Sunday, January 25, 2015

When a soldier's vote was a loyalty test

Sgt. Wesley Knight, loyal Republican
Can you imagine a military unit off at war in which American soldiers care deeply about who is elected governor of their state? This brief letter from a sergeant from Londonderry, N.H., during the Civil War shows how much times and circumstances have changed. 

It was written the day after state election day in New Hampshire in 1863. In this blog I have written about this election from several angles, but this letter deals with a different question: How invested were the soldiers in the outcome?

The sergeant who wrote the letter was Wesley B. Knight of the 4th New Hampshire Volunteers. This regiment had arrived on the South Carolina coast in late 1861, moved on to Florida and returned to occupy Hilton Head six months before Knight wrote.

Knight, who was 28 years old at the time, was a Republican. At stake in the March 10, 1863, election was whether his party could hold the governor's office. Otherwise President Lincoln might have to deal with a peace-leaning Democratic governor. 

The candidates in New Hampshire were Joseph Gilmore, the Republican, a Concord railroad magnate; Ira Eastman, the Democrat, who favored making peace with the South; and Walter Harriman, a colonel running as a War Democrat to siphon off votes from Eastman. The only issues in the election were war policy and the Emancipation Proclamation, which had just taken effect.  

Note in Knight's letter the detail with which he reports the voting in his regiment. Also, his description of a fellow sergeant from Londonderry, 29-year-old Edward P. Moore, voting for a Democrat. In Knight's view Moore had changed. He was not simply expressing an opposing point of view. He was disloyal.

Beaufort. S.C.
Mar. 11th, 1863

Friend Clark,

As I was at leisure today I thought I would improve a few moments in writing you a few lines. My health is good at the present time & has been most of the time since I left N.H. the last time. The boys from L [Londonderry] are all well & enjoying themselves well and mostly contented but want this thing put through & have it finished up.

I suppose yesterday was a stirring day with you in N.H. It was somewhat so here. We held meetings in most all the companys and I believe that Gilmore was ahead in our Co. K. Harriman stood 24, Gilmore 26, Eastman 12. In Co. D. Gilmore had 40 to 2 for others.

How do you think E.P. Moore went? He voted for Eastman. He has changed a great deal I am sorry to say. He is losing confidence of the Co. officers by talking as he does. We have three loyal men for our company officers.

About my Colt, if you can sell it to a good advantage you may sell him & if the paymaster does come around to pay us take out those is due you & pay for selling him & pay the rest to my wife and her father. I did not want to sell him but I see no prospect of my getting home until my time is up so I have made up my mind to sell him. I know you will do as well as you believe & take out enough to pay for all of your trouble.

We are expecting to leave for Charleston every day. We have been under marching orders for more than a week. We are waiting impatiently for orders to move. I want to go to that hot hole of the Rebel and wipe it out. When we start I shall have a good supply of matches on hand to help burn the place if I live to get there. I will close now sending my regards to yourself & family.

I remain as ever yours &c,

Sergt. Wesley B. Knight
Co. H. 4th Regt.

N.H. Vols.

At 23 acres, the Florence, S.C., prison was one of the largest in the rebel system. It opened in September 1864. Of the 15,000-
18,000 prisoners in six months of operation, 2,802 died. Because of lost records, 2,167 of the dead lie in unknown graves. 
However disappointing Knight found Edward P. Moore's political views, Moore gave his life for his country. He was wounded July 27, 1864, near Petersburg, Va., and died three weeks later.

Knight suffered a similar fate. He was captured May 16, 1864, at Drewry's Bluff near Richmond and died five months later at the Confederate prison in Florence, S.C.

[Thanks to my friend David Morin for the transcription and Knight photo.]

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The new bride

Julia Jones was an eloquent and sometimes saucy letter-writer. When she came through Concord, N.H. after her
winter wedding, she was perhaps dressed as she is at left.
Julia Jones was a young educator from East Washington, N.H., who had many suitors during the Civil War. She came from a prominent local family in this west-central New Hampshire town, which can be reached by a winding, up-and-down road from Hillsboro to the southeast and an even hillier road from Newport to the north. Washington was, in other words, isolated.

Jones’s tart, witty letters betray an independent streak and a sense of self that attracted several Civil War officers. These included Edward E. Cross and Frank Butler of the 5th New Hampshire, but the one who won her heart was Samuel Duncan of the 14th New Hampshire.

Col. Samuel A, Duncan
Though their letters, including those written after Duncan became colonel of the 4th U.S. Colored Regiment, Jones and Duncan fell in love. Before the war they had met only once. Shortly after the war they married.

Especially because of Jones’s distinctive voice, writing the story of this romance for Our War was a delightful challenge. You can get a taste of it in this earlier blogpost – from a dialogue my wife did with me at the Washington Historical Society a couple of years ago.

At that presentation, one listener pointed out an error in the epilogue of my book. I had written that after the war Duncan and Jones were married in Washington, D.C., where he worked. In fact they were married in Washington, N.H., my listener said.

This error was deflating to its author. I’d not have made it had I found a letter that recently came my way.

The letter was written by Henry J. Crippen, a Concord, N.H., lawyer, educator and businessman. Like Julia Jones, he was a graduate of the New London Literary and Scientific Institution (later Colby Academy, now Colby-Sawyer College). A native of England, Crippen went on to graduate from Dartmouth in 1861. He taught at Concord High School and, also like Jones, became an elementary school principal. He left education to study law under Henry P. Rolfe, a Concord politician (Douglas Democrat) and attorney.

At the time Crippen wrote the letter in question to Kate Carr in Bradford, N.H., he was working in the auditor’s office of the state of New Hampshire. His letter is dated the last day of 1867. Jones and Duncan, who had been made a brigadier general near the end of the war, had been married that Christmas.

Here is what Crippen wrote to Carr near the end of his chatty New Year’s greeting:

“Julia Jones was married to Gen’l Duncan on Christmas. She passed through here on her wedding tour but said she could not stop as she was ‘under military orders.’ ”

It is pleasant to think that the Victorian gaiety of this brief paragraph suggests that the wedding was the happiest day in the life of Julia Jones.

[For the story of my belated discovery of the photo at top and other images of Julia Jones, see this post.] 

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Short letter, tragic story

Capt. John A. Cummings
Sometimes a short letter says a lot if you know the conditions under which it was written. Here is a letter from John A. Cummings, a Peterborough, N.H., captain in the 6th New Hampshire Volunteers. It was found recently by my friend Dave Morin, who has an impressive digital archive of New Hampshire Civil War material.

Near Antietam Creek
September 28, 1862

Dear Mother:

We are lying in camp here on the bank of the Potomac. The rebels are opposite and occasional dashes at them are made by our troops. There has got to be one more great slaughter somewhere this fall. It may be near here but probably the theatre of operations will be changed soon and our army will move into Virginia again by way of Washington. We seem to have severe battles and both sides claim a victory but no decisive results come from it. I am sick and tired of it sometimes; it seems so much like nothing but huge butchery. We have got the best of them now however and the spirits of our soldiers begin to recover from the depression caused by the defeat at Bull Run. Write me often.

With love to all,
I am Your Son,
John A. Cummings

Cummings’s mood was downcast. Eleven days before he wrote, his regiment, the 6th New Hampshire, had fought at Burnside’s Bridge at Antietam. The northern spin on this bloodiest day in American history was that the Union army had won a great victory. Yes, Lee had escaped to fight another day, but Union troops had turned back the Confederate invasion of the North.

Unlike many soldiers who wrote home after this battle, Cummings expected “one more great slaughter” sometime in the fall. He wrote of battle as “nothing but huge butchery” and dismissed claims of victory after battles that decided nothing.

As it turned out, he was right about the immediate future. One of the most useless slaughters of the war was indeed on the horizon – at Fredericksburg, Va., in the late fall.

Kate Cummings
But as a reading of his wartime letters at the Peterborough Historical Society makes clear, Cummings’s sour mood was excusable for personal reasons. In Our War, I told the story of how his wife had drowned after a steamer she was taking to visit him collided with another ship and sank in the Potomac. This occurred just six weeks before the Sept. 28 letter to his mother.

What’s more, less than a month before he wrote the letter, his regiment was hammered at Second Bull Run. Sixty-six officers and men from the 6th died in that battle, including many of Cummings’s friends. And they died in defeat.

Two weeks later, the regiment fought at South Mountain on the way to Antietam.

All this compounded Cummings’s grief over the loss of his wife, Kate Cummings, whom he had married only the previous fall at the 6th New Hampshire’s training camp in Keene. The couple had no time for a honeymoon. John Cummings marched to the train station with his regiment on a snowy Christmas morning, and off the 6th went to the front.

Here are excerpts from the Cummings letters leading up to his personal tragedy in the summer of 1862. They begin with a letter written by the captain on Aug. 9. The regiment’s major, Obed Dort, had left for Baltimore to pick up Kate Cummings and his own wife, Julia, and bring them to Newport News, Va. Already at the hospital there were Charles Scott, the 6th’s ill lieutenant colonel, and his wife Sophia, who had come south to care for him.

Capt. Cummings had been there, too, but plans for the Cummings reunion were already going awry as the captain and the 6th followed orders to join a gathering campaign in Virginia.

Lt. Col. Charles Scott
“Major Dort succeeded in getting permission to go to Baltimore the Thursday before we left to meet the women and Friday night we got orders to pack up and go on board transports Saturday morning,” Cummings wrote his sister. “Sunday morning we passed them going down the Chesapeake. I never felt more in my life than I did then, but it was impossible for me to remain behind. Maj. Dort came right on and rejoined us again Tuesday but could not bring the women with him. He left them in good quarters near Scott and his wife at Newport News. They were going to remain there till we could write them what to do.

“Day before yesterday I went back to camp to see if Col. [Simon G.] Griffin wouldn’t let me go back down there. His orders were not to let officers leave. . . . I have got room engaged at a farm house close by, but have not much hopes of her getting here. There is so much red tape business about it. It is the best opportunity now that we are guarding the bridge to have her with me there has been since coming out here. The accomodations are much better than at Newport News.

“But now to get her here is the question. Once here she could go home any day [if his regiment was called away]. And thus I am placed in perplexing circumstances. I think sometimes I will go to her anyway but then I should have to give up my place in disgrace here, and possibly she may be able to get here quite well without me. . . .  If Kate could have come one day sooner I could have brought her right along with me as well as not.” 

Two days later, Cummings wrote his mother that he had left Newport News on Aug. 2, the day before Kate’s arrival, and was still guarding a Potomac bridge near Fredericksburg. He was “in a continual worry” about Kate reaching him.

“I write to her every day but do not know if she gets my letters,” he wrote his mother. “I had rather give anything than not see her since she has taken so much trouble to come but the soldier is nothing but a machine in the hands of his general to be sent wherever he pleases. I am helpless unless I choose to run away and disgrace myself.

That night, Aug. 11, Kate Cummings wrote to him. Lt. Col. Scott had managed to get the women, as well as the soldiers recuperating from sickness at Fortress Monroe, a steamer for the journey to rejoin their units.

“Tonight a boat came, in which we are to sail tomorrow at ten or eleven,” Kate Cummings wrote her husband. “I felt when I started from home something was to happen.” So far things hadn’t worked out, “but I hope the future part of my journey is to be different. We are to go as far as Aquia Creek as we can not go any farther toward you.” She planned to go to Washington and wait to hear from him. 

Sophia Scott
“I can not go home without making one more effort to see you. . . . I write this so if I never arrive at my destination, you may know I started. If I have good luck I hope to reach you before this does.”

On Aug. 15, John Cummings wrote to his mother from Culpepper Court House: “By a telegraphic dispatch from Lt. Col. Scott I have just learned of a terrible steamboat disaster and that his wife, Maj. Dort’s, and my wife are among those lost. I am going to the scene of the disaster immediately if possible. God help me, and sustain her parents.”

Two days before, on Aug. 13, two steamboats had collided. Among the 78 people drowned were Kate Cummings, Sophia Scott, Julia Dort and 11 soldiers of the 6th New Hampshire.

On Aug. 27 Capt. Cummings wrote from Alexandria that he had not seen Lt. Col. Scott, who had gone to recover his wife Sophia’s body. Maj. Obed Dort was in Keene for 20 days’ leave and had fallen ill. Cummings soon learned that Dort planned to resign.

Cummings was haunted by grief and a desire to join Kate in death. “I cannot help but think I shall go to her soon,” he wrote his mother. “If it should be so, do not think of it otherwise than as a relief and blessing to me.”

Stuck in Alexandria, he missed his regiment’s fight at Bull Run.

On Sept. 20 he wrote his mother the details of the 6th’s fight at Antietam. Kate’s father had gone south in hopes of retrieving her body, and Cummings was eager to know if he had. But his charge across Burnside’s Bridge under enemy fire was much on his mind.

“Mother,” he wrote, “I used to read of Napoleon’s battles and think it would be glorious to have a chance to take part in a battle. I have had it. . . . O what a time it was. I had to run over dead & wounded men to get back.”

He was still grieving in late October. “If I should chance to be killed, or rather it should be my destiny to die here, do not feel bad about it, mother,” he wrote. “Remember there is pleasure in the tho’t of joining her, and that I died happy believing that we were again to meet. – All the sorrow I feel at the thought of death is that there are those who will mourn for me, but we must go sometime and as we pass on one by one those who are left must weep by turn.”

Cummings remained in the army beyond the war’s end, leaving it as a cavalry major. After the war, he lived in Somerville, Mass., where he was publisher of the Somerville Journal and served as mayor for three years beginning in 1878. He died in 1887 at the age of 48.

Kate Cummings’s name, along with Sophia Scott’s, is on the roll of the dead on the pedestal of Peterborough’s Civil War memorial. 

Thursday, January 1, 2015

New Year, a thank you to readers

Looking down from Broadway at W. 96th St. on one of the last days of 2014/

Just after midnight, New Year's fireworks over Manhattan.
As the New Year clicked in, this blog surpassed 58,000 pageviews. Thank you for reading.

I’m also nearing my 300th post. Because I’m now working full-time again, you can expect more variety and less volume on this blog. The blog began with a fairly tight focus on New Hampshire’s Civil War experience, but almost from the beginning I wrote occasional posts about other interests: the World Wars, poetry and poets, art, music, personal experience.  

Recently, in a long series of posts that starts here, I told my family’s World War II and postwar experiences through letters. It is a story with a sad ending, and if you missed it, I hope you’ll make time to give it a look.

Meanwhile, I wish you all a Happy New Year. The photo above was taken from our balcony looking south toward midtown Manhattan. We were glad to witness the scene from a distance rather than freeze with the throng in Times Square.

Here are the top 25 posts on the Our War blog from the last two-plus years on the basis of pageviews. The order has changed modestly since I last posted a list in November. The range of pageviews now runs from 1,184 for No. 1 to 278 for the three tied at No. 25.

9. A Gettysburg journal (part 3) (9)

           A Confederate captain’s diary, pt. 3 (returns to list)