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.