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Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Director Akira Kurosawa's classic "Rashomon," a movie still dissected by film students sixty years after its release, is the tale of several people who are participants in the same event. But, as each witness recalls that event, decidedly different viewpoints emerge, often contradicting what others before them have disclosed. With Kurosawa's film in mind, today's post provides another perspective to the one Tom wrote about in Saturday's "With Friends Like These..."

Six days after the jarring thunder, rattle, and boom of Gettysburg, 21-year-old Edmund Churchill, a Sergeant in Company E of the 18th Massachusetts Infantry, would sit on a hardtack box, the church steeples of Keedysville, Maryland looming in the distance, and pen a letter to his sister Charlotte at home in Pembroke, Massachusetts. He would close the letter, in part, by writing "Don't know of any chance to send this, but [if] I can do no better, shall give it to a citizen."

Whether the letter arrived at Pembroke before the local Middletown Gazette released its Saturday, July 11th edition carrying a special July 3rd dispatch from the New York Tribune, ("the most terrific fight of the war has taken place...To-day was the most awful of all. The loss on both sides has been tremendous.") is unknown, but Edmund's words, "I am tired and need a long rest, after going through what I have," would have undoubtedly reassured his family that he was not among the fallen or maimed.

After an initial journey of about 515 miles, Edmund Churchill's letter would follow him, along with other Civil War related artifacts sent home during his years of military service, as he moved about in his post-war career, including a three-year stint in Detroit, and longer stays in Boston and Chelsea, Massachusetts, where he derived income to support a wife and two children as a provisions clerk. Three years worth of letters, bearing the names of camps ranging from Hall's Hill, VA in 1861, to Falmouth, VA in December 1862, or written in the wilting heat of Petersburg, VA in the summer of 1864, slivers of wood taken from fence rails and buildings, equipment, including a rubber blanket and canteen, and a jackknife found on the battlefield at Fredericksburg, would be trucked back to Pembroke where he would live out the final eight years of his life.

All that encompassed a weary and war torn world from 1861 to 1864 would be entrusted to a son, Edmund, in 1921, and eventually migrate to New York City with Edmund's son, who also had the same first name. Whereas his forebears had lived long and full lives, death, in the form of brain cancer, came stalking, claiming the Harvard educated educator at an early age. After being warehoused, an antique dealer likewise came stalking, offering a mere pittance of salvation to a family then in desperate financial straits. All that encompassed a weary and war torn world would be boxed up, carted away, and simply disappear into a trackless void.

Years intervened, as a world that was once gripped by a game of nuclear stare down between two military-industrial superpowers, Civil Rights marches, students igniting draft cards, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, a football dynasty in San Francisco, a place you went to because everyone knew your name, a spin-off set in a Seattle radio station, Bill Clinton, and the final year of a bumbling two-term Bush presidency began to fade into the recesses of long-term memory, when word filtered down from a Gettysburg artifact dealer that all that had encompassed Edmund Churchill's weary and war torn world was in his possession, all of which, including letters, diary, souvenirs, and equipment, could be had for something approaching a veritable fortune.

We, as in Tom,his wife, Tom's parents, and me, grabbed all we could safely afford and returned them "home" to Tom, a small consolation for what else we knew was out there. So close, yet so far from a 144-year-old treasure trove of family heirlooms that was relegated, after offers to purchase a small number of the letters were rejected, to wishful thinking and what could have been, had any of us, strictly by chance, hit the Power Ball.

On December 15th, a thoroughbred horse breeder and trader located two hundred miles north of the Washington, DC area sat down at his computer and sent an email query to our Web site devoted to the 18th Massachusetts Infantry. Raymond had begun to assemble a collection of Civil War letters with battle related content and wanted an opinion about the value of a letter which contained details pertaining to Gettysburg. As fate would have it, that letter was written by Edmund Churchill. Both Tom and I weighed in separately with what we hoped were objective opinions. In follow-up the next day, I learned Raymond had decided to pass on purchasing the letter.

Lexington, Ohio, Upper Marlboro, MD, and Hanahan, SC form a triangle that measures 430 miles by 680 miles by 530 miles in length. Only two of the three lines were yet to be connected when I made a phone call to Cal Packard at Museum Quality Americana on December 16th and verbally sealed a deal to purchase Edmund's letter. Only two of the three lines were yet connected, because I had already formulated a plan that would keep Tom totally in the dark until the package containing Edmund's letter arrived on his doorstep in Hanahan.

"I was in the hottest of the fight at Gettysburg on the 2nd of July, when Ewell & Longstreet flanked us. They came down on the right of our brigade with their whole command as prisoners told us. I cannot write now of the many incidents connected with that day, but must content myself with being thankful that among all the dangers that surrounded us, I was spared to serve still for the cause of right and truth."

Whether Raymond ever took acting or creative writing classes as an undergraduate at Cornell I can't say, but he played along with my plan and crafted an email to Tom that was so convincing that, even knowing the truth, I was ready to believe he had actually purchased the letter. Waiting for Tom's response to the "bad news" left everyone, including, Steve McManus, our co-researcher for the 18th Mass's dead guys project, in suspense for days. When he did respond, Tom was gracious in his congratulations to Raymond and grateful for the offer of a xerox copy of the letter.

"The prospect is good for our using up Lee's army in this state. We have had hard, hard rains nearly every day for a fortnight. By looking at my memorandum I see we have only 2 days without rain since the 24th of June. This has caused such a rise in all the small streams and especially in the Potomac that the Rebel army cannot get across it without boats, and our men have destroyed their pontoons at Williamsport, leaving them no long chance of getting off. They must be short of supplies as we have taken at one time, 4 miles of their trains, at another 600 and another time 150 wagons. We gave them a terrible whipping at Gettysburg and if they will give us a chance to get at them again, we will do our best to wipe out the Rebel army of the Potomac. I am ready for them, and so are our boys. They say if we get at them once more in Maryland, while the river is still too high for them to ford, that they will finish squaring accounts with the army of invasion."

The day after the package was entrusted to the caring hands of the United States Postal I began tracking the progress of a 146-year-old letter as it moved southward toward a homecoming of sorts in the Charleston, South Carolina area. That wait was excruciating. In spite of being heavily insured I worried as to why it hadn't been signed for on Monday, January 4th when a first attempt was made to deliver it. Then on Tuesday, January 5th, at about 11:15 a.m. Tom's wife Serena affixed her signature to the delivery confirmation console. Ten hours would go by, ten very long and anticipatory hours, before Tom finally emailed his reaction to the receipt of Edmund's letter:

Well my first reaction was, you guys suck. Yup, I wanted to tell each of you that you suck. But I can't do that, not in the least. Donald, as your note said, this will come as a complete surprise and it did.

So I should really say, thank you, from the bottom of my heart. Raymond, thanks for such a great acting job, Stephen for being an accomplice and Donald for doing what no one person could ever expect someone to do.


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