Monday, September 9, 2013

Curses to 'Old Abe and His gang of cutthroats'

I love old New England cemeteries, especially those hidden away on back roads.

Over the Labor Day weekend Monique and I took four of our grandkids to visit an alpaca farm in Elkins, a village in New London, N.H. It was the greatest thing: 90 alpacas with names like Norwegian Wood, Ginger Ale and Phantom of the Opera, big hairy angora rabbits, and funky chickens, including one with an Afro that would have done Jimi Hendrix proud. Sue King, who raises these animals with her husband, graciously led the six of us on a tour of the place. The kids loved it. 

A few of the alpacas of Elkins, N.H. 
After leaving the farm, we weren’t five seconds beyond an old cemetery when I suggested we turn around and search it for Civil War graves.

Grace, our oldest granddaughter, groaned. She had been down this road before. Our second oldest granddaughter, Eleanor, said she was afraid of cemeteries. But soon we were all wandering the spongy grass of the Elkins Cemetery looking for graves marked by American flags and GAR emblems.

New London was a town of 950 people in 1862 when 38 members of McCutchins Guards, the town militia, volunteered together to serve in the war. One of them, a fifer name Ransom Sargent, is the central character in the last chapter of Our War. With his militia comrades he joined Company F of the 11th New Hampshire Volunteers. This regiment went to war in the fall of 1862 and served till June 1865.

Sargent is buried in the Old Main Street Cemetery in New London. In the Elkins Cemetery, we and our grandchildren found two of his comrades. They were:

Private Newton C. Everett, who was 25 when he joined Company F. He was wounded in the regiment’s first battle, at Fredericksburg, and discharged the following August. He lived to be 75.

Corporal George R. McFarland, the first man from New London to enlist. He had served in the three-month 1st New Hampshire before joined Company F a year after the 1st came home. Wounded in the Wilderness on May 6, 1864, he was discharged the following May. He died at 77.

Four of our grandchildren, Eleanor and Henry (front) and Grace and
Jackson, on the town common in Newport, N.H. The town's
Civil War memorial stands directly behind them.
It was our younger grandson, Henry, who made the most interesting find of the day. This was a tall, ornate Victorian stone with the name “Goings” on it. Buried there was Claude Goings, whose letters I first encountered in New Hampshire Fights the Civil War, Mather Cleveland’s 1969 book. 

Cleveland, a New London physician, was a scholar of the state’s Civil War experience. He collected many letters of New Hampshire soldiers, and eventually transcripts of these letters wound up in the Rauner collection at Dartmouth College.

In his book Cleveland used the letters of Claude and Charles Goings in his chapter on the 8th New Hampshire Volunteers. I read the letters at Rauner and quoted both brothers in my Our War chapter on soldiers’ racial attitudes at the time the Emancipation Proclamation took effect.

Claude Goings was a thorough racist – one of tens of thousands of soldiers with such views in the Union army. 

A carriage painter by trade and a violinist by avocation, Goings enlisted in late 1861 with his younger brothers, Charles and Austin, in the same company of the 8th. The brothers were both privates, but Claude went in as a 25-year-old corporal. The regiment served in Louisiana.

In early 1864 the 8th switched to horseback. The men were issued sabers, breech-loading carbines and Remington revolvers. After two months’ training, they became the 2nd New Hampshire Cavalry.

Claude Goings's gravestone.
Claude Goings was wounded at Bayou de la Glaize during the Red River campaign in May 1864.

He survived his wound and, his three-year enlistment up, left the army on Jan. 18, 1865. His brother Charles mustered out the same day. Austin had been discharged in 1862, probably because of illness.

In my chapter on the Emancipation Proclamation, I quoted letters from Louisiana from both Charles and Claude to Claude’s wife, Mary Pike Goings. Both mentioned their many encounters with African-Americans in Louisiana. Charles once wrote: “If I thought we were fighting to free them, I would throw my musket to the devil and leave. If I got my neck stretched, all wright.”

In January 1863, the month the proclamation took effect, Claude wrote Mary from Baton Rouge to express his disgust with the document. The recent Union defeat at Fredericksburg was also on his mind.

“The Soldiers Here are getting out of patience with Old Abe and His gang of cutthroats and their Hellish Scheme of Emancipation and mismanagement of our Armies,” Goings wrote. “What a scene must have been the Battlefield of Fredericksburg. . . . God have Mercy upon us all.

Claude Goings served in the 8th N.H. Volunteers.
“Our Rulers . . . are ready to Sacrefice us all in their attempt to Free the Nigger. Could I have foreseen Lincolns policy before I enlisted, it would have required force to have got me to Shoulder a musket or in any way contribute to Such a cause.”

Later he boiled his anger down to one sentence: “The ruling power thinks of nothing but the Poor Nigger!”

Standing before Claude Goings’s grave with my grandchildren, I decided they were too young for a lesson in the racial issues of the Civil War. Later, I hope.

Despite his harsh opinions Goings risked his life for his country. I respect that. Besides, I gave up the illusion long ago that most New England soldiers favored abolition and cared deeply about the plight of the slaves.

Had I lived 150 years ago, I hope my views would have been more enlightened than Claude Goings’s, but who really knows?

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