Thursday, December 26, 2013

Halfway out of the Dark: Christmas 1863

A note received any day letting you know a son is gravely wounded is horrible. Receiving it on the first day of December is particularly horrible. In this month of gathering together, hearing your son is suffering can't be cheering.

Two days before that news arrived in Cambridge, advent began. Advent is a time of waiting, and for Charles Appleton Longfellow's expectant family that waiting would be a peculiar type. While America waited for the joy of a holiday spent with family, the Longfellow family waited beside what might have been a deathbed.

Countless families during the war had sons die. Many sat at bedsides, holding hands, praying to some benevolent force to deliver their boy from harm. But this family was slightly different. Where others suffered in silence, one of the Longfellows could never be silent.

So, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Charles' father, took his pen in hand and scribbled down a poem as his son lay, perhaps dying, perhaps living, in a nearby bed.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Christmas that year was pain. Longfellow was a Unitarian. Christ was not divine. Or if he was divine, his divinity was certainly not absolute and exclusive. Christmas' joy must have come from the warmth, from the hope, and from holding family's hands in the darkness of December.

Charles left for war the previous spring and, taking sick after Chancellorsville, missed the bloodbath at Gettysburg. The 1st Massachusetts Cavalry largely avoided that bloodbath too; they were posted as a guard to the 6th corps headquarters and sat out most of the battle's harshest fighting. But service in Meade's Army of the Potomac caught up to the cavalrymen, and Charles was wounded in Virginia in November 1863.

Christmas is joy and peace. But a bleeding son proved that America was anything but.

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

So Longfellow penned a simple but powerful poem, like so many of his other works of verse. It remained private that year, only being published in 1865 after the war which nearly killed his son had ended. But in the cold final days of December 1863, they remained the unanswered plea of hope of a father. He was still in the dark, not yet through his trial. He begged the universe for leniency, for an answer to a father's prayer to save his suffering son.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."

Another Christmas classic borne of war. Sadness breeds so much hope, especially in those moments when we gather our families close and ward off the darkness. And at Christmas in 1863, Americans were halfway out of the dark.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Tarnish'd with Ashes and Soot:A Classic Poem’s Dank Corners

He sprung to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew, like the down of a thistle:
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight —
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

The legend is striking: Clement Clarke Moore, sitting with his children on a Christmas Eve in 1822, reading them a poem he has scrawled out that day, inspired by a winter shopping trip. Little Charity and Mary were likely entranced at six and three. Clement, a one-year-old, and Emily, a newborn, likely weren’t as enrapt by the lilting rhymes.

The poem for Moore’s children found new life a year later, published in a Troy, New York newspaper. And since then, A Visit From Saint Nicholas has been embedded in our culture.

But who is the man who wrote that poem?

Moore lived in the northern edges of a nascent New York City. His home was less than a mile west of what today is Herald Square, where Maureen O'Hara and Natalie Wood found their Miracle on 34th street. But there was no Macy’s (nor arch nemesis Gimbles) in 1822. The area was verdant fields, sprawling lawns, iron gates and palatial mansions.

The Clarke-Moore family manse was Chelsea. Moore’s grandmother Mary Stillwell Clarke left the home to his mother when she died at the turn of the 19th century. The family was rich and prosperous. Mary Clarke and her husband had built their land holdings and fortunes together. Her husband died just before the American Revolution, which was likely for the better. The family penchant was toward fierce loyalty to the Crown. The Clarkes, from whom grandson Clement Clarke Moore took his middle name, were stalwart Tories.

The Clarke conservatism was a strong suit in the bloodline. Clement Clarke Moore was born into a world at war and a dying breed. The day after he first breathed the sweet oxygen of Earth, American General "Mad Anthony" Wayne trounced the British at Stony Point on the Hudson. America seemed set on a path toward democracy; the newborn child was set toward ancient aristocracy.

The mansion at Chelsea wasn’t the only thing Moore’s grandmother bequeathed to her daughter and her, “heirs in fee,” upon her death. Samuel Patterson, in his 1956 The Poet of Christmas Eve helpfully reprints a portion of the will. Four slaves were left to Charity and Benjamin Moore: Thomas and Ann, a husband and wife, Charles and Hester. Another slave, Richard, was not yet, “of full age.” He was likely one of the slaves caught in the limbo of New York’s gradual emancipation law. When he reached 28 years-old, he would be free. Rachel, however, the sixth slave mentioned in the will, was to be sold outright. She was gone forever into the mists of the peculiar institution's icy grip.

Clement Clarke Moore was in his 20s when his family inherited the peculiar property. Slavery in New York might be dying, but it wasn’t dead yet. For two more decades, men and women were held in bondage throughout the state, particularly in the conservative New York City.

And when Moore wrote about how Saint Nicholas, dragged in his miniature sleigh across the sky by eight flying deer, shouted, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night,” that, “all,” was still a distinct, largely-white subset of the American whole. As he read his new poem to his children on Christmas Eve, as he nestled them in their beds, other families weren’t so lucky. Visions of sugar plums and other candied nuts might dance in the Moore childrens' heads, but Thomas and Ann, Charles, Hester, Richard and Rachel, wherever she was now after hitting the auction block twenty years before, likely were dreaming of something very different. While Moore could lazily muse about the fanciful flights of fur-bedecked elves, the slaves of New York could only dream of freedom, hoping it might come one day.

That dream came true just five years later in 1827. Slavery died in New York for good.

Moore’s poem soon became famed the world over.

By the time the Civil War raged, it was printed and reprinted countless times. But the Christmas of 1863 was the first Moore wouldn’t see since he penned those words. The aged conservative aristocrat, from his New York family of slaveholders, died that summer.

And just like the day after his birth, on the day after his death another battle raged: the black soldiers, freed slaves and freemen alike, of the 54th Massachusetts charged headlong at Battery Wagner on the outskirts of Charleston. They martialed their arms to destroy slavery once and for all, everywhere.

America, in spite of everything, still seemed set on a path toward true democracy.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

And With The Sound The Carols Drowned:
Captives in Bleak December

Christmas was coming, and a knot of officers of the 87th Pennsylvania suddenly found their December a bit brighter. Nine boxes had been sent along to the officers, packed to the brim with, "all kinds of necessaries and delicacies, such as will be conducive to our comfort and health while in our present condition." And the soldiers were pleased.

Any soldier would be pleased to have a pair of warm socks, a stack of stationary or a can of preserved vegetables from home. But these men were doubly pleased.

The letter of gratitude they wrote to the Gettysburg Compiler was mailed from Libby Prison in Richmond.

Having to celebrate the grand winter holiday in the field far from home is bad enough. The uncertainty of war is enough to make the holidays, a time for family and celebration, morose. But imagine being behind enemy lines, a military prisoner behind bars in a strange land. The future is not just uncertain, it's only as bright as the dank corners of your cell.

The folks behind the care package weren’t the typical crowd, either. Most of the letters gushing over socks and packages of delicacies that Gettysburg's papers printed lauded the kind men and women of Adams County. But these nine boxes came from the soldiers of the 87th Pennsylvania, entrusted to an agent of a Baltimore newspaper and carted into the very lion's den. These weren't citizens helping their men, their sons and fathers. These were soldiers helping soldiers, enlisted men supporting their captive officers behind enemy lines.

One of those boxes was cracked open by James Hersh. Hersh had been quartermaster of Company I back in June when the world went crossways. He and a cluster of the men of the 87th Pennsylvania were captured near Winchester, some of the first soldiers scooped up as Lee's army poured north on a quest that would lead it to Adams County. While Lee headed north, Hersh and his compatriots were shipped south to Richmond and captivity.

His mother and father were still in New Oxford on Adams County's eastern edge. Undoubtedly, the aged couple worried about their soldier. Hersh was only in his late 20s. He still lived at home. He was just a farmer. He deserved to be at home with his family during the cold winter months when families gather and feast. While men and women in Adams County joyously sang and greeted each other warmly, Hersh was in a musty cell.

Hersh and his comrades didn't list everything that was in their care package. But certainly, whatever was packed with care in those crates strengthened and bolstered them for the long Virginia winter nights ahead.

Hersh, thankfully, would be home by the next December 25th, when Americans again would light candles, sing ancient songs and hold each other close in the encroaching icy darkness. His war was finally over, a fact worth celebrating with carols and mirth.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Obsessive Digging in Carolina Sand and Baltimore Asphalt

Some heroes are buried here... and some aren't.
My parents moved to Wilmington, North Carolina a couple years ago. I have to admit, I am fascinated when I visit the South, for the sheer fact that it is such a vastly different environment than I'm used to. For one thing, the war happened there. For another, the war got very complex and interesting there.

Wilmington has caught my fancy in particular. The campaign to capture that place singled the death knell for Richmond and Lee's defensive line guarding Petersburg. In many real regards, Wilmington ended the war.

But it has also become my own personal United States Colored Troops landscape. Living in Gettysburg, I'm used to the lily-white Civil War, where the combatants were fighting over the fate of the black man in America but were not (save a few choice, irregular exceptions on the field) themselves black. Imagining a landscape with black men literally fighting for their right to be human is such a foreign and often entrancing topic for me.

Last year, it was standing atop Battery Buchanan where the rebel troops from Fort Fisher surrendered to black soldiers, a palpable moment where everything changed.

This year, I wanted to revisit the Wilmington National Cemetery. I'd been one time before, drawn in by the state highway marker posted out front. That first trip I went unarmed, uneducated, just exploring with no foreknowledge.

This time, I wanted to know a bit more. So I began doing a little digging. Using a couple of databases, I began pulling up men in the USCT who died near Wilmington, particularly after the Battle of Forks Road on February 20th, 1865. The 5th USCT began sticking out in particular. Free men recruited in Ohio fighting against slavery in North Carolina was just fascinating.

All of this led, after random probing and hunting into the wee hours as my parents slept off the turkey, to an itinerary. We were going to go where a few of those men were wounded, and then where they were buried.

The problem is that most of the graves of USCT at the Wilmington National Cemetery are unmarked. The Veteran Affairs database yielded only one of the men who died of wounds after the Battle of Forks Road as buried in the cemetery. The rest would be a goose chase.

So, with my parents along for the fun, we began our goose chase.

Turns out, the VA database is right. Most of the men didn't have a tombstone to kneel next to, photograph or leave flowers at had I brought any. These men from Ohio are gone.

One in particular though, was my own mistake. We were looking in particular for William H. Quan. Civil War Data lists that, "he died of wounds on 3/18/1865 at Wilmington, NC." By all rights he should have been in that cemetery somewhere.

Except the database is wrong. After we'd searched nearly every stone in the cemetery for Quan and come up empty handed, I kept digging at home.

Quan was sent out of Wilmington, transferred up the Atlantic coastline to the General Hospital at McKim's Mansion in Baltimore, Maryland. It was there, Army Surgeon Read reported in a letter in the soldier's Compiled Service Record, William Quan died on March 18th, 1865.

Unlike his Wilmington brethren, Quan's CSR even has a record of interment. Private William Quan, formerly of Fayette County, Ohio, aged 31 years, was buried on March 20th, 1865 in Laurel Cemetery at 10am. He left behind a widow back home in Ohio.

I got really excited then. This was my excuse to visit a graveyard in Baltimore. So I began to Google for directions to "Laurel Cemetery" in Baltimore.

And then I hit an even more horrifying truth.

William Quan's Grave Marker
Whereas his comrades who died in Wilmington have small marble cubes with numbers marking their graves, Quan's fate is much worse. In the late 1950s, in the height of severe racial tension in the City of Baltimore, the city and local speculators brokered a deal: Laurel Cemetery would be condemned and sold for real estate development.

Graves would be moved, carted away to a new plot of land in Carroll County. But of the between 5,000 and 7,000 graves which were in Laurel Cemetery when the deal was struck, only about 270 graves made their way to the new plot. William Quan isn't among them.

Quan likely lies buried where he was laid beneath the earth in March of 1865, in what remains of the Laurel Cemetery today: a parking lot. His body sits below the tarmac where shoppers park their cars to go to "Forman Mills" and "Dollar General."

It looks like I have one more obsessive trip to make, this time to Baltimore. Perhaps I'll bring along a chunk of board painted "William Quan, 5th United States Colored Troops, 1834-1865," and a bike lock. I need to leave some flowers at the grave of a true unknown and forgotten hero.

He died serving his nation, serving in the United States army, and fighting for the rights of men who looked just like him. And today he's buried under a parking lot.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Buckeye Blood Waters the Longleaf Pines

In the woods south of Wilmington, men in blue uniforms moved forward in a loose skirmish line. They were probing, trying to find General Hoke's last line of defense. Brig. General Charles Paine sent the men forward to develop the enemy. But in the pine thicket ahead, in a thin, ragged line, the bedraggled rebel troops likely had more to fear than bullets as those skirmishers probed and prodded on a February day in 1865.

The skirmishers moved through the sandy soil along Federal Point Road. Behind them, the entire third brigade commanded by Colonel Elias Wright was crashing through the woods. And the color of their skin was the greatest weapon of the war.

The skirmishers of the 5th United States Colored Troops found the enemy strung out in a thin single-file line. But the rebels' fire was strong, a last ditch effort to defend the Confederate capital's final lifeline. The rebels were commanded by Major General Robert F. Hoke.

Hoke, facing off against these black soldiers, must have felt some trepidation. The world was changing. At home in Lincoln County, his mother Frances owned six human beings as property, including two men who by 1865 were old enough to wield a gun for the United States and fight in a war of freedom and revenge. Those skirmishers were a familiar and frightening bogeyman for any southern man: slave rebellion on a grand scale.

When the war broke out, the population of the county where those men now marched was nearly half enslaved. Now, through the pine forests where slaves had once gathered resin, distilled turpentine and harvested straight timber, black men marched for freedom.

And they bled as the rebels opened fire.

John Byrd bled when a musket ball blasted through the flesh around his left knee. He stood, before his knee was mangled by a rebel ball, at 5 foot 8 inches tall, with a shock of black hair and dark eyes. He farmed a field somewhere near Wooster, Ohio before joining the army. And Byrd had never tasted the bitters of slavery. Yet he fought for men with skin the same color as his.

Edgar S. Wright was wounded as well. His finger was hit by a musket ball during the assault. The 19-year-old Wright was born in Fayette County, Ohio. He had already had one close scrape with rebels; just a year before in May, Wright was captured by rebel troops, but escaped their hands. Had he stayed locked behind enemy lines in 1864, he might have been enslaved. Not again, but for the very first time. Wright was born free, risking his safety so that others might be free as well.

The 5th United States Colored Troops was pushed back, one final repulse before Hoke's line gave up the ghost and retreated in the darkness a few hours later. And as the men poured back to the safety of their comrades' line, William Alexander was likely struck in the back by a hunk of hot iron. The 36-year-old farmer from near Hillsboro, Ohio was a slight man, standing only 5 foot 5 inches. He enlisted in August of 1864, and never received a single cent from the Federal Government. Yet still his black skin was good enough to bleed in the North Carolina sand for the freedom of men he had never met.

The 5th United States Colored Troops, formerly known as the 127th Ohio Infantry, marched into Wilmington a few days later. Byrd, Wright and Alexander didn't. The men of the 5th USCT saw, standing on the city's edge, "an aged colored woman," who cradled in her hands an American flag, squirreled away somewhere during the long years of war as a symbol of hope. The men cheered. In the streets, the black men and women swarmed the men of the 5th USCT. "Glory to de Lord," a white officer of the brigade remembered them cheering long after the war, "The blessed day ob salbation am cum. De good Lord bress Massa Linkum."

Byrd, Wright and Alexander likely heard little of the cheering; they were too busy suffering in agony from rebel lead and iron. Alexander had been shuttled back to Fort Fisher to be treated. He died 4 days after being wounded on the skirmish line. Wright and Byrd were brought into Wilmington, suffering in the general hospital in the newly liberated city for weeks. The two men died within hours of one another in mid-March.

And they're buried in sandy, humid graves now, far from their Ohio homes. Private William Alexander has a gravestone, a marker at his head. But Byrd and Wright have none.

The National Cemetery at Wilmington is filled with unknown graves, both white and black. And there, likely, the other two sleep. These men from the Buckeye state, who freed a city and a nation from man's inhumanity to his fellow man, gave all that that nation might live. Because in giving freedom to the slave, they assured freedom to the free - honorable alike in what was given and what was preserved.