5 Great Books About Military Wives in 19th Century America

Since you all know I love history and historical fiction, I thought I’d share some lists of my favorite books by topic that I used when writing THE TENAFLY ROAD SERIES. I hope research geeks will use these posts as a good place to start on the subjects I will feature and that readers of my fiction who have had their appetites whetted for the time period will enjoy the lists as well.Yes, I will put my own books on the lists — 😉

Happy reading and make sure to add your favorites on the subject in the comments below!

BOOTS AND SADDLES

THE COLONEL’S LADY ON THE WESTERN FRONTIER

VANISHED ARIZONA

LIFE AND MANNERS IN THE FRONTIER ARMY

THE HOUSE ON TENAFLY ROAD

 

5 Great Books About Civil War Soldiers

Since you all know I love history and historical fiction, I thought I’d share some lists of my favorite books by topic that I used when writing THE TENAFLY ROAD SERIES. I hope research geeks will use these posts as a good place to start on the subjects I will feature and that readers of my fiction who have had their appetites whetted for the time period will enjoy the lists as well.Yes, I will put my own books on the lists — 😉

Happy reading and make sure to add your favorites on the subject in the comments below!

THE STORY THE SOLDIERS WOULDN’T TELL

CIVIL WAR SOLDIERS

THE LIFE OF BILLY YANK

HARDTACK & COFFEE

THE HOUSE ON TENAFLY ROAD (and series)

The Indian Wars: 5 Great Books About General George Crook

Since you all know I love history and writing historical fiction, I thought I’d share some lists of my favorite books by topic that I used when writing THE TENAFLY ROAD SERIES. I hope research geeks will use these posts as a good place to start on the subjects I will feature and that readers of my fiction who have had their appetites whetted for the time period will enjoy the lists as well. Yes, I will put my own books on the lists — 😉

Happy reading and make sure to add your favorites on the subject in the comments below!

GENERAL GEORGE CROOK AUTOBIOGRAPHY

GENERAL CROOK AND THE WESTERN FRONTIER

ON THE BORDER WITH CROOK

WOLVES FOR BLUE SOLDIERS

THE HOUSE ON TENAFLY ROAD

Walt Whitman in the Civil War

I worry that a book like THE BETTER ANGEL by Roy Morris Jr.  in 2000 would not get written today because Walt Whitman, despite nursing thousands of young, suffering soldiers in overfilled hospitals who fought a war that freed slaves, expressed what we consider today to be offensive (and ignorant) opinions about slaves.  

Racism as a word needs to go. Its meaning does not allow for any complexity of feeling or thought. It shuts down avenues of reconciliation and fails to deal with the deeper issues which are basic: human hatred and ignorance. Cain murdered his brother as one of the first acts in the Bible. Anyone with maturity and experience lies to themselves if they think they are above nursing hatreds. Tell me at least one time when this hatred based on jealousy, past wrongs or misunderstanding ever brought peace to anyone, yet still we run to our little groups and cast hateful looks and words at others.

To take the argument away from American race relations for a minute I’d like to use the example of the long animosity between England and Ireland. Depending on who you talk to, people will bring up various battles and laws and wrongs reaching back a thousand years. Some people carry the bitterness of a lost battle between men generations ago into their daily lives today with no positive results.

How as honest humans can we not admit that we all have ingrained hierarchies of human importance? Some cheer for new late-term abortion laws while others like myself are sickened at the callousness and laughter on the faces of those signing infanticide into practice. Others decry borders and the mistreatment of foreigners. The hypocrisy of humanity is sickening. Yet I must remind myself that I am part of humanity.

I can be incredibly callous to suffering. I can make harsh and ignorant judgments based on race, class, religion and even the motives my husband has for doing something I don’t understand or like.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?
 Matthew 7:3

I briefly entered the fray of blaming my insecurities and deficiencies on gender, genealogy and religion. Guess where it got me — nowhere.

People don’t like to hear it (I didn’t want to hear it until my sins could be hidden no longer) but seeking revenge or pity or money won’t cure bitterness. Only forgiveness does. People don’t like being humbled. It goes against the self-esteem religion. It goes against the I’m a star and you need to respect and idolize me religion.

What Jesus said is still as counter cultural and revolutionary today as it was two thousand years ago:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn,

for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,

for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,

for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful,

for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart,

for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers,

for they will be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Be careful not to skim over these words. They are the keys to a life worth living.

Walt Whitman just before the Civil War was a man without a cause. He rode the city streets by day and spent the nights drinking and carousing. He was depressed.

His brother enlisted in the army at the start of the war. Walt left in search of him when he was hospitalized months later. He had planned to stay only briefly until he encountered the sick and dying young boys — thousands of them — in places we would never send our dogs to get well today.

Cynics might say Walt stayed because he had always had affectionate feelings toward younger men and maybe there is some truth to that, but anyone who thinks they are 100% altruistic is again living under serious delusion.

Forgotten Veterans

The many forgotten soldiers with no family to advocate for them adored Walt’s visits and the man himself. Evidenced by the letters he received late in life from grateful veterans, they believed without his small kindnesses they would not have survived the disease-ridden and terrifying hospitals.

As some of you may remember, I’m researching my young relatives who fought and died for the Union. Two died of disease early on but one was injured at Second Bull Run and spent months in hospital before being discharged only to enlist again and die a few days before Appomattox. Every wrecked young man  Walt showed special kindness to could have been someone very much like my cousin Waldo who enlisted when he was only fifteen.

The Civil War Dead

We so often think in terms of big numbers and so little do we ponder and appreciate the individuals whose tiny lives flickered so briefly. Their hopes, their mannerisms, the things that made them laugh and cry — Walt saw to those things and loved the boys “like father, like mother, like lover and friend.” He saw these suffering boys made in the image of God — fearfully and wonderfully made — and mourned for them and with them. He brought ice cream on hot days when no one wanted to be in the stinking tents of human waste and rotting flesh.

Walt wrote once about Private John A. Holmes,  a man I assume most of us have never heard of. Like 54 percent of the Union soldiers and 99 percent of the Confederates, Holmes was stricken with diarrhea — “a disease that would claim the lives of nearly one hundred thousand men.”

After weeks in camp Holmes was sent by steamer to Washington. On the boat he was too weak to open his bag to pull out a blanket. When a crew member refused to help him, Holmes was forced to sleep exposed to the elements with chills and fever. At the Washington hospital he was stripped naked and scrubbed under a cold shower until he fainted in the nurses’ arms.

For days he suffered in anonymity and hopelessness until Whitman noticed the poor boy’s look of despair when he stopped to make some encouraging remark.

“‘I saw as I looked that it was a case of administering to the affection first, and other nourishment and medicines afterward … I sat down with him without any fuss … wrote a letter to his folks … and gave him some small gifts and told him I would come again soon.’

“Holmes said he would like to buy a glass of milk from the woman who peddled it in the wards and Whitman gave him a little change. The young man immediately burst into tears.”

John Holmes credited Walt’s first visit that day with saving his life. I like to think that my cousin Waldo had someone beside him during the 24 hour period between receiving his mortal gunshot wound to the thigh and the time he spent suffering in the hospital before he died. On reenlisting he had not gone back to the regiment from Cortland, NY (his home) so I have no idea if he had any close friends near by in the end. He was only 18 or 19 when he died. He was buried on a plantation far from home as his parents celebrated Lee’s surrender.

Walt Whitman considered his Civil War days to be the most important of his life.

His collection of poems from that time are his best. Long after the country moved on and long after the thousands of young men  were buried and forgotten by all but genealogists,  Whitman’s poems live on as a testimony to the uncomplaining bravery and suffering of a generation of young men and their families.

THE BETTER ANGEL Walt Whitman in the Civil War is a book to inspire the most calloused heart. How many of us give so freely of ourselves as Whitman did? He’s always been my favorite poet, but now he is one of my favorite men.

A Twilight Song by Walt Whitman

As I sit in twilight late alone by the flickering oak-flame,
Musing on long-pass’d war-scenes—of the countless buried unknown
soldiers,
Of the vacant names, as unindented air’s and sea’s—the unreturn’d,
The brief truce after battle, with grim burial-squads, and the
deep-fill’d trenches
Of gather’d from dead all America, North, South, East, West, whence
they came up,
From wooded Maine, New-England’s farms, from fertile Pennsylvania,
Illinois, Ohio,
From the measureless West, Virginia, the South, the Carolinas, Texas,
(Even here in my room-shadows and half-lights in the noiseless
flickering flames,
Again I see the stalwart ranks on-filing, rising—I hear the
rhythmic tramp of the armies;)
You million unwrit names all, all—you dark bequest from all the war,
A special verse for you—a flash of duty long neglected—your mystic
roll strangely gather’d here,
Each name recall’d by me from out the darkness and death’s ashes,
Henceforth to be, deep, deep within my heart recording, for many
future year,
Your mystic roll entire of unknown names, or North or South,
Embalm’d with love in this twilight song.

51B-9ZBe33L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

DRUM TAPS by Walt Whitman

A Strange and Blighted Land

Gettysburg: The Aftermath of a Battle

In aftermaths of life even the best ideas on paper can leave a trail of human misery or a path to new life. Many times aftermaths are a mixture of both.

In A STRANGE AND BLIGHTED LAND Gettysburg: The Aftermath of a Battle we travel more on the first path of misery. It didn’t surprise me when halfway through this book its author, Gregory A. Coco, mentioned that he was an atheist. Coco was a  Vietnam combat veteran himself. This had a profound effect on how he viewed battle (and possibly God). As a Gettysburg guide he became frustrated and saddened by visitors who arrived with stars in their eyes and romanticized notions about glorious causes and heroic charges.

This is not to say that there weren’t heroic men — those who fought, suffered and died (or raced to the next battle) and those who raced toward the suffering to help as best they could in what became a twenty-five square mile “sea of misery.”

The numbers, no matter how often I see them, are so difficult to comprehend:

“Nearly one-third of the total forces engaged at Gettysburg became casualties. George Gordon Meade’s Army of the Potomac lost 28 percent of the men involved; Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia suffered over 37 percent.

Of these casualties, 7,058 were fatalities (3,155 Union, 3,903 Confederate). Another 33,264 had been wounded (14,529 Union, 18,735 Confederate) and 10,790 were missing (5,365 Union, 5,425 Confederate).” HISTORYNET.COM

Forty thousand people (just the dead and severely wounded) would look something like this:

people-20000

My next book(s) are going to be fictionalized stories about my ancestors, some of them having served on the Union side in the war. A few did not come home and they haunt me — especially since I’ve discovered their pictures and letters.

While Gregory Coco describes in gruesome and troubling detail the suffering left in Gettysburg’s wake, he only briefly discusses the reasons men and boys went to fight. For whatever reasons, there are people who cling to the idea of a glorious Southern cause. And there are other people who cling to the idea that most Northern soldiers fought for every other reason but the abolition of slavery.

Losers often romanticize the past to, in some way,  make peace with the loss of so many young men. But what bothers me is the segment of modern society bent on burying, along with my young relatives physical forms, the reasons they fought.

I think part of this may come from a prejudice among intellectuals who can’t imagine that nineteenth century  farm boys from Upstate New York could understand and fight for equal rights under God for all people. It’s gratifying and upsetting when I discover a letter or book written in the 1860’s proving this point yet knowing that now these men and their compassion for the victims of slavery don’t receive proper honor for their sacrifices.

Judge a person by the content of their character not the color of their skin …

We do such a great injustice when we paint entire races of people as villains to our children. When we say, “Oh,yes, those young white men died but they were still very racist,” we miss the point that most freed slaves got. Read about how freed slaves stayed in Charleston to set up a cemetery for the white (and black) union soldiers who fought their cause:

“While the city may have been deserted by most of the white folks, there were over 10,000 freed slaves who gathered to greet the Union Army. The story goes that these freedmen and women dug up a mass grave containing the bodies of 257 dead Union soldiers, only to rebury them on May 1, 1865 in a cleaned up and landscaped burial ground.

They built an archway with a placard that said “Martyrs of the Race-Course,” and buried the bodies with a ritualized remembrance celebration, attended by thousands of people, white and black. The ceremony was covered by the New York Tribune and other national newspapers of that day.” FREED SLAVES OBSERVE 1st MEMORIAL DAY

Take a look at those stadiums again. 18,000 or so Union soldiers died or were severely wounded (many dying later) and another 5,000 or so missing. Just think of the missing ones. Those dying under bushes near streams that flooded and drowned them. Others waiting days on wet ground for treatment that never arrived because their bones were only found months and years later. Missing sometimes meant that these boys were buried in mass graves before dog tags were common.

Dead men at least were immune to the barbarity of  Gettysburg’s aftermath.

In Coco’s book we read of maimed Southern soldiers  crowded into unsanitary barns only to have to endure watching the “operators” saw limbs from friends in the middle of the room. Imagine knowing that it was your turn next.

Imagine the baby-faced soldiers (like one of my cousins who enlisted at 16) asking the doctors if he’d make it and being told no.

The Declaration of Independence as Mission Statement:

The founding fathers wrestled with the issue of slavery not because they were prejudiced (of course all people have their terrible prejudices) but because they feared what would happen to a very young nation that hardly considered itself as such. Yes, they were as flawed as we all are — we ALL are — their decision to put off dealing with slavery haunted every political, economic and social debate for years until finally it came to a head in war.

Wouldn’t it have been great to have settled things peacefully? But that didn’t happen. I refuse to make light of the sacrifices of those in my family line. They seriously didn’t have to enlist in the first few months after Fort Sumter. But they did. They fought the good fight in a war that none of us can truly imagine. Many lived with horrible wounds for years. Many lost wives who could not stand the sight of their husbands with disfigured faces. Many families lost children in their prime.

The more I read about the brutality of war the more I abhor it. Yet it boggles my mind that some men — men I am coming to know in personal ways — put their lives in danger battle after horrifying battle.

This country wasn’t built on racism exactly. Conquest by brute force and tribalism was the way of the entire world — no WWII soldiers giving out Hershey bars for the most part. Countries aren’t built on only one thing. That’s too damned simplistic. The country was built on a flawed set of people with one very unique mission statement:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

Mission statements suggest that we are also works in progress and that we have not yet fully attained the noble sentiments we hold dear. Some farmer boys enlisted, were injured and re-enlisted only to die. They’re in my gene pool. Reading letters and books from the period leave little room for modern revisionism. They were proud of the part they were playing to make the mission statement a reality. I’m proud of them too.

Gregory Coco’s book is divided into five sections:

The Battlefield in the Aftermath “No tongue can depict the carnage”

The Burial of the Dead “A long black shadow”

The Care of the Wounded “A great rushing river of agony”

Prisoners of War, Stragglers, and Deserters “The woods are full of them”

From Battlefield to Hallowed Ground “The sacred sod”

Each section highlights a profoundly moving element of the battle’s aftermath. We tend to remember battles and their dates, maybe even enjoy perusing books on strategy and famous generals. It’s hard to linger in the shadow of suffering and loss. It may even be healthier not to linger too long, but for the people who fought and didn’t die the battle was there forever. In amputations by the thousands, in disfigurement of body and soul (even if outwardly healed).

A battlefield is sacred, Coco points out, not for the later generations but for the families of the men who died — so many of them buried as unknown but known to mother and father deeply — and the ones who escaped death but lived with a lifetime of pain. For those people wondering if it was their son’s bones being unearthed by plows and curiosity seekers the battlefield was something so much more than we can truly understand. Thank God.

 

Further reading:

AMERICAN BATTLEFIELD TRUST

BATTLE-SCARRED: CARING FOR THE SICK AND WOUNDED OF THE CIVIL WAR

CARING FOR WOUNDED HORSES OF THE CIVIL WAR

Adrienne Morris is the author of

The Tenafly Road Series

The Tenafly Road Series

“Characters so deep you follow them into the abyss, hoping to come out unscathed, but never returning the same. They will haunt me forever.”

Shakers Lie

The Shakers were a religious sect who believed that favoritism in love was a bad thing. They believed that passion for a partner drained the proper passion one should have for God.

Sorry, but I think they were nuts.

Back at the beginning of the nineteenth century they were considered by most people to be well-meaning flakes with weird hairstyles. The men cut their hair in mullet-like fashion, I suppose, to broadcast to the world that they were “different” and possibly superior to the rest of fallen humanity.

Occasionally rumors about secret orgies filtered out from their well-manicured compounds scattered across a few states. There were stories about couples who joined the sect struggling to relinquish their personal bonds for community bonds. One way in which the Shakers helped in the process was to have one partner witness the other being humiliated over and over. Soon the witness would find the humiliated one repulsive to her.

Am I the only one who finds this gross?

Shakers are mostly known now for their cute little boxes, austere furnishings and the hymn Simple Gifts used famously in Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite. But there was a time when some people viewed the Shakers with suspicion and even hatred.

Eunice Chapman had the great misfortune of being married to an awful drunk who occasionally spit in her face. Lovely. One day James Chapman deserted Eunice and their three children leaving her penniless. After enjoying his alcoholic freedom for a while he landed on the doorsteps of a Shaker community in SHAKER COMMUNITY in Watervliet, New York.

There he had a religious experience (or just found a place to live where good food was provided and his basic self absorption could be masked as a devotion only to God). How much easier is it to profess love for all people than to love individuals? From a distance humanity looks like a glossy photo shoot for National Geographic. Up close we see wrinkles, unrest and violence. Up close people expect things from you. Emotional, messy and uncomfortable things.

Shakers set up rules for engagement with the opposite sex. How they missed the passages in the Bible about passion, sex and procreation, we will never know. What we do know is that the prominent woman who popularized the sect hated having sex with her husband. Maybe he wasn’t any good in bed but using a religious experience to get out of it  and then spreading your new gospel is going too far.

Yet I understand that women in horrible marriages had very few escape routes. In New York divorces could only be granted in cases of adultery. Married women had less rights than unmarried ones. Eunice Chapman was one of those married women.

The Shakers had no interest in splitting up families. They sent James back to Eunice hoping he would convince her to join the sect. She refused, James got belligerent and then kidnapped the children who were promptly indentured to the Shakers. Eunice attempted on multiple occasions to see the children who were devastated by the loss of their mother. After a few rocky episodes James, with the help of the Shakers, secretly moved the children to a different compound in another state.

In the perpetual struggle of well-meaning humanity the pendulum of justice often swings too far in one direction or the other. People are so damned black and white in their thinking (I suppose that’s why we should fear mobs of any kind). New York was once a state where men had all the rights when it came to their offspring. Now New York is one of the worst states to live in as a man in a failed marriage.

Eunice fought in the state legislature for years to get her children back. The Shakers in all of their religiosity lied to her and helped keep the children hidden. They may have believed the ends justified the means. Wouldn’t the children be better off in their communistic, fanatical society? Never trust anyone who says the ends justify the means!

Think of all the fanatics of the past : Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Sanger.   Look at what’s happening in South Africa today. Is it really okay to rape and torture white farmers because you want to take their land without compensation? Is it okay because of past grievances?

Okay, so were the Shakers of the past even close to being anything like the above mentioned fanatics? No. Not exactly, but I wonder how many steps it takes once you dive into the us-against-them mentality to move from lying about the whereabouts of children to lying about where all those Jews went to.

Fanatics are dangerous because their motives are so off kilter. I’d never start a new religion to avoid sex. I’d never torture people for the sins of the past. I don’t have the animating energy of hatred to get the job done. Hating sex is all it takes for some people. Hating political opponents is all it takes for others.

the great divorceTHE GREAT DIVORCE was a fascinating read but highly disturbing as well. This little sect of people eventually died out (there are a few people living a sort-of Shaker lifestyle here and there), but their weird dances and extreme rules trouble me because fanaticism, no matter how  seemingly quaint, always has the seeds of things more sinister.

Insatiable Lust

Who knew I’d learn far more than I wanted to about bestiality at the dentist today? While the dentist lectured one of my kids on her inadequate brushing, I flipped through an old copy of New York Magazine and came upon the WHAT IT’S LIKE TO DATE A HORSE story. As the prig I am I only got about halfway through and turned my attention to a more enjoyable pursuit: watching one of the Toy Story movies in which a young cowgirl toy remembers being tossed into a Goodwill box and abandoned by her person–yet another throwaway piece of plastic. I teared up. Yep. Don’t know why it hit me. Maybe I’ve never grown up and have a guilty conscience about my own lost and abandoned toys with eyes that always seemed to peer into my soul (I’m sorry, Bunny–where are you now?)

Toy Story does that weird thing–the story makes you want more toys that you know you’re going to toss aside one day for new interests. Maybe that interest will be equestrian sports or boys. Maybe you will one day embrace your bestiality.

511x3yev3ul-_sy346_Woody Register’s book THE KID OF CONEY ISLAND Fred Thompson and the Rise of American Amusements offers a look behind the curtains of manufactured fun. Isn’t seeking out FUN fun? I’m reminded here of a slightly overweight man walking back to his wife’s car with a bag of craft items from AC Moore. My daughter and I laughed about the stick figure stickers on the back window proclaiming to the world that both man and wife were members of the Disney cult of fun.

“What self-respecting man drives a minivan with a stick figure version of himself sporting mouse ears?” my daughter joked.

We felt bad for the guy. (When we spotted the sweet looking wife carrying even more Halloween craft projects we felt a little guilty).

mouse-ears

I like toys. I have an antique toy double barrel shot gun. It looks real so I don’t bring it outside much. I like dolls and horses. I don’t date them. I’d like to say I’ve never been taken in by a mass-produced craze, but that would be a lie (I collected Smurf figurines as a child).

 

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
 1 Corinthians 13:11

Fred Thompson was an idea man. He was a motion man and an engineer of flimsy amusement masquerading as therapeutic respite for the over serious man (or woman) tired of the 19th century pillars of thrift, diligence and self discipline. Fred was a man of FUN. Work must be fun in this new paradigm shift. Fred was a spendthrift at a time when people questioned a man’s masculinity for spending with childish abandon. He never settled. Settled boys became MEN.

Have you ever spent time with a child who laughs at the dinner table and at first it’s cute, but then it turns bad with milk and food sputtering everywhere? Fred Thompson’s life was kind of like that.To  be sure, everyone who visited his theme park on Coney Island or went to one of his extravaganzas at the Hippodrome was amused (his creditors not so much).

In the beginning Fred created a world and he became that world. He was the light of that world–the world of blinding incandescent bulbs and dancing girlies; trips to the moon and the Orient, but as with all false paths to fulfillment his lights began to flicker.

At the San Francisco Exposition his plans for a comeback after a failed marriage to a child-like woman and a series of health scares brought on (some whispered) by the  grown-up drinks he consumed, the facade of the Peter Pan world Fred created began to crumble. The organizers, a mix of high-minded fellows grappling with the modern lust for cheap thrills, let the man-boy Fred have his way (secretly nervous when Fred shared his idea for a hot dog concession stand set up to look like a factory where stray dogs were ground up into tasty treats).

FOOD FOR THOUGHT:

19th century thought: Human needs and markets are final and satiable.

20th century thought: Markets and people can be made to be insatiable. The dissatisfaction of never ending desire opened many a new market.

Here’s what Woody Register (not to be confused with the adorable cowboy toy) has to say:

“Luna (Fred Thompson’s Luna Park at Coney Island) elevated the temporal, fabricated, and personal over the universal, the timeless, and the divine.”

coney-islandAnd so I discover while watching Toy Story and trying not to imagine men having sex with horses the reason Chuck E. Cheese and POP MUSICIANS EXIST–they are easily digested (who cares if we feel dissatisfied after bad pizza and Rihanna singing her repetitive techno garbage?). I understand why architecture took a nose-dive in the 20th century ( we all know that children aren’t any good at taking care of their toys).

Beauty, reflection, and reverence require discipline, thrift, and  maturity.

And, yes, I come from Puritan stock.

 

Taken Prisoner

A Confederate officer stood alone at a crossroad goading his horse to move on in the aftermath of the Union retreat at BULL RUN. Sensing danger he glanced over his shoulder. A Yankee raced over the field tramping the freshly cut hay. As the Yankee drew closer he struggled to pull something from behind his back. The Confederate, with heart thumping through his uniform, pulled out his revolver and took aim.

The Yankee waved a white flag,  stopping abruptly at some distance. He wavered there for a few minutes until the Confederate swore he would do him no harm. Looking to his left and then right, the Yankee weighed his options and moved forward.

The Confederate noted the man’s flushed cheeks and face not yet ready to be shaved. The boy could not be more than twenty yet he was a lieutenant from a New York regiment.

“I give my word to you, sir. If you let me go I’ll never pick up a gun again. I’ll leave at once for my father’s farm,” the boy begged.

The Confederate kept silent and the boy on his horse soon followed, resigned to his fate.

The Confederate and the Yankee may not have realized at this early stage of the war that to be a prisoner was as deadly as fighting on the battlefield, but something in the young man’s cowardice already worked on the Confederate’s conscience. We don’t know if this Confederate officer cursed the angel on his shoulder as the two men walked ten yards.

“Go back to your friends, boy,” the Confederate ordered. “One more prisoner will hardly make a difference.”

When the Confederate met his own scouts they asked what had happened. When they set off in search of the “escaped” prisoner, the Confederate officer refused to join them.*

I wonder about the young New York lieutenant. The other night I happened upon our cat devouring the skin and fat of a just killed chipmunk and was surprised to see the organs still in movement. What moving things did this young man see at Bull Run? Was he a shy boy having trouble fitting in? No. There was something of a leader in him to be made lieutenant. Did he run all the way home or just to his friends?

A Confederate officer stuck on a stubborn horse gave the New York lieutenant his life back. Like a fish released from a net there was no time for gratitude. The currents of war and blood and peace move men along with hardly a moment to consider a chance meeting at a crossroad.

Why did boys on both sides enlist? CIVIL WAR SOLDIERS Their Expectations and Experiences by REID MITCHELL presents  the uplifting and awful traits that make us human.  Mitchell shares  the forgotten stories of individual men. Each one of them (unlike fish unable to escape mere instinct) left  marks on others they  encountered only briefly and never met again.

How did that New York lieutenant live and die? His fear, his youth, his innocence touched a Confederate soldier once. The man was never the same.

*A re-telling of one of the many poignant stories written about in Civil War Soldiers.

**Image courtesy CIVIL WAR TALK

No Trophies for Effort!

helga-clara-estby-walk

Their outfits were comfortable but frowned upon by polite society (yet they were taken in and treated well at almost every town they visited).

What if a shadowy stranger in New York offered you $200,000 (about what $10,000 was worth in the 1890’s) to walk across America in weird clothes and with only what you could carry. Would you go? Now imagine it’s before an electric grid and fast food. The newly built railroad tracks will be your only guide.

Helga Estby convinced her teen-aged daughter Clara to  accompany her on the bold endeavor–strike that–the desperate endeavor after a series of unfortunate events. Helga’s husband Ole may have wished for her not to go (what would the close-knit community of Norwegian immigrants think of Helga?), but the shame of being unable to provide for his large family after a debilitating injury  silenced much of Ole’s disapproval. They were desperate and not for the first time. Only a few years before Helga had fallen at a city construction site and been badly injured–her eldest daughter and Ole had taken over running the household until she was well again and a settlement with the city put them in funds  for a while, but the Panic of 1893 hit and all work dried up. Farms went under as mortgages were called in and life for the Estbys began to unravel again.

Helga and Ole were doomed to a boom and bust cycle. Young love left Helga with child and unmarried. Ole came and hid her shame. Did they love one another? Did they see something of themselves in each other? Their life was one of settlement and upheaval, one of putting down roots and ripping them from the comfortable homes and sod houses they lived in as they traveled west seeking stability.

By the time they took up farming in the Far West they’d had piles of well-loved children, but an accident and a mortgage to pay tore at Ole and Helga. Unemployed men with shame sitting on their shoulders are often tough to bear around the house. Fretful women are no picnic either so when the opportunity arose for Helga to march east she grabbed it. Maybe husband and wife were relieved. Maybe they felt it was their only chance.

The name of the wealthy female donor who offered the $10,000 reward to any lady proving she was strong and smart enough to make the arduous journey on her own has been lost to history.

How desperate Helga must have been to trudge through snow and rising rivers with no real safeguards, no assurances!

Helga and Clara carried small pistols and once or twice had to use them, but for the most part found American people to be generous and curious about their journey. They met with mayors and governors, women’s suffragists and vagabonds. Newspapermen always remarked on their intelligence, pluck and respectability.

As the end came in sight Helga worried. They were a few days past the deadline, but in the agreement the donor had made allowance for the occasional sick day. Clara had been sick and injured along the way, causing a small delay, but the newspapers in New York sang their praises and looked forward to covering a happy ending story.

The wealthy donor informed them that they were too late and there would be no happy ending. Helga and Clara were penniless in the big city. Gone from home for months they were now in need of work and a place to stay until they could save funds to get back to their family. A letter arrived from Ole. The note as I imagine it was brief:

Our daughter Bertha has died of diphtheria. You were not here when she asked for you. I did all I could do. The other children wait in the cold shed and I call to them but can’t see how they are for fear of infecting them. I made a coffin feeling quite alone in the world. The neighbors keep their distance.

Helga notes there is no reassuring sentiments of love. She worries and begs city officials for loans. Finally a generous railroad man buys her and Clara tickets west. Ole and the other children meet Helga with cold and bitter distance. Helga looks for Johnny her son. Ole shakes his head. Diphtheria had taken him, too and they were lucky not have lost everyone.

The children–and Ole–never forgave Helga for leaving them. Would they have felt differently if she’d won the money? I doubt it. Despite it all children resent a mother’s distance when troubles come. Ole, I imagine, had more complex feelings. His wife had taken a stand and had done no better than he had. Did he admire her courage? Probably–but he had already known she was courageous. I bet he blamed himself, but sometimes took out his anger on her.

Years later Helga’s manuscript was found and burned by her still bitter daughters. A daughter-in-law found a few newspaper clippings and saved them. And that is how we know about Helga today.

When telling my husband about Helga’s walk and how it ended with the donor withholding the reward my husband reminded me of my disdain for trophies at children’s soccer leagues given out for effort, not excellence. What do you think? Should Helga have been given the money?

BOLD SPIRIT: HELGA ESTBY’S FORGOTTEN WALK ACROSS VICTORIAN AMERICA

 

Books I’ve Known and Loved

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The Witching Hour, The Huntington Museum

EVIL: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty by Roy F. Baumeister, Ph. D.

Do you want to get inside the mind of a serial killer or an executioner? You need go no further than your own mind. Well, you have to go a little further, but not much. Turns out people who do evil things are a lot like you and me.

Have you ever noticed when arguing with a spouse that you’re always right–until you’ve had a few quiet moments to think about the part you played in flooding the basement? Have you noticed too that when you drink the argument about how well the basement was cleaned after the flood gets more heated than it really needs to be ( you’ve been harboring the grudge about the ruined Christmas ornaments for a week now).

The first time we had to execute a rooster my husband sent me indoors because my crying was a distraction. The next time a rooster punctured my leg with his filthy spur when we had no health coverage I quite happily ordered him dead (and he was my favorite rooster).

Imagine a post-Civil War scene down south. A group of bored young veterans on the losing side of the war with no job prospects and stung egos get together for drinks. Someone comes up with the idea to dress up like ghosts to spook the newly freed and uneducated ex-slaves in their neighborhood. Just a boyhood prank, is all. They scare a black man the first time and off he runs, but the next time they do it the man is wise to their humor and waves them off with a laugh. The game is no longer fun. Putting a little fear into a man who used to be subordinate but now is equal was fun (and each young man is holding a grudge against the powers that be and the freed slaves). The mission becomes to scare the black man–a little more and a little more. Each time the black man sees through their pranks–they raise the stakes.

Are you that person in a group who stands up when everyone else is going down a bad path? Are you the person who jumps in the swollen spring river to save the young boy from drowning when everyone else waits to see who will get wet. Twice in my life I’ve witnessed someone drowning and both times I watched as if in a dream as someone else jumped in.

In Rwanda a mother of six participated in the clubbing to death of a group of neighborhood children because she thought it would put them out of their misery. A man responsible for killing Jewish children in WWII rationalized his job in the same way.

Why aren’t there more serial killers? The difference between “normal” people and evil doers comes down to a few key things: self-discipline, a sense of being responsible for one’s actions and feelings of guilt (which for normal people kick in often before they even contemplate doing something evil). People who tend to say, “I couldn’t help it” or “It’s because society made me do it” or:

“Guilt? It’s this mechanism we use to control people. It’s an illusion. It’s a kind of social control mechanism–and it’s very unhealthy. It does terrible things to our bodies. And there are much better ways to control our behavior than . . . guilt.”

we need to worry about. The last quote comes from Ted Bundy–the serial killer.

The drugs made me do it, my genes made me do it, this country made me do it . . . I couldn’t help eating all those cookies! But here’s the thing: in order to kill someone with a gun you must think about getting a gun. You must walk towards the gun using the legs you make move, and you must pull the trigger. The gun doesn’t magically cling to you, take over your fingers and shoot someone.

An early 20th century study showed that most soldiers shot above the heads of their enemies. This was a problem to be solved. Another interesting study showed that playing video games did make for more short-term aggression in players, but only people who were already tending toward evil actually used gaming as an excuse for bad actions. Most people play video games and DON’T kill their cats.

Remember when your mother warned you about the slippery slope toward evil? Remember Jesus saying something about cleaning out one demon but letting 7 more in? Evil seems to be like that.The first kill is the toughest–but then the sirens and hand cuffs don’t arrive. Life stays pretty much the same. So you kill again.

Don’t think this book is a thoroughly depressing read. On the contrary if you like gallows humor you’ll love this book. I did. But it is scary how close to evil I can become.