout with Lt. H.B. Dunlap, a fellow prisoner. Dunlap saw a guard passing and suggested to Peyton that they ask him for whiskey. The guard turned them down, but Peyton wouldn't take no for an answer. Dunlap, who had seen Peyton drinking during the boat passage from Baltimore, later speculated that Peyton’s bravado came out of the bottle.

Peyton bantered with the Yankee sergeant, first suggesting that he was too high-minded and then asking whether the white or the black soldiers at the prison camp made better guards. The sergeant laughed and said probably the Negroes. “Yes, I suppose the Negroes are superior,” Peyton said sarcastically.

The sergeant told him to stop talking to him that way. Peyton said he’d talk to him any way he wanted, He began cursing. The sergeant reached for his pistol. “Goddamn you, shoot,” Peyton shouted. The sergeant said he would if Peyton didn’t “dry up.”

When the sergeant pointed the pistol at Peyton, Dunlap stepped between them and begged him to hold his fire. Dunlap tried to drag Peyton away, but Peyton stood his ground and said: “If he wants to shoot, let him shoot.” The sergeant drew the pistol again. Six feet away, Peyton bared his chest. The sergeant pulled the trigger.

Capt. Gus Sanborn
Gus Sanborn of Franklin, a newly minted Fifth New Hampshire captain, was staff officer of the day. He heard the gunshot and saw a sergeant approaching. “Captain,” the man said, “I have shot a man while in the line of my duty.” Sanborn ran to investigate.

Standing near Peyton’s body, Dunlap told Sanborn the shooting had occurred because Peyton said the black soldiers on guard were superior to the sergeant. He said Peyton was shaking his fist in the sergeant's face.

The prison surgeon, James H. Thompson, examined Peyton’s body at around 8 p.m. and found a bullet hole in this chest. The slug had hit him in the sternum and passed through his heart and aorta before lodging just under the skin in his back.

Edwin Young, a 23-year-old sergeant from the 2nd New Hampshire Volunteers, had fired the fatal shot. He told his story in a straightforward manner, placing his fate in the hands of his superiors at Point Lookout and higher echelons of the Union army in Washington.

The 2nd, 5th and 12th New Hampshire regiments had all been mauled at Gettysburg eight months earlier. After a trip back to Concord, they were sent to Point Lookout, a prison camp built for 10,000 men. In part because the Union-Confederate prisoner exchange stalled, the POW population at Point Lookout swelled to 20,000. During the two years of the prison’s existence, 4,000 Confederate prisoners died there.

Young, the shooter, was from Westmoreland, N.H. He had enlisted in the 2nd at the start of the war and risen through the ranks as the regiment fought at Bull Run, on the Peninsula, at Bull Run again, then at Gettysburg. Young had been wounded at Second Bull Run.

The shooting at Point Lookout clouded his future, but apparently he believed honesty gave him the best chance with the military justice system.

Col. Charles E. Hapgood of Amherst, N.H.
A fact-finding board, not a court-martial commission, heard the case. Its leader was Col. Charles E. Hapgood, commander of the 5th New Hampshire. The other two members were Maj. Samuel P. Sayles of Young’s own regiment and Lt. Hosea Q. Sargent of the 12th New Hampshire.

Addressing this board three days after the killing, Young said he had been in charge of two contingents of prisoners at Point Lookout for six months and had always been kind to them. “I never have treated anyone with undue harshness or taken advantage of their situation as prisoners,” he said.

On March 20, he had just finished installing a stove in a prisoner tent when two Confederate officers approached him and said: “You look like a damned old whiskey head. Can’t you get us some whiskey?”

He told them he was a teetotaler and whiskey was forbidden in the camp. One of them – Peyton, it turned out – said: “Do not make a Goddamn fool of yourself here, you fanatic philanthropist, or you will go to heaven. . . . We have got greenbacks, and you will get it for us.” Young refused.

During the exchange about the black troops at Point Lookout, Peyton said that the Yankees had learned all they ever knew from Negroes. He gestured toward a black soldier walking the guard fence. He asked where Young was from, and when Young told him New Hampshire, Peyton responded that this made him a fit subject to associate with Negroes.

Young said he tried in vain to silence Peyton. When even Peyton’s comrade couldn’t quiet him and Peyton began shaking his fist in Young’s face and calling him a coward, Young told him to stop or he would shoot. Peyton threw open his coat and dared Young to fire. “I cocked my revolver and fired,” Young said. He left immediately to report the shooting, first to Sanborn and then to Gen. Gilman Marston, the camp commander who had been the 2nd New Hampshire’s first colonel.

Details of the shooting reached Washington within 10 days. They were received with strong opinions – on both sides.

William Hoffman had been a POW.
William Hoffman was the 57-year-old commissary-general of prisoners and had been at West Point with Robert E. Lee in the class of 1829. When the war began, Hoffman had been stationed in San Antonio. Texas secessionists arrested him and imprisoned him for 16 months. Whether this experience influenced the opinion he submitted to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton is hard to know, but here is what he wrote:

“The circumstances as shown by the proceeding of the board of officers fully justify the act of Sergeant Young. While in the execution of his office he was grossly insulted and defied by a prisoner of war, and it was only after this was persisted in without provocation that he was compelled to vindicate himself and the position he held in a manner which resulted so seriously to the offender.”

Gen. Edwin R.S. Canby reached the opposite conclusion. “In the relation that existed between the sergeant and the prisoner,” he wrote, “the killing was, in my judgment, entirely unjustifiable. The sergeant should be put on trial for murder.”

Gen. Ethan Allen Hitchcock, a Vermonter who headed the commission overseeing the prisoner exchange, waffled. Though unsure Young was criminally liable, he called for a court-martial.

What came of this recommendation is hard to know. Gen. Benjamin Butler huffed that he should have been informed of the incident earlier. He and other higher-ups also worried about possible retaliation against Union captives if word of the shooting spread. But the Official Records contain no evidence that I could find that Young was court-martialed.

His service record in Ayling’s Register of New Hampshire soldiers is silent on this question. It lists Young as having served his full three-year enlistment and mustered out shortly after the battle of Cold Harbor in June 1864, three months after the shooting.

What made Sgt. Young pull the trigger? Was it just hatred for the enemy built up during years of bloody battles? Or did race-baiting play a role? Did Young feel truly threatened by a drunken loudmouth prisoner, or did Peyton’s remarks about white guards being inferior to black lead to his extreme reaction?

We may never know. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Most popular posts

Here is my monthly look at the posts that have generated the most readership.

The Our War blog now has more than 100 posts. I have therefore added a runner-up category and a short list of recent posts that are off to quick starts. Last month's ranking, if any, is in brackets. In parentheses is the number of months a post has been in the top ten.

Thanks again for reading. In books as on blogs, eyes on the page are what matters to the writer. 

1. Farewell, my teacher [1] (2)

5. My friend Chester [3] (5)

6. The Civil War: ‘It was not my fault,’ Buchanan insists [7] (2)

7. Gallery: Faces of the Fighting Fifth (part one) [8] (4)

10. (tie)  History’s touch [10] (3)

               Kennedy gave FDR too much credit, shortchanged Ike [9] (2)

And the next five . . .

12. The soldier’s story behind the love story, Part I

13. The soldier’s story behind the love story, Part II

14. Emails from afar and a happy coincidence

15. A love of music, a way with words

16. A gruesome death

And fast starters (recent posts with above-average page-views):

1. Unpacking the new ‘Gettysburg’

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

3. The day they died like white men

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Not too mean, I hope

For 35 years I worked as an editor on daily newspapers. As much as I loved this work, I never lost the idea that I got into journalism to be a writer, not an editor. While I took great pleasure in editing and teaching many ambitious young people who could write circles around me, I clung to my alter-ego by writing when I could.

Jane Pierce with her son Benny. His death in early 1853
was perhaps the hardest blow in the tortured life of the
14th president's wife. (Pierce Brigade photo)   
One of the most convenient ways to keep my hand in was to write book reviews. Occasional reviews blossomed into a somewhat regular side-gig under Michael Pakenham, the demanding but inspiring and likable book editor at the Baltimore Sun. Mainly I reviewed Civil War books for the Sun, but Michael also chose histories, memoirs and biographies for me, especially those with a New England flavor.

For my first couple of years in retirement, I was the monthly book reviewer for the Concord Monitor, the paper whose newsroom I had run for 30 years. This was ideal since I could pick my own books. Usually I chose books I knew I would like on the theory that it served readers better to recommend books than to trash them. Even when my overall assessment of a book was negative, I pointed out its redeeming qualities. Writing a book is hard, as I learned from experience, and authors are therefore to be respected when possible.

I gave up the book column when I realized even a monthly deadline interfered with my life of leisure, travel and research and writing after retirement. Now I write when something comes out that is in my wheelhouse – New Hampshire history, focused mainly but not exclusively on the 19th century, and poetry, memoirs and biographies I would read anyway.

This little career capsule is a long-winded introduction to a review that appears in today’s Concord Monitor. It is the most negative review I have ever written.

The book under review is a new biography of Jane Pierce, wife of President Franklin Pierce. I disliked the book so much that the review followed a form I seldom employ. I began the review with the best thing I could give readers: a synopsis of the tortured life Jane Pierce led, beginning with its cruelest moment. This was the death of her 11-year-old son Benny in a train wreck between Franklin Pierce's election to the presidency and his inauguration. Not until halfway through the review did I lay out my criticism of the book. When I did, I tried to show its problems rather than characterize them.

The challenges in writing the review were two: to make reading it a more pleasant and rewarding experience than reading the book and to craft a review that was honest but not mean.

You can read the full review here. Please let me know how you think I did.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The day they died like white men

The Shaw Memorial at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site. This bronze version dates from the mid-1990s.
In a letter to his wife Augusta in Enfield, N.H., on Aug. 3, 1863, Lt. Calvin Shedd of the 7th New Hampshire Volunteers described the fate of several men in his regiment during the attack on Fort Wagner, S.C. He ended his epistle with a bitter swipe at another Union regiment that had suffered similar casualties during the battle.

Faces of the 54th Massachusetts drummer boys. Plaster casts of other
faces, including Col. Shaw's, are on display in one of the Cornish studios. 
This was the famous 54th Massachusetts, the black regiment led by Col. Robert Gould Shaw. The fort, on Morris Island, was one of several guarding Charleston Harbor. Shedd had just read northern newspaper accounts of the battle that singled out the 54th for its courage and sacrifice. He complained “that the niggers have the credit of doing the work on Morris.” This was “all ‘hum,’ ” he wrote. “Give the niggers their due but I don’t like to see injustice done the white regts. for the sake of building up the reputation of the blacks.”

Both regiments marched to slaughter at Fort Wagner. In writing Our War, I told a slice of each of their stories. I built my July 18, 1863, chapter around the experience of Ferdinand Davis, a sergeant in the 7th New Hampshire who survived that harrowing night. The next chapter, for July 20, centers on Esther Hill Hawks, a Manchester, N.H., abolitionist and medical doctor who cared for the wounded of the 54th Massachusetts. In her diary Hawks recorded the stories of some of these men. When she asked one man why he fought, the man answered: “Not for my country – I never had one – but to gain one.”

Calvin Shedd’s resentment over the lionizing of the 54th was a common thread in the letters of white soldiers after Fort Wagner. Shedd was not as racist as many of his comrades. In the same letter, he wrote that another black regiment camped nearby “look as if they might do good business.” And he was correct: His and other white regiments had suffered the same fate as the 54th without being celebrated in the papers. The 54th, a full new regiment, had 272 casualties, including 34 dead. The 7th New Hampshire, an older regiment with a thinned roster, lost 216, including 41 dead.

Guided by an angel, Shaw leads his regiment forward.
But Shedd was also wrong. The 54th Massachusetts captured the reporters’ attention and the public’s imagination for a reason. For decades a large portion of the press had treated African-Americans as subhuman. At Fort Wagner these African-Americans had showed courage and discipline in a frontal assault on an impregnable position. Yes, they did the same thing as the white regiments that followed them to the fort, but that was the point. Black soldiers had fought and bled and died like white soldiers.

One of the gems of modern-day New Hampshire is the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish. It should be on the destination list for anyone interested in the Civil War.

It was Augustus Saint-Gaudens, as much as anyone, who created the images through which the nation – or at least the northern half of it – memorialized the war. In Cornish, it is the creation itself that is memorialized – of the Admiral Farragut and William Tecumseh Sherman statues in New York City, of the so-called Standing Lincoln in Chicago and especially of the Shaw Memorial on the Boston Common.

Recently Monique and I took two of our grandchildren to the site. Grace and Jackson are 12 and 9 and live in Massachusetts, and on the drive to Cornish I told them the story of the 54th. They listened well, and when we arrived, they wanted to see everything – the sculptures, Saint-Gaudens’s house and studios, the old wagons and carriages, the active studio in the woods, the garden. We spent several minutes examining the Shaw Memorial from different perspectives and talking about the soldier images and the effect that Saint-Gaudens created.

In The Shaw Memorial: A Celebration of an American Masterpiece, a large illustrated paperback on sale at the site, Gregory C. Schwartz tells the story of Saint-Gaudens’s struggle to complete the sculpture. It took him 14 years, to the frustration of the committee that commissioned the work, or at least to those members who survived to see it.

The riflemen of the 54th Massachusetts on the march into history. 
The sculptor first met with the memorial committee in 1882 but would not share a proposal for the work unless he received the commission. The Shaw Memorial was unveiled in 1897.

The version at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site was first displayed at the Pan-American Exhibition in 1901 – the fair remembered for the assassination of President William McKinley, who had at fought at Antietam. The Shaw stayed on display in Buffalo until 1919 and then in storage for nearly 30 years. It arrived in Cornish in 1949, where it spent a decade more in storage. Saint-Gaudens’s house (Aspet), studios and grounds, along with the sculptures there, have been a national historic site since 1965 – nearly half a century.

The memorial you see today is a mid-1990s bronze cast from the plaster cast, which was showing its age. It is well-sited at the end of a long rectangular patch of lawn with a green hedge rising high around it.

For all its travels, the Shaw remains a moving tribute to the 54th’s charge 150 years ago today. In the moment, it was a failed and fatal charge. In the long run, it was, as Saint-Gaudens saw, a brave step in the difficult journey “to gain a country.”

[Thanks to my friend David R. Sullivan for the use of his photos of the Shaw Memorial in Cornish.]

[There are two collections of Calvin Shedd's Civil War letters. He served with the 7th New Hampshire in both Florida and South Carolina. The South Carolina letters are digitized here, at the University of South Carolina, along with a biographical note and synopsis of its letters. You'll find the Florida letters digitized here, at the University of Miami, whose site also has extensive biographical material.] 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Gallery: Old Soldiers (2), a New England brigade

John W. Robinson of Somersworth enlisted
in April 1862 and was mustered into the 9th
New Hampshire four months later. He
 served with the regiment as a corporal until
his discharge for disability at the war's end.
These are the faces of veterans from the Somersworth, N.H., area who served in the 6th, 9th and 11th New Hampshire regiments. They came to me from my friends Dave Nelson and Dave Morin, both early members of the 5th New Hampshire re-enactors. As I explained in an earlier post, the photos are from an archive of Littlefield Post No. 8 of the Grand Army of the Republic.

I have grouped men from the 6th, 9th and 11th because these regiments often marched, camped and waged battle together during the war. Along with the 31st and 32nd Maine and the 17th Vermont, they formed an all-northern New England brigade in Ambrose E. Burnside's 9th Army Corps.

The 6th New Hampshire came together first, training in Keene in late 1861. The regiment’s colonel, Simon G. Griffin, had been a captain in the 2nd New Hampshire. He led the 6th at the second battle of Bull Run, where the regiment lost 66 men killed. As a brigadier general during Grant’s Overland Campaign in 1864, he commanded the brigade in which all three regiments served.

In Our War I tell the story of the drowning of several soldiers of the 6th and the wives of three officers after a ship collision on the Potomac River in early August of 1862.

The 9th and 11th New Hampshire both mustered the same month as the drowning. Within weeks of reaching the front, the 9th fought at South Mountain and Antietam – another story I tell in Our War. Forty members of the 11th died at Fredericksburg, that regiment’s first battle.

Worse was to come. From the Wilderness in 1864 until the end of the war, 280 members of the three regiments were killed in battle, hundreds more wounded.

The men pictured here, all members of their century's "Greatest Generation," were survivors of fighting regiments.

William Pitt Moses, an Exeter native who enlisted from Somersworth at age 35,
served nearly three years as the quartermaster of the 9th New Hampshire.

Noah Smith of Somersworth served with
the 11th New Hampshire for its entire term.
He died in 1884 at age 44.  
Charles M. Jones, the 11th's hospital steward and
later assistant surgeon, was from Somersworth.

Albert N. Perkins served with the 6th New
Hampshire during the 1864-65 campaigns.
Lysander R. Mayo of Somersworth
fought with the 9th New Hampshire
throughout its service. He was wounded
at Poplar Springs Church, Va.,
on May 30, 1864.

George Hubbard, an 18-year-old private from Somersworth, was wounded at
Antietam weeks after joining the 9th New Hampshire. He was discharged in 1863.
Howard Hanson of Somersworth
was the 9th's commissary sergeant.
John A. Hayes, the 11th's assistant surgeon and
later surgeon, lived in Concord before going to
war. By war's end, for meritorious service, he had
won promotion to brevet lieutenant colonels.

Joseph Fountain, a native Englishman, joined the
6th New Hampshire as a private at the age of
44. He served two years before leaving the
regiment with a disability. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Who wrote the Bixby letter?

All the Great Prizes ably chronicles the Forrest Gump life of John Hay, who served as a private secretary to President Lincoln in his youth and, decades later, as secretary of state under William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. A rich, well-connected man who co-authored a 10-volume authorized biography of Lincoln, he knew many of the literary giants of his age.

Hay summered at The Fells, his estate on Lake Sunapee in Newbury, N.H. He died there on July 1, 1905, at age 66 while secretary of state.

These days, The Fells is open to the public and a joy to visit. Gardens, views, a lakeshore trail, history – what’s not to like? John Taliaferro, author of the Hay biography, is scheduled to speak there about the book on July 24 at 4 p.m. (details here). The next night at 7, he will speak at the New Hampshire Historical Society in Concord.

I reviewed All the Great Prizes for the Concord Monitor, and you can read the review in full here. Using Taliaferro's analysis, I recounted his position on the authorship of the famous Bixby letter during the Civil War. Here is an excerpt from the review: 

The cover portrait is by John Singer Sargent. Hay
knew many of the giants of his time. 
"Hay also learned to write in Lincoln’s hand. Aside from giving fits to future generations of autograph collectors, this useful skill and Hay’s own eloquence as a writer called into question who wrote some of the letters over Lincoln’s signature.

"Taliaferro is not the first historian to conclude that Hay wrote the famous Bixby letter. The White House was informed that Lydia Bixby, a mother in Massachusetts, had lost five sons in battle. The president’s letter of condolence, much quoted then and now, has long been lost, but it was known to have been signed 'A. Lincoln.'

"Here is the text: 'I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.'

"In fact, Lydia Bixby was a Confederate sympathizer, and two of her five sons, not all of them, had been killed in battle. But the facts and the letter’s cloudy authorship do not diminish its expression of noble sentiments."

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Surprise, surprise, surprise

At the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College last month, I had the pleasure of speaking for a few moments with Allen C. Guelzo after his talk about the town of Gettysburg itself as a key factor in the battle. A later post will summarize this talk, but I also followed up on our meeting with an email question to Guelzo, which he kindly answered. (You can see his answer to an earlier question – Did Abraham Lincoln really free the slaves? – here.)

The River Queen, site of the 1865 Hampton Roads Peace Conference.
Here is the latest question followed by Guelzo's response and some elaboration by me:

In researching and writing Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, what were your three biggest surprises?
Certainly my biggest surprises were as follows:

1. George Meade’s political leanings, as revealed through his correspondence at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and especially the Jan. 20, 1865, letter describing his conversations with the Confederate commissioners – Stephens, Hunter and Campbell – bound for Hampton Roads.

2. The realization that Lee had already ordered the concentration of his army before receiving the report of the spy Harrison.

3. The lack of evidence that Lee and Stuart ever had the “woodshed” meeting described in The Killer Angels and many other Gettysburg books.

Guelzo's first surprise involves the three commissioners who arranged to meet President Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward aboard the River Queen at Hampton Roads, Va. They were Alexander H. Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, John A. Campbell, the assistant secretary of war, and Senator Robert M.T. Hunter of Virginia. Nothing came of the peace conference.

Meade was a Democrat but denied he was a Copperhead, or antiwar Democrat. In his book, Guelzo quotes from the Jan. 20, 1865, letter recounting what Meade told the peace commissioners as they passed through his lines for the meeting with the president. “I told them very plainly what I thought was the basis on which the people of the North would be glad to have peace,” Meade wrote. He advised them that all that was needed was “the emphatic restoration of the Union.”

Guelzo closes his account of what Meade told the commissioners this way: “As for slavery, dealing with this issue was ‘not insurmountable,’ and as though he had never heard of the Emancipation Proclamation, Meade ‘thought some system could be found accommodating both interests, which would not be as obnoxious as slavery.’ ”

Guelzo’s second and third surprises are related. On June 28, 1863, Henry Thomas Harrison, a spy,
J.E.B. Stuart, Confederate cavalry chieftain.
gave first Gen. James Longstreet and then Lee a full report on recent movements of the several Union corps marching toward Pennsylvania. Harrison also informed Lee that Meade had replaced Gen. Joseph Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac.

Lee was already concentrating his army before he received this intelligence, although Harrison’s report prompted him to switch destinations. Instead of moving on Harrisburg to draw the Army of the Potomac there, it headed for Gettysburg.

Stuart is J.E.B. Stuart, the Confederate cavalry commander who led his men on a long, useless ride from June 25 to June 28 – a folly, Guelzo calls it in his book. After the war, Lee worshipers seeking scapegoats for Lee's failure at Gettysburg settled on Stuart (and Longstreet). In his research Guelzo found no contemporary evidence of the oft-asserted claim that Lee dressed Stuart down for his absence when he finally reported to him.

From Guelzo’s text, a further conclusion is clear: It is a mistake to think Lee was “blind” at Gettysburg because he was deprived of the intelligence he expected from Stuart. Henry Thomas Harrison’s report gave Lee all the up-to-date information he needed about the Union army’s command, makeup, position and movements.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Mr. Lighthouse takes command

On June 27, 1863, George Gordon Meade went to bed as the leader of the 11,000-man 5th Corps of the Army of the Potomac. On June 28 he awoke to the surprise that his new command comprised 94,000 men. He had been promoted to lead the entire army.

Not only that, but it was an army on the move, headed north to counter Robert E. Lee’s march into Pennsylvania. Meade had been in charge for all of three days when the two armies found each other in Gettysburg.

Carol Reardon, author and professor
At the recent Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, Carol Reardon, a Penn State history professor, gave a superb talk on what Meade inherited when he took over. Reardon is the author of several books, including the excellent Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory. To the lectern she brings an authoritative voice and a tart sense of humor.

She introduced Meade as Mr. Lighthouse: “You need a lighthouse, he’s your guy.” Indeed, as an army engineer during the 1840s and ’50s, Meade had designed many lighthouses in Florida and New Jersey. A Philadelphian, he was 47 years old when he took command of the Army of the Potomac. He had fought in several battles and been wounded during the Seven Days.

Meade took over an army on the move.
A messenger from Washington informed him of his promotion at 3 a.m.. At first he thought the messenger might be there to arrest him, Reardon said, and “maybe he would have preferred it. . . . Being commander of the Army of the Potomac had not been a next step to anything.” During the first two years of the war, George McClellan, Ambrose Burnside and Joseph Hooker had already failed at it.

Reardon described the terms of Meade appointment. All forces were subject to his control, and he would not be interfered with. He could relieve and appoint commanders at will, forming a team he knew and trusted. His No. 1 responsibility of the moment was to protect Washington, Baltimore and other eastern cities from the invading Confederate army.

The heart of Reardon’s talk was an evaluation of the leaders Meade inherited from Hooker. Events would soon make this a critical matter. Whether Meade knew and trusted these men or not, they would hold key jobs at Gettysburg.

Here is how Reardon sized some of them up:

Chief of staff: The man who held this job had to translate ideas into action. Gen. Daniel Butterfield, an officer familiar to Meade from the 5th Corps, held it. Meade believed Butterfield had served Hooker poorly and had no confidence in him.

Chief of engineers: Another 5th Corps brigadier, Gouverneur K. Warren, had just the skills for this position. Meade trusted him and used him as a second set of eyes at Gettysburg. It was Warren who ordered and arranged for the defense of Little Round Top on the battle’s second day.

Henry. J. Hunt
Chief of artillery: Under Hooker, Brig. Gen. Henry J. Hunt had been what Reardon characterized as “an administrative weenie,” counting cannons but lacking any operational duties. On July 1, Meade gave Hunt a free hand. This was a wise decision: Hunt’s artillery performed admirably at Gettysburg on both July 2 and July 3.

Assistant adjutant general: The task of drafting orders, letters and reports fell to Brig. Gen. Seth Williams. “My original idea was to have a blank there,” Reardon said when a slide of Williams appeared on the screen during her talk. He was “a paperwork mole . . . invisible, but that’s good.”

Rufus Ingalls
Provost marshal: Brig. Gen. Marsena Patrick took care of security and order. He had been a Meade classmate at West Point. Reardon called him “one of the scariest men in the Union army” – humorless but effective. At Gettysburg he handled the flood of Confederate prisoners.

Chief quartermaster: Brig. Gen. Rufus Ingalls was in charge of supplies and ammunition. For good reason he held the job from McClellan through Ulysses S. Grant. Ingalls, knowing that the roads of Maryland were macadamized and thus hard on shoes, managed to get 10,000 pairs of socks and shoes delivered to soldiers on their march north. Ingalls,Reardon said, "was one of the unsung heroes of Gettysburg.”

Meade faced challenges with some corps commanders, not least those senior to him, but the army he inherited worked. It was an army on the move, and the first proof that it worked was that the change of command did not slow it down.

The second and ultimate proof came a few days later at Gettysburg.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

What was Robert E. Lee thinking?

The Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College is an annual conference that brings in scholars, authors and battlefield rangers and guides to speak on issues and personalities of the war. The students are adults who pay several hundred dollars each to live in dorms for a few days and stoke their curiosity about the war. Teenagers who have earned scholarships add to the mix and often ask the best questions.

This year was my fourth at the institute as a speaker and tour guide. When I go, I attend as many sessions as I can to hear from the real experts. It is like going back to college. As you may have seen from the “Gettysburg Journal” series on this blog, I also love that the battlefield becomes an extension of the classroom for the institute’s program.

The invasion gave Lee's army a chance to attack Union industrial might. 
As a nearly lifelong journalist, I have a serious note-taking habit. In coming days I plan to give you capsules on this blog of a few things I learned at this year’s Civil War Institute. Some of these will be one-liners and vignettes, but I want to begin with short pictures drawn by excellent scholars on the two generals at Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee and George Gordon Meade.

For this post, let’s look at Lee through the eyes of Richard Sommers, a historian who teaches at the U.S. Army War College at Carlisle, Pa. Sommers’s topic was not so much Lee’s character as the imperatives and objectives that motivated him and the Army of Northern Virginia during his 1863 invasion of the North.

After his Chancellorsville victory Lee had to decide what to do next with his battle-hardened army. He rejected going south to try to change to course of the fighting around Vicksburg or in Tennessee. At least in part, Sommers said, this was because the generals there, Joseph E. Johnston and John C. Pemberton, were inept and Braxton Bragg was little better.

Lee’s alternative was to invade the North. This offered the prospect of breaking the will of the Union and winning military victories that would lead to British recognition and support of the Confederacy. Lee’s army could also gather food and supplies, disrupt two vital east-west railroads and threaten the coal industry in Pennsylvania. Sommers described coal “as the oil of its day” and one of Lee’s overarching goals as “to strike at the heart of Union might.”

The invasion required that Lee remain on the offensive, keep moving, exploit the Union army’s mistakes and never go on the defensive. This meant forcing the action and making the Yankees react. Lee hoped to keep the Union army from massing and to destroy it piece by piece.

When Union troops streamed north into Maryland and Pennsylvania, Sommers said, Lee could not ignore them. He didn’t have to fight them in a particular place, but wherever he fought, he had to carry the battle to them. Taking a defensive position would allow the Union army to concentrate and possibly expose the weakness of the Confederate supply line.

Lee was not overconfident or rash at Gettysburg, Sommers said, but he understood that he had to remain in motion. If he stopped, he became not a threat but a target.

Lee’s lieutenant, James Longstreet, claimed after the war that Lee committed to assuming a defensive position, but Sommers doesn’t buy it. He said Lee knew that acting defensively would require him to make the enemy do what he wanted him to do. Lee operated instead on the principle that it is always prudent to give the enemy credit for acting in his own best interest. The corollary is that you should seek to beat the enemy’s best game with your best game.

Sommers, a stately man with a shapely 19th-century beard, obviously admired Lee, but a tour later in the day reinforced my one reservation about his point if view. As I stood looking across the open expanse Gen. George E. Pickett’s men had to cross under heavy fire to reach the Union line on the opposite ridge, I wondered how anyone could order such an attack. Even the imperatives to stay in motion and stay on the offensive did not explain why Lee made a hopeless frontal assault on July 3.

Next: Carol Reardon on George Gordon Meade’s transition to command of the Army of the Potomac.

Friday, July 5, 2013

A milestone in Civil War studies

For some of us with the Civil War addiction, one event years ago was at least as important as the Ken Burns series on PBS, great as that was (and is). This was the publication of James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom. The book, one in the Oxford U.S. history series, recounted the run-up to the war and the war itself. It is hard to believe a quarter century has passed since its publication.

I grew up on Bruce Catton and later devoured the Stephen W. Sears books on McClellan and the war in the east, but Battle Cry was also a milestone on the journey.

James M. McPherson
For The Daily Beast website, Marc Wortman interviewed McPherson on the silver anniversary of his book. Among other questions, Wortman asked what McPherson would do differently if he were writing the book today. Here are samples of McPherson's views, but you can read the whole interview here.

On how he responds to criticism that Battle Cry is anti-Confederacy and overstates slavery as a cause for the war:

I try to respond to that criticism by pointing to the unfolding of events that caused increasing polarization between North and South in the 1850s, all of which centered on slavery and the issue of its expansion, and to the contemporary statements by Southerners themselves about the salience of slavery in the coming of the war and in their statements about why their states were seceding.

On what he thinks Americans outside academia should know about the war and why they should care:

The outcome of the Civil War assured that the United States would remain one nation, indivisible, and that the issue of slavery, which had plagued the republic since its founding, would plague it no more. The war shaped modern America by assuring the survival and preeminence of a dynamic and democratic capitalist society rather than a plantation slave society. . . . To understand the society in which they live, Americans need to understand how it got that way, and the Civil War determined a large part of how it got that way.

On what the Civil War accomplished:

We are one country rather than two or more countries. Civil rights took a century or more to accomplish, but freedom came immediately and from 1865 onward black children could no longer be sold apart from their parents or husbands and wives from each other. Civil rights based on the constitutional amendments and legislation that grew out of the war were finally achieved.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A Gettysburg Journal (5)

Here I am with my hardy "Sweatysburg" tour group. We found a little shade at the Zook monument near the Wheatfield.
June 25

Last day here, and my day to be a tour guide, telling the Edward E. Cross story and following him on the battlefield on July 2, 1863. The temperature was 97 degrees. I moved a couple of the tour stops so we could talk under trees.

We first paused at the 1st Minnesota monument just south of the Pennsylvania monument on Cemetery Ridge. Under a tree across the way I told the group why. Cross had nothing to do with the 1st Minnesota’s famous charge that day. But 20 years ago, reading Richard Moe’s The Last Full Measure, a history of the regiment and its charge, inspired Mark Travis and me to seek out a New Hampshire regiment with a story to tell. That regiment turned out to be the 5th. The result was My Brave Boys, a history of the regiment’s two years under Cross, ending at Gettysburg.

The 148th Pennsylvania monument is a short walk down the road from the 1st Minnesota’s. This regiment was to the 5th’s right in Cross’s brigade, and there we picked up Cross’s story, which I had begun telling on the bus.

I had learned one new element of the story while researching and writing a later book, Our War. During the morning of July 2, as his brigade waited on the ridge, Cross became curious about what was going on down below. Dan Sickles had yet to move his corps forward, but Sickles’s right, which was supposed to connect with Cross’s brigade, had not showed up. Cross mounted his horse Jack and rode down to investigate. He stopped in the camp of the 2nd New Hampshire, many of whose men he knew. That camp happened to be in Rose’s Woods, where Cross would place the 5th New Hampshire for the Wheatfield fight late in the day.

This was the first I knew that when Cross headed for the Wheatfield at around 5 p.m., he had already been there and had some sense of the ground. The colonel had a head for terrain; his morning ride no doubt made a difference.

To reach the Wheatfield, Cross’s brigade, with the Fifth in the lead, marched past the Weikert Farm and down the ridge through fields. Overgrown with brush and high grass, this route is a hard slog today, so our tour group took the bus around to the Wheatfield Road. We first talked under the trees near the Samuel Zook marker. Zook’s brigade was in Cross’s division, and Zook was killed in fighting off to Cross’s right in an area known as the Stony Ridge.

The tour ended in Rose's Woods near the 5th New Hampshire monument.
For the tour photos I am indebted to my friend David R. Sullivan. 
In the Wheatfield we walked along the line of Cross’s brigade and then into Rose’s Woods, where the left half of the 148th Pennsylvania and all of the 5th New Hampshire extended the brigade line. Our last stop was the 5th’s monument, whose location officers of the regiment identified after the war as the spot where Cross was standing when a rebel marksman mortally wounded him.

Near this spot is the boulder behind which the marksman hid. I’d been to this place many times during the last 15 years, and the boulder has never been so overgrown. From the descriptions of the men who fought in these woods, it was a spooky place then, providing good cover for sniping. A young sergeant named Charles Phelps was dispatched to kill the man who had wounded Cross and succeeded in this mission.

Charles Phelps of Amherst, N.H.,
from a prewar tintype 
I have been hunting throughout my Gettysburg visit for the field hospital where Cross was taken from Rose’s Woods and where he died. I wanted to make that the last stop of the tour, but I am not sure I have found it.

My friend Dave Morin emailed me a website on which a guide makes a claim for the William Patterson Farm on the Taneytown Road behind the Pennsylvania monument as Cross’s death site. You can see his virtual Cross story here and here.  

There are reasons to think he’s right. It was an aid station from which men were sent to corps hospitals after initial treatment. Several officers from the 5th visited Cross before his death, and this farm’s proximity to their position the night of July 2 would have made him easy to find. The lay of the land is similar to what some of these officers described.

The negative is that the best description of the spot where Cross died, written by Thomas L. Livermore, says the field was between the Taneytown Road and the Baltimore Pike. The Patterson Farm is indeed between these two main roads, but it is right on the Taneytown Road. It is odd that Livermore would not have described it that way.

So . . . I’ll have to come back to Gettysburg sometime and continue my search. It will be a pleasure, I assure you.        

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

A Gettysburg Journal (4)

On June 25, I was to lead a tour of Col. Edward E. Cross’s actions on July 2, 1863, at Gettysburg. The tour was on the program of the annual Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College.

These markers in the Wheatfield show the positions of three regiments in
 Cross's brigade on July 2. Cross went into Rose's woods (in background)
to order a charge and never returned. 
Cross’s brigade, including his old regiment, the 5th New Hampshire Volunteers, arrived on the south end of Cemetery Ridge at 7 a.m. on July 2 after days of arduous marching. The right-most regiment of Gen. Dan Sickles’s 3rd Corps was supposed to line up on the 5th’s left. Instead a large gap in the line began at that point after Sickles willfully misinterpreted his orders and moved his corps forward to the Emmitsburg Road.

Cross’s brigade witnessed Sickles's move and then waited nearly all day in the sun before being ordered to march quickly to the Wheatfield to take it back from attacking Confederate forces.

June 24, 2013

Up early and to Cemetery Ridge. There, for tomorrow’s tour, I scoped out the position of Cross and the 5th. This was at least my sixth visit to the spot, and it is always hard to be sure I’ve found it. Most of the monuments along the ridge as it slopes south toward the Weikert farm are 3rd Corps markers from July 3, the third day of the battle. No marker locates the position of either the 5th or Cross’s brigade on the second day.

One regiment of the brigade – the 148th Pennsylvania – does have a marker. It is also a third-day monument showing approximately where that regiment waited in reserve during Pickett’s Charge. The depleted 5th was up there, too. My guess is that on the second day those two regiments, which were side by side, waited to go into battle just south of the 148th’s reserve position.

From the Ridge we drove to the Peach Orchard and once again walked from there to the Wheatfield. I love the perspective this walk yields. The pieces of the battlefield seem discrete because of their post-battle names – Cemetery Ridge, the Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard, Devil’s Den, Little Round Top. But in reality they fit together like pieces of a puzzle, and the puzzle is a narrative of the battle, with what happens in one place affecting and often determining what happens in another.

- - -

Tim Smith, a Gettysburg battlefield guide, holds a 3D blowup of bodies on the field after the battle atop the boulder
before which they lay when the photographers found them. The picture was taken in a field near Rose's farm. 
This afternoon we toured the places where Alexander Gardner, Timothy O’Sullivan and James F. Gibson took their famous photographs of the Gettysburg dead after the battle. A large batch of these photos came from a field near Rose’s farm. This is south of the woods where the 5th New Hampshire fought on July 2 and where Col. Cross was killed.

The entrepreneurial spirit moved Gardner and the others to label some of their pictures as having been taken elsewhere on the battlefield. This ruse lasted until the mid-1970s when William Frassanito, after an amazing piece of sleuthing, published a book that disclosed where the pictures were actually taken. He did this by finding the one thing on the vast battlefield that time and nature had changed only slightly: the rocks.

Tim Smith, our tour guide, debunked the myth that Gardner & Co. had moved bodies about willy-nilly to dramatize the scenes they created. They did place weapons on bodies, and in a single documented case they did move a body, but no more. The body they moved was the Confederate sharpshooter in Devil’s Den. He had been killed in the field below.

The tour provided a moment that bent both time and reality. After passing out 3D glasses to the tour group, he stood beside a boulder in George Rose’s field. Atop the boulder he displayed a colorized 3D blowup of a Gardner-O’Sullivan-Gibson image. (Such detailed blowups were made possible, he said, by the huge size of the glass negatives the photographers used. The wagon in which they traveled included a portable darkroom because they needed to make negatives shortly after shooting.) In the image Smith held up, several dead bodies were lined up for burial in front of the very boulder on which he was propping it up.

To add to the surrealism, Smith suggested that because these were Confederate bodies and Lee’s army had moved on by the time the photographers arrived, there was a chance the bodies were buried beneath our feet.

Next: The 5th New Hampshire at Gettysburg, a tour