Tuesday, October 8, 2013

A mother's dying wish, a son's destiny

The coming of the Civil War was the defining moment of Francis Amsden Clary’s life, as it was for most of his generation. But for few men was the struggle with destiny as trying as his.

Clary was a 24-old-student at Amherst College in April 1861. He had studied for two years at Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, N.H., before entering Amherst College. His studies had a single purpose, one settled on long before Clary was old enough to comprehend it.

Amherst College, circa 1900 (Library of Congress photo)
His mother died when he was two. Her deathbed wish was that he be “trained up for God” and become a missionary in China. His father John Clary did all he could to cultivate this wish, and in heart and mind Francis seemed focused on the goal she had named for him.

From Kimball Union he wrote his father that his studies were “a stream of pleasure from Monday morning till Saturday night. The toil is incessant, but very sweet. Thus I am preparing to go about my Master’s business.” Advised to move to a different climate to cure an illness, he went to Labrador with friends and started a mission on Caribou Island. He was preparing himself for China.

Back at Amherst in early 1861, he wrote home on April 22 that suddenly all tongues on campus had turned to war. “Even now, between ten and eleven o’clock, I hear the beating of the drum in the distance. We have been marching to music, listening to Union speeches, and assisting at flag raisings.” A professor had gone to the governor to ask for arms for the college. Clary had joined 70 classmates in signing a pledge to volunteer.

Less than a week later, the war fever had cooled. The faculty had decided it was best if students didn’t drill on college grounds. Clary was soon running a Sunday school in Old Hadley, three miles away, teaching hymns and Bible verses to the half dozen African-American students in a class of 11. “I hope God will accept my labors,” he wrote.

He continued to struggle over his future, but finally, on Oct. 1 he wrote a thoughtful letter telling his father he had reached a decision. “Perhaps you will be surprised to read this letter,” he began, “but upon a second perusal, and upon careful consideration of the motives prompting me to take the step proposed, I think you cannot object to my leaving college at once to join my brave brothers and classmates who are hastening to the conflict, especially if you have thought earnestly of the pressing need of men for the army.”

He was 25 years old and did not need – or expect – his father’s blessing, but he wanted it. “You spoke of my not joining the army until obliged to by drafting,” he wrote. “I think I am obliged to go now.  My conscience, my convictions of duty, everything about me suggests the course proposed.”

John Clary answered immediately, saying his son’s letter had surprised him. “I am not afraid to have you go the war, not even to engage in battle, nor to fall in your country’s service, if it is the Divine will,” he wrote. “But your circumstances are peculiar; you have been consecrated as an ambassador for Christ in China.

“This I have supposed was the land of your adopted work. I had fondly hoped to live to see you enter that great and glorious missionary field, where you would have abundant opportunity to exhaust all your energies in wielding spiritual weapons to restore millions of rebels to allegiance to the King of kings.” While his son now proposed “to serve your country; yet there are thousands and tens of thousands ready to sacrifice themselves on this altar, where there is one to go to China.”

John Clary reminded Francis that he had lost a year by starting college at 23 and could not afford to lose more time to soldiering. If he volunteered, he could forget about graduating from Amherst. The country’s situation was critical but not desperate, the father wrote. Francis’s plans were superior to those of the military volunteers, and it would be “inexpedient” for him to join an army that did not need him.

There was no convincing Francis. Hours after reading his father’s letter, he enlisted in the 31st Massachusetts Infantry, the Western Bay State regiment.

Clary’s convictions did not keep him from complaining. He found few other devout Christians in the ranks. “Professors of religion are in great danger of lowering their standard, for the wicked are an overwhelming majority,” he wrote. He was “obliged to hear a great deal of profane swearing, and to associate with those who indulge in it. Any hints that you can give me as to the best way of urging men to discontinue the practice will be most gratefully received.” He also disliked the clamor for promotion. “Disappointment and ill-feeling are constantly arising from disappointed office-seekers, who threaten to leave the ranks unless they can be gratified.”

Maj. Gen.Benjamin Butler, New Hampshire native,
Massachusetts politician, was 43 years old when
Sgt. Clary stood watch over his hotel.
On Jan. 5, 1862, he was promoted to sergeant and chosen to carry his regiment's national colors, a job he described as “one of the most responsible and dangerous positions in the line.” When the major general under whom the 31st served visited Pittsfield. Mass., where the regiment was training, Clary was assigned as orderly sergeant in the detail guarding his hotel.

The commander was Benjamin Butler, native of Deerfield, N.H., graduate of Colby College and wily Democratic politician who had barely lost the 1859 Massachusetts governor’s race to Nathaniel Banks, now a major general himself. Butler had made a name for himself as the occupier of Baltimore after the 6th Massachusetts was attacked there in April 1861 and as the general who refused to send back slaves who came into his lines in Virginia.

On Feb. 21, the Mississippi carried Clary and his regiment south. A gale blew the steamer onto Frying Pan Shoals off Cape Hatteras, N.C. Only after the rescue vessel Mount Vernon lightened the Mississippi’s load by taking aboard 400 men could it tow the leaking steamer away.

Eventually the force arrived on Ship Island and headed up the Mississippi River toward New Orleans. “Our vessel often steered so near the bank we could speak with the negroes, many of whom would stop their work, and give expression to their delight by clapping their hands, throwing up their aprons, hoes, etc.,” Clary wrote home. The men expected a fight any day. “I never enjoyed religion so much as in these few weeks past,” Clary wrote. “My trust in God is quickened, and now on the eve of conflict it is more lively than ever.”

The 31st Massachusetts reached New Orleans just after the city's surrender. On May 1, 1862, “we sailed up between splendid plantations on each side of the river, and anchored in front of the city just before noon, exchanging rousing cheers as we arrived with the crews of various vessels already arrived.”

The city was gloomy. Stores and offices were closed. At first, few residents came to the wharves to see the occupiers, who were told not to converse with the civilians. By the time the soldiers had loaded their muskets, fixed bayonets and lined up on deck to enter the city, many more New Orleanians had gathered.

“While standing before the rabble, we were subjected to jeers and curses (but) for the most part the people expressed their contempt and bitter hatred by sullen silence,” Clary wrote. As he approached, people stepped back from the flag he carried “as if it were pollution. . . . Insult upon insult was heaped upon the flag. It seemed as if the desperadoes would actually tear it from my hands.”

While martial law quieted the local population, it did not improve Clary’s view of the city. “I believe this is the most abandoned, God forsaken place in the whole Union,” he wrote. He also despised the practice of locking up runaway slaves who came into Union camps “for safe keeping. I have had nothing to do with this hated work; and I never will assist it in any way.”

The heat grew more oppressive as the days passed. “I hope that by rigid self-denial and prudence, I shall be able to escape disease, and through the kindness of our heavenly Father to see my dear home once more,” Clary wrote. In the 100-degree temperatures of mid-July the men finally began to drink rainwater instead of muddy river water, an improvement that Clary cheered. After a brief illness, he wrote his sister: “I have thought very much of death of late; and the more intently I fix my mind upon this theme, the more I enjoy the exercise. Yes, I may be nearer home than I think, and I feel perfectly willing to leave the issue entirely in the hands of God.”

The design of Ft. Jackson, where Clary and his regiment were sent.
On its way upriver to New Orleans, the 31st had passed Fort Jackson, a riverfront installation in Plaquemines Parish, just as the Union navy captured it after a 12-day siege. In late August the regiment steamed back downriver to occupy the star-shaped fort, which had two moats.

Illness weakened the garrison. “Many of the men have what we call the ‘shakes,’ more properly fever and ague,” Clary wrote. He visited the sick, wrote letters home for them and prayed for them in their final hours.

His moral disapproval of his comrades’ behavior did not abate. “Camp life has a multitude of seductions, and I have an opportunity to witness its terrible effects upon the morals of those who yield to the wiles of the tempter,” he wrote. “Sad havoc has been made by strong drink.”

The alligators swimming in the moats of the fort grew to 15 feet. Their newborn offspring were “no longer than my hand,” Clary wrote. He watched the regiment’s adjutant feed sponge cake to a baby alligator in a tub of water. He ate alligator meat and thought it tasted like beefsteak. “A good soldier will eat about anything put before him without complaint,” he wrote.

In the spring of 1863, the 31st Massachusetts fought in the Teche Bayou campaign, and Clary’s letters home slowed to a trickle. The family heard nothing for weeks before receiving a letter from Sgt. Joseph E. Wilder, the regiment’s quartermaster, who had been a friend of Clary’s at Amherst.

It is hard to know how much truth such letters tell, what they omit, what they fudge in the hope of easing their recipients’ pain. Probably Sgt. Wilder’s absence from the scene he described helped him shape his story. He had learned what he knew by asking men who were there.

Wilder had last seen Clary the night of June 13. Clary knew the regiment was about to move into battle and asked his friend to write to his father if anything happened to him. Wilder interpreted this wish as the norm for a soldier entering battle, not a premonition of death.

The next day the 31st had advanced on Confederate lines at Port Hudson. The men were ordered to stop and lie in a ditch under “a galling fire” within 200 yards of rebel infantry and artillery.

That afternoon, Wilder wrote, a rebel ball struck Clary in the left side of the neck and remained lodged inside. Clary said, “I am hit, someone must take the colors.” He asked for water and bade friends goodbye. He remained conscious and despite the pain of his wound “died easily” within an hour.

Wilder did witness his friend’s burial, in the shade of a large tree in the forest.

“The conduct of your son, ever since I first knew him, has been such as became a patriot and a Christian,” he wrote. “You sorrow then, not as those without hope. . . . I know that what is our loss is his gain. . . . Few live as exemplary a life as your son did; few die a nobler death.”

Wilder expanded on this thought in a letter to another man: “That so conscientious a man as Sergeant Clary should have been so fully persuaded that this was his post of duty, instead of being in China in fulfilment of his long-cherished plans to become a missionary of the Cross, is one of the highest tributes to the true nature of our cause, and to the motives which actuate many of its defenders. Religion to him was not a Sabbath garb, donned once a week; it was a deep controlling influence which moulded his whole life. . . . With truth can it be said of him, he walked with God.”

[Most of the material for this post came from the book The Color Bearer, which was published by the American Tract Society a year after Francis A. Clary’s death. Sgt. Wilder was killed at the battle of Sabine Crossroads on April 8, 1864.]

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