Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A voice from the past speaks to the future

The letterhead on one of the letters written by Willard Templeton of the 11th New Hampshire Volunteers.
Bringing the Civil War home to history students in any state that fought in it is so easy that you wonder why more teachers don’t do it. One who has is Graham Warder, an associate history professor at Keene State College.

Warder arranged with the New Hampshire State Library to lend the letters of Willard Templeton to his college’s Mason Library. Warder’s students set about to scan, transcribe the letters and post them online, a challenging job but also a rewarding one.

Templeton was 20, about the age of the students, when he enlisted in the 11th New Hampshire Volunteers during the summer of 1862. He lived in Hillsboro, about a 40-minute drive from the college. Templeton wrote about 140 letters from the field to family and friends.

In 1864 the 11th and two sister New Hampshire regiments joined a brigade under Brig. Gen. Simon G. Griffin, a native of Nelson, even nearer to Keene. At Spotsylvania on May 12, Templeton was wounded. Two and a half months later, he carried the colors into the battle of the Crater before Petersburg. Poor leadership by top generals turned this into a Union debacle for the Union, but Griffin’s men fought better than most. Templeton was killed in this battle.

Templeton was a keen observer eager to let his family and friends know just what he was going through. Letters home were uncensored and became a chief source of news on the home front. Soldiers lacked a sense of the big picture but were not shy about sharing camp rumors.

Contemporary newspaper map of the siege of Vicksburg.
In mid-June of 1863, the 11th took the steamer Imperial down the Mississippi River to join in Grant’s siege of Vicksburg. It was one of eight steamers in the squadron with gunboats along to protect them. Writing from onboard on June 13-14, Templeton painted his brother a vivid picture of his journey.

After a 170-mile voyage the first day, they reached Greenville, Miss. “We are now down where the guerrillas fire into the boats passing down,” he wrote. “A few miles above here a boat loaded with soldiers was fired into yesterday & several were killed a number wounded the boat disabled.”

The guerrilla attacks had prompted Union forces to burn the town. Now it looked desolate – “old chimney stacks shared [charred?] frames & ash heaps are about all that is left except negrow huts these are not disterbed.” They had passed through immense hardwood forests but as the heights along the river gave way to lower banks, they began to see plantations. “The negrow huts make quite a village so that the boys jokely ask what city is that.”

Templeton believed that Grant needed them. He was “feeling anxious to get there We want to help capture Vicksburg.”

They got their wish the next morning. “We have got in sight of the city of V & have seen the flashes heard the report of Grants big siege guns,” Templeton wrote.

This letter, transcribed by Michael Nevins, is just a slice of the life of one Union soldier. But as the Keene State students no doubt found out, the slices add up. The letters also prompt further inquiry. What did the 11th New Hampshire do at Vicksburg? Does Templeton write about his part in the siege? How did the siege turn out? Why was Vicksburg important?

More schools – high schools and colleges – should take advantage of such resources. The family of Willard Templeton saved his letters for posterity, as did families all across the North and South. How better for young people today to begin to understand their nation’s catastrophic civil war than through the witness of people their own age?  

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