Saturday, May 30, 2015

The short but deadly war of Orvis Fisher

A Civil War letter came to hand this week that reminded me of a surprising, if macabre, discovery during research years ago. Mark Travis and I found the note in question at Carlisle Barracks, Pa., while working on My Brave Boys, a history of Col Edward E. Cross and the 5th New Hampshire Volunteers.

Miles E. Peabody died in 1864.
Private Miles E. Peabody, who lived along the North Branch of the Contoocook River in Antrim, became a prominent character in the book because he had written so many letters. In one batch of them, we turned up a note written after Peabody died of disease in 1864. A fill-in-the-blanks form letter from his embalmers, it had been attached to his coffin before it was shipped home.

The note was intended for either the undertaker in New Hampshire “or friends who open this coffin.” 

It read:

“After removing or laying back the lid of the coffin, remove entirely the pads from the sides of the face, as they are intended merely to steady the head in traveling. If there be any discharge of liquid from the eyes, nose or mouth, which often occurs from the constant shaking of the cars, wipe it off gently with a cotton cloth, slightly moistened with water. This body was received by us for embalmment in pretty good condition, the tissues being slightly discolored. The embalmment is consequently good. . . . The body will keep well for any length of time. After removing the coffin lid, leave it off for some time, and let the body have the air.”

Later, I couldn't help but  read this passage aloud at several book events. It seemed almost like poetry, its vivid phrases, simple words and quiet pace instructing but also mesmerizing. Audiences listened in rapt silence. And the author of the note stuck the landing. After reading that final phrase, “. . . and let the body have the air,” I had to take a breath. The audience often murmured.

For all its practical advice, this little poem conveys the meaning of the Civil War as well as any of the many gory accounts of death in battle I’ve read. It connects the dead with those who mourn them – the “friends who open this coffin.” Defying reason, it turns the mind to the notion that the corporeal state is eternal. “The body will keep for any length of time.”

The letter that woke this memory was provided by my friend David Morin. It was recently published with substantial genealogical information on Cow Hampshire, a New Hampshire history blog.

Amos. S. Billingsley (1818-1892)
Amos Stevens Billingsley, chaplain of the 101st Pennsylvania Volunteers, wrote the letter. Billingsley, a Presbyterian minister and missionary before the war, had been captured and held at Libby Prison in Richmond in 1864. After his release he was assigned to the Union military hospital at Fortress Monroe on the tip of the Virginia peninsula.

The subject of Billingsley’s letter is Orvis Fisher, a 1st New Hampshire Cavalry private who had a short yet fatal term of service. A father of four from Fitzwilliam, N.H., he enlisted on March 22, 1865, and began to show symptoms of meningitis three weeks later.

Here is Billingsley’s letter to Fisher’s wife, written on April 20, as the Union army was ending the last hopes of the Confederacy. Billingsley seemed to be under some regulatory obligation to withhold the date of Fisher's death from his wife, Sarah. It was April 18. Billingsley employs the standard biblical balm. but like the embalmers’ instructions to the friends and family of Miles Peabody, his letter seeks to soothe with reassuring details about Fisher’s earthly remains.

U.S. General Hospital,
Fortress Monroe, Va.
April 20th, 1865

Mrs. O. Fisher
Bereaved Friend,

Man being born unto trouble this life is full of trials, yet in all the Saviour says “Be of good cheer, let not your heart be troubled.” Only trust in God and He will make all things, all these trials, afflictions and loss work together for your good. Rom 8:28.

Orvis Fisher
Your husband Orvis Fisher Co. K 1st N.H. Cav died very recently in this hospital of disease of the brain. He was well cared for, neatly laid out and interred in the burying ground here with Christian ceremony and military honors. A head-board, containing his name, date of death, company, regiment, marks the spot where his mortal remains now lie.

These remains may be procured in the following manner. You have only to leave an order with the nearest Express office whose Agent will cause the body to be forwarded from here to any address you may furnish him. The expense of this may be learned at the office as the Co. assumes the charge of the entire business. The same person, who has the charge of the burials, sees to the disinterment of bodies for transportation. By writing to Dr. E. McClellan you may obtain receipts to sign and return, after which you will receive the effects of deceased, if any there be.

The exact date of death we are not at liberty to give, but it may be had by addressing the Adjt Genl at his office, Washington. A lock of his hair was preserved which you will please find enclosed. I saw him often on his death-bed, but he was unconscious, so much so that I could not get an expression of his religious feelings.

He was so for a week ere he died, says the Ward Master who wrote you several days since his death. . . .  May God comfort you in this sad trial.

Your Sympathizing Friend,
Chap. A.S. Billingsley


Fisher’s body was later moved to Hampton National Cemetery in Virginia. Sarah Fisher received a pension and a stipend for her two younger children.

Monday, May 25, 2015

A young veteran in Washington's whirl, 1866

John Charles Currier was shot in the face not once but twice during 1864, the second ball shattering his jawbone. Somehow he survived to live a long and eventful life.

Currier was a native of Auburn, N.H. He graduated from Pinkerton Academy, then set out for Iowa, but returned after the Civil War broke out. In 1862, at the age of 19, he enlisted in the 11th New Hampshire Volunteers as a private and was soon promoted to second lieutenant.

John Charles Currier
In early 1866, Currier wrote to his sister Mary from Washington, S.C., where he had been hired to work in the Treasury Department. His letter describes the burgeoning postwar federal bureaucracy and the thrilling social life of a gainfully employed 22-year-old veteran in Washington.

He went out on the town most nights in search of contacts with the leading politicians and military leaders of the day. This letter recounts a Feb. 6 reception in Andrew Johnson’s White House. The man charged with introducing him to Johnson turned out to be Benjamin Brown French, a longtime Washington functionary who, like Currier, hailed from Chester, N.H. French made several appearances in my book, Our War, most notably at Abraham Lincolns second inauguration.

The Hattie in the first paragraph was soon to become Currier’s wife. His descriptions of Washington life are exciting. He is star-stuck by the national leaders he meets and sees. Perhaps the most touching content of the letter is his expression of grateful, loving feeling for his sister.

February 7th, 1866

My dear Sister,

I don’t really believe I deserve such a castigating you gave me for I have endeavored to write you as often as any of the family, all of whom seem to expect a separate letter from me at least once a week. Before me is a letter just received from Nattie wherein I am belabored for not writing her more frequently. Now please take into consideration the fact that I am not the free and independent young man I was four months ago.

Seven hours daily of my time must go to Uncle Sam or else my desk will get such a pile of books on it that I have to work nights to keep it clean. Just now the 2nd Auditors Office is overwhelmed with business. Applications come in from every quarter of the country for settlement of accounts. More than a wagon load of letters has to be answered daily. The Government are anxious to have the claims of the soldiers settled and the answers forwarded. Eight hundred clerks drawing the quill in this Office alone. Two hundred more are scattered through the different branches of the houses, six hundred of whom are ladies. And yet that is not enough to keep the work up to date. Many work every night till into the small hours. This Treasury has come to be a “Big Thing.”

Do you know that one could not count our National debt in a lifetime if it was in twenty dollar bills? What a load then upon the shoulder of Secretary McCulloch. I think the Treasury is now the heart of the Country and as it throbs so throbs the Country. The War Department is fast dwindling down to a Peace basis and Stanton the “Comet” of our war is fast losing his “Occupation.” There could not have been found in our broad land another man equal to the Secretary of War for his position, his great mind immediately grasped the issues and put our vast armies in the field ready for service with a celerity truly wonderful.

Foreign nations look upon him with awe and wonder. And what man would have withstood so long and fearlessly the many attacks upon him from all parts of the country. At one time the press were all howling at him like wolves at a huge bear whom they are afraid to grapple with, but he worked on unflinchingly in his clear path and now this country see the wisdom of his course and honor him accordingly. However I did not sit down to write a paragraph. I began with a protest against your damnation of my delinquency (Whew! Those two words made my head ache.)

Benjamin Brown French
I know dear sister you have always been a kind, blessed sister to me and I appreciate the many kindnesses from you and your watchful caring for me during my youth, before we both our left our home. You were always the first to chide me when I did wrong and applaud when I was right. I have in my journal a maxim you gave me when I started for the west the first time, one I never have forgotten. You wrote it yourself. And dear Mary besides the counsels of my father and mother none ever had such weight with me and have affected my life like yours. You know you always governed me in my boyhood and I can truly say that much of the ambition which has guided me during the last four years was due to your training.

How do you think I love to write to anyone more than you? I have said this much, for the first page of your letter seemed to convey the opinion to me that you believe I did not think of sister Mary as often as the rest of the family. I am glad you are pleasantly situated keeping house. Must be more agreeable than boarding.

Washington is full of life and gayety. Foreigners, Southerners, and wealthy Northerners are here in great numbers. The parlors of the wealthy throng nightly with beauty and fortune. The notions of pleasure can be filled to fatuity with Opera, Receptions, Parties, and half-a-dozen other fashionable amusements. The city seems to be one grand whirl. I go out about every night, more for the sake of seeing our public men than for anything else. I have plenty of invitations. 

Last night attended the Presidents Reception. At half past eight the stream of silks and broadcloth commenced pouring into the garden solons of the White House and so continued till midnight. I was in at nine and a half. A more brilliant assemblage I never saw before. The “Blue Room,” “East Room” and halls were crowded with the ‘elite’ of the Capitol and of the nation. Among the Generals was Grant, Sherman, Meade, Meigs, and Logan, members of Congress were sandwiched between double slats. Wells of the Navy, Stanton, Nolan, and all the rest of the cabinet were there. The President and daughters remained in the “Blue Room.”

Andy looked well, has a determined eye, straight black hair and a very dark complexion. He gripped my hand warmly. B.B. French, who does all the introducing, after the crowds got through handshaking, took me by the arm and told the President the whole story of my getting shot twice in the face &c. Andy said –  “Well Cap’n I suppose there is not a parallel case in the whole country,” said “twas a great cause” &c. I was so obfuscated I couldn’t say much. And I now had to take it all day from my comrade for that five minute chat with the President. Mrs. Patterson and Mrs. Stover, daughters of the President, receive very graciously. 

[Thanks to my friend David Morin, who transcribed this letter and clued me in to Currier's life. Together we've developed a lot of information about him to fuel coming posts about him.]

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Roll call of death for a company of the 7th New Hampshire

Sergeant Teel was 21 years old when he was wounded at Fort Wagner. Evacuated
to Hilton Head, S.C., he died the next day . He was from Wilmot, N.H.
A couple of years ago on this blog, I wrote about meeting Dicky Ferry, an expert on the Battle of Olustee and a collector of things associated with that battle – letters, weapons, uniforms, caps and photographs of the participants. In Our War: Days and Events in the Fight for the Union, I told the story of the 7th New Hampshire Volunteers’ debacle at Olustee, the only major Civil War battle in Florida, on Feb. 20, 1864. For my book Dicky kindly allowed me to use several photos of 7th New Hampshire soldiers.

He had bought the collection from a dealer. The men in the photos, many of which were blowups of wartime cartes-de-visite (CDVs), were all from Company E of the 7th. Many of the men of this company had been recruited in and around Penacook, a village in Concord. Its captain, Abner Durgin, was a stalwart citizen of the village.

The Pencacook chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic, the main Union veterans’ organization after the war, was named after Durgin. Dicky and I both surmised that the photos had most likely been displayed in the GAR hall, an honor to comrades the company had lost in action.

I recount this story because several of these photographs were sold recently on eBay. I included many of them on my earlier post, but here are the ones now being sold. While I understand economics and the collecting urge, I find it unfortunate that the collection will be scattered. After all, the resolute faces of these comrades-in-arms have stayed together for well over a century.

All these men of Company E were wounded or killed at Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863, when the regiment attacked the battery shortly after the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers, the famous African-American regiment, led the charge. The 7th lost 77 men killed or mortally wounded in the battle.
A rare non-New Hampshire private in the regiment, Daggatt was a 31-year-old from
Massachusetts. He was wounded and captured at Fort Wagner. Returned to Union
forces, he died on the hospital ship Cosmopolitan two days after the battle.
Baker, a Loudon, N.H., native who lived in Boscawen, was 39 when he died at Fort Wagner.
Sergeant Haven, a 34-year-old from Sunapee, was severely wounded at Fort
Wagner and captured by the rebels. He died four days later in Charleston.
Private Holmes, a 20-year-old from Concord, was killed at Fort Wagner.
Private Connor, 28, of Penacook died at Fort Wagner.
Private Prichard, 24 when he was killed, was from Boscawen, N.H.
Wounded and captured at Fort Wagner, Private Kimball died the next day in
Charleston. He was 24 and enlisted from Salem, N.H.

Private Abbott, a native of Boscawen, was wounded at Fort Wagner but returned to
duty. He was discharged in June 1865 and died a short time later. The Abbott family
was large. Oliver's brother George, also of Company E, was wounded at Olustee.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Was James Buchanan really our worst president?

James Buchanan
My friend Michael Birkner posted the column below on Lancasteronline on April 23, James Buchanan’s 224th birthday. This is the news outlet in Lancaster, Pa., Buchanan’s hometown.

Birkner, who teaches American history at Gettysburg College, is co-editor, with John W. Quist, of “James Buchanan and the Coming of the Civil War,” published in 2013 by the University Press of Florida. For a take on this book, see this earlier post.


James Buchanan’s brand needs refreshing.

Outside his hometown, his name does not much register with Americans today. When it does, the reaction is usually negative. What a comedown from the high hopes associated with Old Buck’s election to the presidency in 1856.

Dating the start of the downhill slide for Buchanan’s historical reputation is not difficult. The firing on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, turned an uncomfortable breakup of the Union into a Civil War. “Buchanan’s War,” some called it, believing his bungling had a lot to do with the crisis Abraham Lincoln inherited and worked so hard to resolve.

Buchanan had not counted on civil war, believing he had done his best to prevent it. He had offered time for his successor to maneuver and possibly to cut a deal for a new constitutional amendment to assure slavery’s protection where it stood, in perpetuity. That, he thought, might end the unpleasantness before it turned really ugly.

Buchanan wasn’t back in Lancaster for more than a week before he began attending church services and visiting old haunts, including the Grapes Tavern in old town. But with the firing on Sumter, he noticed dirty looks and negative mutterings wherever he went. Consequently, Buchanan retreated to Wheatland, where he would closely monitor the progress of the war and commence the task of defending his controversial performance as president.

Michael J. Birkner, Gettysburg College professor
Buchanan’s defense was published early in 1866. It sold reasonably well but did not win many converts to the notion that his stewardship had been good for the country. In the view of most historians, Buchanan was a weak and vacillating figure, lacking Lincoln’s eloquence and Andrew Jackson’s character when faced by a challenge from South Carolina firebrands.

Harvard University’s Samuel Eliot Morison captured the general tenor of scholarly opinion in his generation when he observed, in the Oxford History of the American People, “Poor, foolish Buchanan! He prayed and twittered and did nothing” during the secession crisis.

Buchanan, Henry Steele Commager added, was “by universal consent the worst president in the history of the country”— an opinion shared by no less an authority than Princeton University’s James McPherson.

Is there no refreshing the brand?

The short answer is yes, there is. The trick is to avoid defending the indefensible and to pay attention to elements of Buchanan’s conduct of office little noted in textbooks or popular literature on presidents.

On the occasion of Buchanan’s 224th birthday, let us consider what cannot be defended — and what is worth putting into the mix in evaluating this canny politician who held the right office at the wrong time.

The indefensible:

— Meddling in Supreme Court deliberations over the Dred Scott case and, further, asserting that a decision that made slavery national would somehow “solve” the sectional crisis.

— Patronage dispensation, which punished Stephen Douglas’ adherents for no good reason except spite.

— Kansas policy, which, by insisting that a minority pro-slavery constitution was necessary for its admission to the Union, tore Buchanan’s beloved Democratic Party apart and opened the door to a Republican victory in 1860.

The standard wisdom on all three subjects convicts Buchanan of misfeasance if not incompetence during his tenure in the White House.

If that and the more complex matter of Buchanan’s handling of the secession crisis were all that there was to say about his presidency, a more textured view of the 15th president’s tenure could never emerge.

Buchanan’s presidency was mainly, though not entirely, defined by his blunders. Yet he was adept in certain affairs. Among these matters, Buchanan deserves credit for the following:

— Repressing the slave trade and prosecuting pro-slavery adventurers in Latin America, the so-called filibusters.

— Forging strong ties with the world’s then super-power, Great Britain.

— Removing a rogue leader of the Utah Territory, Brigham Young, from the governorship there and commencing Utah’s more “normal” integration into the Union.

— Giving Congress and incoming President Abraham Lincoln the opportunity to pursue an agreement on slavery, short of war, with the secessionists. (That proved impossible in view of Lincoln’s refusal to compromise on the issue of slavery’s expansion into the west.)

James Buchanan will never be ranked among the nation’s more popular or successful presidents. Even his warmest local adherents will concede that he will always inhabit the basement in presidential rankings, albeit joined there by other presidents who did not live up to their billing or potential.

There is something more upbeat to consider about Buchanan’s turbulent years in the White House: all the work he has provided for generations of historians to investigate and to argue what went right and what went wrong during his presidency. At the very least, we are in the Old Public Functionary’s debt for that.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Summer of 1862: In a green regiment on Capitol Hill, it was all confusion for the boys from Sutton

Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army chased George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac across the Virginia Peninsula in late June of 1862. Union forces suffered thousands of casualties and departed altogether in August. A casualty of a different sort mattered most. McClellan’s defeat canceled the expectation of a quick and decisive capture of Richmond, the Confederate capital.

As discouraging as this was, McClellan’s defeat and retreat came early enough in the war that northern cities and towns still had men to send. Hundreds of New Hampshire men joined new regiments that summer. 

The town of Sutton, with a population of 1,431 in the 1860 census, was a case in point. Men from Sutton had been volunteering since April 1861. A new call for troops came in mid-1862 accompanied by recruiting meetings all over the state. Walter Harriman, a well-known officer from neighboring Warner, was appointed colonel of the 11th New Hampshire Volunteers, Sutton men flocked to its ranks. Thirty-four men from the town entered the regiment’s 100-man Company F. A few joined other companies. Their ages ranged from 13 to 68.

These men arrived in Washington, D.C., and camped on East Capitol Hill just as the battles of South Mountain and Antietam were being fought. Among the regiments on that campaign were the 6th and 9th New Hampshire, whom the 11th would join much later in a New England brigade in Grant’s army.

Hiram G. Little
The letter below, written by Pvt. George Morgan of Sutton, described the chaos of a green regiment marching off to war. “It is all confusion,” he wrote.

Hiram K. Little of Sutton joined Company F as its second lieutenant and was later promoted to first lieutenant. He fought in all the 11th’s battles until a bullet cut him down.

Little had been born in Newbury, N.H., (formerly Fishersfield) in 1830. His father, William, was a farmer known to friends as “the best man to hew timber in town.” After William died in around 1840, Hiram’s mother, Eveline, took her four sons to Manchester. Educated there, Hiram moved to Sutton in around 1850 and joined his brother in manufacturing clothespins. Hiram married in 1856 and he and his wife, Susan, had a son in 1859.

During the war he led his men in Company F at Fredericksburg and in the siege of Vicksburg, the capture of Jackson, Miss., and the siege of Knoxville, Tenn.

On June 20, 1864, in the trenches before Petersburg, Little was shot in the neck. He never said another word.

With hundreds of other wounded, he was taken on the hospital ship New World to a hospital on Davids’ Island, off Connecticut in Long Island Sound. There he died on the Fourth of July. Six days later, he was buried in Sutton.

The Little family gravestone in Sutton Mills Cemetery. Note that Little's widow, Susan, died two months after he did.
She was just 28 years old.  [Thanks to David Morin for this photo and the picture of Hiram K. Little.]
The fortunes of war had their way with Little, Morgan and the rest of the 34 Sutton men who had joined the 11th. Eleven served till war’s end. Two deserted. One was transferred and one captured. Thirteen were wounded, three of them multiple times. In addition to Little, two were killed or died of wounds, Three were discharged disabled, and three died of disease.

Pvt. Morgan was 28 when he wrote the letter below to his brother-in-law, Wyman A, Kimball, in Sutton. Morgan fell ill in 1864 and died of disease on July 23 at Alexandria, Va.

                                                                                         Washington D. C.
                                                                                         September 16th 1862

Brother Kimball,

We got here to the City of Washington on last Sunday morning about eight o’clock. Then we went into camp on East Capitol Hill, about one mile and a half from the city. Our company has been on guard two hours this morning. We have just been relieved and I thought I would write you a letter now. We have just got orders to march. We have got to go over across the Potomac River into Camp Chase.

Wednesday, September 17th.

We got to the campground about dark last night and we laid right down on the ground — our tents had not got along. About midnight it began to rain and rained till morning. When I would stick my head out from under the old coat cape and blanket, it would spat right on my face. I stood it as long as I could, then I crawled out and got into one of the big wagons and had a good nap.

I am well and never felt better. I can carry my load without any help. The most of our company hired a man to carry their knapsack and paid him 50 cts. apiece. I told them that I would carry mine as long as I could and then they would have to carry my load and me too. I carried it all night.

Walter Harriman, colonel of the 11th New Hampshire
This morning we struck up our tents and about 11 o’clock we pulled down our tents and went a half a mile further. We have got on to a nice campground now but just like as not we shall have to move again tomorrow. I expect they will put us to fighting before long.

Little Charley Hart had a revolver to work on this morning and he fired it off and the ball went through his hand and come out through the tent and went close by me and through another tent and it went within inches of [Robert] McConnell’s head. Then they called the company together and took the revolvers all away from them.

I wish you and Austin were out here. There is enough to see but I can’t describe it to you so that you will know anything atall about it. I could tell you more in one hour than I could write in a whole day. It is all confusion.

I wish you could be on what they call East Capitol Hill and see the army horses that they have got there. I should think they had a thousand horses and mules. A good many of them have been old in the service and are wore out. I wish you could see them. There was two men found dead on the campground. They said they died by eating pies that were poisoned and there was another that got kicked by a horse and they say he must die. The rest are all pretty well.

I should like to know what you are all about to home but I ain’t a going to bother my brains about writing letters. It is news you won’t know any more after I write.

Newell J. Nye has just come in and says that George Putney is a going right home and he is a going to send his money home and I thought I would send you eight dollars. I have got about six dollars now. If I am out in the rain and get as wet as we did driving the cattle up, I should [send] the whole of it. If it should rain as hard as it did when we was a going from New Jersey to Philadelphia, it would wet through in a few minutes. I never see it rain so hard in my life. I have got as much as I want to look of it.

When George Jewett was a coming through Baltimore, someone cut his pocketbook open and took out wallet. It had five dollars in it.

I don’t know as you can read this nor I don’t care much. I hain’t no chance to write. I can’t tell where I shall be when I write the next one. I want you to write me a letter but I can’t tell you where to send it.

Austin, I will send this to you. — George Morgan