Grappling with war at its depths


From John Hennessy: 

Update:  We have added another example of this sort of musing at the end, from a Delaware soldier, sent along by the park’s superintendent Russ Smith–who hails from Delaware and has immersed himself in things Delawarian.  If any of you have other examples–North or South–pass them along and we’d be glad to include them here. 

I have spent much of the week plowing through source material, looking for new tidbits or lyrical quotes. In doing so, I came across this one, which expresses better than most anything I have seen how at least some soldiers viewed the evolution of the war.

The letter was written on November 21, 1863,  by William Mackenzie Thompson of the 11th New Jersey, and appears in Dominick Mazzagetti’s”True Jersey Blues”:  The Civil War Letters of Lucien A. Voorhess and William Mackenzie Thompson, 1th Regiment, New Jersey Volunteers (Fairleigh Dickenson Press, 2011), a smartly assembled volume you probably haven’t seen yet, but should. These letters are of a genre that Civil War historians have increasingly embraced over the decades–one of I think special value. While we may treasure the quaintness and personality of letters written for consumption by those at the hearth, I have found that letters written expressly for publication in the local newspaper are often many times more useful.Thompson’s and Voorhees missives  are perfect examples, surpassed by few (most notably George’s Breck’s monumental correspondence with the Rochester Union and Advertiser, which I have transcribed, but just haven’t gotten around to getting published yet).  Thompson and Voorhees observed so they could write, and they wrote purely to describe–and they did so within a political environment (a newspaper) that begged of a perspective, and so they touch on most of the major issues of the day.  Here’s the passage.  

When I was writing my last letter, on the 15th inst., it was raining, and it is raining again today. That sweetest of poets, Lord Byron, has said that “The test of affection’s a tear.” Then Nature must love the earth deeply, judging by the tears she showers and pours upon it. During the week the weather has been delightful—so warm it seemed like Indian Summer, and at sunset the sky would appear like a great Union banner, with its lines of red and white; and as evening advanced the stars would glitter in the firmament— everything so clear and beautiful, one could scarcely imagine that beneath that heaven thousands of human beings were gathered, waging war against each other. To look above and perceive every star working out the purpose, the duty, the Great Creator had assigned for it, without conflicting with each other—everything so harmonious, so peaceful—the thinking mind could not but inquire of itself, why could not man, endowed with reason, formed in the image of his maker, in a nation the most civilized in art and science, live in harmony with each other. Reason has sunk to sleep, and Passion runs riot; Ambition—false it is—has taken men captive; Slavery, with all its train of curses, has become the idol before which men bow down and worship; The Southern mind filled with the idea that it must be cornerstone of our Government, is waging war against Human Liberty and Justice; the fields of Liberty have proclaimed that the advance of Slavery must be arrested—the principles of the founders of the nation must be maintained; Freedom and Slavery were in conflict with each other—to live together became impossible; which will live or die? is the great issue that has gathered the friends of each in conflict —History will tell which came off victor.

One of our great challenges as public historians at NPS sites is to put our events within a larger context–how they affected or were affected by the great tide of human and national progress. Passages like this help make our job vastly easier….

Here is another example, as sent along by Russ Smith. 

Cyrus Forwood of New Castle County, Delaware joined the 2nd Delaware Regiment in the summer of 1862.  The regiment distinguished itself at the Chancellor House at Chancellorsville, at Gettysburg’s Wheatfield, and at the East Angle of Spotsylvania Court House, but particularly at Antietam where it earned the sobriquet, the Crazy Delawares.    Forwood was wounded in the thigh at the Wheatfield, but returned to service.  It was at the East Angle at Spotsylvania on May 12, 1864, that Cyrus Forwood  suffered a mortal wound, just one month before the 2nd Delaware was mustered out.  On February 14, 1863, Forwood had written:

 I think I would soon be out in Brandywine Hd. [Hundred] once more.  And I will have that privilege if my life is spared four months longer.  For, do you know that four months more will fill up my three years?  And then farewell to the muddy, boggy, blood-stained, sacred soil of Virginia.  Sacred, yes.  The soil of Virginia is sacred, sacred to the memory of the many heroes who have fallen in the defense of our country.

 Heroes they were.  They fought their last fight in Virginia.  Their bones lie mouldering on the barren hills and plains of this once proud State.  Virginia is a sad monument to them, but a fitting monument of the crimes and horrors of secession.  Virginia has paid in treasure and in blood, more priceless than all treasure, a heavy price for blindly following the teachings of a few unprincipled men who sought only their own advancement and the slavery of their fellow men.

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2 thoughts on “Grappling with war at its depths

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with your observation that soldiers’ letters written for publication on average contain content much more useful than private correspondence. It’s mostly soldiers’ letters to hometown newspapers that have sparked me to do a regimental history blog on the 79th Pennsylvania and Lancaster, PA, where it was recruited. Here’s one example: http://www.lancasteratwar.com/2011/07/blog-post.html

    Also, anyone doing research on Pennsylvania units should know as part of his magnificent _Advance the Colors_ project, Richard Sauers indexed (almost) every soldier letter published in Pennsylvania newspapers by regiment, newspaper, and date. Copies of his index cards are available at the USAMHI in Calisle, although someone should make them available online.
    A similar but smaller index for one national religious newspaper: http://www.bgsu.edu/colleges/library/cac/bib/page41581.html

    By the way, the regiment with the most letters was the 7th Pennsylvania Reserves with 220 letters to 18 different newspapers!

    Some more of my thoughts on the topic:
    http://www.lancasteratwar.com/2011/08/local-civil-war-history-renaissance.html

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