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.

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