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November 7, 2011
A Slight Demonstration (8)By Greyhawk
November 7, 1861:
Lieutenant Henry Livermore Abbott was writing an urgent letter home from camp. One of his previous messages had not been received in the manner intended - or rather, had gone beyond its author's intent. In a just-received reply his father wrote him that it had been "circulated extensively" - this was not good. He needed to undo some potential damage... he'd simply dashed off a few lines, he now confessed, "I never dreamed of it going outside the family circle, when so many other better ones I supposed would reach home at the same time."
Abbott's ancestors had come to Massachusetts in the 1640s, and had served in the Revolution at least as early as Bunker Hill. Though by no means a military family Henry had two brothers also serving in the Union Army - all three had joined before the battle at Bull Run. Their father was Josiah Gardner Abbott, a successful lawyer (he'd declined an appointment to the Massachusetts Supreme Court the year before) and a most influential and respected member of the Massachusetts Democratic Party (Republicans had recently attempted to recruit him as state Attorney General on a "Union Party" ticket; he'd declined that offer, too) so the people "outside the family circle" among whom he would have circulated it extensively were people whose opinions mattered.
Abbott's first letter home after Ball's Bluff had been just a few quick lines dated the day of the battle, simply to assure his family he had survived unharmed. As brief and hurried as it was he'd still had the presence of mind to warn his father to "read to yourself" before he'd listed the names of those less fortunate young friends and neighbors who'd been killed, wounded or captured (along with "half of the men" of the regiment). It wouldn't do for Papa to read that sort of thing aloud before Mamma and the younger children at home.
Apparently his subsequent letters - one written from camp and dated the day after the fighting - had stirred things up. By that point the young lieutenant had already determined who was at fault (General Stone - though he didn't name him he left no doubt who he meant) and which units had displayed cowardice in the face of the enemy (the California - this he had seen for himself). What he'd compiled was actually a combination of fact, opinion, rumor and gossip passed through the filter of a nineteen-year old with a commission and a scant six months of military experience who'd just survived his first very bloody battle. Which of the tidbits he'd provided belonged in each category would be impossible for anyone else to sort out, but as with all such information each item was plausible, and all had the added weight of coming from someone who was actually there.
Some things he'd written were fair enough, and identified as what they were. For instance, his brigade commander's assessment (he'd been absent during the unplanned catastrophe) of the battle: "Gen Lander has just got back from Washington & is in a horrible rage, swearing that the thing is nothing less than murder." And while a matter of his own opinion, Henry Abbott certainly gave an apt description of the field on which it was fought: "It was in fact one of the most complete slaughter pens ever devised."
But several days had passed - even while Lieutenant Abbott was hearing more about what had really happened (or not happened), his first impressions were being distributed far and wide, and now he had to set some of those earlier misperceptions to right. So beginning with "Dear Papa" he tried his best to correct the record. The most egregious (in his opinion) mistake he confessed to was "to call the men who were placed in front of us & who ran away, California, they being in reality Tammany..." - he'd since become more familiar with the uniforms worn by the other regiments, he explained. In fact, he now admitted, his original description of the battle was "full, too, of other inaccuracies" - and there were certainly others who gave better, more informed accounts than his.
As for General Stone - he'd already defended the man in a letter to his mother three days before, so Papa would need no additional reassurance on that topic. Yes, Stone was certainly responsible for the massacre, but "I don't think he will be careless again," he'd assured her. In fact, it was the further considered opinion of her son the lieutenant that "the service would suffer in losing him" - thus "the public will have to rest in ignorance" of General Stone's "stupendous mistake." He hoped that such a staunch defense of his division commander would suffice; her letter prompting his response had a certain angry tone to it (though a "very natural indignation" was the phrase he'd used to describe her opinion to her in explaining why she was wrong)...
He signed off his letter to his father, re-read it and remembered something he'd meant to say - so he added it in a postscript. His friend George Perry "is reported by Southern papers a prisoner, unwounded." George was 'unofficially engaged' to Henry's sister Caroline (the main reason he'd urged his father not to read his first letter aloud), his fate had been uncertain, and the family had been dreadfully worried about him. It was always best to close with good news, he thought, then he hurried his letter off to the mail.
Other accounts (and partial accounts) from survivors of the battle were appearing in the papers. But in at least one case, the mere receipt of a letter was deemed newsworthy in its own right:
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.
Recovering from his own wound, Lieutenant Oliver Wendell Holmes clipped the item from the paper. He was fairly certain he'd seen Putnam's amputated arm the day of the battle - in the field hospital on Harrison's Island, when Holmes was convinced he himself was dying. At least, he'd seen "a red blanket with an arm lying on it in a pool of blood - it seems as if instinct told me it was John Putnam's."
He also remembered "poor Willy Putnam's groans and his refusing to let the Dr. operate on him, saying he knew the wound was mortal and it would only be more pain for nothing." William Lowell Putnam - everyone called him Willy. Or lieutenant - as in "Poor Lieutenant Putnam," the surgeon recalled, "lying near the fireplace with his intestines projecting from a wound in his abdomen."
Just a terrible thing for the family, as Holmes - being Willy's cousin - well knew. The Putnams and Lowells were among the finest first families of Massachusetts...
He jotted "Boston Journal, Oct 31st" on the clipping and added it to his scrapbook.
Henry Abbott wrote home again on the 12th of November. This missive included no corrections about the nature of the battle - but he did include a request. "Poor Sergeant Riddle," he wrote, "has just had his arm taken off." (The surgeons had at first believed amputation might not be necessary, even though "the elbow was all knocked to pieces" - but now "after 3 weeks suffering, the arm is cut off, just above the elbow, & he is now, I think, much better.") Though not of the Harvard class, he was nonetheless "a very nice respectable fellow," and unfortunately "the first man shot in our regt." at Ball's Bluff. Apparently he had few people writing him - or at least, Henry believed he could benefit from more.
"Mrs Bartlett wrote him a letter a while ago. He was very much delighted to get it... I think Mamma might take advantage of his being in my company to consider him an acquaintance & write a letter to him. At any rate I should be very much obliged to her if she would, when she has a spare moment."
"Another of our men will have his right arm cut off in a day or two," he added in closing - before once again signing off on a positive note: "They all bear their wounds with remarkable fortitude."
(Part nine is here...)
Posted by Greyhawk / November 7, 2011 4:50 PM | Permalink
November 26, 2010
I think anyone who's ever pondered the "comment" option - once only available on blogs and bulletin boards, now ubiquitous on almost any web site - will appreciate this:
The so-called faculty of writing is not so much a faculty of writing as it is a faculty of thinking. When a man says, "I have an idea but I can't express it"; that man hasn't an idea but merely a vague feeling. If a man has a feeling of that kind, and will sit down for a half an hour and persistently try to put into writing what he feels, the probabilities are at least 90 percent that he will either be able to record it, or else realize that he has no idea at all. In either case, he will do himself a benefit.
That's wisdom from the past, captured for posterity at the US Naval Institute, shared via the web on the institute's 137th anniversary.
From their about page:
"The Naval Institute has three core activities," among them, History and Preservation:
The Naval Institute also has recently introduced Americans at War, a living history of Americans at war in their own words and from their own experiences. These 90-second vignettes convey powerful stories of inspiration, pride, and patriotism.
Take a look at the collection, and you'll see it's not limited to accounts from those who served on ships at sea, members of the other branches are well-represented.
I'm fortunate to have met USNI's Mary Ripley, she's responsible for the institute's oral history program (and she's the daughter of the late John Ripley, whose story is told here). She also deserves much credit for their blog. ("We're not the Navy nor any government agency. Blog and comment freely.") We met at a milblog conference - Mary knew (and I would come to realize) that milbloggers are the 21st-century version of exactly what the US Naval Institute is all about. Once that light bulb came on in my head, I mentioned a vague idea for a project to her - milblogs as the 21st century oral history that they are.
"Put that in writing," she said (of course - see first paragraph above!) - and here's part of the result.
Shortly after the first tent was pitched by the American military in Iraq a wire was connected to a computer therein, and the internet was available to a generation of Americans at war - many of whom had grown up online. From that point on, at any given moment, somewhere in Iraq a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine was at a keyboard sharing the events of his or her day with the folks back home. While most would simply fire off an email, others took advantage of the (then) relatively new online blogging platforms to post their thoughts and experiences for the entire world to see. The milblog was born - and from that moment to this stories detailing everything from the most mundane aspects of camp life to intense combat action (often described within hours of the event) have been available on the web...
And et cetera - but since you're reading this on a milblog, you probably knew that. And you know that milblogs aren't just blogs written by troops at war, that many friends, family members, and supporters likewise documented their story of America at war online in near-real time, as those stories developed.
The diversity in membership of that group is broad, the one thing we all have in common is the impulse to make sense of the seemingly senseless, and communicate the tale - for each of us that impulse was strong enough to overcome whatever barriers prevent the vast majority of people from doing the same. Everyone at some point has some vague idea they believe should be shared - we were the people who, from some combination of internal and external urging, found and spent those many half hours persistently trying to write it down.
But where will all that be in another 137 years? Or five or ten, for that matter. That's something I've asked myself since at least 2004 - when I wrote this:
Membership in the ghost battalion has grown in the years since, and an ever growing majority of those abandoned-but-still-standing sites are vanishing. Have you checked out Lt Smash's site lately? How about Sgt Hook's? If you're a long-time milblog reader you know the first widely-read milblog from Operation Iraq Freedom and the first widely-read milblog from Afghanistan are both gone from the web. If you're a relative newcomer to this world you may never even have heard of them - or the dozens upon dozens of others who carried forth the standard they set down.
If you have a vague notion that something should be done about that, (a notion I've heard expressed more than once...) then you and I and the good folks at the US Naval Institute are in agreement. Preserving the history documented by the milbloggers is just one of the goals of the milblog project, the once-vague idea that we're now making real.
And it's a big idea, if I say so myself - too big to explain in one simple blog post, so stand by for more. Likewise, it's too big a task to be accomplished by just one person. So if you're a milblogger (and exactly what is a milblogger? is a topic for much further discussion on its own) I'm asking for your help. All I'll really need is just a little bit (maybe just one or two of those half hours...) of your time, and your willingness to tell the tale.
We've already made history, it's time to save it.
(More to follow...)
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