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This is the archive for January 2008

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

I’m a little more than a hundred pages into my latest commuting book. I spend about an hour and twenty minutes every workday riding the “Metro” round trip between Maryland and the District of Columbia, most of it with my face buried in a book.

It’s a supposed genetic trait, because no one in my family has ever demonstrated competency in advanced math or science, with the exception of one lone great-uncle who graduated from M.I.T. and retired from G.E. as an Electrical Engineer. I’m joking when I say he was probably left on my great-grandparents’ doorstep. What drew me to John M. Barry’s book, The Great Influenza, The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, was a certificate my paternal Great-grandfather received for his volunteer work during the outbreak of this disease. That certificate also drew me to a PBS documentary on the same subject a couple of months ago.

This pandemic killed an estimated 50 to 100 million people worldwide in just a two-year period, from 1918 to 1920. The PBS documentary traces the origin of the virus to a British troop camp in France as early as 1916, while Barry suggests the virus spread from the little town of Haskell, Kansas to a training camp for American troops and was then carried overseas. Regardless of its origin, the death toll proved staggering, with many more victims than the plague took in a hundred years or AIDS claimed in forty. This strain of virus killed swiftly, in most cases less than two weeks, and without mercy, creating horrible and agonizing suffering.

One of the strengths of the book, for people like me, aside from telling a very compelling story, is Barry’s ability to break down complex medical and scientific research into concepts laymen can grasp. Trust me, it’s not laborious reading as Barry traces the history of medicine from the time of the Greeks and Romans and points out

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Until recently we never had much information on 48 men who enlisted or were drafted into the 18th Massachusetts, but never assigned to a Company in the Regiment. We didn’t know why they weren’t assigned, just that they weren’t. In the most cases we had little more than a name, age, and maybe their occupation. No date of muster. No date of discharge. A recent trip to the National Archives cleared up most of the mysteries, although there are some still untold stories due to the lack of a military service record being on file.

Something surprising, though, happened in combing through those 48 records. I came across a record of a man who was a draft substitute, designated for service with the 18th, and shortly afterward arrested at the Draft Rendezvous on Long Island, Boston Harbor, as a deserter from the 11th New York Infantry. Then a second record with the same exact scenario popped up. Then a third. A fourth. Finally a fifth.

Let’s consider this again. Five men, all of whom agreed to go to war in the place of others, all arrested as deserters from the same regiment. Hmmm. What was even more surprising was that four of the men were substitutes from the Greenfield, Mass. draft district. Greenfield, being in the western part of Massachusetts, is a long way from New York City, the recruiting base for the 11th New York.

A review of the 11th New York’s roster turned up only one name that matched. Two others were close, the surnames matching those of men in the 18th. Those two, however, deserted on the same day. I figured, then, if I looked for men who deserted on August 1, 1861, I might be able to narrow the possibilities and come to a reasonable conclusion about identity of the other two. Birds of a feather. What I discovered totally astounded me.

August 1, 1861. Desertion. That date and word kept coming up as I went through the roster. It occurred so frequently I went back to the beginning of the alphabet and started counting. I hit twenty such instances in record time, then thirty, forty, and on, and on, and on until I got to end. August 1st and desertion were connected 213 times. If we have a shared reaction then we’re asking the same question. What in the heck was going on here?

The 11th New York Infantry, also known as the First Fire Zouaves, was Elmer Ellsworth’s Regiment. Recruited almost exclusively from the Fire Companies in New York City, they were famed for their roughhouse reputation and colorful uniform designed by Ellsworth.

The story’s well known that Ellsworth was killed by a shotgun blast fired by James Jackson, owner of the Marshall House in Alexandria, Virginia on May 24, 1861 after Ellsworth cut down a rebel flag flying over the hotel. The events leading to

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Think the thought, ask the question….

Six hours and 55 minutes. My stopwatch doesn’t lie. Brian Downey, the man behind the curtain at Behind AotW (http://behind.aotw.org,), and who denies any relation to Morton Downey and Morton Downey, Jr., provided a link to page 210 of Google’s digitized edition of The Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans. There, in all its 2 ½ by 3 ¼ inch glory, accompanied by a one and a half column bio, was an etching of Benjamin De Costa.

Digitizing newspapers and books and posting them on the Web is becoming more and more prevalent. The New York Times features five separate early 1900’s articles on De Costa, including an announcement of his decision to leave the Episcopal church, his ordination as a Catholic Priest shortly before his death, as well as his obituary. Technology can be amazing even when it lacks mirrors and immortalize, in the words of 2nd Lieutenant George M. Barnard, Jr. of the 18th Mass., “a miserable hum bug.”

Benjamin Franklin De Costa

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Think the thought, ask the question, then throw it out into the stratosphere to see if the answer comes back like a boomerang. It worked twice before, once in locating Fisher Baker’s grave, while the other involved finding an article by William Russell, correspondent for the London Times, who heaped praise on our favorite little Regiment. Flush with success I thought I’d try again. However, this one’s going to prove a bit trickier and I don’t know if my ability to communicate with the dead has reached a level sufficient to handle the task of throwing out two thoughts or questions at the same time.

Part of my last trip involved research on Benjamin F. De Costa, who served as the only Chaplain to minister to the sinful, wicked, and redeemed of the 18th Mass. Until his arrival at Hall’s Hill, Virginia on January 1, 1862, the Regiment had to make do when attending to their spiritual needs. And while his arrival didn’t put an end to John Duffy’s frequent confinements to the guard house for drunkenness, De Costa, an Episcopal Priest from Charlestown, did his best to attend to his flock, even when most were unable to attend Sunday services due to their being detailed on picket duty, or road and bridge building projects. When Easter Sunday rolled around in April religious observances were thrown aside like the dirt flying from shovels as the Regiment helped dig the Union closer to Confederate fortifications at Yorktown.

One wonders if De Costa’s absence from the Regiment shortly afterwards was actually caused by physical illness or a crisis of faith. He’d return in August, while the 18th was at Harrison’s Landing, in time to preside over the funeral of Second Lieutenant John D. Isbel, dead of Typhoid Fever at age 22, before making his permanent exit via discharge due to physical disability on August 4, 1862.

Residing in New York City after his discharge, De Costa would lead a varied life. In 1863 he was editor of the Christian Times, the Episcopalian in 1864, and also worked for the Magazine of American History. His path would take him to the pulpit as Rector of the Church of St. John the Evangelist in New York City for a sixteen-year period, while in 1881 the College of William and Mary conferred a Doctoral of Divinity degree.

A prolific writer of historical research, more than ten of his books are currently on shelves at the New York Public Library, including such diverse titles as "the Pre-Columbian Discovery of America by the Northmen," and an 1873 novel, "The Rector of Roxburgh, A Story of Our Times," penned under the pseudonym of William Hickling. He was an incorporator of the Huguenot Society of America founded in April 1883 and a year later organized the first branch of the "White Cross Society," while also assisting in organizing the Church Temperance Society, being its first Secretary.

De Costa followed his wife Harriett Cooper Spencer to an eternal sleep seven months after her passing when he bid adieu in New York City on November 4, 1904. He was given the last rites by a Catholic Priest, having abandoned the Episcopal Church and converting to Catholicism.

So, here goes nothing. I’m looking for a picture of Benjamin De Costa and I want to know where he’s buried. Fly thoughts fly.

Monday, January 14, 2008

I’m going to travel backwards in time to November 2, 2006. On that date I posed the question in a post, Ask and Ye Shall Receive Eventually, where the 18th Massachusetts’ Adjutant, Fisher Baker, was buried. Originally I had supposed he was interred at Oakwood Cemetery in Yonkers, N.Y., but that turned out to be, no pun intended, a dead end. One day later I had the answer compliments of Brian Downing, who identified Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Tarrytown, N.Y., and ten days after that the Cemetery, in reply to my query, specified the lot number. Ask and Ye Shall Receive Eventually – Part Two, posted on November 14th, concluded, “I don’t know how soon I’ll get to North Tarrytown, but you’ll know when you see the post “Chasing the Dead in New York.”

Fourteen months later, on Sunday, January 6, 2008, I was driving down the Saw Mill Parkway in New York State headed toward the village of Sleepy Hollow. This trip began on a Thursday night when I left the D.C. area and headed toward the Big Apple. I spent that night in a hotel off Exit 8 of the New Jersey Turnpike and the next two days at the New York Public Library. There was no time for sightseeing, this trip being strictly business, i.e. gathering more research information on the 18th Massachusetts. Sunday morning I blew out of Stamford, Connecticut, made the pilgrimage to John D. Isbell’s grave in Naugatuck, and then, using the navigation system in my car, set sail for Sleepy Hollow. There’ll be other posts with regards to those activities at a later time.

A quick word about navigation systems. Say goodbye to Map Quest and road maps. Unfortunately I owe my thanks for the navigation system to the unknown parties responsible for stealing and totalling my van, which led to the premature and unexpected expense of a replacement vehicle.

I don’t know what the Saw Mill Parkway looks like when the trees are leafed, but I was struck by how scenic the area was in the dead of winter. I can understand now why Hilary and Bill Clinton were drawn to the region after vacating the White House as Chappaqua bordered the Parkway.

Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow lie in the Hudson River Valley and lay claim to being the home of author Washington Irving, considered the father of the American short story and arguably most famous for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. In keeping with the image of Ichabod Crane, the High School sports teams adopted the nickname “The Horsemen” and their logo features a headless rider holding a pumpkin aloft in an outstreched hand. And there, on the outskirts of this village of 9700 people, amid rolling and treed acres are the graves of that champion of the workingman Samuel Gompers, the aforementioned Washington Irving, industrialists Walter Chrysler and Andrew Carnegie, real estate moguls Harry and Leona Helmsley, socialite Brooke Astor, Union Army General Carl Schurz, and William Rockerfeller, younger brother of that notorious robber baron John D.

Having tarried in Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow, which are worth a visit unto themselves, I had only about forty minutes before the cemetery gates closed. Without knowing the section in which Fisher Baker was buried, it would have been virtually impossible to have found his grave during the time allotted. The cemetery is enormous, encompassing ninety acres, and one can understand why people with no connection to the surrounding towns would