Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Beaufort, S.C., July 15, 1862: a soldier's snapshot

Fort Jefferson, west of Key West
Private Onville Upton was 18 years old when he went to war with Co. D of the 7th New Hampshire Volunteers in late 1861. Nine months later, when he wrote to his sister Mary in Contoocookville, a section of Hopkinton in central New Hampshire, the 7th had yet to see battle.

The regiment arrived at Beaufort, S.C., on June 22, 1862, after several months posted at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas 70 miles west of Key West. The chief enemy there had been formidable enough: smallpox.

Upton remained with the 7th through its many battles, two of which, Fort Wagner and Olustee, Fla., are chronicled in Our War. He made corporal in 1863 and was wounded near Chester Station on the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad on May 10, 1864, during the Petersburg campaign. He was mustered out just after Christmas that year and returned to New Hampshire. He settled in Concord, where, in the late 1890s, he helped found a the Friends' Christian Union, a religious society along Putiran Baptist lines.

Tents of the 7th New Hampshire pitched on Morris Island in 1863.
The photographer, Henry P. Moore of Concord, traveled to the South
Carolina coast to take pictures at the front and did a thriving business.  
In the letter below, which was sold recently on eBay, Onville gives his sister a sharp snapshot of life at his new post at Hilton Head. He is eager for men back home in Hopkinton to join the army and fight at his side. He is collecting war booty, enjoying the bounty of the Carolina coast and anticipating battle at any moment.

Upton shares camp rumors about the fate of George McClellan's campaign on the Virginia Peninsula. The first assessment, judging McClellan's Seven Days retreat a defeat, is closer to the mark. McClellan did capture a large number of prisoners but not Joseph Johnston, who was replaced as commanding general of Confederate forces after being wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines. His successor was Robert E. Lee. 

Here is a transcript of Upton's letter:

Co. D 7th Regt N.H. Vols.
Beaufort, S.C., July 15, 1862

Dear Sister Mary

I now take my Pen in hand to write a few lines to you to let you know that I am well now but have been unwell for the past two days after eating meat after Returning from Picket. I was Pretty hungry, but I made some herb tea and the next morning I was well.

On the fourth of July the Rebels attacked out Pickets. As I have wrote before today, the 7th, they are going to be Paid for the gun Boats are going around the island to-night to attack there Battery in the morning. The Pa. 100 Reg., or Round heads as they call them, has just arrived and are going up there to Cross over after the gun Boats begin. We have got a strong Picket out to-night and the Rebels have got to take it. I will Close for to-night and write more in the morning.

The first page and envelope of Private Upton's letter.
This morning at about 6 o’clock the Boats opened fire on the Rebel Battery and they fired a few times and left. There was brisk firing for a short time. Our men then took there guns and there Small Boats that that Came acrost to attack our Pickets and anumber of the things and brot them off. Our men drove them on five miles to there Reserve and then the Rebels drove them back till more of the federals landed he 50th Pa. Reg. has left for fortress monroe to help reinforce McClellan. It is said he got whiped at Richmond.

At church this forenoon the 8th Maine Band played Old hundred and it sounded good, I tell you. It made me think of the Contoocook Band. It played just like that when it went up to the Academy.


Tuesday the 15th was a very fine day and after 9 o’clock at night I went in to the tent to lye down and rest a Little. The enemy was troublesome all day. The Caveldry had bin Called out as they thought  the Rebels were coming and soon after 10 o’clock Orders came for us to go out So I sprang up and dresed, loaded my Revolver and we went out. We only went out for the night to Strengthen the Pickets. We have to in Case the enemy is approaching, but next Monday the 21st we have got to go on the out Poasts and stay 15 days. Then we Shall have to look out for our selves and then you must not expect letters from me because I Cant write on the B----.

Magor Smith of this Regiment [Major Daniel Smith died of disease two months after this letter was written.] and three mor men are going home to Recruit for this Regiment. You tell Barlow to tell the Boys to Come out and joine this Reg. if they think of enlisting.

I am going to send you a few Pieces of the Distroyed Secesh Organ that I took out of one of the Churches of the city of B. [Beaufort]. The houses, Churches and other Buildings are left empty and the doors wide open.

There are any quantity of figs here. They are just getting ripe. They are very nice. Oranges are about full size but not ripe as yet. The government has got large fields of Cotton. There is a suprentendent apointed to keep the Nigers at work. They have got Corn to. There is any quantity of Mellons and green Corn to Boil and rost.

Last night the 16th after 9 o’clock the mail Come in and I received your letter Dated the 2nd of July and was very glad to hear from home. I see that you are very Prompt in Answering my letters. I have wrote to grafton and Frank quite anumber of times and have not received a single letter since I left N.Y. City, but you have Answered every letter and that is just what I like.

I have got my Box ready to send home. I have got a regular Secesh Port-mony [wallet] for you in alittle Box in the Corner of the large one. I got it of one of the fellows that was in Beaufort. He found it among other things that the Rebels left in there flight.

Does Barlow use my wagon eny. If he does tell him to be very Careful of it for I set a good deal of it. If I ever Come home again I shall want to keep it. Has he fixed his drum yet. I hear that McClellan has Captured Old Johnston and fifteen thousand troops and is near Richmond, but I don’t know how true it is. There will Probably be amovement here before long.

I have bin out and got some figs  just before I began to write this and now I am going to stew them for supper.

I don’t think of eny thing more to write this time so good by. My love to all.

Please excuse.
From Onville.

Write soon.

Monday, November 25, 2013

As its centenary nears, the Easter Rising provokes debate

Tour leader under the Irish tricolor shows the spot where the 1916 martyrs were shot. 
Patrick Pearse, one of the 1916 martyrs
Only after a couple of days of walking past the post office in Dublin did it dawn on me that it was the post office  – the General Post Office, main headquarters of the Easter Rising in 1916. This was the Irish equivalent of the American colonies' revolt in 1775-76, complete with a proclamation that read: “We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible.”

Inside the post office are a statue and a plaque. The legend reads: “Here on Easter Monday 1916 Patrick Pearse read the proclamation of the Irish republic. From this building he commanded the forces that asserted in arms Ireland’s right to freedom.”

Pearse was a poet, as were other leaders of the Rising. The British army, though preoccupied with fighting a world war, easily put down the rebellion, which did not initially arouse the popular support its leaders had hoped for.

At the Kilmainham Gaol, you can stand in the courtyard where firing squads shot Pearse and 15 other leaders of the Rising. It was their near-summary executions that made them martyrs and turned public opinion toward their cause.

William Butler Yeats 
You don’t have to look far in Dublin for further references to the Rising. At the National Library, two current exhibits both relate to it. One is about the Irish in World War I, the other about William Butler Yeats.

The Yeats exhibit is absorbing in many ways, with moving readings of his best poems, displays of early manuscripts, candid documentary films about his politics and his love life, and ample information about his life as a public man. As a senator, Yeats led the committee that designed the coinage for the Irish Free State in 1926. He also argued eloquently against a ban on divorce in the Free State’s constitution. One of his best known poems, Easter 1916, is about the Rising.

Debate over the Rising and its aftermath has never ended, but with its 100th anniversary near, the arguments will surely sharpen. Here is a salvo fired under the headline “How should we remember 1916?” in The Irish Times during my stay in Dublin. The writer is Paddy McAvoy of Holywood in County Down. His mention of Scotland refers to a referendum on independence scheduled for next September. An early poll shows 29 percent in favor of independence, 44 percent opposed, the rest undecided. At 7-1 against, current betting odds are even starker. “Casuistry,” by the way, means the use of clever but unsound reasoning, especially in relation to moral questions.

“Stephen Collins’s thoughts on how 1916 should be commemorated should be welcomed. (‘Present-day politics has no place in 1916 remembrance,’ Opinion, November 9th). It is going to be a feat of high-wire casuistry for a nation looking back ruefully on a century of hardship and mismanagement – does anybody really know how many Irish people have been ‘disappeared’ by emigration in that period, for instance – to appear to be upbeat about an event that begs so many questions.

At  Kilmainham Gaol, a cross marks the spot of the execution of one of the 1916 Easter Rising martyrs. 
“The Big Bang of 1916 has fuelled division and discord on this island, and further afield, ever since. It is by no means established that anything like a majority of the Irish people wished to leave the union, in that particular way, and at that particular time. What is even more certain is that only a small fraction would have chosen the route hacked-out by Pearse, Connolly, and latterly Adams, et al. If “Better Together” is true for Scotland in 2013, it was true for Ireland in 1916.

Inside the Kilmainham Gaol, which has been used as a setting
for many television shows and movies.
“Violence has been a curse on our people and those who have been its godfathers need to be constantly apprised of the cloud they have brought down on all of us. There were civilised alternatives, whatever ‘republican’ propagandists say.

“Had the people been consulted about a precipitate lurch out of the union, it is unlikely that the leaders of the carnage would have got away with the thorny way they proposed.

“But no such consultation was offered. Rather than go through a hollow travesty in 2016 which puts those who oppose(d) violent methods, then and now, in the position of having to appear to be faking enthusiasm, (so as not to be accused of being West Britons, by the usual ‘guardians of the threshold’), for an event many wish hadn’t happened in the first place, I propose that a plebiscite be held on the role which guns, bombs, and intimidation, have played in this distressful country over the past 100 years.

“Violence, and its justification, have become a cancer in our society and those who have taken any act or part in it, and the many grisly forms it which has manifested itself, have made the rest of us pay a heavy price for their two-faced and delinquent recklessness. But for the Irish people to be asked to celebrate the bitter fruits sown by the gunman is surely too much, considering the other charades they are currently being forced to go along with?

“The Irish people should have been consulted about ‘armed struggle’ in 1916.

“Ask them now, in a belated bid to collectively turn a corner, and in an overdue attempt to clean out our stinking stables.”
With my bride Monique on the jail tour, highlight of a recent trip of Dublin.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

W. redux, and Cheney, too

Felice Belman, the editor of the new, expanded Forum pages at the Concord Monitor, emailed three weeks ago and asked me to review Days of Fire. This is Peter Baker’s new book on the George W. Bush years. The subtitle is Bush and Cheney in the White House. I said yes. Reluctantly.

I’m one of those people who tried to forget the Bush years even as they were happening. This was difficult, as I was the Monitor’s editor throughout his two terms, and presidential politics is New Hampshire’s official state pastime. A few months before his second term ended, my brother Robin gave me one of those baseball caps sporting the legend “1-20-09,” the day Bush was to leave office. I wore the cap – not in public, where my neutrality was vital to my work – but when I walked in the woods.

So, with what I consider the Bush-Cheney nightmare finally fading, I was not eager to read an 800-page book about their administration.

But Peter Baker has delivered an account that is informative, entertaining and straight down the middle. Baker has been a top-level political reporter for 20 years, much of it covering the White House. It is as a reporter, not a historian, that he approached the story of the Bush administration. His research was prodigious: 400 interviews, memoirs by key White House players, documents public now that were not public then.

I interviewed Baker by phone the other day, and he described his intentions for the book. A newspaper reporter gets only a snatch of what happens on a given day and distills the information into a deadline story that captures the essence and the broad strokes of an event. Only later are the participants willing to fill in the larger picture. And that was Baker’s aim in Days of Fire: to give readers the more nuanced story of the Bush presidency – an account unavailable as events were unfolding. He wasn’t out to make a point or posit a major historical revision.

Peter Baker
Baker is a companionable writer. His prose is vivid and moves quickly, and he explains complex issues without dragging the reader away from the story. After interviewing most of the participants in a meeting where a big issue was decided, he can – and does – put the reader in the room.

For me, the joy of reading history is to see major characters come alive. The central figure in Baker’s book is, of course, George W. Bush himself. Baker's Bush is a three-dimensional character, a flawed human being but in some ways a sympathetic one. His ego vacillates between neediness and hubris. Baker delves into his relationship with his father, his fanatic bicycle riding, his recovery from alcoholism, his maddening blind spots, his competitiveness and his stubborn streak.

I don’t want to give away too much – or repeat myself – before the Monitor publishes the review and interview a week from tomorrow. As I’m sure you can guess, despite my reservations about a major dose of Bush and Cheney so soon after their White House years, I enjoyed the assignment.

The Monitor is sponsoring an appearance by Baker on Dec. 5 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres in Concord. Seating is limited, so if you want to reserve a seat, best call Cathy Valley at 603-369-3210 ASAP.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A picture is worth . . .

Like many of my friends who have an interest in New Hampshire's role in the Civil War, I keep an eye on eBay. When this search is successful, it usually provides a fleeting look at a face or a letter or a document.

It's a shame so much such material useful to historians remains on the collector market, but this is America. I witnessed the flip side as I was researching Our War. Several people who lent me family letters from their Civil War ancestors later gave these personal collections to public archives. Others may do the same as time goes by.

Anyway, below is a beautiful soldier ambrotype that showed up on eBay recently. It is of a young private in the 14th New Hampshire Volunteers. He served in Company F, whose members came mainly from Winchester, Chesterfield, Richmond and Milan, N.H.. This regiment mustered in the late summer of 1862 for three years' service, and from the crispness of the private's uniform, I'd guess the picture was made then.

Members of the 14th initially served as prison guards in Washington, D.C., but two years into their service, they fought bravely and lost heavily at the third battle of Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley.

Even though the man pictured is not named, the ambrotype sold on eBay for a whopping $565.36. Perhaps the buyer (and other bidders) knew he was, but even with the subject unidentified the picture has two features that collectors prize. One is condition. It's gorgeous, the frame apparently undamaged, the picture unusually bright and clear. Collectors also like weapons in a portrait, and this man is grasping his rifle with fixed bayonet. (I'm no expert, but it looks like a Springfield rifle to me.)

There are also intangibles here: the resolve in the private's face and the clear identification of his company, regiment and state. But I'm sure the new owner would love to know Private John Doe's name.

Can anyone help?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

On the platform with Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg as he spoke 'a few brief, but most appropriate, words'

The historian James McPherson has described Benjamin Brown French’s account of the cemetery dedication at Gettysburg as “the best we have.” French was a New Hampshireman, born in Chester in 1800. His nephew, Daniel Chester French, would one day sculpt the seated Lincoln statue in the Lincoln Memorial.

Benjamin Brown French
B.B. French was Lincoln’s commissioner of buildings, including the White House and the Capitol. As such, his most challenging duty was keeping First Lady Mary Lincoln’s expenses under control.

French makes multiple appearances in Our War. He went for a walk the morning after the first battle of Bull Run and happened upon the wagon that had carried Gilman Marston, the wounded congressman-colonel of the 2nd New Hampshire, back to Washington. On inauguration day in 1865, he helped frustrate a gunman in the Capitol, realizing only later that the man was John Wilkes Booth (You can read more about that here). French was also at Lincoln’s deathbed and looked after his body until it left Washington for Springfield.

At Gettysburg 150 years ago today, French served as a marshal under Ward Hill Lamon, Lincoln’s bodyguard. He had written a poem for the occasion, and it was sung as a hymn between the oration of Edward Hale Everett and the remarks of President Lincoln.

French wrote in his journal on Nov. 6, 1863: “Col. Lamon is to be Marshal-in-Chief at Gettysburg on the 19th inst., when the grand inauguration of the Cemetery for soldiers killed, or who died there, takes place, and he has asked me to aid him, which I have agreed to do. This will be a task. But we are all in for doing what we can to show our Patriotism, and I should not think I was doing my duty were I to decline. If alive & well, I shall be there.”

Ward Hill Lamon
And there he was. He wrote his account on Nov. 22, a Sunday, three days after the Gettysburg Address, which he described as “a few brief, but most appropriate, words.” Donald B. Cole and John J. McDonough transcribed a large portion of French’s diary for their wonderful Witness to the Young Republic, published in 1989. With a few excisions, here is French’s diary entry on the dedication of the cemetery:

We arrived at Gettysburg at ½ past one P.M. [on Tuesday, Nov. 17]. Quite a crowd accompanied us from Baltimore & Hanover Junction. . . . Finding that there was no certainty of my being accommodated at the hotel I went to Brother Robert Goodloe Harper’s [publisher of the Adams Centinel in Gettysburg], whose name had been given to me by Bro. Creigh [a Masonic friend of French’s], and he at once said that he would take care of me, and to him and his excellent wife and daughter am I indebted for as much comfort and happiness as any man in Gettysburg enjoyed from 2 o’clock on Tuesday until 1 o’clock P.M. on Friday [Nov. 20].

Mr. Harper is 64 years old & moves about with all the elasticity of a boy. He owns & edits the Adams Sentinel, a paper established many years ago by his father. He has had twelve children, 10 by his first wife, who died 20 years ago, & 2 by his present wife, to whom he has been married some 8 or 10 years. She is now 32 years old. He has grandchildren who are grown up. The whole family are remarkably hospitable and pleasant.

I spent the afternoon and evening in listening to Mrs. Harper’s account of the battle, and the many incidents accompanying it which fell under her observation. She remained in her house through the whole of it, and it became a hospital after the battle was over. Two bullets came into the house through the windows, one of which struck a crib at the bedside of a wounded officer, the other passed within a few inches of Mrs. Harper. One shell fell in the garden within a few feet of the house, but did not explode. It was picked up, the charge extracted, & now lies on the parlor table, where I saw it. . . .

At 6 P.M. [on Wednesday, Nov. 18] came the President of the U.S., Secretaries Seward & Usher, and P.M. Gen. Blair of the Cabinet [Secretary of State William H. Seward, Interior Secretary John P. Usher and Postmaster General Montgomery Blair], the French and Italian Ministers and their Secretaries, & Messrs. [John] Nicolay & [John] Hay, Private Secretaries to the President. Mr. Seward, Mr. Berchenatti (the Italian Minister) & his Secretary, Mr. Cova, stayed at Mr. Harper’s, where I did, and the President and the others of his party at Mr. Wills’s [David Wills, chairman of the cemetery board, had invited Lincoln to speak at the dedication] next door to Mr. Harper’s.

In the evening the President came into Mr. Harper’s and spent an hour. That evening there was a large influx of visitors, and the President and Mr. Seward were serenaded and made brief speeches. . . .

Secretary of State William H. Seward
At this point let me say that I have seldom, if ever, met a man whose mind is under such perfect discipline, and is so full of original and striking matter as Secretary Seward’s. His conversation, no matter on what subject, is worthy of being written down and preserved, and if he had a Boswell to write, as Boswell did of Johnson, one of the most interesting and useful books of the age might be produced from the conversations and sayings of William H. Seward. He is one of the greatest men of this generation.

After I retired to rest, the public square on which Mr. Harper’s house fronts seemed to be filled with people. They sang & hallooed and cheered. Among other things they sang in full chorus & admirably, the whole of that well known production whose refrain is –

We are coming Father Abraham, three hundred thousand more.

I went to sleep between 1 & 2 A.M. & arose at daylight [Nov. 19]. As soon as breakfast was over I set about procuring a horse, which I got of the Quartermaster, Capt. [Henry Bloyden] Blood. A shaggy, unpromising looking nag he was, but on mounting him & using the spurs pretty freely, I found that he was a spirited and easy-going breast, and he performed all I desired admirably.

The Marshals were all assembled, mounted, in the square, with sashes on and batons in hand, at 9 o’clock, and by 10 the procession commenced moving. Never was a procession better formed or more orderly. It was escorted by nearly 2,000 troops of all arms under command of Major Gen. [Darius] Couch. . . .

As soon as the dignitaries who occupied the stand, numbering perhaps 250, were seated, Hon. Edward Everett & Rev. Thomas H. Stockton [Methodist minister and chaplain of the U.S. Senate] appeared, escorted by a Committee of Governors of States, and being seated, one of the bands struck up and performed a solemn piece of music in admirable style. That over, Mr. Stockton made one of the most impressive and eloquent prayers I ever heard. The band then played, with great effect, Old Hundred.

Mr. Everett then arose, and without notes of any kind, pronounced an oration. He occupied two full hours in the delivery, and it was one of the greatest, most eloquent, elegant, and appropriate orations to which I ever listened. I stood at his very side, through it, and I think the oratory could not be surpassed by mortal man.

I stood at the side of John Quincy Adams when he delivered his great Eulogy on Lafayette, in the old Hall of the House of Representatives, Dec. 31, 1834, and standing there, by Everett’s side at Gettysburg, how the past came back upon me, and I thought if Adams could be alive, & here today, how his pure and honest heart would swell with the patriotism that has followed his own great efforts to bring about the emancipation of the negro race which is so rapidly approaching. I hope his immortal spirit could look down upon us with an approving smile, on that auspicious day.

Mr. Everett was listened to with breathless silence by all that immense crowd, and he had his audience in tears many times during his masterly effort. When he had finished, the following, headed “Consecration Hymn,” was sung beautifully, & with much effect, by a Musical Association from Baltimore. [This was the poem/hymn French had written.] I can say here, that I never was so flattered at any production of my own, as in relation to that same Hymn. All who heard it seemed to consider it most appropriate, and most happily conceived.

As soon as the hymn was sung, Marshal Lamon introduced the President of the United States, who, in a few brief, but most appropriate words, dedicated the cemetery. Abraham Lincoln is the idol of the American people at this moment. Anyone who saw & heard as I did, the hurricane of applause that met his every movement at Gettysburg would know that he lived in every heart. It was no cold, faint shadow of a kind reception – it was a tumultuous outpouring of exultation, from true and loving hearts, at the sight of a man whom everyone knew to be honest and true and sincere in every act of life, and every pulsation of the heart. It was the spontaneous outburst of heartfelt confidence in their own President. . . .

For about an hour after the return of the President to Mr. Wills’s, he received all who chose to call on him, and there were thousands who two took him by the hand. At ½ past 6 he left in a special train for this City [Washington], and arrived home about midnight. That evening and the succeeding morning, a vast multitude left Gettysburg.

John B. Bachelder
The Marshals all procured horses about 10 o’clock Friday [Nov. 20] and rode out to and over the Battleground in a body. A Mr. [John B.] Bachelder, a native of Gilmanton, N.H., who is preparing a map of the battleground, and has studied the localities thoroughly, rode out with us and described the battleground from a number of points in a very clear and interesting manner.

I had a very hard going horse, & headstrong, & found the labor of riding so severe that when the cavalcade left the Cemetery for more distant points, I trotted down the southern slope of the hill to the house occupied by Gen. Meade as his headquarters, it being a very interesting point to me, as Capt. William H. Paine, an Engineer in the Army, was with Gen. Meade, and when the Gen. left for another part of the field, Capt. P. was left in charge of the house and remained in it, as he supposed alone, through all the tremendous cannonade, during which shells & shot passed again and again through the house, and 17 horses were killed all around it. After the firing ceased, several men appeared to Capt. Paine’s astonished vision ascending from the cellar where they had been keeping themselves out of harm’s way!

This same Capt. Paine was born in the same town in which I was, and within ten rods of my father’s house. I knew him when a boy, he being many years my junior. He was at my house several times summer before last.

Well, I went to the house mentioned [Meade’s headquarters]. The door was locked, and a little girl was on the piazza, or porch, who told me that the people were at the barn. I looked particularly at the outside of the house & saw where the shot and shell perforated it. On my way to the barn I passed the carcasses of two dead horses, which were very offensive. I found a young man at the barn who said his mother occupied the house. He was at Fortress Monroe when the battle occurred, as a soldier in the three months service. Since his return he had mended up the barn, which was shattered worse than the house. He showed me many shot holes which still remain. He said he burned the carcasses of 15 of the horses that were killed, but the two that remained were so near the outbuildings that he could not burn them without endangering the buildings.

Alexander Gardner
After making all the observations I desired, I started to return to my horse when I saw two men with a camera down in the field n front of the house. I walked down and found Mr. [Alexander] Gardner, a Photographer of this City, was the man. At his urgent request I walked back to the house and took a position on the porch where I was, I suppose, photographed with the house. There were, then, two children on the porch with me.

I then mounted my horse and rode leisurely up through the clump of trees on top of the hill every one of which had been hit with some missile, and many of the largest were cut off at from 6 to 10 feet above the ground by shot or shell. I then rode into town along the street where stands a house, the south end of which was torn nearly to pieces by shells fired into it, as I was told, by our batteries at the request of its owner, the rebels having taken possession of it.

In last than 10 minutes after I passed, a man and boy who were engaged in unloading a shell, were blown up by its exploding – the boy killed instantly & the man losing both arms & probably his eyes. The Doct. pronounced  his case almost hopeless, and he is probably dead ere this. Mr. [Nathan Henry] Barrett, who went out with me, was opposite the place when the shell exploded, and at the request of the screaming women, went after a surgeon, whom he found on the street and sent to them.

We all returned to town about 12, and about ½ past one were off to Washington. . . .

Sunday, November 17, 2013

A symbol of remembrance or 'poppyganda?'

One morning last week in Dublin I turned the TV on to check the weather forecast. I had already gathered that in Ireland in November every ray of sunshine is a gift. Also, a clear sky is no guarantee it won’t rain 20 minutes later.

'In Flanders fields the poppies blow . . .'
A talking head on the BBC promised a weather report soon. When it came on, the strangest thing happened. The weather map panned west from England and Scotland to Ireland, but only the northern sixth of the island had cities on it, notably Belfast. There was no Dublin, and the Republic of Ireland was a blank.

This was a reminder of the complex and troubled history of Ireland and Northern Ireland and the fitful relationship between the English and the Irish. The map helped explain a debate I had been reading in The Irish Times.

This being the week of Armistice Day, the subject of the debate was the poppy, the symbol of . . . well, I almost finished this phrase, but that, in fact, was the crux of the matter. Was the poppy – the red poppy, I should say – a symbol of remembrance of the World War I dead or of British jingoism?

I’m old enough to remember American Armistice Day parades in which World War I veterans marched and we all wore plastic poppies in our buttonholes. The American Legion or the VFW sold them. In an American context they were never anything but memorial symbols of remembrance.

So the debate was new to me, although I imagine it is an annual dust-up in the pages of The Irish Times.

Rather than summarize it, I’ll just turn it over to the debaters.

Nov. 7

Brian Hanley, university historian and lecturer, in a column headlined “The fuzzy nostalgia encouraged by Poppy Day facilitates the justification of war”:

“More than 200,000 Irish men served and over 30,000 died in the first World War. There is no doubt that the conflict was central to the shaping of Ireland over the next decade. Without it there would have been no Easter Rising. But understanding the importance of the war should not mean embracing a strange soft-focus view of sacrifice, symbolised in many ways by the poppy, that avoids the real issues behind Ireland’s involvement.

“Firstly, it is important to stress that the poppy commemorates not just the dead of the world wars but all British military losses since 1914. Many who have no problem with commemorating Great War dead justifiably baulk at honouring those who served in Britain’s colonial and post-colonial dirty wars.

The Duke of Edinburgh lays a red poppy wreath at  the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium, last week.
“One of the reasons the flower is so omnipresent at this time of year is because it is practically compulsory for those in the public eye in the UK. What one historian has called ‘poppyganda’ is part of a renewed militarisation of British public life. As a group of British veterans of the Iraq war complained two years ago, the build-up to Armistice Day now amounts to ‘a month-long drum roll of support for current wars.’

“The poppy has not always been so prominent as a symbol of remembrance. Historian Padraig Yeates, who grew up in Birmingham, recalls how his father, decorated during the second World War, ‘never wore a poppy and anyone I knew who served with him never wore a poppy.

“ ‘They regarded it, and the British Legion, as symbolising all that was worst, most jingoistic and reactionary in the British establishment.’  . . .

“When remembering the dead of the Great War we should also commemorate those who resisted it and who hoped that a new world would emerge in which such slaughter would never occur again.

“Embracing the fuzzy nostalgia of the poppy only encourages those who want to justify that war – and others.”

Nov. 8

Patrick O’Byrne, Dublin, letter to the editor:

“For some, the red poppy symbol advocates war and for others it advocates remembrance of the war dead. The solution might lie with the white poppy which unambiguously advocates peace.

Nov. 11

Ciaran Connolly, Dublin, letter to the editor:

“This white poppy business is another piece of that liberal PC claptrap that can’t resist denigrating everything venerable. The red poppy is unambiguously about remembrance of the war dead and there is nothing to suggest that it advocates war.

“For the record I am not a poppy wearer. It is a British thing.”

Nov. 12

Nigel Newling, Bristol, England, letter to the editor:

“I am a retired British serviceman, married to an Irish national for the last 35 years. My grandfather was a major, posted to the Dublin Castle garrison, light duties, to recover from injuries received in the trenches, in January 1916. I wear my poppy with pride on Armistice Day to honour all who died in wars not of their making and to remind our current leaders that war is never the right answer.

“To try to associate the charitable activities of the British Legion, helping injured servicemen and their dependents, including Irish men and women who have served in the British forces, with some obsolete notion of British (by which Mr. Hanley means English) imperialism suggests an inability to recognise that the world has moved on. We should be using this annual period of reflection to consider how we can work together to make tomorrow better.”

Nov. 13

Brian Patterson, Dublin, letter to the editor:

“The decision to use a red poppy to raise funds for the Earl Haig Fund – named in honor of General ‘The Butcher’ Haig [Douglas Haig, British Expeditionary Force commander], whose contempt for the ordinary soldier can be gauged from the zeal with which he sent hordes of them to their deaths for no discernible gain in prosecution of a war fought for imperial ambitions – was inspired by the pro-war poem ‘In Flanders Fields,’ which emphasises the need for vengeance and exhorts soldiers to continue to kill people. . . .

Douglas Haig. World War I British commander 
“The poppy continues to be associated with the Royal British Legion, which never misses an opportunity to utilize it as a propaganda tool for recruiting new cannon fodder and for promoting continued British military aggression abroad.

“By way of contrast, the white poppy seeks to commemorate all victims of war, and to promote an end to all wars.”

[The final stanza of John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” reads:
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.]

John F. Fallon, Boyle, Ireland, letter to the editor:

“The poppy is a symbol of those who died in the First World War. Among those were tens of thousands of Irishmen, our relatives who lived and were loved and now lie in some cemetery in France, Belgium, Gallipoli and the Middle East. Those men were not sent, as Mr. Hanley states; they joined up. John Redmond [Irish parliamentarian featured on recruiting posters in the same art as the Uncle Sam ‘I want you’ poster] didn’t send them out to die; they volunteered. . . .

“Even the great republic of the United States could not stand aside when the conviction dawned that the first World War could make the world safer for democracy.”  


Next year Europe will begin observing the centenary of World War I. In 2016, Ireland will celebrate the centenary of the Easter Rising of 1916. It was the zealous reaction of the British government and army to the Rising that turned its leaders into martyrs and converted huge numbers of Irish citizens to support of independence.

The convergence of these anniversaries augurs even more robust times for the great poppy debate.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Hit leaders

Having now passed 150 posts, I’ve expanded the all-time popularity list to 25. But first here are the top 10 posts of the last two months on the basis of readership:

And here are the top 25 all-time, ranging in hits from 511 to 120. The numbers in parentheses are last month's rankings:

14. My friend Chester (11)

25. ‘Curses to Old Abe’

Remembering the Great War

The 100th anniversary of one of Europe’s worst wars is fast approaching. You could sense its nearness in Armistice Day ceremonies last week. My wife and I were in Belgium visiting her mother and watched television coverage of memorial observances Nov. 10 at the Cenotaph in London and Nov. 11 at Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium.

The Cenotaph
These were serious and solemn, following rituals that their participants and many attendees knew well. Even to an outside observer, they conveyed an emotional connection to the events of 1914-18 that has been absent during the Civil War sesquicentennial on this side of the Atlantic.

The Cenotaph (the word means empty tomb) is Great Britain’s national war memorial. It is a simple monolith in Whitehall with a wreath on each side and just three words: The Glorious Dead. The empty tomb is the stone coffin on top.

The permanent monument was built in 1920 to honor the Great War dead who did not return, but the years of World War II were later added in Roman numerals. The Cenotaph now honors the dead of all Britain’s wars.

Television coverage of the ceremony reflected this more catholic commemoration. One report featured the great-grandson of one of four brothers from Glasgow killed during World War I. He showed a photograph of them and told their stories. The next interview focused on a young man who was learning Pashtun and attempting to improve the lives of civilians in Afghanistan when an improvised explosive device blew him up. His mother had made her own memorial for him, a box with separate photo files for the phases of his life. The last files, where his marriage and family life would have gone, were empty, and will remain so.

As military units march past last Sunday, a steward arranges poppy wreaths at the Cenotaph.
The ceremony itself consisted of muted pomp and the laying of wreaths. The queen was the first to set a ring of poppies before the Cenotaph. Before the last note drifted into the cool November skies, a carpet of red covered the apron before it.

The British observe Armistice Day on the Sunday closest to the Nov. 11, the day the war ended in 1918. The ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ypres is on the 11th. It also has a heavy British accent, as the British manned the trenches in this salient of the Western Front and lost heavily here. “Last Post,” the British version of “Taps,” is still played daily at 8 p.m. in Ypres. This has been the case since 1928 with the exception of 1940-44, when the Germans occupied the city.

The Menin gate
The Menin Gate specifically honors the men of the British Commonwealth who died in the Ypres Salient during World War I and lie in unknown graves. Of the 300,000 British soldiers killed here, 90,000 were simply lost – obliterated, sunk in the mud, left to rot in no-man’s land. The names of half the 90,000 are engraved on the walls of the gate. Occasionally human remains are still found during road and building projects in the area.

The ceremony at the Menin Gate was similar to the one in London with dirges and poppy wreaths. The most poignant moment came with the playing of “Oh! Valiant Hearts,” a hymn comparing the sacrifice of Britain’s World War I dead with that of Christ. The first stanza goes:

O valiant hearts who to your glory came
Through dust of conflict and through battle flame;
Tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved,
Your memory hallowed in the land you loved.

As the hymn was played, hundreds of small red crepe hearts streamed through the portals atop the Menin Gate and cascaded to the pavement below.

Alan Rowe, a World War II veteran, and a young boy during the shower
of "valiant hearts" during the ceremony Monday at the Menin Gate.
In addition to the annual rituals on this day, a group of schoolchildren from Belgium and Great Britain participated in the ceremony. They represented a larger group of students who collected soil from 70 World War I battlefields and British cemeteries in Belgium and place it in sandbags. During the ceremony the children escorted soldiers carrying the bags to a gun carriage. When the carriage was filled, the bags were covered with a shroud and slowly driven away.

The British soldiers hauling the soil had also taken part in the ceremony at the Cenotaph the day before. They brought the sandbags to the Lakenhalle (cloth hall), the most prominent building in Ypres to await transport to London. There it will be used in a new memorial garden. The schoolchildren and their classmates have pledged to care for British military cemeteries in Belgium.

Thus, even after memory fades and grief subsides, the torch is passed.

But, as I also learned on this trip, despite such moving rituals, history is never cut and dried. I'll tell you what I mean in the next post.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The face of the minister's boy

Private Don. E. Scott
Anthony Mincu, who lives in Ossipee, N.H., contacted me yesterday to share this photograph of Don E. Scott. It is a carte-de-visite, or CDV, of the kind made of thousands of soldiers during the Civil War.

In Scott's case, as in those of many others, the picture was taken shortly after he volunteered. He joined the 9th New Hampshire Infantry and transferred to the 11th New Hampshire during training camp in Concord. The son of a Congregationalist minister from Warner, N.H., he was a student at Kimball Union Academy in Meriden when the war broke out.

I am posting the Scott photo here and with the earlier post I did about him. Based on his many letters to his mother, the post chronicles his service and focuses on his strong Christian beliefs and how these influenced his reputation with fellow soldiers. You can read it here.

It is still amazing to me how many CDVs are out there. When I started Civil War research in the 1990s, the internet was rudimentary. You had to search archive by archive  for pictures of particular soldiers or find collectors or families who owned them. Though not perfect -- how could it be considering the number of soldiers who served? -- the development of the web has changed all that.

Anthony Mincu read my blog post on Don E. Scott, emailed me, and a few hours later, e-mailed me the picture.  

Hannah Duston took an axe

Last weekend I made my seventh fall pilgrimage to Colby College, where I serve on the committee that selects the winner of the Elijah Parish Lovejoy award for courage in journalism. Lovejoy, valedictorian of the Colby class of 1826, became an abolitionist editor in Ohio and was murdered in 1837 for his antislavery editorials. The award honors his legacy.

"Hannah Duston Killing the Indians" (1847), by Julius Brutus Stearns. 
The dogged reporting of this year’s winner, the online journalist A.C. Thompson, disclosed the callous and lethal misbehavior of some New Orleans police officers after Hurricane Katrina. Thompson gave a fine talk in Colby’s hilltop Lorimer Chapel, where he received the award and an honorary degree.

For art lovers like my wife Monique and me, my position on the Lovejoy selection committee has a fringe benefit. The Colby Museum of Art is superb. We have visited it on six of our trips to the college. A recent renovation and expansion have made it even bigger and better.

The heart of the collection is American. Especially if you like 19th and 20th century art, you’ll find many pleasant surprises in the museum galleries, including work by George Inness, Frederic Remington, Mary Cassatt, James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent. The collection is especially strong in paintings by artists with Maine roots or connections – Winslow Homer, Marsden Hartley, John Marin and Frederic Edwin Church, to name a few.

On this trip I lingered over a single painting that struck close to home. It is titled “Hannah Duston Killing the Indians.” Julius Brutus Stearns, a Vermont-born artist I had never heard of, painted it in 1847. This was a century and a half after Hannah Duston killed the Indians.

By coincidence, the morning after I saw the painting, a story on the front page of the Concord Monitor, my hometown newspaper, detailed the latest controversy about the Hannah Duston Memorial State Historic Site. I have visited Duston’s statue there several times. Erected on or near the spot where Duston killed the Indians in 1697, it is about a mile from the offices of the Monitor, which I edited for 30 years. Graffiti and trash on the Duston site have caused outrage and official hand-wringing for as long as I can remember.

The Hannah Duston statue on Contoocook Island
Now two bills before the Legislature seek to remedy these problems and to broaden the way the site tells the Duston story. As reported by Kathleen Ronayne of the Monitor, one bill would strike Duston’s name from the site and call the little park Contoocook Island State Historic Site. The bill also calls for more information at the site about the Abenaki tribe, which lived in the region before white settlers pushed them out.

The proposed name change in particular is a red flag to the historical society in Boscawen, the town where the Duston statue was dedicated in 1874. “I would think we’d probably fight this tooth and nail,” Bruce Crawford, the society’s chairman, told Ronayne.

As well they should. The effort to clean the place up and provide more context about the Native Americans who lived there is welcome. More information about the way the Duston story has been told over time would also be welcome. But a generic name for the site? No thanks.
The Stearns painting at the Colby Museum of Art captures the way the Duston story was used in the 19th century as a model for the justifiable slaying of savages. At the time it was painted, destruction of native peoples was already the basis of U.S. policy. Although the painting is inaccurate in its details, the Duston’s actions were certainly a brave response to savage treatment.    

The Abenakis captured Duston, her nursemaid Mary Neff and her 6-day-old baby during an attack on Haverhill, Mass., in March 1697. By Duston’s account, they dashed the baby’s brains out against a tree. Duston’s husband and seven other children avoided capture. The captors comprised a family of 12: two warriors, three women, seven children. One of the children was a 14-year-old white colonist whom the Abenakis had kidnapped earlier.  

After a couple of days’ travel, the party stopped on Contoocook Island to rest. As the captors slept, Duston, Neff and the 14-year-old boy killed them with clubs and tomahawks. Of the 11 Abenakis other than the 14-year-old, only an old woman and one child escaped. Duston took the scalps of the dead back to Haverhill, where she received a substantial bounty for them.

Shortly after her escape, Duston told her story to Cotton Mather, an influential Puritan preacher and writer on Boston. He included it in a book published in 1702. Mather held Duston up as a frontier hero and considered her act a wonder of Christian resolve.

Stearns’s “Hannah Duston Killing the Indians” omitted any depiction of Duston’s having killed women and children. Otherwise, it reflects little change in white Americans’ attitudes toward Indians in the 150 years after Mather’s account.

In researching a chapter in Our War about Col. Edward E. Cross Indian-fighting days, I found a quotation from a journalist who went west to Arizona with Cross in 1859. As white Americans attempted to settle the area obtained through the Gadsden Purchase, the journalist Turner M. Thompson, spelled out the Western version of an Indian policy long familiar in the East:

“Place the Indians on reservations north of the Rio Gila, establish military posts along their limits, and shoot every Indian found off the reservations. No other plan short of total extermination in an indiscriminate massacre of men, women and children, will rid the country of their continued depredations.” 

The Hannah Duston State Memorial Site is an excellent place to examine the clash of cultures that led to this policy and to the near-extermination of Native Americans. This can be done without diminishing Duston’s courageous act of self-preservation.

Making the site a more popular destination and keeping it free of vandalism are good goals. But the best way to treat the history Duston represents is to explain it. To sugarcoat the clash between the original inhabitants of America and the Puritan immigrants who took it over would be a travesty and a missed opportunity.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

'A neat and readable book'

The latest review of Our War appears in the fall/winter issue of Historical New Hampshire, the magazine of the New Hampshire Historical Society. The review was written by Walter Holden, a World War II veteran and amateur military historian with a deep interest in New Hampshire’s Civil War experience. Here are excerpts from the review::

Despite his captains' doubts about him after Bull Run,
Gilman Marston proved to be an effective Union general.
Our War is chock-full of characters and incidents great and small. Generals and governors are here but as supporting players. Colonel Edward E. Cross of the Fifth New Hampshire is here in battle as well as in an anguished death scene; Colonel Gilman Marston of the Second New Hampshire is here, including the petition for his dismissal signed by his captains after his first battle. Final victory is here, but only after we have seen its fearful price in death and wounds and sorrow back home.

“This is a neat and readable book, a flowing narrative knit together as seamlessly as My Brave Boys, the Civil War book Mike Pride wrote with Mark Travis. . . .

“Like Our Town, the New Hampshire play, Our War features homefolks. The letter Susan Abbott wrote to her dead son’s idol, Carrie Deppen, reads like a scene from Thornton Wilder’s play. . . .

“Pride threads his battle narrative with the war within the war – the active opposition of two sets of Northerners – those appalled by the terrible price in suffering and death and those who opposed abolition and who generally agreed with the Southerners’ feeling of superiority over the slaves. . . . Even the good-hearted people who went south for the express purpose of helping the former slaves often despaired. A woman trying to teach the blacks on the Sea Islands found them ungrateful and unteachable, of ‘the lowest type – the flattest nosed and thickest lipped – accompanied by the numbest s[k]ulls anywhere to be met in America’ . . .

“The book’s power comes from the accumulation of episodes developing the theme that the suffering was general – death and wounds caused suffering at home as well as on the battlefield. . . .

“Pride’s book does so well at drawing readers into the days and events that they will likely seek out further histories on their own.”

I’m grateful to Walter Holden for his review, but readers should know that I have known Walter for a long time. He is a retired textbook editor and educator with an abiding interest in the Civil War, especially New Hampshire’s role in it. Few people know more about this role than Walter. I am sure this is why Historical New Hampshire’s editor chose him to review Our War.

Mark Travis and I met Walter 15 years ago when we were stalled in our research on My Brave Boys. At that time he owned Col. Edward E. Cross’s wartime journal and other papers. He shared these with us along with a copy of his unpublished manuscript on the 5th New Hampshire. He also wrote the foreword for our book once we had pulled it together. Later he donated the Cross papers to the University of New Hampshire and worked with two scholars there to edit and publish them as Stand Firm and Fire Low

Walter was a World War II infantryman in Germany. Six years ago, for a Concord Monitor project, I interviewed him about his experiences. Later, Meg Heckman and I turned this project into the book We Went to War, a collection of oral histories of veterans and civilians of the World War II era.

I share all this in the interest of full disclosure. I did not know Walter had been chosen to review Our War, but I am honored that he did it.