Saturday, April 5, 2014

'Oh this pen cannot describe my feelings'

Sarah Ann Adams missed her son. Months after she saw him leave for the front, the moment remained fresh in her mind. In her nightmares he sickened and died in the Louisiana bayous. When she darned his socks, she could almost see him. She counted the days till his homecoming and feared the worst when the battle of Port Hudson extended his service. He lived in her dreams, but when she awoke, most days her only company was her cats, Phyllis and Sambo, the black one.

The envelope of one of Sarah Ann Adams's letters to her son Charles. 
Eleven of Adams’s letters to Charles H. Adams, a private in the 15th New Hampshire Volunteers, sold on eBay in January for $307.76. The lot also included letters from his friends and neighbors.

The letters are now being resold one by one, scattering them to collectors around the country. This is a standard practice on eBay, as selling letters individually brings more than selling them as lots. Two of Sarah Adams’s letters in recent auctions brought $83 and $78.

The attraction of these letters to collectors – and historians – is great. Letters to soldiers from loved ones at home are scarcer than soldier letters. Soldier letters became prized family relics. Wives’ and mothers’ letters to the front were coveted and cherished but often destroyed. That is why a large majority of archival collections contain only the soldiers’ letters home.

Sarah Ann Adams’s letters convey an unvarnished honesty. How discomforting must it have been for her son to read again and again of her anguish over his absence and her fears about his possible death? Probably his politics, to the extent a teenager is political, mirrored her staunch Democratic views. Perhaps he shared her joy over the defeat of the “black” or “niggar” (meaning Republican) politicians in their hometown of Hollis at town meeting in March 1863.

The letters depict life on the home front. Sarah was keen to inform Charles of how the ducks and chickens were surviving the winter. In spring she wanted him to know the fish were biting. She told him about the marriage of Thomas Brown and Hatty Lovejoy, the birth of a son in the Proctor household, the levee at the town hall, a drenching January rain. “It would please you to see the duckys play in it,” she wrote. “They could not stop to eat.”

Charles was a nine-month soldier. He received a bounty for joining the 15th New Hampshire, one of two nine-month regiments formed in the state in the fall of 1862. The 15th consisted of 919 officers and men. Charles enlisted on Sept. 27 at the age of 18 and mustered in 12 days later. Sarah Ann Adams was a widow, her husband William having died at 42 in 1856. Charles was her only son. She gave her written permission for him to join, a decision she soon regretted.

In most respects, New Hampshire's two nine-month regiments were similar. Both the 15th and the 16th were sent to Louisiana. Disease ravaged both. The 16th lost more to sickness – 300 to the 15th’s 108 – but the 16th never fought a battle. Between May 27 and July 4, a period of dread for Sarah Ann Adams, the 15th lost 30 men killed and many more wounded at Port Hudson.

The top of the first page of Sarah Ann Adams's letter of March 8, 1863.
Charles’s mother wrote him on Jan. 11, 1863, introducing the themes of future letters. “The ground is as bare as summer,” she wrote. She passed on advice from a friend about taking care of his health: “Be careful of the dew and put on your over coat and let them laugh that wants to for thay can’t die for you.” The ducks were “fat as pigs,” and she had the cats and 13 chickens to keep her company. “O how I want to see you and talk with you,” she wrote. “Tears almost blind me.” Her only comfort was the thought that her Charley might survive because he could “shute better than the rebels.”

Later that month, she recalled his departure: “Oh how fresh it is in my mind – that sean never will be forgotten by me while I live. . . . The folks say I am all alone but I have a nough to eat and drink and a good fire to keep me warm. . . . I often see you in my imagination mending your close and stockings. I dream of you and a good talk with you about things, but when I awake I am all alone and it makes me sad but I count the days when you will come home. If your life is spared, your time is half out the first day of next month.”

She worried in a February letter that drinking Louisiana river water would make him sick and that the government intended to force him to re-enlist. “O how I wish that Sunday was as it used to be –  that you was at home with me,” she wrote. “How much comfort I should enjoy, but alas I am alone except the cats. . . .  It will be a happy day if God spares our lifes to mete again on earth.”

Her advice about his possible re-enlistment hinted at the reason she had allowed him to enlist in the first place: money. “Don’t you do no shush thing for if you do you will kill your Mother,” she wrote. “I should rather live on bread and watter all the days off my life.”

Probably Charles was a fisherman, as his mother often shared fish stories in her letters. John, a family friend or relative, went fishing on a February day. He caught six pike, all four-pounders, including one with “fore holes through his body made with a spear last fall. John says if the rebels are half as tough you had better come home for you can’t kill them devels.”

She also relayed news of other soldiers he knew. Charles A. Kemp had been wounded on Aug. 12, 1862. “The ball struck him in the right eye, went through his nose into his mouth, took out all his teath on the left jaw. He is in the hospital in Maryland.”

Three Hollis men in the 7th New Hampshire had died of disease. The body of only one, 38-year-old Pvt. Nathaniel Wright, dead on Thanksgiving in St. Augustine, had made it home when she wrote. Another 7th private, Nathaniel Truel, wrote to his mother 11 weeks after Wright’s death that his body had been dug up on Feb. 6 and sent north via the steamer Delaware the next day. Truel did not believe their captain, Nathan Ames, when he said he had paid for the shipment out of his own pocket. “He is as mean as ever and we hate him so bad as we do the itch.” he wrote.

In her next letter to her son, Sarah Adams reported that the bodies of the other two 7th men from Hollis, Norman Howe and Charles Fletcher, had been buried in town on March 7, more than six months after their deaths.

The Civil War memorial honor roll on Hollis's monument.
March was town meeting time, and state elections were held then, too. Republicans had been sponsoring abolition speakers all around the state, but Sarah Adams was having none of that. Although as a woman she could not vote, she considered the local results in Hollis a triumph of common sense. “The democrats carried every thing,” she wrote on March 11, the day after the meeting. Voters elected Democrats to be town moderator, first selectman and state representative. 

John, the pike fisherman Sarah had mentioned in an earlier letter, had told her he was going “to voat against the negro men.” He wanted Charles “to wright how you like the negro girls.” After the meeting John confirmed that he had “voated write” and “the blacks felt bad” – so much so that “Old Paul eat all the tobacco he could get hold of.” Sarah sent Charles a lock of John’s hair and passed along his orders for Charles to “kill all the damed Rebels and cursed negroes. Kill them all and come home.”

Rumors conveyed by the wife of Frank Pond, another 15th private from Hollis, drove Sarah to distraction.  “It is with a aching hart and a trembling hand that I set down to write theas few lines,” she began one letter. “. . . My hart bleads while my tears flow. I hear that you attempted to run away but they caught you and brought you back [and] that for your punishment you have got to carry fifty pounds off iron on your back while on duty.” John was skeptical of this story. “John says he don’t believe it,” Sarah wrote. “He says it is done to torment me.”

The rumor about a mass re-enlistment of the regiment incensed her. Her view was that “them that made the war may fight it.” The idea of his re-upping moved her to begin with a rhyme: “My pen is poor my ink is pale but my love to you will never fail. . . . I understand your regiment is to reinlist again but don’t you for god sake. If you do it will kil me. . . . You had better beleve that thay never get my consent for you to go to war again the devel comes. They cant draft you because Old Abe has exempted a poor widow’s only son.”

She told him he could make a good wage at home. Spring had come, and farm laborers were being paid $18 to $20 per month.

The next rumor was even worse. “I hear dredful news just now that half of the fifteenth regiment was taken prisoners when I was riting to you. God onley knows my feelings if my poor boy is a prisoner my harte will brake. All hope is gonn of seeing your dear face again. . . . I won’t send you enny money for if you are a prisoner it will never reach you. . . . I know what you sed when you bought your revolvers that you never would be taken a prisoner so I think you are dedd but if you are living anser this soon.”

It was days before she learned he had not been captured. “I should have sent you the letter I roat last week but I thought if you was taken you never would git it,” she wrote. “But I hear that it is not so and I feel better. This pen cannot tell how I felt and I am so glad to hear that you have your liberty.”

On May 12, heartened by her belief that Charles had only 34 days left before he started home for Hollis, Sarah wrote her son a cheerful letter. “If you have enny money look out for them Manchester fellows for you know what sort of chaps they bee,” she began. “They would steal enny ones eyes if they could get a chance for a dollar. Keep a good look for them and say nothing to no one.”

Spring weather had improved her days.  “The ducks do not trouble me enny,” she wrote. “Thay go to thare work in the morning [and] don’t return until night, Ketching frogs is their employment.” Sarah had gone “spearing” with John and another woman. “We got twelve pike eleven suckers one eel two pouts,” she wrote.

The one discordant note in her letter concerned Charles Kemp, the Hollis soldier wounded the previous August. He had finally come home “very weak and low, what is left of him, so folks say he never will be good for nothing again.” But Charles’s imminent discharge from the army gave her courage. “I was very much pleas to think that you sed you wasnt a going to reinlist,” she told Charles. “You are a good boy.” She passed on John’s requested that he “bring home a little negro girl to keep off the mussquitoes for thay are very thick.”

On May 27 the news turned. That day, Pvt. Adams’s regiment joined the battle for Port Hudson, a Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River. Gen. Nathaniel Banks’s troops, including the 15th, were first repulsed there and then mounted a siege like Gen. Ulysses Grant’s at Vicksburg. It lasted for 48 days, and 30 officers and men from Charles’s regiment were killed during that time.

During the siege, the 15th New Hampshire served in Brig. Gen. Neal S. Dow's First Brigade of
Thomas W. Sherman's division of Nathaniel Banks's 19th Corps. Sherman's division manned
the southern end of the siege line nearest the river, at bottom right in this map.
“Alas,” Sarah wrote him on June 9, “I am doomed to disappointment. Instead of your coming to your Mothers arms I hear that you was called to the field of battle. I heard yesterday that the 15 regiment was at port Hudson. Oh this pen can not describe my feelings. . . . I don’t know but that you are wounded writhing on a bed with pain and no Mothers hand to administer to your wants.  Oh had I the wings of a dove.” She dreaded what might come next. “I dare not look in the news papers for fear I shal see your name there.”

On Aug. 14, 1863, with the rest of his regiment, Charles H. Adams came home. True to his word, he did not re-enlist. He became a carpenter and in November of 1876 married Sarah Maria Pierce (1851-1934). Sarah Ann Adams, born in 1808, the year before her nemesis, Abraham Lincoln, lived until 1897. Charles seems to have inherited her longevity gene. He died in 1930 at the age of 85 or 86.

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