Neither devotion to the Union cause nor the perceived Union victory at Antietam stopped Cutler Edson’s slide from optimism to despair. A year of dashed hopes and campaigning’s toll on his body darkened his mind.
Upon enlisting as a bugler in the Fifth New Hampshire Volunteers, he had shared the preconceptions of most of his comrades. The Union army was superior, the will of the South weak, they believed. The war could not last long.
Time and events proved Edson wrong. In battle and in caring for the sick and wounded, he had witnessed firsthand what war could do. He had seen that strong young men were no match for minie balls and artillery shells. He had held the hands of sick boys as they breathed their last. He had learned to distrust the grand plans of generals.
On an even more personal level, Edson had watched the neglect of Sgt. Eldad Rhodes after Rhodes was shot at Antietam. As he nursed Rhodes, he fought just to put food in their mouths. And he was weary himself of meager meals and wet, chilly nights. His self-worth sank with the fortunes of his shrunken regiment. What good had he done? What good could he do?
Edson poured out these thoughts to Sister Folsom, the wife of his Methodist pastor in Enfield, N.H., in two letters 40 days apart in the fall of 1862. The second was written from a hospital in Washington, D.C.
This chapter closes with a final word from Eldad Rhodes, bidding adieu to 1862, a year “frought with sadness and carnage.”
Cutler Edson letter
Datelined In Camp on Arlington Heights, Va., Oct. 26/62, to My Dear Sister Folsom
I delayed answering yours of 24 sept until now thinking that I should see Bro Folsom* and have more to write about but I have given up the idear for the present. Mr. Ingals** was over to the 11th yesterday. He says they have everything packed up for a march. Don’t know where they are going, probably some distance, for he says they ware to take 6 days rations. Brother Folsoms health is as good as usul. Am very sorry I could not have the privilege of seeing him and others of the regt but thus it is. I have learned how to be disappointed and how to endure it. it is the common lot of the soldier to be disappointed and I have bin at school a year in the department. I aught to know something about it.
|Bolivar Heights, where McClellan rested his army after Antietam|
This has bin very fortunate for me as I have not felt well a good deal of the time and could not relish government fair. I have bin quite lame with Reheumatism since I have bin here on the hill but have got over it now and should feele quite well if it were not for a hard head ache that has bin troubleing me since yesterday, but think I shal be free from it soon.
You ask if I am comfortably cloathed. I get along very well for every thing except flannel draws and shirts which I nead very much. We cannot draw any thing here but cotton and that is not the thing for my already shattered constitution. Hope there will be a way opened so that I shal get them before long.
We have been obliged several times to throw away our cloathing and even our blankets and knapsacks on some of our forward marches before we went into battle. We are in a very cold bleak place right on the very peak of Arlington Hights. here lays the Shenandore valley and river on one end and the Potomack on the other. The junction of Harpers Fery which is about 1 mile east of us. Whether we shall stay here all winter or not I don’t know but hope we shall get orders soon to move to some favorable place.***
But I see that my little sheet is almost full and I must draw to a close. Mr. Ingals is well and so are the rest of our acquaintances as far as I know and now may the grace of almighty God ever sustain you in all your trials and privations is the prayer of your Brother Cutler Edson
[*Horace F. Folsom, Edson’s 43-year-old pastor, had enlisted as a private in the 11th New Hampshire Volunteers. The regiment had mustered in August and left Concord for the front on Sept. 11. Its colonel was Walter Harriman, later governor of New Hampshire. Folsom transferred to the Invalid Corps in early 1864 and served out his three-year enlistment. He died Oct. 3, 1878, in Townsend, Mass.]
[**Melvin Luther Ingalls, 27, of Hanover, was a musician in the 5th’s Company C. He later served as a lieutenant in the 1st New Hampshire Heavy Artillery and worked on the railroad for 33 years after the war, mainly as a conductor. A Mason and a tenor soloist in his church choir, he lived till 1903.]
[***As Edson’s description confirms, he was actually with the 5th on Bolivar Heights, not Arlington Heights. The order to move he wished for came a few days later. The 5th marched to a camp near Falmouth, Va. On Dec. 13, the regiment was crushed at Fredericksburg, but Edson did not participate in that battle.]
Cutler Edson letter
Dateline St. Aloyisus Hospital Ward B, Washington, DC, Dec. 5th/62, to My Dear Sister Folsom
|St. Aloysius Church in Washington, D.C., became a military hospital in 1862.|
as I was museing this morning after partaking of my humble repast, thoughts came to my mind something like these. of what use am I here. I am doing nothing, neither am I able to do any thing of any amount and why am I here.
It seams as though there was a great deficiency in our government when a man gets worn out in the service of his country and good for nothing. Why not let him go home and if he can get along and get a living with out help let him do it. other wise provide means there for his support,
Here I am anxiously waiting to know what they will do with me, whether they will discharge me or send me to some other hospital or to my Regt or keep me here. It will make little difference to me what they do with me if I am only in the way of duty but I am let to think some times when man orders and directs without the fear of God before him that we are not always placed in the path of duty.
It has always bin my desire from a child that I might be of some use in the world but I have it to regret that I have not always placed myself in that position that I have bin of much use to any one. If the good Lord sees fit to spare my unprofitable life and restore my health I mean to be more faithful the remainder of my life than I have bin.
When I look back a little more than a year and see what a change has taken place in my cistem tears often fill my eyes, Then I was a tough healthy robust man. Now it seams as though I was but a mear reck of humanity. I am not suffering much now although there is several different complaints about me. Am in hopes time and proper care will wear them away so that I shal yet enjoy tolerable help.
I have not got reduced down very poor yet or at least do not show it much in my face. Think if I could be at home now I should gain finely but this is beyond my power.
I recvd your kind letter of Nov 26 which cheared me up and done me a great deal of good, I wish there were others of my good Sisters and Brothers that would take panes to write ne as chering and comeforting epistles. You never can know the good it does the poor soldier to recv kind letters from his old friends. But in all my wandering thoughts and curious idears I have presented this morning I would not have you think me unhappy, far from it.
That same God that sustained and blessed me whilst in Old Enfield [N.H.] is my support and comforter in the Hospital. I find it good and safe to trust him always and under all circumstances. Oh! How baran and destitute mus be the sole without the love and favor of God, especially when sickness and adversity comes upon him it is then he neads the comforting influence of the religion of Jesus Christ.
Your old friend and Brother in Christ Cutler Edson
Eldad Rhodes's diary
[After a lapse since Oct. 1, there is this single, final entry.]
Wednesday [Dec.] 31:
Thus ends the year, with all its trials, its hopes and fears, its joys and sorrows.
Adieu old year, with all thy decreptitude adieu; many a pang of sorrow and remorse has attended thy rapid course to the dim land of dreams.
Yet we are glad thou are gone old year, so frought with sadness and carnage. Who could wish the return? Who would detain thee in thy rapid flight toward eternity;
Thou hast deluged our land in blood old year:
Thou hast made thousands of once happy homes dessolate and the wail of stricken ones is heard where once the song and reckless shout resound
History will record thy dead old year; what a page will it be, so loaded down with Crimes and Guilt.
E A Rhodes
Next: A return to Antietam