Friday, February 11, 2011

A Soldier's Letter

It's Friday again, and so I find myself typing up the contents of the Civil War collection at the historical association. I came across one of my absolute favorite files in the collection and wanted to share it with you all (whoever you may be). This is the file of Robert B. Nicol, who enlisted in March 1862 at New York, Company I. He was appointed corporal (date not given) and later wounded and discharged for disability in July of 1864. Well, the wound isn't terribly happy, but he didn't die from it; he lived to the age of 82!

The main reason that this is my absolute favorite file is that Robert enjoyed composing songs, and in this file, we happen to have a copy of a letter that we wrote to his uncle composed entirely in verse! Can you believe it? Neither can I, but it's pretty fantastic.

So rather than be going on and on about how much I love this letter, I'd rather just type it up for you so that you can get the full experience of Robert B. Nicol:

"Dear Uncle,

As writing materials often are scarce,
I purpose to write you a letter in verse;
To condense my ideas, save paper and time,
Is my object for writing this letter in rhyme.
Of course you will know it is one of my pranks!
It will take but a minute to fill in the blanks.
[Note that this letter is typed, and some blanks left for his uncle to fill in. I've italicized the blanks.]

I received your kind letter just one year ago,
Which found me a member of "Uncle Sam's Show;"
And for two years or better, expect to remain,
Unless, like full many, I chance to be slain;
Should this be my fate, the last boon I crave
Is to mark on my tombstone, "A Patriot's Grave!"

In the hist'ry of wars, as we carefully scan,
Since the first was waged by man against man,
In all the fierce conflicts no records remain
Which can be compared to the present campaign.
The war has been general! on both land and sea,
And many have fallen for "Liberty's Tree!"
It would fill many volumes to pass in review
What our various armies this year have gone through.
Though my space is not large, yet 'twill not be amiss
To give a slight sketch on a small sheet like this.

The Potomac's great army has nobly withstood
The wiles of the traitors, and written in blood
The route it has taken o'er mountain and plain,
Through forests and rivers, in hot sun and rain;
And now like a giant, aware of his power,
Aims a death-blow at Secessions "left bower!"

In the siege of Atlanta, and Charleston, too,
What subjects for History's pages we view!
Generations to come will exult in the name
Which their fore-fathers carved in the records of fame.

At the Gulf, on the flank of Secession's domain,
From the shores of "Red River" our brave comrades slain
Are calling for vengeance; Ah! traitors shall feel
A full share of this in the siege of Mobile.
The reb who surrender'd the stronghold, Fort Gaines,
We aver, was possessed for less valor than brains!

Our heroes at sea have had plenty to do:
The ports to blockade, and pirates subdue;
Let the famed Tallahassee beware of the day
When our "Yankee Tars" meet her in battle array!
I am sure they have not forgotten so soon
The victory we gained on the 19th of June.

Thus we see every part of our army so grand,
In the "War for the Union," on sea and on land,
Are working in concert, our cause to maintain,
To crush the rebellion, and end the campaign.

I have the honor to be your affectionate nephew,
Signed, Robert B. Nicol"

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Allen Letters

So classes have started off pretty well and everything is going relatively according to plan. Actually, to be honest, I didn't have much of a plan to begin with, so I'm quite content with the world at the moment. I'm also currently baking rolls, which are making my apartment smell divine, so that has probably added to my contentment.

But I've also decided that this semester I am going to take at least 24 hours off each week. So from Friday night to Saturday afternoon, I make sure to plan absolutely nothing class-related so I can do whatever I feel like doing. Today is the first attempt, and I must say I am quite happy with it. I mean really, who can complain with watching a great movie, sleeping in, getting food, baking rolls, and just doing nothing for a span of 24 hours?

So yea, hopefully this 24 hour span of not doing anything will help me stay less stressed this semester. After all, I've been accepted to all the grad schools I applied to (yay!) and I was told yesterday that the draft of my thesis was better than some of the final versions that the department had printed. That's pretty cool. And on top of that, I'm going to be going to Angkor Wat this summer. I mean really, why should I stress out about my last semester with all these good things happening?

The rest of February (all four days so far) has been rather snowy. We now have over two feet on the ground, I would say, and we get more snow showers every other day. Wednesday was the worst, though; I think we got about 10 inches overnight and another 3-6 over the course of the day. But the funny thing about this is that this is the first real Canton winter that we've had since my freshman year. The past two have been unseasonably warm and all the underclassmen keep talking about how Canton winters aren't that bad. Then they hit this year, with the -42 degree days followed by 15 inch snowfalls and now they're beginning to rethink the whole not-so-bad thing. I, for one, am a bit happy that winter up here has returned to normal, because I personally like the snow (so long as no buildings collapse).

I also just spent about 3.5 hours at the historic society yesterday. I'm reorganizing their Civil War collection for the 150th anniversary celebrations that will be held this year through 2015. The collection hadn't really been organized in years and the last person to organize it did it in a very odd manner, so it was in need to fixing. Anyway, I'm in the process of writing a finding aid, which is a document that will help people locate the documents we have in the archives. In writing it, I'm giving some background on each soldier that's given in the adjutant general reports: where and when they enlisted, if they were wounded, if they were discharged or killed or mustered out with their company and when, stuff like that. It's kind of bittersweet, because half the time I end up reading a letter from a soldier to his wife or his father or his uncle or something and he always talks about seeing his loved ones again, but then I check his information and realize he was killed in action or died of typhoid or some other unfortunate circumstance. The worst was a high ranking officer (I forget how high) from the 16th NY Infantry Regiment who wrote to his wife telling her that he couldn't wait to see her again. A month later, the officer was shot in the head. He lived, but he lost both of his eyes and was discharged shortly after. So even though he lived, he never actually saw his wife again.

So one thing I was thinking of doing was telling you all a little about these documents, because after reading them for months, I feel a little attached to the soldiers and it makes the war so much more... real than it was before.

Yesterday, I didn't intend to spend 3.5 hours at the historic society. I got there at 4 and planned to get through typing up the info for one box (which was the 106th NY Infantry box) and maybe start on the next one (the 142nd NY Infantry box). But I finished the 106th by 5:30 and looked at the 142nd box and realized there were only about ten documents. I could finish the box before 6:30 and be done with two boxes instead of just one. It seemed like a good plan.

Each box has some general documents in the front pertaining to the entire regiment, such as reunion photos, muster rolls, and other such documents. Those are easy enough to type up, especially since there's no soldier-specific information to include. The first folder I got to said "Allen Letters", and I figured they were letters to a soldier whose last name was Allen. I looked at the letters to try to figure out his first name and realized that the folder contained 86 letters all written to and Stewart Allen by various people and vice versa. Generally, we file letters under the person who wrote them, but if a soldier receives letters from someone, then we generally file it with the soldier. Basically, we try to keep things filed with soldiers as opposed to people not serving in the war because the boxes are organized by regiment.

The problem here was that Stewart Allen never served in the war. He stayed home to watch the farm while his father, cousin, and various friends served in various regiments. What's interesting is that Stewart was connected to six different soldiers in three different regiments. His father (Robert Allen) and cousin (William Allen) served in the 142nd, his friends Francis Dana, Theodore F.H. Dana, and William Wright served in the 106th, and his friend George Elderkin served in the 60th, all of which were among the most prominent regiments in the state. All of them enlisted in the summer of 1862.

Most of the letters to and from Stewart tell of farming practices, prices for wheat or potatoes, and the loneliness of the war. I get the feeling from Stewart's letters that he wants to go join the soldiers and can't for one reason or another. I also get the feeling from most of the others' letters that they don't really want to be fighting anymore. All except Francis Dana, who has a few letters complaining that he hasn't seen action for weeks.

Of the six soldiers connected to Stewart, only one made it out of the war with no injuries. Stewart's father, Robert, enlisted in 1862 and was mustered out with his company in 1865. William Wright enlisted in 1862 and deserted in November of that year. George Elderkin was discharged for disability in 1863. Theodore F.H. Dana deserted at the end of his furlough in 1864. Francis Dana was wounded in July of 1864 and was mustered out from the hospital in 1865, though not with his company. Stewart's cousin, William, was killed in action on January 15th, 1865 at Fort Fisher, North Carolina. We only have one letter dating to after his death, and it's from Robert, who served in the same company and shared tents with his nephew. The letter speaks of sorrow, loneliness, and a strong desire to come home.

When you read about these things in textbooks and such, it's played off as a deadly war that happened a long time ago. But 150 years isn't that long ago. In reality, it's about four or five generations away. And it wasn't just a bloody war, it was a war that took lives. Sometimes I feel that we don't pay enough attention to that in the classroom or the media or whatever. We don't remember the actual people who fought and the sacrifices they made. William died only six months before his unit was mustered out. He served for two and a half years. He was so close to seeing the war come to an end, and he didn't. Two of the soldiers deserted, either for fear or the harsh conditions or the plain fact that they didn't want to fight anymore. Two of the soldiers were injured and probably suffered complications from it the rest of their lives.

Why don't they tell us that in the history books? There's something about reading their letters, reading their concerns about weather and wheat sales and taking over a mill to grind flour for the company that makes them far more personal than anything else I've come across. Even just standing at a memorial of cemetery for the deceased doesn't do it quite like this because you still don't know much about the people themselves. With this, you read their daily concerns, smile at the things they write (for much of it is quite funny), and then you realize that they were killed a month after writing that letter. I think it's something we've taken out of history lessens for fear of scaring students, but I think it's worth it a bit. Perhaps if we had a stronger connection to the wars in our past, we wouldn't be so quick to create them in our present. And if we had a stronger connection to the wars in our present, then we would hopefully think long and hard before starting them in the future.