“Shell fragment” is a phrase you see in books about Civil War battles. For years when I read it, I thought of a sliver of metal that by dark chance caused a mortal wound. Then I visited Grace Forest’s house.
Forest was one of many people who invited me to use family papers when I was working on Our War. Her Civil War ancestor had been named after a president (a custom then, now, not so much). His father, a Pembroke, N.H., farmer, was John Quincy Adams Gordon. J.Q.A. named the first of his 11 children George Washington Gordon.
For a century and a half George W. Gordon’s descendants have preserved his wartime letters to his wife Angeline. They have also kept many of his things, including a shell fragment he brought or sent home from the front. When Grace Forest showed it to me, my mental image of a sliver of metal faded away. This piece of steel weighed a good 10 pounds.
Years ago Forest lent the Gordon letters to the local school, where a teacher or students transcribed them and shared them in class. It is a wonderful collection. It recounts Gordon’s battle experiences and strong opinions and touches on Angeline’s character. Her letters are gone, but his references to them give a picture of both their love and her struggles running the household in Suncook. I used the letters in several chapters of Our War.
|Capt. George Washington Gordon faced battle with|
resolve and did all he could to protect the reputation
of his regiment, the 2nd New Hampshire Volunteers.
Gordon volunteered a week after the attack on Fort Sumter and entered the 2nd New Hampshire Volunteers as a sergeant major in May 1861. He was 27 years old. He and Angeline had two children, 6-year old Willietta, called Etta, and 3-year-old George.
In time Gordon rose to captain. His regiment was one of the most active in the Army of the Potomac, fighting at Bull Run, on the Peninsula, at Bull Run again, at Gettysburg, in Grant’s 1864 campaign and on to the end of the war.
Gordon was wounded at Second Bull Run and again at Gettysburg, where the 2nd New Hampshire was overwhelmed in the southwest corner of the Peach Orchard on the second day.
He had decided to leave the army and go home when his three-year term ended, but just before that date arrived, he was killed at Cold Harbor.
Here are excerpts from his letters home, beginning on the Peninsula:
April 26, 1862, from Yorktown, Va.: “We are making preparations for a big fight here sometime but it does not seem to me as if it would be very soon except politicians make us fight before we get ready. If they do perhaps the consequences may not be so agreeable as they might otherwise. We have lots of cannonading going on all the time and skirmishes most every day and a few get killed and wounded but we have not been in any yet.”
May 13, 1862, from Williamsburg, Va.: “Our brigade is here doing guard duty for the city and I guess we will stop for a while and not see the horrors of the battlefield again which I can assure you is one of the worst sights man ever saw when he stops to contemplate so many so young and fair lay cold and senseless upon the cold earth awaiting some friendly hand to bury. As soon as the night after the battle, men went around and covered the faces of the dead from the gaze of curiosity, but it was four days before the dead were all buried and the smell had got to be fetid from the heat.”
June 16, 1862, from Fair Oaks, Va.: “It almost deprives a man of all humanity to follow the fortunes of war. Here on the battleground where we are encamped there were shot and died more than two thousand. Most of them are buried on the field and so many it is impossible to bury them decent. In passing around you will see positions of bodies out of the ground perhaps a foot or hand in some places animals have dug bodies quite out of the ground.”
June 24, 1862, from Fair Oaks: “I would not live in this miserable country about here full of disease of all kinds – mud reptiles to say nothing of Negroes and copper colored inhabitants as ignorant [as] . . . a parcel of hogs. The educated portion are smart and are ambitious.”
July 7, 1862, from Harrison’s Landing, Va. (after the Seven Days battles): “Two weeks ago today we commenced a pickett skirmish and for ten days I was where men were getting killed and wounded every day. The amount of men killed I dare not guess at but it is enormous and beggars description. But we whipped the rebels in every engagement and the army now lies on the banks of the James all quiet and resting from three days and nights fighting without rest or sleep. . . . I guess a few such fights will exterminate the whole rebel army and our own.
“I am unscathed and unhurt as yet.”
July 10, 1862, from Harrison’s Landing: “Our position is perfectly secure here and we rest in peace and quietness. . . . Our Reg. did not lose more than about a hundred and most of them are prisoners of war and most of them are sick and wounded. It was bad to leave them there in the hands of the rebels after we had driven them miles at the point of the bayonet most of the way and then turn around and leave prisoners. . . .
“Well I have seen about as much fighting as I want to although I expect to see more before this thing is settled. . . . It has to be done and I mean to see the end.”
July 19, 1862, from Harrison’s Landing: “Well I do wish this unholy war was finished for it seems to me it is taking too many lives of our young men both north and south. Before the fights of the seven days we had a large army here but I have seen many fall prey to disease and bullet and many more will do the same ere this will close under present management.
“The [army] is not fighting enough and too much digging. More men have died by diseases contracted from exposures than have been killed in battle by long odds. We are sick of shoveling and chopping and such works. . . .
“I am about played out in finding fault with folks except I take the Chaplain and Surgeon and if I commence on them this sheet is not half large enough for me to express myself for I do believe they steal! And steal articles sent to sick soldiers by the various organizations at home to save the expense of feeding themselves and they can get things that way that cannot be bought here. And it is not only my beliefs but such is the prevailing opinion of most of the Regt.”
Aug. 26, 1862, in the field near Warrenton Junction, Va.: “The Peninsula campaign was a bad move. So history will say and so I deemed it when it commenced and no I cannot help thinking but what with proper energy with the new levies we can soon settle this matter from the present base of operations.”
“[On the march across the Peninsula] we halted for a night about twenty miles from Williamsburg (west). The owner of a nice field of corn of about a hundred acres went to Gen Hooker and wanted a guard to protect it. The Gen replied, ‘Yes you shall have seven hundred and twenty in just fifteen minutes,’ and he did not set it too large, for in the morning he did not have an ear large enough to cook in all his place. Every thing eatible has to suffer in about the same manner. The boys call it foraging and they do it in splendid style. . . . Nothing exists but what they can turn to some count in one way or another, but the bread basket is the first consideration.”
Sept 5, 1862, from Columbia Hospital, Washington, D.C. (after his wound at Second Bull Run): “Everything I had was burned at Warrenton Junction so I shall have to commence new and it will cost considerable for a full outfit. Did not have even a shirt left.”
Sept. 8, 1862, from Columbia Hospital: “What is to be the result of this war is more than I am able to conjure but it seems a land of mourning.
“When I stop and look at the inmates of these various hospitals and think of the thousands that have already been killed in this unholy rebellion it most turns my head. But for all that the war must be prosecuted with all vigor although every home in the nation shall be made desolate for it is desolation unless we do conquer and worse for it would be slavery and nothing more.”
Oct 4, 1862 [back with the regiment]: “Well our name has gone abroad as being a good fighting Regt. and we shall endeavor to maintain it so long as one spark of vitality courses through veins of the sons of N.H. composing the old 2nd of which we feel so proud to be numbered with. . . .
“The men are enjoying themselves very well, the only bane being intoxicating drink which has abounded pretty extensively since the men got four months pay. There was not much money sent home as the men thought it had been so long since they had had any money or had been where anything could be procured except government rations, the ‘go in.’ ”
Oct. 26, 1862, near Alexandria, Va.: “Last night I got two bottles of whiskey and Joe Hubbard and myself have been making hot whiskey toddey enough to ‘forget our poverty and remember misery no more.’ ”
Nov. 15, 1862, from Centreville, Va.: “As to getting drunk there is very little of it for when it is done the parties are usually tried by Court Martial and dismissed [from] the service and those are published and the party so dismissed is forever disgraced – no enviable sentence. I have seen less drunkness amongst the army than ever before among so many. One good reason is because they cannot get the stimulant to get drunk on. I have seen a man pay five dollars for a canteen full of whiskey which is about three pints.”
Dec. 8, 1862, from Falmouth, Va.: “And now we know all due preparations are being made for a fight and on a large scale. The wind blows cold and it is a cheerless night and those that are enjoying pleasant homes can well say you must go and fight this out, a winter campaign is necessary and all this, but let them stop for a moment and consider the amount of lives it will cost, the amount of suffering it will cause, the privations to be endured, and perhaps they might pause. But to pause is impossible.
“A gloom is cast around me tonight which is seldom the case, but I cannot help it for here I see my men suffer, some with silent fortitude, some with curses long and deep, but unanimous in enduring it if it will but finish this job satisfactorily. But the end is not yet. Many more will have to suffer.”
Dec. 31, 1862, from Camp of 2nd [17 days after the battle of Fredericksburg, for which the 2nd was present but hardly involved]: “Most of the soldiers have got the blues and badly too . . . . The future is one dark subject for contemplation and it does seem as if the man for the occasion has not wielded yet the power to carry this trouble to the proper place. I fear unless someone does soon come forth from obscurity, it will be too late to ever attempt to re-establish our old nation as it was or even the shadow of it.”
Jan. 17, 1863: “It does seem a little singular just how things go. With so large an army as we have now we ought to be able to have victories declared every day instead of so many reverses as we have had to acknowledge within the last six months.”
Jan. 24, 1863 [after Gen Ambrose Burnside’s mud march]: “Well we went forth to do battle but the great Gen. of all sent a storm to intervene and thus the move stands by all returning to their former camps all in good health. So now we look to see Gen. Burnsides consigned to oblivion and some new man tried. It is most too bad but Generals cannot control the elements although the people will talk as if he were to blame for the storm coming just at that time. God help the Generals.”
July 4, 1863, from Littleton, Pa. [after Gettysburg]: “I am slightly wounded in three places in my arm neck and side. Am about ten miles from the battlefield at a hotel. . . . My wounds are not dangerous although quite painful.”
July 9, 1863, from Arlington House, Washington, D.C.: “We have had a succession of brilliant victories which will tend to make the rebels look blue. I guess before Lee gets any assistance he will wish he had staid in Virginia and not visited Pa. at all, although the stories in the papers are all to bright by half. There is more fighting to be done and hard fighting too and many lives will be lost.”
July 14, 1863, near Hagerstown, Md.: “We lost in the battle of Gettysburg 193 killed wounded and missing. Capts. Hubbard and Metcalf are killed and 20 more officers out of 24 that went into the fight are wounded. Lieut. Vickery was wounded and is missing and I fear he is gone for good. Stephen Palmer is wounded in the leg or ankle rather and in the arm and I fear he will lose his foot but is in good spirits.”
[The regiment came to Gettysburg 354 officers and men strong. Gordon’s casualty number is correct. It included 47 killed or mortally wounded. The story of the 2nd New Hampshire at Gettysburg is told in Our War, but here is another good account of its fight in the Peach Orchard. The soldiers Gordon mentions are all original members of the regiment. Captains Joseph A. Hubbard of Manchester and Henry Metcalf of Keene, both 20 years old, were killed outright on July 2. Lt. Charles Vickery of Manchester, 22, died of his wounds on July 11. Private Stephen H. Palmer of Manchester, 34, lingered until Aug. 14, when he also died. At the start of the war, all but Metcalf had been members of Co. I, of which Gordon was captain at Gettysburg.]
July 19, 1863: “We are getting good news from the armies and it does look as if we could see the beginning of the end. The sooner we shall have one more big fight and if victorious as before, the war will be virtually finished. . . . I have eleven guns in my Co. now so you can imagine how many we have lost.”
Nov. 14, 1863, from Point Lookout, Md. [the 2nd had been transferred here to work as guards at a camp for Confederate prisoners of war. He is commenting on the substitutes who filled the ranks of depleted Union regiments after Gettysburg]: “The 5th N.H. arrived here last night and went into camp up above the rebels camp with their conscripts and such a set, d-----d them. Oh! If I had a company of those fellows I would want to kill some of the devils. I suspect that we will be filled up with such skulch on this new call. If we are, God help them. . . .
“It has got to be night and with darkness comes the rain and with the storm come feelings of loneliness. Oh! that I was was with you tonight all would be bliss. It does seem sometimes as if I would surrender my standing, honor and everything else for the sake of being with my beloved wife and family, but I have gone forth to do my country service in battle and I did not act until I had well considered the deprivations connected with such service and I abide the issue come what will, come what may. . . .
“If you could be with me, all could be sunshine. . . . Now I do not believe I am licentious minded . . . except with you and that is not criminal, I believe. What do you think? If I was at home, you would not object to sleeping with me, would you? Or would you rather sleep awake? I guess you would.”
Dec. 2, 1863, from Point Lookout: “I have got a lot of recruits – 20 – and such devils. We have lost the name of N.H. now certain for not one of them were born in N.H. most all from Europe Irish (Ireland) Dutch Sweden Hollanders French Swiss and everything imaginable. Well I shall make them soldiers or give them a ticket for somewhere but not heaven, I know.”
April 14, 1864, from Yorktown, Va. [Gordon had been on court-martial duty and sentenced deserters to death, but the execution had been postponed]: “We marched back to camp blue as whetstones and not a little mad for such measures are necessary to keep men with the commands to which the belong. It is rather hard but fair.”
April 30, 1864, from Yorktown [after the execution of two deserters]: “We are getting a pretty hard name for a court. Well we have got four of them shot and more are deserving of being shot if I am judge.”
May 27, 1864, near Bermuda Hundred, Va.: “If we should happen to go to Grants army we shall see some fighting to what we have in this campaign so far. It is not what we have been used to and I have a liking for this Dept. I am not fond of the hard fighting we have had [even] if promotions do come a little more often because I do want to come out of this war now. I have gone so far and get honorable scores enough and now I can go home and live contented in relating the adventures of camp life while in the army.”
May 30, 1864, from Pamunkey River, Va. [preparing to march to Grant’s army]: “All are well as usual and the old men [original enlistees] are expecting to go home in four or five days. Give my respect to all the folks and love to you and babies and Kiss them for me.”
Three days later at Cold Harbor, a bullet split the top of Gordon’s skull and killed him. More than five months later, Angeline was still trying to have his body returned home. H.B. Fowler, the surgeon in charge of the hospital at Point of Rocks, Va., wrote her on Nov. 15, 1864: “I am sorry to say that the remains of your dear husband and my brother cannot possibly be got at the present time.”