Friday, February 22, 2008

"How shall I fulfill the harrowing duty that is mine?"

I have just finished reading This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by historian Drew Gilpin Faust. This is an excellent and truly fascinating book that examines the ways in which Americans of the Civil War era came to terms with the vast legions of war dead--physically, mentally, and spiritually--a rather understudied aspect of the conflict.

Especially intriguing was Faust's discussion of the ways in which both soldiers and civilians attempted to portray the Victorian notion of the 'Good Death" even in the midst of so much slaughter and suffering. Part of this discussion focused on the letters written by soldiers to a deceased comrade's family. These letters, while heartbreaking, shared many of the same themes including a description of the dead soldier's final moments, oftentimes in great detail. As I read Faust's examinations of such letters, I was reminded of several written to families in Schuylkill County and today I thought I would post a few of them here. . .
* * * * * * * * * *
Lewis Martin
Major, 96th Pennsylvania Infantry
Lewis Martin was one of the first volunteers for the Union. A civil engineer, he was elected surveyor of Schuylkill County just a few years before the outbreak of the Civil War. Highly esteemed by the people of Pottsville, Martin was thirty years old in 1861 and was still a newlywed. In 1859, he married Minerva Smith of Hamburg, PA, and the young couple was soon blessed with two baby boys. Minerva was pregnant with their third child when her husband marched off to war in April 1861. Martin was a member of the National Light Infantry, a Pottsville militia company formed in 1831. On April 11, 1861, one day before the war's opening salvos rang out over Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, the National Light Infantry wired Secretary of War Simon Cameron to offer the services of the company should they be needed. Cameron responded by ordering them to Washington. In 1868, Cameron acknowledged that the National Light Infantry was the very first company of northern volunteers to offer its services to the Union. When on April 18, the National Light Infantry, along with the Washington Artillerists (also of Pottsville), the Ringgold Light Artillery of Reading, the Allen Infantry of Allentown, and the Logan Guards of Lewistown, arrived in Washington, they were the first northern volunteers to reach the capital, and thus went down in history as the First Defenders.
Lewis Martin wrote frequently to his family in Pottsville, especially to his mother. On April 28, just ten days after arriving in Washington, Martin wrote: "It is possible as I have before acknowledged that I did very wrong in leaving home under existing circumstances. I can hardly convince myself that I did not then. . . . True it may be said I owe a duty to my family which is paramount to that of any other worldly one, but what if all would make use of the same argument[?], who would there be to rescue the honor of Our Country and its flag, which when dishonored, dishonors its People." Hoping to assuage any anxieties that he might be killed, Martin concluded that when he left home, he did so "with the firm conviction that I will see you all again, and I still hold on to it, and every day almost adds to my belief that it is not intended that we are going to engage in shedding the blood of our own countrymen." "I may be mistaken in the South," wrote Martin, "but I believe they are not going to rush much farther in their suicidal course, for they certainly did not bargain for the Union of sentiment they now find in the North, and with which they are bringing themselves in contact."
When the three month terms of service for the National Light Infantry expired in late July 1861, Martin and most of the members of the company reenlisted to serve a three-year term. This time they were mustered in as Company A, 96th Pennsylvania Volunteers. Lewis Martin was their captain. Promoted a short time later to major, Martin survived the deadly battles of the Peninsula and Seven Days' campaigns. Martin continued to send a steady stream of letters home (which, by the way, are stored at the United States Military History Institute in Carlisle, Pennsylvania). With the regiment encamped near Washington in early September 1862, Martin's mother decided to pay her son a surprise visit. What she did not know was that the 96th was, by the time she arrived, already on the move. . .marching westward through Maryland in pursuit of Robert E. Lee's invading Army of Northern Virginia. She traveled as far as Rockville, hoping to see her son, before making the long journey back home to Pottsville. Learning of his mother's attempt to see him, Martin wrote on September 11, "I could scarsely realize it when first told to me and have not yet fairly gotten over it. I did not have the remotest idea that [she] would come on or I would have telegraphed on Saturday that we had received marching orders. . . .I am really too sorry but I do not want to discourage you from making another attempt." Sadly, Mrs. Martin would never have an opportunity to make "another attempt." This was Martin's last letter home. Three days later, he was killed while leading a charge against the Confederate defenses of Crampton's Gap during the battle of South Mountain.
His loss saddened the regiment, particularly his commanding officer, and good friend, Colonel Henry L. Cake. On September 15, Cake sat down to write to Lewis's mother. One can imagine, while reading through the letter, Cake having to fight back the tears:
Colonel Henry Cake, 96th PA
My Dear Mrs. Martin~
How shall I fulfill the harrowing duty that is mine? At the 'storming of Blue Ridge,' seven miles from Harper's Ferry, I lost my brother, friend, constant companion--the bravest and most gallant soldier of the regiment--my Major. The country has lost a soldier, I a friend, but oh, who can describe your loss? He spoke of his mother continually--and of his little son, who must now be your consolation and your care. His disappointment at not meeting you was extreme.
It was just at the moment of the most complete victory. The 96th had again covered itself with what to me is horrid glory when we felt the extreme danger past that he received his death wound. Adjt. Geo. G. Boyer was near him, and reports him hit five minutes before six, and that he ceased to breathe at ten minutes past six. He never spoke, was unconscious, and did not suffer. Mr. Boyer removed him from the field with his own hands. I have had a coffin made, will send him to Washington to be embalmed, and thence to Pottsville, consigned to R.J. Weaver. Break the news to his poor wife. It breaks my heart to be compelled to communicate it to you.
The storming of Blue Ridge will be memorable, and will render memorable Sunday, the 14th Sept. 1862. It is seven miles from Harper's Ferry, near the village of Burkittsville, Md. It was here you laid your sacrifice upon the altar of your country. It was. . .all you had to give--a brave, good soldier.
The 96th suffered severely, losing not less than 150 in killed and wounded.
I need to add how much I sympathize with you and your daughter--my own grief is extreme. Believe me, dear madam
Your most devoted friend,
H.L. Cake
The body of Lewis Martin arrived in Pottsville on Wednesday, September 17, 1862. At the same time, one hundred and fifty miles away, Americans were once again killing each other by the thousands along the banks of the Antietam Creek. Thousands of mourners lined the streets, flags flew at half-staff, and business was suspended throughout the city, as Martin's body was carried to its final resting place in the Presbyterian Cemetery.

The grave of Major Lewis Martin. . .

* * * * * * * * * *

Curtis Clay Pollock

1st Lieutenant, Company G

48th Pennsylvania Volunteers

Like Lewis Martin, Curtis C. Pollock was a First Defender. He entered the army as a private in the Washington Artillerists when he was just eighteen years of age. In the summer of 1861, Pollock enlisted to serve "for three years, or the war," as a corporal in Company G, 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Like Martin, Pollock was fearless in battle, and soon rose to the rank of 1st lieutenant. During his years in the army, Pollock wrote hundreds of letters to his family in Pottsville. (These letters are also stored at Carlisle, and, like Martin's are a treasure for anyone wanting to learn more about the life of a Civil War soldier). Never afraid to lead from the front, Pollock escaped some of the war's most savage fighting unscathed until, in June 1864, he was struck by a shell fragment while charging the Confederate fortifications outside of Petersburg. Transported to the Georgetown Hospital, Pollock appeared to be recovering. But then "lockjaw," or tetanus, set in. . .and he passed away ten days after receiving his wound. His last letter home was written on June 12:

Near Coal Harbor about
10 miles from Richmond

My Dear Ma

I rec’d your letter of the 21st yesterday and was much pleased to hear from home again. I think I received all the letters you write and hope you get all mine. I write to you almost every few days. Though at present there is very little to write about. I do not get away from the Regt.- and can find out nothing about what is going on. Frank Farquhar was here yesterday he is Chief Engineer of the 18th A.C. and is a Capt. now. He looks very well. I am sorry to hear Margie is getting along so poorly. I have not written to her for some time, but our opportunities for writing are such that she ought not expect it. I have nothing more to write about We have been lieing in reserve in rear of the line of Rifle pits-and have nothing to do. Our baggage has been taken to White House Landing and stored on board of boats. The teams I guess are to be loaded with supplies for the Corps. We have enough to eat such as it is Hard Bread, Coffee & Fresh Beef. We managed to get a ham the other day which was quite a luxury.
Hoping you are all well
I remain Your Affec. Son


On July 6, Lieutenant Thomas Bohannon of the 48th wrote to Curtis's father:

Mr. Pollock
This morning I turned over your sons valise to the Agt of the Sanitary Committee. He promised me he would deliver it to the Express Office at Washington, D.C. It is in safe hands and I hope you will receive it in good order. I would have forwarded it before the present time but the difficulty was that there has not been any Express Office established here as yet.
I was very much surprised in hearing of Lieuts death. The morning he arrived at City Point from the battle field he sent the ambulance driver to inform me of his accident. My quarters are ½ mile from City Point. I went immediately to see my particular friend as I must say he was a favorite young man in the Regt and a brave soldier.
On my arrival at City Point the Ambulance Corps was preparing to have him carried on board the boat to be sent to Washington. I took him by the hand and asked him if his wound was dangerous. He seemed to think not and appeared to be very much pleased that his wound was not more serious. As soon as he was placed in a bunk on board the steam boat, I sat down and spoke to him a few minutes. He then requested me to get him his valise but at that time I was not able to get the valise as I had placed all the baggage belonging to officers of the Regt on board a barge at the White House to be sent around to City Point by water. The barge had not arrived at the time.
I bid the poor fellow good bye but not thinking at the time nor him either that it was our last fairwell with each other. I hope he has gone to a happy home. I must come to a close by sending my kindest regards.
Yours Respectfully
Thomas Bohannan

Bohannon was not the only member of the 48th to write to the Pollock family. On August 1, the regiment's quartermaster sergeant, Henry Krebs, penned the following letter, which was written in response to the family's request to have Curtis's personal belongings sent home.

Mr. Pollock—
Dear Sir:
Lieut. Bohannan having a press of business he has requested me to answer for him your letter asking for information concerning Curtis’ valise and other effects. Enclosed you will find the address (obtained from the Agent of the Sanitary Commission at City Point) to which the valise was sent, which I trust will enable you to get it, if it has not yet reached you.
Serg’t Jones, (now Lieut) of Company “G” thinks that his pistol must be in the valise.
Serg’t Aumen (now Lieut) Company “G” was near Curtis when he was wounded and assisted him from the field. He states that he was quite cheerful and in good spirits, though he suffered considerable pain. One of the his first expressions was “Wasn’t that a splendid charge ?”
After he had walked some distance he said he felt faint and sank to the ground ere Lieut. A. could catch him. He soon revived and walked assisted by Lieut. A. to the Field Hospital.
A few hours after he was taken in an ambulance to City Point. Lieut. Bohannan met him on the road. He spoke cheerfully and requested him to send his baggage home. He seemed to think his wound was slight, and that he was very fortunate in escaping so well, without the loss of a limb as there were many around him. Two hours ride brought him to City Point, where there was boat in readiness to receive the wounded and as soon as she was loaded she started for Washington.
The baggage of our Corps was sent by water from White House and only arrived the day he left or it could have been sent with him. There is an overcoat with the Company baggage which was just discovered a day or two since. Lieut. Bohannan will see Major Bosbyshell about it, and if it is Curtis’ will send it by express.
The writer of this will see Lieut. Aumen and see if he has any additional particulars, he will, no doubt, be pleased to give them.
All the members of the Company and of the Regiment unite in the highest praise of his bravery and courage in battle as well as his example as a friend and companion. His death and that of Lieut. Jackson has cause a deep feeling of gloom and sadness to pervade Company “G” which will not easily be dispelled. They will live long in the memories of those who knew them to love and respect them.
Trusting that the condolence of a friend and former member of Company “G” is not here out of place, I beg to subscribe myself.
Very Respectively Yours,

Harry Krebs

The remains of Curtis Pollock were ultimately interred in Pottsville's Charles Baber Cemetery, where, sad to say, it has become a popular target for vandals.

* * * * * * * * * *

No comments: