Tuesday, December 30, 2014

'The sand here blowes like snow in N.H.'

Brig. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s Expedition was an early Union effort to cut off access to North Carolina seaports through which the Confederacy received trade and sustenance. After 11 months the campaign faltered and was abandoned.

Simon G. Griffin became colonel of the 6th
N.H. during the Burnside Expedition.
While disclosing little about the military campaign, this letter from Private Edwin M. Sherburne of the 6th New Hampshire Volunteers to his aunt describes in charming language (and charming spelling) what a 21-year-old saw as different and defining about the island where he had recently landed.

The letter also details the health of the boys in the ranks from Sherburne’s hometown of Epsom, N.H., men whose families his aunt probably knew.

Thank goodness his aunt ignored his advice to burn the letter.

The months the 6th New Hampshire spent drilling on Hatteras and Roanoke islands prepared it for battles that lay ahead. Before 1862 was out, the 6th had lost heavily at 2nd Bull Run, fought at South Mountain, crossed Burnside’s Bridge at Antietam and advanced up Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg. As detailed in Our War, it had also endured the blow of a ship-sinking in the Potomac that drowned several of its sick men and the wives of three of its officers. (Book excerpt on this incident is here.)

Sherburne’s letter is transcribed in full below, and afterward I update the fates of the men mentioned in it.

Camp Winfield
Hatteras Inlet, North Carolina
February 12th 1862

Dear Aunt,

I now take my pen (as I have a few leasure moments) to write you a few words how we are getting along. My health is good. I hope this letter will find you all the same.

All the Epsom boys are getting along very well. William Perkins is well & John Weeks is a little unwell. H. B. Haynes’ health is good. Benj. S. Robinson is well and in good spirits. James Marden is well. He has a lame Ankle now. He spraint his Ankle a little & is getting better.

This morning the sun rose bright. It is warm and pleasant today. We packed our napsacks and straped them on our backs, haversacks, canteens, &c & went out on Battalion Movements. There was three riggiments besides the N. H. Six & two thirds of the R. I. Battery that was out on our drill ground. They formed into a ___. We formed a halow square. The Battery was opposite of us, the 89th N. Y. was behind the N.H. 6th, the 11th Connecticut, R.I. 4th, Penn 48th is here. I believe there was four riggiments & battery that helpted formed the square.

Our commander is Gen. [Thomas] Williams. He is under Burnside, I suppose – he received a letter from Burnside last night & one of his aides read the letter before us all – that the Feds had taken Roanoke Island & Elizabeth City, 6 forts & a number thousand of arms and a lot of prisoners &c. I think you can tell me better than I can tell you about the expedition. I hope they are getting along first rate.

The 6th N.H. Color Guard
We drill now everyday. Dress-perade in the fournoon at half past eight & then we drill untill quarter to ten. We then come back to camp and stay around until one. The officers, sargents & corporals drill until noon. We go out after dinner & drill in company’s untill lately the Colonel drills us alltogether in battalion movements. It looks pretty well to see a whole rigt – or three or four riggiments – marching along together & have a band of music to go with it. We had ten drumers and ten fifers when we started from Keene, but now we have from two to four drummers & the same with fifers on dress perade. I wish that we could have a band for our riggiment. How much better a band sounds than a lot of drummers & fifers.

The New York 9th was here when we came that had a band & good music. That rigt is gone with the expedition. There is one band here now.

Today our company furnishes the guard. Our Co., a part of it, was on picket guard before. Our Co. is on guard once in ten days.

It is a warm and pleasant day today. The birds are enjoying there time in singing. There is sheep and lambs, hogs and pigs, cattle &c. that belongs to the Inhabitance. They let them run everywhere on the Island. What they live on is more than I can tell. There is live oak leaves and some stuff that they get in the swamps. The wood here is mostly live oak. The tops branch out and look some like N.H. apple trees. There is a tree here that the Inhabitance use the leaves for tea. It has a red plum the size of a curant. Benjamin S. Roberson & I has had some a number of times. I think it is pretty good for a change.

The inhabitance here dont want the trees cut down becaus as one of them said the land here would blow all away if it want for the trees. The sand here blowes like snow in N.H. Out on the beach, there is a place if it was only white, it would look like a snow drift.

The Inhabitance here rais sweet potatoes and a few cabbages. The commisare finds them flour & other stuff to live on. There houses are couriously built. There Chimneys are built out at the end. Some of them are built very well and others aint. I was in at one of the houses & the fireplace was built so that they had seats each side of the fire in the fireplace. They have no stoves or ovens to cook in. They cook over the fire the old fashion way, I should think –  put there doe into an iron pan and hang it over the fire and put some coals on top of it and they rost their potatoes before the fire. Some of them keep hens & other guina hens and others have got geese.

There is two forts on the Isl. Fort Clark is the nearest to us. Fort Hatteras is down on the point beyond Fort Clark -- west from where we stop. And now I will tell you what I have to eat. We have fritters twice or three times a day. Coffee morning & night. We have pilot bread, fresh beef, salt beef, salt pork, sugar, tea, molasses, vineger beens, potatoes, rice, had some dride potatoes once since we have been here.

Ambros Haynes of Epsom died sunday night Jan. 26th. I suppose you have herd that he was dead. He had the measels when we left Anapolis, broke out on the boat. I wrote this letter on my knee. Correct all mistakes & burn this. I like here well but I like to be moving for I can see more places. How long we shall stay here, I do not know. Uncle hasn’t goin into the army yet, has he? You & all write as soon as convient.

From E. M. Sherburne, 6th Regt., Co. I., Hatteras Inlet, N. C.

All the soldiers Sherburne mentioned were from Epsom, a town of just over 1,200 people in 1860, and all had joined Co. I. The volunteers had mustered on Nov. 28, 1861, and trained briefly on the county fairgrounds in Keene, N.H. They left the Keene train station on a snowy Christmas Day.

William B. Perkins was a 27-year-old private. He died of disease on Christmas day in 1862, precisely one year after leaving his native state. Sgt. John M. Weeks, 29, was discharged for disabilities in November 1862 and died in Pembroke, N.H., on March 1, 1864.

The Haynes brothers, Ambrose and Hiram, natives of Meredith, N.H., met similar fates. As Sherburne wrote, Ambrose died of measles on Jan. 26, 1862, at North Carolina’s Hatteras Inlet, where the regiment landed. Hiram, who was 33, became ill later that year and died in a Washington, D.C., hospital on Dec. 11.

Benjamin S. Robinson, a 20-year-old private who had moved from Lowell, Mass., to Epsom, was wounded at Fredericksburg but stayed with the regiment till 1865. He died in 1876. James W. Marden, a 21-year-old private, served out his three-year enlistment and lived after the war in Epsom.

As for Sherburne, he, too, fell ill and was discharged in 1862, less than a year after enlisting. By then he had been in military hospitals for nearly two months. Sherburne kept a diary, which you can read here. It includes an entry for the date the letter to his aunt was written.

Sherburne recovered and lived till 1916.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

'Even wretched looking hovels are draped in mourning'

The Colby family of Springfield, N.H., sent three sons to fight in the Civil War. One of them was stationed in Washington, D.C., when President Lincoln was shot.

The first Colby, George, died of disease in Louisiana at the age of 18. Stephen P. Colby, known by Page, his middle name, was George’s lieutenant in the 15th New Hampshire Volunteers.

The middle Colby son, James, was the first to volunteer, going off at age 24 with the 6th New Hampshire in late 1861. Nine months later he was discharged after a long hospital stay. But in 1864 he joined the Invalid Corps and later still the Veterans Reserve Corps. These units did non-combat duty to free healthy soldiers to fight.

In the capital Corporal James Colby guarded captured and surrendered Confederate officers at the Old Capitol Prison. President Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, a Friday. On Monday morning and for the rest of the week, Colby worked 18 hours a day.

When the weekend came, he wrote his brother Page that there was “great excitement here yet.” John Wilkes Booth was still at large. Rumors of plots and conspiracies ran rampant. Meanwhile, Washington wrapped itself in the cloak of mourning.

“All the Publick buildings and most of the Private buildings even the most wretched looking hovels are still draped in mourning,” James Colby wrote to Page. “Flags remain at half mast. . . . If the President had been assassinated four years ago, it would not have shocked the nation so much for then people were expecting such a thing but now with the prospect of closing the war in a few months the blow falls heavily upon all without distinction of party.

“Even the Rebel officers we have been guarding at the Old Capitol express some regrets at Lincoln’s death, They have to respect him for his generosity toward those that surrendered. They had great hopes that others would follow Lees example and that the war would close this spring or summer.

“One thing is pretty certain. Whenever the armies meet in battle there will be bloody work unless the soldiers cool down from what they are now.”

The Colby family wartime letters wound up in the hands of Mrs. John Edmunds, Page Colby’s daughter. She gave them to Dartmouth College, where they are now preserved in the Rauner Special Collections.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

New York haiku, Vol. 6

Laura and Yuri, in our NYC apartment, before a night on the town.
Here’s another batch of New York haiku. One is the latest in a series about people we’ve met in the city. Others came from a tour of the Natural History Museum during a recent visit from our son Yuri and daughter-in-law Laura.

By the way, Monique and I walked to a late service last night at St. Michael's Church, a hidden gem on Amsterdam Avenue. On the way we noticed that Christmas trees on the sidewalks of Broadway were on sale at $19.99. Just days ago they ran $100-$200.

Merry Christmas!

In dino haiku
strothiosaurus altus
devours syllables.

Wine sale dilemma:
‘This one’s three bucks!’ ‘Imagine
what it must taste like.’

Ripped from Earth toward
gravity’s pull, the moon left
an ocean to fill.

Or, debris roved space
till Earth sucked it into orbit
many moons ago.

Herb’s gift to us is
spicy soup, hawked in basso
till spoon scrapes bottom.

Stuffed animals
glassed into idyllic nature
still draw brief glances.

Buffalo behind glass at New York's Natural History Museum.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

New York haiku, vol. 5

With winter and the holidays coming, here is the latest installment in this series of short takes from a non-New Yorker living and learning in New York:

Cut and bound for sale,
fir trees catch snow, savoring
one last sip of life.


Sirens rend the night.
“In time you’ll get used to them.”
But what if we don’t?


The etiquette of
elevators begins with
a push-button smile.


Subway tip: Enter
here to exit at stairwell
seven stops uptown.


My editor eyes
can’t help but see each day: “We
Have Shipping Box’s.”

Sunday, December 7, 2014

6th New Hampshire Volunteers in pictures and stories

For pictures of members of the 6th New Hampshire Volunteers, look here, here and here.

And here's the story of a prison escape by a 6th sergeant.

Finally, here's what happened to a young commander of the 6th.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

New York City haiku, vol. 4

More haiku from Gotham, with apologies to William Carlos Williams for (guess which) one. Also two of these rise from a new strain about people we’ve met.

Atop the cold city
spikes of light meet dead of night,
heaven’s icicles.

Magda fled Poland
the day the Nazis came. Why?
‘Dad read newspapers.’

Climbed the subway stair
at Times Square. Looked right, then left.
This way east, no, west.

Everything depends
on a red boat in dawn’s mist
on the blue Hudson.

Roman busts a bore?
No, no! She looked, took names, shook
old Rome back to life.

Even here, where race
matters least, eye avoided eye
after Ferguson.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The first casualty

Col. Enoch Q. Fellows, 37, cross-eyed and deaf, was from Centre Sandwich, N.H.
A chapter in Our War followed the fortunes of a Civil War regiment thrown into battle within weeks after mustering. The regiment was the 9th New Hampshire Volunteers, and I could tell their story with confidence through letters and diary entries they wrote during and immediately after the campaign.

The regiment mustered  in Concord, N.H., on Aug. 23, 1862. Less than a month later, it fought at South Mountain and Antietam. The men’s performance in battle was predictable. Overloaded with gear on the way up South Mountain, they left a trail of equipment, food and clothing. Their commander, Col. Enoch Q. Fellows, had to halt them halfway up to teach them to load their weapons. They sometimes fired without orders. Their officers formed them into a firing line against friendly troops.

In time the 9th became a crack infantry regiment, but during this week, despite all the patriotism and bravery in their hearts, the men were bumbling greenhorns.

The other day, while trawling online, I discovered a letter that Col. Fellows wrote 12 days after Antietam to Nathaniel S. Berry, the governor of New Hampshire, about the 9th’s performance. I had read Berry’s executive correspondence file in the New Hampshire State Archives during my research for Our War, but the letter wasn’t there. It is in the Gilder Lehrman Collection at the New York Historical Society.

With one notable exception, the letter shows a commander ignoring reality and seeking to  cast his regiment’s experience as glorious and noble. Then again, why would a leader want to describe his men’s clumsiness and ineptitude, especially in a campaign that resulted in victory – or at least perceived victory – for his side? In war, as they say, truth is the first casualty.

Gov. Nathaniel S. Berry
“In accordance with the usual custom where regiments suffer on the field of battle, I have the honor of reporting to you the facts and particulars so far as the regiment I command is concerned,” Fellows opened his letter to the governor. He then suggested that the 9th’s long marches and hard fighting were “unprecedented in the history of any regiment which has seen but a single months service.”

As the regiment marched from Middletown, Va., to South Mountain in Maryland, Fellows wrote, “the ears of our young men were first made acquainted with the roar of artillery and their eyes glistened with eagerness to be brought into the contest.” They were, by his account, pleased to fight under “the gallant Burnside, the gen. who never yet lost a battle.”

When their brigadier general, James Nagle, ordered his men to fix bayonets and clear a cornfield, the 9th “gallantly went into the contest on the ‘double quick’ and rushed up the hill with a spirit of determination that would do honor to veterans,” Fellows wrote.

“Then was the time that New Hampshire and South Carolina blood was tested as to courage and true heroic valor. No sooner had I given the order ‘charge bayonets’ than the glistening salve bayonets were pointed towards South Carolina hearts and with a tremendous yell my regiment rushed into the fight making the whole line of battle near us echo with their cheers and hurrahs. For more than 100 rods the battling rung loud and deep above the roar of artillery and other regiments near the 9th gave it the name of the ‘bloody ninth’ for its gallantry at the famous bayonet charge.”

Here Fellows paused in his narrative to call out one of his company commanders. He identified him, too: Charles W. Edgerly, a 33-year-old captain from Dover who in civilian life had been the foreman of an engine company. He led the 9th’s Company H, many of whose men he had recruited.

Alas, at South Mountain, Fellows wrote the governor, “One officer . . . disgraced himself and it is my duty to inform you of this fact, an unpleasant but imperative duty. When the order was given to lead, previous to the battle, Capt. C. W. Edgerly of Co. H from Rochester, suddenly was taken weak at the knees and complained of being foot sore and asked Lieut. John G. Lewis to lead his company into the battle which Lt. Lewis did in a noble manner, gallantly leading them wherever there was most danger.”

Three days later at Antietam, the 9th was positioned on a hillside above the Stone Bridge, now known as Burnside’s Bridge, on the far left of the Union line. Fellows characterized the battlefield as the place where “by far the hardest fighting was done and the greatest carnage witnessed that ever happened in America.”

After four hours under fire in a perilous position, the 9th crossed the bridge. Other regiments had taken it, but this move took courage. “We crossed the bridge under a galling fire and with tremendous cheering placed our regimental colors, which were so peacefully unfurled in Concord in front of the state house, on the bloody field on the other side of the river where the rebel dead and wounded lay piled in every direction,” Fellows wrote.

As his regiment held its new position until dark, “a rebel fire of grape canister and shell was poured into our ranks and many of our brave fellows were wounded here with the exploding of shells and the terrific fire of grape which here rained upon us like hailstones falling in a hailstorm and from which there was no possible protection.”

For a new regiment of 1,000 men, the 9th’s casualties at the two battles were relatively light. They lost two killed or mortally wounded at South Mountain, eight at Antietam. Fellows nevertheless closed his account by asking that Gov. Berry give his men their due.

“And now, Governor,” he wrote, “I have given a brief sketch of what my regiment has done in a single month and would ask where there is another that has performed equal service in so short a time? In two weeks we marched 85 miles in a broiling sun, was in one skirmish and helped fight the two greatest battles of modern times for which we have received the special commendation of our Generals in Command.”

The war would inflict far more death and misery on the 9th New Hampshire. The chapter in Our War on its fights during Grant’s Overland Campaign in 1864 serves as a startling contrast to the South Mountain-Antietam chapter. The regiment, though much smaller by then, lost 55 killed at Spotsylvania Court House alone.

As for the two officers whose reputations were broken and made in Fellows’s letter to Berry, their fates matched their performance at South Mountain. The weak-kneed, footsore Capt. Edgerly clung to his rank until Feb. 27, 1863, when he resigned.

By then, Lt. John G. Lewis was dead. A native of Dublin, N.H., he was 44 years old. Long before the war he had moved to Lancaster, north of the White Mountains, where he was a farmer. As the 9th New Hampshire moved into position at Fredericksburg, Va., on Dec. 13, 1862, a piece of artillery shell struck him below the ear and severed an artery.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

New prose from an old poet

Donald Hall’s essay “Out the Window” appeared in the January 2012 New Yorker. The title did not lie. An old man stares out his window, sees what he sees and riffs on it, his mind moving amid farmhouse ghosts and on to his own slow demise.

A hundred readers of “Out the Window” wrote letters to Hall. By then, deserted by his muse, he had given up poetry. He even regretted having published his last book of poems.

He had not given up work. Age had cooled the literary dynamo he once was, but he picked up steam as an essayist, working an hour a day, then two, then three. Many of the essays found good homes in magazines and have now been collected with fresh ones in Essays after Eighty.

Hall and I are friends, and I watched this book come into being. When he declared an essay fit for outside eyes, he sent it to me for comment and criticism. These were 30th or 40th drafts. Most of my fixes were copy-editing catches, but I also remarked on structural weaknesses and flat passages, contributed an anecdote or two and consulted with Hall about the title.

As it often is in his prose, Hall’s subject is himself, past and present. Each of the 14 essays has a theme – poetry readings, smoking, “Physical Malfitness,” death, a road trip through 1952 Europe, the beards he grew and the women he grew them for. He turned 86 in September, and because of this longevity each theme provides a wide field for memory.

A few sentences in “Out the Window” describe the ground on which Hall stands in life and as an essayist:

“However alert we are, however much we think we know what will happen, antiquity remains an unknown, unanticipated galaxy. It is alien, and old people are a separate form of life. They have green skin, with two heads that sprout antennae. . . . When we turn eighty, we recognize that we turn extraterrestrial. If we forget for a moment that we are old, we are reminded when we try to stand up, or when we encounter someone young, who appears to observe green skin, extra heads, and protuberances.”

The essays run on the imagination and candor of such observations. These qualities are also the source of those hundred letters he received after the essay first appeared. He breaks the silence of his alien galaxy, speaking for a generation to all generations.

This is not to suggest that Donald Hall is everyman. He has lived a rich, full life, consorting with giants of poetry in his youth, traveling the globe, working as a rock-star professor at a prestigious university, visiting the White House with Philip Roth, talking baseball for Ken Burns’s documentary, serving as U.S. poet laureate. But there is an old man’s humility in the way he writes about his life.

And an old man’s wit. He laughs at the world, and himself. A few years ago Alexandra Petri, a Washington Post blogger, illustrated her blog with a photo of the grinning, ancient, wild-haired Hall receiving the National Medal of Arts from President Obama. She assured her readers Hall was not a yeti and invited them to take part in a caption contest. Hall’s response: “With our increasing longevity, Ms. Petri should live to be a hundred. May she grow a beard.”

At the same presentation, Obama whispered something in Hall’s ear as he hung the medal around his neck. Friends who saw the clip on television wanted to know what the president had said. But Obama had been speaking into Hall’s deaf ear. Hall told friends the president had “said either ‘Your work is immeasurably great’ or ‘All your stuff is disgusting crap,’ but I couldn’t tell which.”

The prose of Essays after Eighty is a poet’s prose. Hall is working with sentence and paragraph, not line and stanza, but every word counts. Concrete images propel his sentences, and he is a master of momentum and suspense. The reader sees or tastes a moment and yearns to know what happens next.

Hall has been a prolific poet and writer in part because he mines his own experience. He lives now with limited mobility in a small space, fearful of falling and usually alone. In these essays he has reimagined his past and plumbed his present with wry humor and a good nature.

He is the wise old owl. Hear him hoot.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Lions of Thanksgiving Day

For New York City the day had come at last. Amid bitter race-tinged draft riots during the summer, the city’s newspapers had carefully followed the performance in battle of the new black infantry regiments. Seeking to satisfy public curiosity about black soldiers, some city leaders had tried in vain to lure two such regiments to parade down Manhattan’s streets. Now, in November of 1863, the army ordered a New Hampshire lieutenant colonel to lead his black regiment into the city.

Stark Fellows had joined the army about a year earlier as a private in the 14th New Hampshire Volunteers. He was 23 years old and lived in Weare, N.H..A slight man with a full brown beard, Fellows had graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth College and postponed a legal career to fight for the Union.

He soon made lieutenant but wanted more. With the 14th stuck in Washington, D.C., guarding prisons, he followed his ambition elsewhere. He applied for a commission with a black regiment, breezed through the qualifying tests and got his wish. Free black men and former slaves from Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia came together in Arlington to form the 2nd U.S. Colored Troops. By late 1863 Fellows had his command.

Sarah Josepha Hale
When the new infantry regiment reached Jersey City on November 25, Fellows leaned on authorities to help get his men to New York. They left their baggage and horses behind and crossed to the southern tip of Manhattan, where Fellows found he had more work to do. After procuring bunks for his soldiers in the barracks at Battery Park and establishing his regimental headquarters at the Astor House, he went to his room and fell into a deep sleep.

The next morning was Thanksgiving. The holiday had long been celebrated around the country, but this year was different. Sarah Josepha Hale, a native of Newport, N.H., who edited the popular Godey’s Lady’s Book, had asked President Lincoln to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. Such a declaration would make the holiday “a great Union Festival of America,” Hale wrote the president.

Lincoln acted on the idea a few days later. Even in the midst of a terrible civil war, he wrote in his proclamation, it seemed to him that God’s gifts to America “should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people.”

Late Thanksgiving morning, as Fellows approached Battery Park after a good night’s sleep, he saw that “the ‘Nigger Regiment’ attracted unbounded attention.” People crowded into the park to peer through the iron fence toward the barracks and parade ground “like so many school urchins at a circus.”

The crowd parted for Fellows, and he passed through a line of bigwigs waiting to thank him for bringing a black regiment to the city. He initially wanted to reward the crowd by ordering a dress parade, but there was no time. When he learned the quartermaster had found a ship to transport his men to their duty station on the Gulf Coast, he ordered them to form for the march to the wharf.

Stark Fellows, whose regiment marched  through lower Manhattan.
The white people lining Broadway as the 2nd United States Colored Troops marched past disappointed Fellows. “The streets were crowded all the way, but the people were very quiet,” he wrote to a comrade.

When the regiment turned onto Canal Street and entered a black neighborhood, everything changed. Flags hung from the windows, and cheers hailed the soldiers. 

Reflecting on these spectators, Fellows observed: “It seemed that at last they could speak for themselves.” They howled and leapt and tossed their caps into the air, acting as if “the day of their deliverance” had arrived, Fellows wrote. White people farther along the route “seemed to catch the excitement,” cheering the ranks of black men proudly marching to meet their destiny.

It had already been a long war, with many festive sendoffs followed by battlefield disasters. The enthusiasms of 1861 had cooled, but on this day it seemed to Fellows that something novel and grand had occurred.

The march to the wharf was also a revelation for the soldiers. As they boarded the Continental for their journey south, echoes of gratitude, approval and even adoration rang in their ears. In the words of their commander they had been “the lions of Thanksgiving day.” 

[Stark Fellows’s account of Thanksgiving was taken from his letter to Alexander Gardiner, an officer in Fellows’s old regiment, the 14th New Hampshire. The letter was written Dec. 16, 1863, from Ship Island, Miss. Fellows died of disease on May 23, 1864, and was buried in Pensacola, Fla. Gardiner was mortally wounded four months later leading the 14th at the third battle of Winchester, Va. The letter is in the Samuel A. Duncan papers in the Rauner special collections at Dartmouth College.]

Monday, November 17, 2014

New York haikus, vol. 3

So, our friend Mary, a veteran New Yorker, says we're nuts to think about making Thanksgiving dinner in our tiny apartment. In this food-crazy city, there IS an alternative, just one more subject for a November haiku . . .

Walking on Broadway,
this way, then that, with never
a wind at my back.


Bagels rise, tempting
lips, puffing hips, pleasures of
the tongue, like smoke rings.


Kitchen holiday
gobble-gobbles in Gotham:
Thanksgiving takeout!


Next-table talk: Who
takes care of her kids while she’s
taking care of theirs?


Winter’s bite so slight
it might still seem fall till gusts
draw tears and ice ears.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

A restless reader in New York

Since coming to New York City earlier this year, I’ve kept a bunch of New York books on my nightstand. Among them are the journals of Alfred Kazin, which I recently finished, and the diary of George Templeton Strong. Kazin was one of the premier literary critics in the country during the 20th century, Strong a lawyer who began keeping his diary in his youth

Detail of the Louisiana monument at Gettysburg, which is discussed in "What
the rebels won at Gettysburg" from top-25 list. (David Sullivan photo). 
In Strong’s case, I’m hoping his almost legendary account of the Civil War years will provide fodder for this blog, but mainly I’m trying to steep myself in New York history.

I am a restless reader. I read Thomas Berger’s obituary in the New York Times earlier this year and picked up his best known book, Little Big Man. What a treat! Maybe not Mark Twain but in the same neighborhood.

Most years I buy the Booker Prize winner. I read this year’s, Richard Flanagan’s harrowing The Narrow Road to the Deep North, with deep interest. Years ago, I helped Steve Raymond, a Bataan Death March survivor, get his memoir into print. Though a novel, Flanagan’s book tells a similar story; because a novel, its author imagines the inner lives of the Japanese captors as well as the ordeal of their Australian prisoners.

Vera Brittain’s memoir and journal are among my favorite books about World War I. Now, to fulfill a desire to read at least one more book about this war during the centennial year of its beginning, I’ve started Poilu. This is the marvelous diary-cum-memoir of a French barrel-maker who survived four years in the trenches.


Even though I have added few posts to the Our War blog during the last month, readership remains strong, for which I thank you. Page-views have now reached more than 54,000.  Even the haikus I’ve been writing about my wife Monique’s and my early days in New York have attracted eaders.

Here are the top 25 blog posts all-time on the basis of page-view count. Their numbers range from 1,123 to 266. The numbers in parenthesis are last month’s rankings.

9. A Gettysburg journal (part 3) (9)

           A gift from the heart (19)


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

New York City haikus, vol. 2

From the fall harvest . . .

Wild roses still bloom
on sycamore continents
as November knocks.


All thumbs on I-phone
except when I want to type.
Bee. Ex. Zee. Delete.


Windows flash pumpkin
on high. Whiteface Joker grins.
Wee Batman cowers.


Bruegel’s harvesters,
oblivious on their slope
to our dancing eyes.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

'Our country is on the very brink of ruin'

Some elections matter more than others. The 1863 gubernatorial election in New Hampshire mattered, to the state as well as the nation. Below this post is a broadside that sold on eBay the other day. Behind it is the story of that election.

The Republicans had held the governor’s office through 18 months of war, but they were in danger of losing it in 1863 – and they knew it. The Union army had just been defeated at Fredericksburg. The Democrats were howling over the fratricidal war and President Lincoln’s liberal interpretation of his constitutional war powers. “The Constitution as it is” was a Democratic slogans.

Walter Harriman
Because states controlled the raising of soldiers, the Lincoln administration wanted a friend in every northern governor’s office.  New Hampshire Republicans were so rattled by worries about defeat that they considered nominating a pro-war Democrat for governor.

They also invited Edward E. Cross, colonel of the 5th New Hampshire and a feisty Democrat who had been badly wounded twice, to speak at their nominating convention on New Year’s Day in 1863.  Since May, Cross’s regiment had fought at Fair Oaks, in the Seven Days battles, at Antietam and at Fredericksburg.

The War Democrat the Republicans invited to run for governor was Walter Harriman, colonel of the 11th New Hampshire. Like the 5th, the 11th had just suffered losses in the fiasco at Fredericksburg.

Harriman turned them down. He sent his rejection through A.P. Davis, a delegate to the convention from Warner, where Harriman also lived. “Having understood that some of my personal friends propose to compliment me with their votes in the convention of January 1st for the nomination of a candidate for governor, I address you this brief line to say I can by no means be considered a candidate,” Harriman wrote.

In the American political tradition of ignoring such demurrals, a Republican delegate nominated Harriman anyway. On the first ballot Joseph A. Gilmore received 276 votes, but Harriman came in second. Gilmore, a railroad magnate from Concord, won a majority and the nomination on the second ballot, but Harriman’s vote total rose from 96 to 155.

This outcome no doubt influenced what Harriman did next. When Republican friends, fearful of defeat in the March 10 election, asked him to enter the race as a third-party candidate – a War Democrat – Harriman said yes. If he could steal votes from Peace Democrats, he was glad to oblige as long as “Democrat” appeared next to his name. On February 17, three weeks before the election, the Union Party met in Manchester and unanimously nominated him.

Writing to a Manchester newspaper editor from Newport News, Va., on Feb. 25, Harriman spelled out his reasoning. In the broadside below, printed and distributed during the waning days of the campaign, the Republicans used Harriman’s words from this letter in an effort to get out their vote. The broadside suggested to voters that it was not the Democrats who were embracing the Constitution but the Republican Party and the pro-war faction of the Democratic Party.

“Those who are holding out promises of peace, without presenting any reasonable grounds for the hope of peace, are giving the Union cause a stab, the fatal consequences of which the present age cannot fathom,” the broadside quoted Harriman. “Be not deceived. ‘Peace,’ in the present juncture, means the disunion of the Union and eternal war. It means more; it means anarchy, which comprises all the woes of earth to civilized man.”

Harriman also wrote in the Newport News letter: “My duties and cares are military, and not political.” But because the convention has stated “sentiments substantially my own, and unanimously invited me to bear, in the present campaign, the old flag of the Union, I hardly feel at liberty to withhold the use of my name. . . .

“Our country is on the very brink of ruin; let us suppress every thought except the one patriotic desire to benefit and to save it.”

To show that Southerners were finding comfort “in the diseased condition of Northern sentiment,” Harriman quoted William L. Yancey, a Southern fire-eater. Yancey had written: “We have something to hope, however, from this division of the councils of our enemies – from their fierce party strife and jealousies; upon this hope let us build our own unity; upon their jealousies let us build our own harmony; upon these clashings of party interest let us bind together our patriotic energies.”

The broadside below took up Harriman’s themes. It urged that New Hampshire voters recognize southern treason and cast their votes for upholding the Constitution and bringing about peace by winning the war.

In the end Harriman’s third-party candidacy did just well enough to deny the Democratic gubernatorial candidate a majority. You can read that story here and here.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Worth a look

Here is a list of posts I think you'll like:

‘Oh this pen cannot describe my feelings’: A mother laments that her only son has gone off to war. 

‘The whole face of nature smiled at harvest time’: The 14th New Hampshire in battle at Winchester.

Remembering Lincoln: The thoughts of a New Hampshire U.S. senator who knew him well.

‘It would be a pleasure to linger here’: A New Hampshire reporter writes from Gettysburg.

Captain Gordon’s war: From the letters of a 2nd New Hampshire officer.

From Fredericksburg to war’s end: A pious private’s life at the front. 

A Confederate captain at Gettysburg: An articulate rebel tells the other side of the story

Making the Civil War relevant: A teacher’s thoughts about the Civil War and young people.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

New York City haikus, vol. 1

Observations, fall 2014, mostly while walking down Broadway, across Central Park and along the Hudson:

Missed Jay-Z, sor-ry,
No music to ancient ears.
Frick instead: Ver-meers!

Five dogs on leashes,
flower petals in the sun.
Lead boxer? Pink shades.

Smooth sailing today
but at Hudson River docks
bare masts creak and sway.

Skinless umbrella –
pedestrian collision?
Poppins disaster?

Passing tongues trill:
Da-nyet, I was like, jawohl,
¡hola! Amerika.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

It's all in the dress

Animal Dress

The night before she went back to college,
she went through my sweater drawer, so when she left
          she was in
black wool, with maroon creatures
knitted in, an elk branched across her
chest, a lamb on her stomach, a cat,
an ostrich. Eighteen, she was gleaming with a haze
gleam, a shadow of the glisten of her birth
when she had taken off my body – that thick coat, cast
off after a journey. In the elevator
door window, I could see her half-profile –
strong curves of her face, like the harvest
moon, and when she pressed 1,
she set. Hum and creak of her descent,
the backstage cranking of the solar system,
the lighted car sank like a contained
calm world. Eighteen years
I had been a mother! In a way now I was past it –
resting, watching our girl bloom.
And then she was on the train, in her dress
like a zodiac, her body covered with
the animals that carried us in their
bodies for a thousand centuries
of sex and death, until flesh knew itself, and spoke.

Oh, so many wonders propel this poem. The challenge for its maker is that a poem that is ultimately about the power of language needs to show that power as well as declare it. This one is full of visual language – words that make pictures. The reader sees his or her way through the narrative.

But even when the words are visual, they can also chime to ear and please tongue. Gleam, gleam, glisten – language that sounds beyond the page.  Creak, crank, sank. And then the intensity of mother looking at daughter and the beautiful metaphors: “strong curves of her face, like the harvest moon” and the mother’s body, at birth, as “that thick coat cast off after a long journey.”

Olds has written thousands of poems about her family. Like this one, most of them seek the universal in the particular, “the backstage cranking of the solar system” in “the hum and creak of her descent.” This poem captures a moment, a scene, but also the mother-daughter bond as a child comes of age.

Even more, the poem articulates the thought stirred by all those animals on the sweater dress: evolution’s gift of words to convey feeling, beauty and meaning.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Another side of Sharon Olds

Sharon-Olds, winner of the 2014 Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Poetry Prize, is known for her poems about her inner life, her sexuality, the female experience and her family. In this poem from her collection One Secret Thing she looks outside herself into the darker side of a common commodity – wood.

Wooden Ode

Whenever I see a chair like it,
I consider it: the no arms,
the lower limbs of pear or cherry.
Sometimes I’ll take hold of the back slat
and lift the four-legged creature off the floor to hear
the joints creak, the wind in the timbers,
hauling of keel rope. And the structure will not
utter, just some music of reed and tether,
Old Testament cradle. Whenever I see
a Hitchcock chair – not a Federal,
or an Eames – I pay close, furniture
attention, even as my mind is taking its
seablind cartwheels back. But if every
time you saw a tree – pear,
cherry, American elm, American
oak, beech, bayou cypress –
your eyes checked for a branch, low enough
but not too low, and strong enough,
and you thought of your uncle, or father, or brother,
third cousin twice removed
murdered on a tree, then you would have
the basis for a working knowledge of American History.

An ode often seeks out truths about its subject, Shelley’s west wind, harbinger of winter as well as rebirth, or Keats’s Grecian urn, only a sweet illusion of life outlasting time.

Sharon Olds’s “Wooden Ode” announces itself as such a quest in its first line. A chair like what? Soon enough the chair is a creature, its joints creaking, the timbers and the keel hinting at violence at sea. A slave ship maybe? A sailor keelhauled across the ship’s barnacled bottom?

Back on land, the narrator studies not just any chair but a Hitchcock chair, its design nearly as old as America, armless usually, straight-backed, Old Sparky at Sing Sing without the belts and wires. And then we are outdoors again, amid American trees with limbs just high and strong enough for lynching.

The violence is not, of course, in the wood but in how Americans have used it, on land and sea, our history.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

A poetry prize for Sharon Olds

Sharon Olds is this year’s winner of the Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry. She will receive the award and read her poems on Oct. 30 in Concord, N.H. (details here).

Sharon Olds
The award bears the name of married poets who lived and wrote at Hall’s family farmhouse for two decades until Kenyon’s death of leukemia in 1995. She was 47 years old. Hall, now 86, still lives in the house and has a book, Essays after Eighty, due out soon.

The Hall-Kenyon is given annually to an esteemed American poet. Olds is the fifth winner. Previous winners have been Ted Kooser, Kay Ryan, Jane Hirshfield and Billy Collins.

Hall is an old friend, and for the first four years I had the pleasure of presenting the award. This year I can’t make it. But I have read and reviewed Olds’s poetry for years and interviewed her often. In advance of her Concord reading, I have prepared a few pieces to give readers of the Concord Monitor, the newspaper I used to edit, a taste of her work.

Olds splits time between New Hampshire and New York City, where she teaches at NYU. Her last book, Stag’s Leap, won both the Eliot Prize, Britain’s top poetry award, and the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

I went back to an earlier book, One Secret Thing (2008), and chose three poems to share and comment on.

Here is the first one:


By the time I was six months old, she knew something
was wrong with me. I got looks on my face
she had not seen on any child
in the family, or the extended family,
or the neighborhood. My mother took me in
to the pediatrician with the kind hands,
a doctor with a name like a suit size for a wheel:
Hub Long. My mom did not tell him
what she thought in truth, that I was Possessed.
It was just these strange looks on my face –
he held me, and conversed with me,
chatting as one does with a baby, and my mother
said, She’s doing it now! Look!
She’s doing it now! and the doctor said,
What your daughter has
is called a sense
of humor. Ohhh, she said, and took me
back to the house where that sense would be tested
and found to be incurable.

Olds sometimes opens her readings with this poem. It is a humorous ice-breaker that sets an audience atwitter. But the poem also says a lot about Olds’s body of work.

There’s that wonderful simile – the doctor with a name “like the suit size for a wheel” – and then the line break, a kind of ta-da pause before his name, which is to be spoken slowly so that the joke can be savored: Hub Long. Olds’s mind is a font of metaphors, and her poems reflect this. Although her line breaks can puzzle, they can also sparkle, announcing a turn in a poem’s direction.

This poem comes from a rich strain of Olds’s work. The mother-daughter relationship was a test for both of them for as long as her mother lived. Fanciful though it may be, “Diagnosis” returns to the roots. What kind of mother cannot recognize a sense of humor in her baby?

One Secret Thing closes with a moving series of poems about Olds’s mother’s dying.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Snapshots from the past, history as we lived it

First, let me thank you for reading my series of posts on my family’s letters from World War II and four years beyond. These letters deal mainly with my father’s service in the Pacific Theater and the effort to keep the home fires burning by mail. They run chronologically and encompass 15 posts beginning with this one (there is a prequel here).

My mom, Bernadine Pride, at  her parents' house in Fairfield, Conn., 1958.
In a short time these posts have generated well over a thousand page-views. I sense from this that the story has been of interest beyond my family. When I began it, I saw it as a series of snapshots from the past, history as it was lived, and hoped for just such a following.

The Our War blog has also had three other surges in readership during the last month. One was for an account of the late Sen. “Happy Jack” Chandler’s rhetoric from two decades ago. This post shot from 15th to 5th in all-time page-views during the last 20 days, increasing by nearly 300 hits.

The other two significant increases came for diaries. The third of four parts of a Confederate captain’s diary slipped into the all-time top 25 list, but all of Capt. Robert Emory Parks diary entries, which begin here, were popular. The other diary was kept by an Exeter pastor during the early years of the war. Many readers found all three years of it (1861, ’62 and ’63) during the last month.

What’s interesting about the popularity of these diaries is that they capture two scarce views of the war, one from a highly articulate, unreconstructed rebel, the other with a day-to-day account of the home front.

Here are the top 25 all-time posts based on page-views, which now range from 252 to 1.097. The numbers in parenthesis are last month’s rankings.

9. A Gettysburg journal (part 3) (8)
19. A gift from the heart (16 tie) 

Friday, October 10, 2014

15. 'We’ll never be completely happy again'

Shortly after the death of their 5-year-old daughter Bonnie, my parents left New England for Florida, seeking a new start in a new place. I was two and a half years old and have only a vague memory of the first place we lived, a duplex on Sedeeva Circle in Clearwater.

With my sister Pam before the alamanda
bush on Bermuda Street in Clearwater, 1950.
It was from there that Mom wrote the undated letter below to her parents in Fairfield, Conn. It was written in 1949, less than a year after Bonnie died and before my parents adopted my sister Pam, who was born on Nov. 8 of that year.

The letter disclosed a great deal about my parents as I knew them. My mother was the daughter of a successful salesman. My father, at 32, was just beginning his career as a salesman and sales manager in real estate firms, car dealerships and cemeteries. In the letter my mother got a laugh out of his soft-hearted approach to his profession. He would never entirely overcome it, although he found both success and satisfaction in his work while treating people right.

In her letter my mother also wrote about segregation. One of my earliest memories occurred at either Woolworth’s or McCrory’s, the side-by-side 5&10s on Cleveland Street, Clearwater’s main drag. Not yet able to read, I stepped up to the “colored” water fountain for a drink. An African-American woman chastised me for it, and I cried. My mother explained to me that we were northerners but lived in the South now and had to abide by its rules.

This was just the beginning of a conversation with my mother that lasted throughout my childhood. And it wasn’t just a conversation. She was as color-blind as one could be in the segregated South. Gertrude Clark, the African-American woman who cleaned our house for many years, came to my mother’s funeral in 1993. She told me she was able to collect Social Security only because my mother had paid both the employer’s and employee’s shares of the Social Security tax.

Mike and Pam, Clearwater, Easter 1955.
But the main subject of this 1949 letter of my mother’s was grief. The loss of Bonnie had driven my parents apart, and my mother needed to tell her mom and pop about it. At the same time it is easy to see from the letter that she was beginning to see her way through the anger and bitterness of the worst loss a parent can suffer.

Not long after this letter was written, my parents bought a new house at 1216 Bermuda Street, a few blocks north of Sedeeva Circle. My sister came to us late that year, and our brother Robin three years later. Bonnie was never forgotten in our house, but life did go on. Mom was a great mother and a tireless volunteer for good causes. Dad loved his work as a salesman and manager, but he was a soft touch with bad timing and no instinct for the main chance. Friendship, honor and dignity mattered most to him, and his life reflected these virtues.

The letter begins with a note Mom added across the top after she had written it: “Boy, my writing is awful – I just read this over, which I never do – Good luck to you – I could hardly read it.”

                                                                                               Saturday morning

Dear Mom & Pop –

Dad, you’re slipping again. Mother, you’re doing fine. Course again I don’t know what I’m going to write.

Our minister has been on the radio every day for the past week so I’ll have to take time out to listen to him. He’s a wonderful man & speaker. He is so sincere. Boy, last Sunday he talked of the suppression of negroes and that it had to stop. He’s from Ga. and said he knew how the southerners feel and that it had to stop. He’s going to put his foot in it. But what he says is true but some of these southerners are really sumpin’ – I like him too because he’s made quite an impression on Charlie. Don’t mention this in your letters.

Charlie sees an awful lot of things now in a different way. It must have been the will of God that we should find such a wonderful man. You know, Charlie couldn’t make up his mind which way to “take” Bonnie’s death. At times he’d be very bitter and say he’s out for all he can get, but now he’s beginning to realize that there is someone watching out for us. He’s always been soft-hearted, but the other day he said he’s come to realize that there are so many sad people in this world and if he can help them by a good turn he’s going to do it.

As lonely as I get for my baby, sometimes I get such a wonderful feeling that it all happened because she accomplished so much. Sometimes I get that “What’s the use of living” feeling, but I always get over it. I have so much to be thankful for. At first I couldn’t stand Mike or Charlie but they look to me for so much help that I can’t see how I could ever let them down. We’ll never be completely happy again because of that gnawing feeling, but were we ever completely happy before? We’ve found a lot more by losing Bonnie and know that she’s waiting for us. I just hope and pray we can live up to it.

At the dedication program at the Park a lady had made (crocheted) an American flag. Charlie had sold her property. I wasn’t with him yesterday while he delivered the deed. The flag is beautiful. I asked Charlie why she didn’t sell it. He said she was a foreigner and is now a very good American and won’t sell. It took over 1,000 hours to make it. They came down here, bought a house for $8,000 and got rooked, although they don’t know it. The man is very sick and they live on an old age pension of $33 a month. She made flowers out of crepe paper to make money. So my chicken-hearted husband said when he delivered the deed he’d buy one. She said she’d have 3 made by then. Well she had 6 and he bought them all -- $6. I said to him kiddingly why didn’t he pay for the lot.

I get a kick out of him. He can’t see trying to sell people the best when they can’t afford it. His boss said last night that was wrong because usually everyone wants the best, especially when it’s your last “home.” Charlie says phooey – why make people wish for what they can’t have (to me, of course). Course he makes more money on the most expensive lots, but he doesn’t care. He said he’d rather make friends.

Mike’s kinda cranky. He’s cutting his 2 top molars. One is half through and the other is nice and red.
Our landlady has her ex-husband staying with her. Makes something interesting to watch. Mike calls him Mr. Larsen. She has her first husband’s name. I heard him telling Mike not to call him Mr. Larsen. Mike can’t figure it out. I’m glad he’s not old enough to realize what’s going on. So long now.

                                                                              Love, hugs & kisses – B, C & M

Dad and Mom, about 1953. Much later, Dad wrote on the back: 'I love this one. Happy days!'