Thursday, February 27, 2014

Private Andrews's long road home

The opening of George Andrews's letter to his father in New Boston, N.H. Andrews was a private in the 16th N.H.
A good letter captures a moment in time. That is certainly the case with the letter 19-year-old George C. Andrews wrote to his father Issachar from New Orleans on June 22, 1863. I couldn’t help wishing for George and his family that time had stopped the moment his father read the letter.

George was one of several young men from New Boston, N.H., who joined the nine-month 16th New Hampshire Volunteers in 1862. Most, including George Andrews and his brother Calvin went into Company G as privates. They mustered in late October, trained briefly on Concord Heights and headed south in November.

The story of this regiment’s suffering in the swamps of Louisiana and its homecoming is one of the most wrenching chapters of Our War. It is titled “The cup of sorrow,” and Andrews’s letter gives a glimpse of one man's piece of it.

Here it is:

New Orleans June 22, 1863

Dear Father

I will try and write you a few lines. It is with a sad heart that I attempt to write. Poo Abner is dead. He died the fourth day of June up to Brashear City. I did not hear of his death until a day or to agow when some of the boys that was up come down and told me that he was dead. It hardly could seem posible although I was affraid that he could not live the last time I saw him, but it come pretty tough to me when I heard that he was dead. We had always been with the Regt. up to the last of May when he was taken sick. We had always been together untill then and he was kind and obligeing.

Gen. Nathaniel Banks, a former speaker of
the U.S. House and governor of
Massachusetts, was commander of the
Department of the Gulf.
It will be hard for his mother as well as for the rest of us when she comes to hear of his death. His money and things I dont know what was dun with them. There is a bunddle of cloths over to Algiers that he left there. I elieve an Over coat and dress coat and a pair of Pants. I don’t know what is best to do with them whether it is best to try and sell them for what they will fetch or try and cary them home.

I am here to New Orleans yet. I am pretty well though. I am rather weak. I dont know as I told you in my other letter what I had been sick with. In the first place I come pretty near having a high Fever and then the Chils and fever took hold of me so that I used to have them every day but I have got over them now. The last time I saw Calvin he was well and tough. He was down a few days a gow with Prisoners. The Regt. then had not gon to Port Hudson. They were within about four miles of Port Hudson guarding Genl Banks hed quarters and Amunition or what there is of the Regt that is well and that ant but about a hundred and fifty men.

Kelso is dead. He died up to Brashear and Harris Pebody is dead making five out of our town that has died.

I feell & hope that we shall be on our way home soon but I suppose we shant get started until Banks gets through up to Port Hudson.

George C. Andrews

Andrews’s buddy who died at Brashear City was Abner Lull, a New Boston private the same age as Andrews. Records indicate he died on June 5, not June 4, as Andrews reported in his letter. Kelso’s first name was William. He was older – 37. Horace (not Harris) Peabody was 24. Kelso and Peabody were also privates from New Boston.

The letter indicates that Andrews and Lull were together with the regiment through the end of May 1863. That means they were probably among the scores of men of the 16th who fell ill with malaria, dysentery and kindred diseases while garrisoning Fort Burton in a Louisiana bayou. Of the 900 men who had joined the regiment, not one was killed in battle but 300 died of disease.

Many of the sick made it home, arriving in Concord by train on Aug. 14, 1863. Some came later, collected by Good Samaritans from hospitals along the route home. The capital had to build a temporary hospital and even use city hall for  beds for some of the ill men. Even with home care, the dying continued. The regiment’s nine months up, the men mustered out on Aug. 20.

The epitaph on George Andrews's stone in
New Boston Cemetery reads: "Soldier, rest:
thy warfare is over."
George Andrews’s sense that he was on the mend once his fever and chills subsided proved false.When the regiment left New Orleans by boat and steamed up the Mississippi River, Andrews was deemed well enough to travel. But when the boat reached  Cairo, Ill., his condition had worsened, and he was left behind. A few days later, he was put on a railroad car headed east.

When Gov. Joseph A. Gilmore of New Hampshire learned that many sick and dying men from the 16th New Hampshire had been left behind on the trip from New Orleans to Concord, he sent two men to find these men and bring them home. The men were Gilmore’s son, the Rev. Joseph H. Gilmore of Penacook, N.H., and P. Brainard Cogswell, a journalist who lived in the household of the Concord abolitionist Parker Pillsbury.

Gilmore and Cogswell found 30 New Hampshire men in Worcester, Mass., all of them well enough to come home.. At Albany they visited five men in the care of a Miss Carey, a Quaker “who has abandoned the position which wealth and education assign her to become the head of a noble charity.” They also stumbled on a car-load of sick soldiers, procured omnibuses, got them all (without distinction of State) up to hospital.” Among them were George C. Andrews of New Boston and five other 16th New Hampshire soldiers.

Gilmore helped Andrews to a comfortable bed and later got him home. George's brother Calvin also made it to New Boston, apparently in good health.

On Sept. 6, 1863, George Andrews died. His family had him buried in the New Boston Cemetery with an epitaph that reads: Soldier, rest:: thy warfare is over.

[George C. Andrews's wartime diary is in the Milne collection at the University of New Hampshire.]

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A sudden change of plans

That's me on the left. George Wilson (center) hired me in 1978, and Tom W. Gerber (right) was my predecessor as editor. 
An item in Monday's Concord Monitor announced the departure of Mark Travis, the publisher and editor of the paper, and my return to the editor's chair for a few months to help the paper through the transition. Since my new duties will affect this blog, at least for a while, I thought I'd share a column I wrote about the change for today's Monitor:

Maybe you saw the notice in yesterday’s paper that I am back at the Monitor. At my age, I should know better.

What am I doing here? I was nearly six years into a retirement I loved when it occurred to me that the Monitor might need me. This was not a case of a retiree bored with still wearing pajamas at noon. Nor did I find the four freedoms – travel, walk in the woods, write whatever and whenever I want, spend time with my wife – unfulfilling in any sense.

My habits suit me fine. I read three newspapers a day. I read the New Yorker. I read books. I started a blog 15 months ago and have written nearly 200 posts. I have published three books since retiring. Monique and I have visited Florence, Rome, Dublin, many warm places south of here in winter, Civil War battlefields and much more. We go to yoga three or four times a week when we are in Concord. We love British (and Swedish and French) mysteries on television.

To make time for all this, I have remained blissfully ignorant of modern technology and communications. My fingers are too old, slow and clumsy to text, and I have never tweeted. I see social media as a time suck. I don’t have an iPod, iPhone or iPad. I tried a Kindle and hated it. I understand the wonders of all these devices but live happily without them.

One of the newspapers I read is the Monitor, which I edited for 30 years. I have stayed in touch with longtime colleagues there. I have watched the paper struggle in tough times for all newspapers, and I have winced at its inevitable problems.

When my good friend Mark Travis decided to leave as publisher and executive editor to go to work for an internet startup, I knew the Monitor would need help in the transition. This set the wheels turning. Because I know the paper, and know how much the paper means to Concord and the surrounding towns, it struck me that I might be the best person for the job.

Aaron Julien, president of the Monitor’s parent company, invited me to return. I’ve known Aaron for a long time, too. Years ago, Monique and I danced at his wedding on Fisk Hill. His bride was – is – Abby Wilson Julien, daughter of George and Marily Wilson, who brought me to Concord during a winter like this one 36 years ago. George was the paper’s publisher at the time.

My goals in the next three months are to help select an editor and publisher, evaluate the news operation, make recommendations and guide the news staff. I will work closely with old friend Felice Belman, who became the Monitor’s opinion editor seven months ago and created the paper’s innovative, reader-driven Forum pages. My hope is that we can migrate her approach to those pages to other sections of the paper. I’ll also call on another old friend, Ric Tracewski, the veteran managing editor, to help rethink the paper’s direction in several areas.

When I first walked into the newsroom last week, I was sleepy and self-conscious. I’m more than 40 years older than many of the editors, reporters and photographers. Why wouldn’t they view me as a fossil with sudden and murky but real power over their future? In the rocky world of newspapering in the 21st century, why should they trust a technophobic, old-school editor?

I had no preconceived notion of how to find common ground with this younger generation, but I did have experience entering newsrooms as an outsider with authority. During my career I started each editing job – four of them – by critiquing the local news report. My style in these critiques is constructive but frank. So that’s what I began doing last week at the Monitor.

The critiques aim to encourage and to incite. By recognizing good work publicly, you get more good work. By sharing techniques for improving the presentation of news, you raise journalism standards.

I don’t underestimate the challenge facing the Monitor or overestimate the difference I can make in three months, but I’m confident I’m on the right track. Wherever journalism is headed, readers will need savvy storytellers with strong values. The Monitor has been blessed with such journalists for decades, and the goal is to keep a good thing going.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Human stories bring history home

Rebecca Rule and I talking before she interviewed me for the UNH author series. Thanks to Dave Sullivan for the pic.
A few weeks ago, Rebecca Rule of New Hampshire Public Television interviewed me for the station's New Hampshire author series. It was a great honor to join the ranks of Donald Hall, the late Maxine Kumin, Wesley McNair, Meredith Hall, the late Donald Murray and many other fine writers I know or knew.

I've also known Becky Rule for more than 20 years. During the 1980s, she was an early citizen-contributor to the Concord Monitor. She submitted many good human stories from her home in Northwood. But as you'll hear in the interview, she's a native of Boscawen. In Our War, she was pleased to find the chapters about her fellow Boscawen-born writer, Charles "Carleton" Coffin, the Civil War correspondent for the Boston Journal.

Becky is a superb storyteller in her own right, and it was a pleasure to talk about our mutual respect for words and stories. The interview took about 45 minutes, and then I took questions from the audience. The session was edited to 26 minutes for television.

The show has aired a few times on NHPTV and can now also be seen on the web. Here's the link.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

'Straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel'

Franklin Pierce at the State House 
One casualty in the debate over slavery was the friendship between two men whose bronze statues now stand in front of the New Hampshire State House: John P. Hale and Franklin Pierce. There’s a reason Hale stands much closer to that gold-domed hall than Pierce, but that is a subject for another day.

Today, let us take a glimpse at the relations of the state’s two political giants of the 1840s and 1850s before the issue of expansion of slavery sundered their good relations in 1845.

Years after Pierce and Hale were gone, The Granite Monthly, a lively journal that celebrated New Hampshire in prose and poetry, published a letter Hale wrote to Pierce in 1841. The letter is about a minor political matter, but it is fascinating for two reasons. It captures Hale’s magnanimity, deference and good nature, and it provides a window into the way political careers crisscrossed over the years and how slavery always lurked in the background.

First, some background.

The subject of the letter was the appointment of Joel Eastman, a Conway lawyer, to be U.S. attorney for New Hampshire. Eastman was a Whig who had been a delegate to the 1840 convention that nominated William Henry Harrison. Hale had just given up the U.S. attorney job. He held it during the last part of the Andrew Jackson presidency and all of Martin Van Buren’s.

It was a patronage job, but when Eastman’s name was floated, New Hampshire Democrats noted an abolitionist tinge to his politics. Some wanted to block the nomination. Hale considered this petty and wrote to Pierce, then a powerful young Democratic U.S. senator with a voice in the outcome, to tell him so.

The Eastman nomination went through. He served as U.S. attorney during the Tyler presidency after Harrison’s death. When Democrat James K. Polk won the 1844 election, the job returned to Democratic hands, and Pierce himself took it.

Eastman was 43 years old in 1841. He was an 1822 graduate of Dartmouth College who had married Ruth Odell in 1833. They lived on a farm on the Saco River while he practiced law and served as both a judge and a legislator over the years.

Joel Eastman
In reviewing Eastman’s political career many years later, Luther D. Sawyer, a friend, said that living in so remote a place had held Eastman back. Sawyer added that he had seen Hale and Pierce argue in court, “but I never saw a lawyer that could beat and belt and thump and whack facts into a jury better than Joel Eastman.”

Hale’s and Eastman’s paths crossed again in the mid-1850s. By then slavery was even more vexing and dominant as a political issue, and Pierce was president.

On Nov. 15, 1853, the Nashua lawyer and U.S. Sen Charles G. Atherton died in office. He had long been a faithful states-rights Democrat in the Pierce mold. As a congressman in the 1838, he had been a strong proponent of the gag rule, which barred Congress from debating even the notion that slavery should be abolished., Five resolutions he sponsored became known as the “Atherton gag.” One of them read in part:

Charles G. Atherton, father
of the gag rule.
“All attempts, on the part of Congress, to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia or the Territories, or to prohibit the removal of slaves from State to State, or to discriminate between the institutions of one portion of the country and another, with the views aforesaid, are in violation of the constitution, destructive of the fundamental principles on which the Union of these States rests, and beyond the jurisdiction of Congress. . . . Every petition, memorial, resolution, proposition, or paper, touching or relating in any way or to any extent whatever to slavery, as aforesaid, or the abolition thereof, shall, on the presentation thereof, without any further action thereon, be laid on the table without being debated, printed, or referred.”

When Atherton died in 1853, nearly his entire six-year term remained. The Legislature still elected senators at the time, but it was not in session. The Democratic governor appointed Jared W. Williams, a Democrat, to replace Atherton until the legislative session of 1854.

Joel Eastman was among the candidates for the seat when the Legislature convened in June. None could get a majority, the governor’s appointment power expired, and the seat remained vacant until the 1855 legislative session. In that one, with the political factions of the new Republican Party ascendant, Hale was elected to his old seat in the Senate. He finished Atherton’s term and won another new one of his own.

Hale’s return to the Senate was no doubt galling to Pierce, who had banished Hale from the party in the mid-1840s after Hale openly opposed the extension of slavery into the territories. Hale ran as a Free Soiler for president in 1852, the year Pierce won election.

But back in 1841 the two New Hampshire political leaders had been on good terms. This is apparent from the tone and content of Hale’s letter on his own departure from the U.S. attorney’s job and the appointment of Joel Eastman to succeed him demonstrates. Here it is:

John P. Hale holds forth on the lawn
of  the New Hampshire State House.
Concord, N. H., Aug. 24, 1841.

Friend Pierce:

I want to make a few suggestions to you in regard to the appointment of U.S. Attorney for this district. I see by the papers that it is possible, not to say probable, that the nomination of Joel Eastman will not be confirmed. So far as I am concerned personally, I regret it, and I cannot see that any good is to accrue to the Democratic party from such a result. When I entered into the last canvass, earnestly and zealously as I did, it was with my eyes open to the consequences to myself which must follow a defeat. I had no expectation, and I can truly say no hope, of holding the small office I then had if the Democratic party were defeated.

Consequently my removal, promptly as it was made, was neither unexpected nor regretted under the circumstances. Of my successor, Mr. Eastman, I know nothing to make me regret that he was the successful candidate for the place. I had known him for quite a number of years as a member of the same county bar, and my acquaintance with him had been of a friendly character. I have no doubt that a rejection would be very mortifying to his feelings, and I am not aware of any circumstance in his life which should render it desirable to inflict such a wound upon his feelings, unless some good is to result to the party or the country from such a step.

I cannot myself see that such would be the case. I have no sympathy for those hollow-hearted, hypocritical politicians at the South, who turn up their noses with such horror at anything savoring of Abolition in a northern man, who voted for General Harrison as president, knowing as they did, that he was emphatically the Abolition candidate. 1 believe the Abolitionists here literally and truly hope for Eastman's rejection, thinking that they would make political capital out of it.

I of course do not pretend to advise you as to what course you may deem it your duty to take in the premises, you being on the ground and knowing all the facts pertinent to the question; but in the confidence of private friendship I have written you my views. I have no feelings of resentment against Mr. Eastman to be gratified. I hope his nomination will be confirmed.

I can only say, as at present advised, that were I a Democratic senator in congress I should say to southern Whigs: Gentlemen, this is straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel. It is too small game, after having been so subservient to the Abolitionists as to take their candidate for president, to show your spleen upon such a small affair as a petty office of $300 or $400 in a dark corner of New Hampshire.

Excuse the liberty I have taken in making these suggestions. If you deem them of the least consequence, you are at liberty to submit them to any of your friends.

With much respect, very truly your friend,

John P. Hale

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Winter break

Monique and I at Point Loma in San Diego. The picture was taken by our old friend Ching-chang Hsiao.  
As you can probably guess from recent posts, we have just returned from San Diego, where we spent a lovely week’s break from New Hampshire winter. Winter was still here when we returned – from a mid-60s takeoff last Tuesday morning to 5 degrees in Concord that night, then a snowstorm and plenty of shoveling Thursday and Friday.

Here are the top 10 blogposts of the last two months as measured by the number of times they have been called up by readers. Obviously many readers liked Elias Nason’s diary, which I condensed and put up in three parts, but I’m also heartened to see that four non-Civil War posts also made the list. I intend to continue to broaden the blog without neglecting its Civil War focus. I’m working on several posts with that goal in mind.

10. (tie) Henry H. Pearson

              Elias Nason’s 1862 Exeter diary

              EliasNason’s 1861 Exeter diary

And here are the top 25 all-time, ranging in hits from 537 to 155. The numbers in parentheses are last month’s rankings:

15. History’s touch (13t)

25. (tie) A gruesome death (23t)    

            ‘Curses to Old Abe’ (25)

Sunday, February 16, 2014

A day of fire and death from the sky lives on in memory

Stan Abele was on display on the hangar deck of the Midway, the retired aircraft carrier that is now a museum in San Diego. As he often does, Commander Abele stood and answered questions beside a plane like the one he flew onto the carrier Bunker Hill during World War II.

"Unconditional Surrender," the sculpture in San Diego
harbor. The Midway is in the background.
The name “Bunker Hill” won’t ring a bell with most people today beyond its association with the Revolutionary War monument in Charlestown, near Boston. But to the dwindling number of people of the World War II generation, the name might still recall a tragedy.

Abele was there when the tragedy happened and told the story to anyone who paused to speak with him last Saturday during a tour of the Midway. From the ship’s flight deck, you can look out upon the city’s harbor and down upon the statue of the kissing sailor and nurse, a representation of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous Life magazine photograph in Times Square on Aug. 14, 1945.

Abele’s story is one many of his fellow pilots did not live to tell. I will share it with you as he shared it with me, but there is much more to Stan Abele than one old war story, even one this dramatic.

Abele, a retired 91-year-old naval fighter pilot, served in three wars – a win, a tie and a loss, as he can now say with a chuckle. He is quick to describe the third one, the loss – Vietnam – as a dumb war misdirected by armchair bureaucrats. He is especially critical of Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense, and tells a personal story to show how brainless U.S. tactics could be.

Retired Commander Stan Abele
One job Abele did during the Vietnam War was to estimate how many bombs it would take to destroy a target. One day U.S. reconnaissance detected a new wooden bridge across a river on an enemy supply route. How many bombs would it take to destroy the bridge? Well, Abele thought, just one if it scored a direct hit. He called for 15, and the fighter-bombers destroyed the bridge.

But the North Vietnamese had lots of trees, and the next day the bridge reappeared in reconnaissance reports. The fighter-bombers destroyed it again.

The North Vietnamese chopped down more trees and rebuilt the bridge. They also moved a surface-to-air missile site near the bridge. When the planes came to destroy it, the enemy shot one down. “We lost a pilot,” Abele said, shaking his head. “It was a stupid war, stupid war.”

If any event in American history foretold the evil of the 9/11 attacks, it was the Japanese kamikaze missions of World War II. Like other Pacific veterans I have interviewed over the years, my late father Charlie Pride, who fought with the First Cavalry, often spoke of the Japanese determination to die for Emperor Hirohito. They used suicidal tactics in battle and even persuaded women who lived with them on occupied islands to kill themselves and their children rather than risk capture by Americans.

The kamikaze attacks ignited fires and explosions aboard the Bunker Hill
The kamikaze missions epitomized this desperate, suicidal war-making, and Stan Abele survived nearly the worst of them.

On the morning of May 11, 1945, the Bunker Hill was supporting the invasion of Okinawa. Abele had just left the ready room and was on deck climbing into his F4U Corsair fighter plane, with wings up before takeoff, when the first kamikaze struck.

The pilot, Seiz┼Ź Yasunori, let loose his 550-pound bomb, but it crashed through the deck and out the side of the Bunker Hill without exploding. Yasunori’s plane hit Abele’s raised wing and skidded into the planes behind him in the flight line. The planes were loaded with fuel and ammunition, and the explosions and fire killed all the pilots.

Thirty seconds later, a second kamikaze, piloted by 22-year-old Kiyoshi Ogawa, streaked out of the clouds as Abele climbed out of his damaged plane. Ogawa’s bomb penetrated the deck and exploded in the ready room that Abele had just left, killing all 30 pilots gathered there. Ogawa’s plane crashed through the deck near Abele but did not explode and did not penetrate the top of the hangar deck below.

The attack caused massive fires and casualties. As he told his story, Abele paged through a notebook of mostly black and white photos. Some showed fire and destruction, one a clutch of bodies of Americans who were trapped in the fires. He still seemed amazed that he had escaped death twice in a couple of minutes. Beyond luck, he could offer no explanation for it.

The human toll was 389 dead crew members, including 43 whose bodies were never found, and 264 wounded. Many crewmen were either blown overboard or forced to jump to escape the fires. That is how Abele survived. He lost a shoe in his 60-foot leap and spent the afternoon in the water before being rescued.

He was aboard the Bunker Hill in time to see the bodies awaiting burial and the ruined aircraft being pushed overboard. The next day more than 300 men were buried at sea. The ship made it back to the States for repairs. 

Kiyoshi Ogawa
The story has a postscript that Abele did not mention. Robert Schock, a Navy salvage diver, found Ogawa’s body in the cockpit of his Zero and retrieved photos, a letter and his nametag from his flight jacket. In 2001, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, Schock’s grandson gave these mementos to Ogawa’s family.

Ogawa’s letter to his family read in part: “A man dies sooner or later. I am very proud to have lived a meaningful life. This is an honorable way to die.”

On the Midway nearly seven decades later, Stan Abele tells the story of May 11, 1945, in a calm, matter-of-fact voice. Many of the people who stroll past him on the hangar deck are of Japanese descent. Even in these new times, his story retains its shock and its power, countering Ogawa’s youthful delusions about what constitutes honor.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Pictures that tell our history, from coast to coast

Thomas Wentworth, by Joseph Blackburn
I love American pictures. Actually, I love art of all kinds, but when I first became interested in pictures many years ago, this country had an inferiority complex about its own art. Many 19th century American artists went to France or Italy to improve their painting. The prevailing sense in this country was that their work was therefore derivative, even though all artists learn from each other. Major movements like Impressionism and Cubism flourished because one artist borrowed ideas from another.

Last week, when my wife Monique and I visited the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park, we happened to see the American galleries first. I'm always on the lookout for New Hampshire subjects, and by coincidence the second picture I looked at was a portrait from this state. The subject was an open-faced, confident 21-year-old Portsmouth man wearing a new gray suit with silver brocade trim.

The subject was Thomas Wentworth, nephew of the colonial Gov. John Wentworth. The governor, Portsmouth-born (1737-1820) and Harvard-educated (John Adams was a classmate and friend), invested in land on Lake Winnipesaukee and helped found the town of Wolfeboro. Alas, he fled his office in 1775 as the Revolution began and left the country the following year.

His nephew, the subject of the San Diego portrait by Joseph Blackburn, did not survive to see this day. He died in 1768 at the age of 27 or 28. His portrait now hangs between Raphaelle Peale's peaches and William Harnett's unplucked merganser carcass.

Eastman Johnson's "Wounded Drummer Boy"
Nearby is a Civil War picture by Eastman Johnson. Called "The Wounded Drummer Boy," it depicts a boy of perhaps 11 with a bandaged leg sitting on the left shoulder of an infantryman.The soldier carries his rifle on his left shoulder, and the boy is still banging his drum. To me, this is a picture of Union camaraderie and resolve -- a picture distinguished by its historical moment as well as Johnson's compositional and artistic talent.

This is one reason I like American pictures: They are art, but they tell our national story.

Johnson was a Mainer, born in Lovell, brought up in Fryeburg and Augusta. The family had New Hampshire roots, and Johnson apparently lived for a time in our hometown of Concord. He made a European tour during his early 20s, studying paintings in Germany, France and Holland.

Before the Civil War, Johnson painted in the American South. His 1859 masterpiece, "Negro Life in the South," was part of a major Civil War exhibition last year in Washington, D.C., and New York City. During the war Johnson traveled with the Union army and collected genre subjects, including "The Wounded Drummer Boy," which he did not finish until 1871.

Please don't get the idea that these paintings are the best American works Monique and I saw in San Diego or that I am so parochial that I went from one corner of the country to the other looking for home-state connections. (Truth be told, warmth was the chief attraction.) The rich mix in the American galleries includes works by Robert Henri, Diego Rivera, Georgia O'Keeffe and many others.

In the history center, also in Balboa Park, there is a fine gallery of paintings by Maurice Braun, a local artist. Working mainly during the Great Depression, Braun captured the Southwest desert, the coast and the distant mountaintops, which, unlike our mountains, resist summer green and winter white.

It was great to discover Braun -- and to see pictures with a familiar New England flavor. Did I mention that we also saw two beautifully restored Concord coaches?

Maurice Braun's "Mountains and Deserts" (1930s)

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The death of a poet

My friend Maxine Kumin died Thursday. The tribute I wrote to her for the Concord Monitor begins thus:

Maxine Kumin, the city girl who found a house
on a hill in Warner, N.H., and farmed it for
all the poems she could write. (1995 Concord
portrait by the great Ken Williams.) 
Maxine Kumin knew what she was looking for. “A little island on top of hill” was the way she put it during an interview nine years ago. She found it in Warner – a rundown farm on land thick with brush and brambles. Over the years, through cash and hard labor, she and her husband Victor turned Pobiz Farm into a 200-acre paradise with pastures for their horses, a manmade pond for skinny-dipping and gardens where Maxine grew asparagus, corn and tomatoes.

In turn the farm transformed Kumin into the poet she wanted to be. “I loved the isolation,” she said. Free of the urban and suburban lives she knew, she began to see the natural world around her and to plumb the restless world within her. Soon, she said, “I was writing more intimately about what I saw and what I felt. 
And little by little the language that I used changed.” It became less academic and more muscular.

Kumin, who died Thursday at the age of 88, leaves 17 books of poems written beginning in 1963, when she and Victor bought the farm for $11,500. Along the way she served as U.S. poet laureate and won the Pulitzer Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Award. Late in life, she continued to publish new poems long after she first swore she was finished writing them.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Richard Ager, storyteller

Rebecca Rule interviewed me recently for the New Hampshire Public Television author series. It was an honor to join a parade of authors that has included my poet friends Donald Hall, Wesley McNair, Maxine Kumin and Charles Simic, and writers Meredith Hall, Jody Picoult, Donald Murray and many more. When the program is edited and online, I’ll post a link to it on this blog.

Richard Ager in a familiar setting,
 in front of the New Hampshire State House. 
The afternoon at the Dimond Library on the UNH campus began on a sad personal note. I learned from Steve Giordani, a videographer at the station, that Richard Ager had died during the holidays at the age of 60. Ager, a native of Canada who immigrated to the United States in 1990, was a reporter at NHPTV for 18 years. In 2011, he moved on to work for Wyoming Public TV. Over the years in New Hampshire  I often ran into him at political events in Concord and elsewhere.

After my interview, Giordani shared some recollections of working with Ager, and what he said was no surprise. Even if they were working on a mundane budget story at the State House, Ager went the extra mile. “If you were working with Richard, you stayed until the last vote, no matter how late the session went,” Giordani said.

Preparation and persistence deepened Ager’s work. “I was always amazed how he could have a conversation with anyone, from heads of state to the local dairy farmer and always know exactly what the issues were,” Giordani said. If he thought a candidate was dodging him, he repeated the question.

One time, Ager’s desire to pursue a story exceeded Giordani’s limits. Their work on a documentary called “Who has seen the wind?” took them to North Carolina’s Outer Banks during Hurricane Dennis. As the eye of the storm passed over them, Ager tried to hire a pilot to take them up. No way, said Giordani. Ager said he’d take the camera and do the shoot himself. “Thank heavens all the pilots refused to fly,” said Giordani.

The two became close friends, and Giordani credits Ager with helping him win five New England Emmys as a videographer. “He always used to joke that he was going to write a book called The Care and Feeding of Your Videographer,” said Giordani. “I’d laugh, but it was true: He always took great care of me and all the people he came into contact with in his professional career."

My closest association with Ager came during two stories involving me for Outlook, NHPTV’s news magazine. The first was in 2001, when he interviewed Mark Travis and me about Col. Edward E. Cross and the 5th New Hampshire Volunteers shortly after the publication of My Brave Boys: To War with Colonel Cross and the Fighting Fifth (you can see that story in the middle of the program here). Then, in 2008, when I left the Concord Monitor after 30 years, Ager and Geordani came out to Monique’s and my camp in Goshen to do a story on my retirement (video here near the end).

Ager was the consummate professional, studying his subjects and their work before interviews and putting the focus on them, not him. After leaving New Hampshire, he continued his career with a weekly interview show and occasional call-in show for Wyoming PBS. You can read his obituary here. One of his last interviews was with the historian David McCullough, and you can see that here.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

‘The reputation of a regiment is always made by the bad men in it’ -- Capt. George F. Towle, 4th N.H.

Unfortunately from Capt. George F. Towle’s perspective, the regiment he joined saw little fighting in its first year. This caused friction within its officer corps. In an idle regiment, promotions were hard to come by. When a opening came, officers made ample time for politics and pettiness. Afterward resentment kicked in . Towle, captain of Co. F, 4th New Hampshire Volunteers, was a first-class “croaker” (complainer, in Civil War lingo) with an overbearing faith in logic and little tolerance for human foibles.

Capt. George F. Towle
His Oct. 30, 1862, letter to his friend Charles W. Brewster illustrates these tendencies. Brewster, editor of the Portsmouth Journal, had helped Towle get his commission after Towle’s harrowing trip from the Texas Hill Country to New Hampshire at the start of the war. This horseback journey is the opening scene of Our War. In his account of it, Towle eloquently expressed his loyalty to the United States and its principles, a personal quality also apparent in the 1862 letter.

Towle proved to be a good officer, and he moved slowly through the ranks from lieutenant to lieutenant colonel. But in this letter he carped bitterly about the process by which officers were promoted. A teetotaler, he also railed about camp rumors asserting that people back home though the officers and men of the 4th drank too much. He seemed impervious to his own ranting, asserting at one point: “I shall make no complaint.”

On Friday I posted Towle’s drawings and account of the 4th New Hampshire’s first battle, at Pocotaligo, S.C. Today I share the rest of the letter:

“I desire to take this opportunity to thank you for the kindness with which you treated me in Concord, in assisting me to procure my commission. If you have ceased to remember it, I have not forgotten it. Certainly when I made my way out of Texas with a brand of Abolitionist upon me, and through 50 days of weary travel 900 miles to Kansas, daily renewing my determination to fight, so long as I should live, for the Union and freedom of speech on southern soil, I did not anticipate the year of inactivity or the next thing to it, which has been my lot in this Department.

“Those who have suffered from those atrocious vigilance committees in the south, as I have – those who have been hunted out of southern states for the ‘crime’ of speaking in favor of free soil, free labor and free institutions, as I was from Texas, may well be pardoned if they sometimes display a little vindictiveness towards the rebellion, its authors, and aiders south or north.

“And this year of inactivity was on this account the more galling to me. Often I was ready to resign and go enlist as a private in regiments in the field; but then they wouldn’t accept resignations from working officers in good health. Some months ago through the influence of a brother of Robert Dale Owen [Robert Dale Owen was the son of a social reformer who started the New Harmony utopian community in Indiana; the brother referred to here is probably Richard Dale Owen, a Mexican War veteran who taught at a Kentucky military academy], who was a professor in the military college where I graduated, I could have had a position as field officer in an Indiana 3 years regiment. But ‘by the order of the war department no resignations accepted’ was the invariable rule.

Gen. Horatio G. Wright
“And to say the truth, I have a feeling of state pride which makes me prefer the regiments of my native state, even with lower rank. Yet I confess I sometimes feel when I hear of my classmates and comrades at the military college lower in standing than myself now ranking as colonels and field officers while I am only a simple captain.

“One method I did much hope they would take in promoting to the field of this regiment. I did hope General Wright [Brig. Gen. Horatio G. Wright was the 4th New Hampshire’s brigade commander in early 1862] would be consulted in filling the vacancy created by Col. Whipples resignation [Whipple, who did have a reputation for drinking, had resigned in March and was soon replaced by Col. Louis Bell]. Gen. Wright knew the officers of this regiment thoroughly. He knew them as soldiers and as officers – and he would have designated for promotion the best soldiers who had also a moral
character without reproach to support his military character. His judgment could have been relied on.

Col. Louis Bell. A native of Chester
and the son of a governor, Bell was a
lawyer in Farmington before the war. 
“Again, if the thing could have been done, I eagerly desired that the officers who wished to go into the field – and some of us did who had no one to speak for us – should be sent before a board of regular army officers who would subject them to a thorough, severe and systematic examination – not only on infantry tactics, but the art of war generally, which I maintain Field officers should be well versed in, and recommend him for promotion who should come best out of it. I suggested both these methods to various officers in the regiment, but, somehow or other, such suggestions met with little favor. At any rate I think it would have been the best way.

“I have been extremely concerned to hear that the 4th has such a bad reputation at home. I hear that its officers are called a drunken set. I know that you shall not suspect me of being in that category. I never in my life was under the influence of liquor in the slightest degree. Most certainly those officers of the regiment who have disgraced it by drunken sprees should be removed from it, and had I any power in the matter it should be very soon done.

“The reputation of a regiment is always made by the bad men in it, and it is hard for those who have always kept a very good character, to be placed in the same class with officers who get drunk and are incompetent. My opinion has always been: that no man who gets drunk should ever have any command over men.

“I hear too, that the 4th is considered in N.H. to be an ‘armed mob’ with no discipline. Now Gen. Terry told me, when he inspected us, that my company ‘was in the best condition of any company he ever inspected in his life.’ This is a high compliment certainly and all say it was well deserved.

Gov. Nathaniel S. Berry of Hebron
“But yet in New Hampshire we share the reputation of the regiment. Is this not harsh? But what can we do? Only let justice be done. This is all I ask. I shall make no complaint – only let us have this assurance. If there are any officers in the regiment who work faithfully & honestly, who maintain good characters, and efficient discipline, who are proficient in military knowledge and have ability to use it – only let us have this assurance, that these officers will be noticed and remembered, even though they have no friends of influence at home to be consistently pressing their claims.

“I have always believed in Governor Berry, and I feel confident that I am and shall be justified in this belief of his wisdom, sagacity and judgment in managing the conflicting interests that must be clashing around him. As for myself, come what will, I shall serve in this way so long as life lasts or till the war ends. The extermination of all white inhabitants of the south, and laying it waste as a desert, rather than let this most atrocious and wickedest rebellion succeed.”