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This is the archive for January 2012

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Harper's Ferry (from "Old Pictures":

Two weeks after licking their wounds from the mauling they encountered at Second Bull Run, which had left more than half the Regiment who fought there either dead or wounded, the 18th Massachusetts entered Maryland through a portal at Rockville on September 13, 1862. Four days later they and the rest of the Fifth Corps would be mere spectators to a carnival of death that raged along the seemingly placid waters of Antietam Creek. But Plymouth and Norfolk County blood would flow again, when on the 20th of September the 18th briefly touched the soles of their brogans on the "Sacred Soil" at Shepherdstown, where fifteen of their numbers would fall, before they waded back across the Potomac.

For the rest of month and on into late October, when temperatures and spirits began to drop, they stood picket and in the absence of tents were exposed to the elements round the clock, covering themselves with woolen and rubber blankets when they closed their eyes in the night, alternately slumbering in fitful and restless sleep. Stationary for far too long, the rumblings of discontent surfaced. McClellan's oft cited brilliance began to tarnish in the eyes of many in the ranks, for what was an army's purpose if not to fight.

Movement came at last on October 30th when the 18th was told to pack up and fall in, little knowing it was the beginning of a rendezvous with destiny at Fredericksburg. Herein follows four comparative accounts of men on the march, each with eyes wide open to the same exact surroundings.

Diary of Corp. Harrison O. Thomas, Co. D, dated October 31, 1862

[Friday] 31st – After lunching from rations in haversacks, and making coffee, marched to the Maryland side of Harper’s ferry and cross the Potomac into town on the pontoon bridge, passing on across the Shenandoah to the valley about four miles from the place. Moved very slowly, on account of Army trains in our front. I have always had a strong desire to visit this region, and I might devote pages to the description of the interesting scenery, natural fortifications, etc., in this vicinity.

Letter from Capt. Joseph W. Collingwood, Co. H, to his wife Rebecca

Camp at Snickers Gap, Va Nov 4th 1862

My Dear Wife,
Once more on the sacred soil of Va and now I must tell you how we got here. Last Thursday night I recieved [sic] notice [while on Provost Guard duty at Keedysville, MD] that our Corps had marched for Berlin. So I comenced [sic] packing up and started early Friday morning, arrived at Berlin at 4 PM and bivouaced [sic] for the night. In the morning I ascertained that the troops had crossed the river at Harpers Ferry, so we started again after breakfast, crossed the Ferry (a wild looking place it is) and at 3 PM joined our Regt. some 3 miles in advance encamped between the mountains.

Letter from Corp. Richard H. Holmes, Co. D

Camp of the 18th Mass Regt., November 10, 1862
Near Warrenton, Virginia

Dear Mother,
I received your kind letter of the third day before yesterday. We left Sharpsburg October 30 at sunset, and arrived at Maryland Heights at about 10 o’clock in the evening, where we remained during the night. The next morning we started on again, crossing the Potomac at Harpers Ferry, we went on beyond the ferry about four miles, and camped for the night.

Letter from Pvt. Thomas H. Mann, Co. I, in camp near Snickersville Gap, Va. Nov. 5th [1862]

Friday morning we took up the line of march for Harpers Ferry. We were soon among the mountains that I so much love. At times we climbed steep ascents and then filed round almost at the mountain's top where the road was hewn from solid rock, a precipice below and above the rock overhanging us, the road barely wide enough for five men to walk abreast. Soon we would descend the mountainside by a winding road graded as much as possible yet in some places steep enough for one to roll down. We passed large quarries where building stone was blasted and hewn out, the stone being of a bluish color with the same grain as limestone. There was also soapstone quarries where many of our slate pencils come from, the best kind.

We reached Harpers Ferry soon after noon coming upon or rather descending upon it rather unexpectedly. I had wished to see Harpers Ferry but ideas of the place were more than realized. As I said we came upon it suddenly, that is we descended from Maryland Heights a winding road. steep within some places high overhanging rocks on either side, and came upon the river through almost an aron like entering a barrel through the bunghole. If you remember the village is on the Va. side of the river. We marched a half mile along the river bank, the ever perpetual rock towering 300 feet above our heads and in some places hanging over us. The village is entirely out of sight of the world situated on the point of land formed by the Potomac and Shenendore [sic] rivers. The bridge had been destroyed by the rebels and we had to cross by means of a pontoon bridge into the village. I saw the depot where John Brown, the celebrated, fought and the old arsenal or rather the remains of it. We marched through the place and crossed the Shenendore upon a pontoon, then marched down the Potomac nearly a mile and finally turned abruptly to the right. We left the place as we came with the exception that we are now on the sacred soil instead of "My Maryland."

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

About five years back I discovered this wood engraving of some unidentified members of the 18th Massachusetts Infantry in a book titled "Stories of Our Soldiers," an 1893 compilation of articles edited by Charles Carleton Coffin which were first serialized in the Boston Journal. Coffin was a renowned Civil War newspaper correspondent who gained an additional semblance of fame for his non-fiction books on the Civil War, including a series aimed at a juvenile audience, most popular of which was "My Days and Nights on the Battlefield." "Stories" was his own localized attempt to cash in on the popularity of Century Magazine's "Battles and Leaders," an effort that was duplicated by other mid-sized and large city newspapers when Civil War memoirs were at the height of their popularity.

The engraving "From an Army Tintype" clued me to the fact that once upon a time there was an original photograph floating around and the likelihood that some of the subjects in the picture had sent it home to their families. But as Paul Newman asked Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: "Who are those guys?"

Everyone has seen them being auctioned on eBay: a CDV of an unidentified Civil War soldier, offered sometimes at a reasonable and other times a not so reasonable price. I've often wondered what would possess someone to spend five hundred dollars or more on the likeness of an unidentified soldier. I don't know the odds of being able to id a picture 150 years on, when the only clue is the photographer's back mark, but they have to be astronomical. You probably have a better chance betting the Vikings to win the 2013 Super Bowl.

However, all that said, I semi-defied the odds with the wood engraving. There was an additional clue provided when, believe it not, I stumbled across the original photo posted on the Duxbury in the Civil War blog on January 11, 2012. There for all the world to see was the notation that the gentleman on the right was "Duxbury native" Preston Soule. Although the notation was incorrect, Preston having been born and raised in Middleboro, Mass., that singular piece of information allowed me zero in on the identities of the other three men.


I owe it all to Erastus Everson, then First Sergeant in Co. H of our favorite little Regiment, who, in a February 23. 1862 letter to his mother, wrote:

"Having an opportunity of sending home some things in a valise with my associate Sergt. [Melvin] Leach by one of our men whom we have discharged for inability, I thought I would put in among my letters some degueratypes I have in my possession. The one enclosed in this sheet is taken under rather peculiar circumstances. It was taken yesterday Washington’s birthday. I went down to my friend Doane’s in the rear of our camp and as we sat talking we all proposed that each should have a picture just as we sat. I have never seen one which conveys all the little things so perfect. The man standing behind me is Ezra K. Bly of New Bedford, Sergt. in Co. I and one if the old 3 months boys. Oat knows him. The citizen with whom I am talking is Doane of Boston, a particular friend of mine, and the artist here in camp. The other Orderly Sergt. is Preston Soule of Middleboro, son of a minister, and 1st Sergt. of Company I. You will see by studying the picture that all the little things in the tent appear, the frying pan above my head, the stove and spit box, and my "pipe." I am in fatigue uniform, Soule has on the dress [uniform], just as we chanced to meet you know."