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. 

No comments:

Post a Comment