Saturday, August 24, 2013

Bound for Andersonville

The young man with velvet-collared jacket and jaunty striped bow tie gazes intently at the camera for the twenty-second exposure. His hair is neatly parted, with a wave combed across the front. The artist has colored his cheeks and lips pink. The cased photograph was found among an old collection of images from my grandmother’s home, the majority of which are portraits of my father’s paternal ancestral line. Most are post-Civil War carte de visite or otherwise printed on paper.

This one is an ambrotype—the only one among the collection—a negative image produced on a silver-coated sheet of glass with a black backing, making it appear as a positive. Ambrotypes were a cheaper alternative to the daguerreotype. They were produced in the thousands between 1855 and 1865. The brass inner frame and mat is more ornate, dating the photo from 1859 or so. Also noteworthy is that this young man is not wearing a uniform, possibly narrowing down the date of the image to between 1859-1861.

Who was he? The young man’s age, approximately 17-21, eliminates many possibilities. He was presumably born between 1838 and 1843. Scanning through my genealogy, only two or three men match these birth dates. A likely candidate was my great-great grandmother’s younger brother, Adoniram Elliot Vining, born in Weymouth, Massachusetts in 1840. Further research revealed that he enlisted on August 4, 1862 and was mustered into service with the First Massachusetts Volunteer Heavy Artillery.

According to the regimental history from Massachusetts Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines in the Civil War  “the entire regiment was employed during the spring and summer of 1862 in the defenses of Washington...garrisoning forts, strengthening fortifications, and doing other similar duties.” In May of 1864, the regiment was ordered to join the Army of the Potomac, acting as infantry in support of Grant’s Overland Campaign. On June 22, 1864, during an ongoing assault on the Petersburg entrenchments, 143 men were captured by the Confederates. Vining was among those sent to the Camp Sumter military prison at Andersonville, Georgia.

Andersonville was built in early 1864, as the Confederate officials decided to move large numbers of Federal prisoners from Richmond to greater security in the deep South. During the fourteen months it served as a prison, 45,000 inmates were confined there; 13,000 died of disease, exposure, and malnutrition. By the end of June, 26,000 inhabited a space designed for 10,000. Due to the Union blockade and the severe economic decline of the South, the Confederate government was unable to provide adequate food, shelter, or medicine.

One newly captured Union soldier described his entry to the prison: “As we entered the place, a spectacle met our eyes that almost froze our blood with horror, and made our hearts fail within us. Before us were forms that had once been active and erect;—stalwart men, now nothing but mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin. Many of our men, in the heat and intensity of their feeling, exclaimed with earnestness. ‘Can this be hell?’”[1]

Vining survived his imprisonment at Andersonville, released on December 31, 1864. After Sherman’s troops occupied Atlanta in September, most of the Andersonville prisoners were moved to South Carolina and the Georgia coast. He may have been among those transfers. Vining was discharged from the Army on May 12, 1865, returning to Massachusetts; he married in 1867 and had three children.

Post traumatic stress disorder was unknown in the 19th century, but severe psychological trauma was all too familiar for Civil War veterans. Depression, anxiety and flashbacks with attendant behaviors such as suicide, alcoholism and domestic violence were common. Excepting further discoveries from pending research, I'll never know how Vining fared after the war. Records show that he died of heart disease in 1909, just months before the dedication of a monument to another member of the First Mass Heavy Artillery who died at Andersonville.* Vining was sixty-eight. 

One thing is certain: after the war, he never again knew the bold and vibrant youthfulness so much in evidence in his ambrotype likeness. Perhaps, gazing at his image years hence, he wondered whether that young man ever existed. Maybe it was someone else after all.

[1] ^ Kellogg, Robert H. Life and Death in Rebel Prisons. Hartford, CT: L. Stebbins, 1865.
[2] See Dean, Jr, Eric T. Shook Over Hell; Harvard University Press, 1997
* See Melvin Monument, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, MA.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Now Or Never

"Sir: You are hereby notified that you were, on the 20th day of May, 1864, legally drafted in the service of the United States for the period of three years, in accordance with the provision of the acts of Congress...You will accordingly report, on the 1st day of June 1864, at the place of rendezvous, in Taunton, or be deemed a deserter, and be subject to the penalty prescribed therefor by the Rules and Articles of War."

Lysander Heald was 37 years old, married, and a successful businessman in South Weymouth, Massachusetts. Five of his seven brothers had volunteered for military service. Two had died. One, in October, 1862, of disease, having been taken prisoner of war and held captive in Richmond. Another, three days before Lysander was drafted, of gunshot wounds received near Spotsylvania Courthouse.

On June 11, he paid a commutation fee of $300, thus obtaining exemption from military duty. For those of means, it was a common practice. Today, that amount would approximate $6,000. On August 9, in a surprising turn of events, he volunteered and was enlisted for one year in the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, Heavy Artillery, Co. G. He was paid a bounty of $100. There is no indication that his commutation fee was refunded.

Why did he do it?

Perhaps—his brother Frank having died just days before he had been drafted—he felt remorse. Remorse for having not fulfilled his duty, a duty five of his brothers had fulfilled and, in so doing, two had sacrificed their lives.

Perhaps it was because, in August of 1864, northern morale was at a low ebb. After the massive blood-letting of the spring campaign in the Wilderness and beyond, Union forces were stalemated before Petersburg, Atlanta, and in the Shenandoah Valley. Many Republican leaders were advising the president to give up on emancipation and sue for peace. Lincoln himself had conceded that it was “exceedingly probable” that he would not win reelection in the autumn. The Union cause was teetering at the edge of a precipice.

It was now or never.

Whatever the reason, whatever soul-searching had transpired in those intervening weeks, he volunteered, leaving behind his wife, Margaret, a three-year old child, Arthur, and a thriving leather business. He went south to Washington, to the forts encircling the capital city, and manned the big guns. He was honorably discharged ten months later, in June, 1865, “by reason of Close of War.

Photo: Soldiers of the 3rd Massachusetts Regiment, Heavy Artillery, in Washington, D.C

Saturday, July 27, 2013

An Axe Cut On One Ankle

“My late husband, Lysander Heald, was born in the town of Sumner, Maine; at the time of his enlistment he was 37 years of age; occupation, Leather Cutter; residence, Weymouth, Mass.; he was 5 feet 9 inches in height, fair complexion, blue eyes and brown hair. Had a scar from an axe cut on one ankle...” wrote Margaret, my great-great grandmother, as taken from a Civil War pension affidavit dated in 1908.

He was 5 feet 9 inches in height, fair complexion, blue eyes and brown hair. He had a scar from an axe cut on one ankle—the utter uniqueness of this person, known and beloved by his wife, Margaret; this person who comes to me this morning from the past. Once alive, he is no longer. And yet, he remains as I peruse the old document.

In the mid-19th century farm communities of Maine, the axe was an essential tool. Its hardwood handle was well oiled and worn with use, it’s blade fine honed and sharp. With the advent of the woodstove, fifteen cords of wood were needed every year to keep the family fires alight, down from forty or more in colonial times. Accidents were not uncommon. The axe slips, the edge cuts deep. And the sleigh carries him home through the snow covered fields.

He had a scar from an axe cut on one ankle. And the way he walked ever since. The barely perceptible limp. On a day in late May, after she spent the morning working in the garden, she sat down and wrote: “Warm and fair...A year ago to-day, Lysander died.”  

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


On a high dusty shelf at the Islesford library there is a two-volume set entitled The Life and Correspondence of Henry Ingersoll Bowditch. It was given to the library by Bowditch’s son, Vincent, who was a summer resident from 1894-1928.

Henry Bowditch was a prominent Boston physician and abolitionist. Born in 1808, he was the son of the Salem mathematician Nathaniel Bowditch. While studying medicine in Europe in 1833, Henry attended the funeral of William Wilberforce, the great British abolitionist, at Westminster Abbey, afterwards returning to Boston where he became a disciple of William Lloyd Garrison. In 1854, Bowditch was a founding member of the Boston-Anti-Man-Hunting-League, a secret organization formed in response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. His son, Nathaniel, was a First Lieutenant in the First Massachusetts Cavalry, and was killed at Kelley’s Ford, Virginia in March, 1863.

As he came to terms with his eldest son’s death, Henry Bowditch wrote Memorial, the story of Nathaniel’s brief life and subsequent death as a hero/martyr of the Unionist cause. Yesterday, Henry’s great-great grandson Stephen sent me several images from this elegant and privately printed tribute.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Road to the Death Strewn Slope: Part Nine

The last of a nine-part series about the journey of Benjamin Franklin Heald and Llewellyn Heald to Gettysburg with the Twentieth Maine Regiment, June 29-July2, 1863.

In the aftermath of the battle, Frank’s cousin Llewellyn was brought by ambulance to the field hospital of the Fifth Corps on the farm of Michael Fiscel, a mile and a half southeast of Little Round Top. On June 20, he was transferred to the US General Hospital in York, Pennsylvania, where he remained until late October. He was promoted to corporal in November, 1863, for “gallantry in action” and to sergeant in July, 1864, for “gallant and meritorious service.” After the war, he went home to Sumner where he married twice and had four daughters. He was a leading citizen of the town. The effects of his Gettysburg wound were ongoing—he walked with a limp and suffered chronic pain throughout his life. He returned to Gettysburg in 1889, where on Oct. 3 he was present for the dedication of the Twentieth Maine monument on Little Round Top. A photograph shows him alongside many of his comrades, among them Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Photo: Llewellyn B. Heald, wearing his Grand Army of the Republic uniform, sometime after the war. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Road to the Death Strewn Slope: Part Eight

The eighth of a nine-part series about the journey of Benjamin Franklin Heald and Llewellyn Heald to Gettysburg with the Twentieth Maine Regiment, June 29-July 3, 1863.

My great-great uncle, Benjamin Franklin Heald, survived Gettysburg. The wound to his hand was apparently superficial. He was promoted to corporal on November 1, 1863. In May, 1864, fighting with the Twentieth Maine at Laurel Hill near Spotsylvania Courthouse, he was wounded by a gunshot to the left thigh. He died of sepsis eight days later in a Fredericksburg hospital at the age of twenty-one. It is not known whether any of his brothers received word in time to travel from up north to be with him. In the historical novel I’m writing in my head, Lew was at his bedside. Ironically, when Frank was shot at Spotsylvania, Lew was in a hospital in Washington, D.C, suffering from “debility”—the effects of his Gettysburg wound. Frank is buried on Sumner Hill alongside his parents and his brother James. The epitaph on his gravestone reads: “Sleep on brave Soldier! A life sacrificed but a Country saved.” Photo: The Heald homestead on Sumner Hill.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Road to Death Strewn Slope: Part Seven

The seventh of a nine-part series about the journey of Benjamin Franklin Heald and Llewellyn Heald to Gettysburg with the Twentieth Maine Regiment, June 29-July 2, 1863.

The two hundred and fifty Alabamians scrambled up the slope, straight into the muzzles of more than a hundred rifles. The volley tore into the ranks of the appalled rebels, who were brought up short and hastily sought cover. When the southerners at last regrouped and returned fire, the Maine men were grateful that they were on a height, shielded by rocks and trees. Ramming a cartridge down the muzzle of his musket, Frank saw blood running down his hand into his coat sleeve. Nearby, Lew gasped, his thigh hit hard as if by some unseen force and he staggered backward, his left leg collapsing under him. To his front, Lew dimly sensed that the men of his company were running away from him, down the slope. He heard the metallic clang of fixed bayonets and now wild yelling as they went. He lay back, gazing up at the clouds of smoke drifting among the leaves of the trees, tinged with a golden hue in the early evening light. Some time later he heard his name, indistinct and far away. He turned toward the sound. Kneeling down on the ground beside him was Frank, the sweat pouring down his powder blackened face.

The Road to the Death Strewn Slope: Part Six

The sixth of a nine-part series about the journey of Benjamin Franklin Heald and Llewellyn Heald to Gettysburg with the Twentieth Maine Regiment, June 29-July 2, 1863.

The brigade climbed the hill by way of an old logging trail. Shells exploded around them severing tree branches and shattering the rocks. Luther French, the regiment’s chaplain, was undone when a shell hit nearby his mount, killing the horse of a brigade officer. French rode over to Capt. “Pap” Clark, gesticulating wildly, trying to describe the unfortunate event. Pap, known for colorful language, cut him off and shouted: “For Christ’s sake, Chaplain, if you have any business attend to it!”* Reaching the crest of the hill, the four regiments of the brigade formed line of battle around its southern facing height, with the Twentieth Maine on the far left. In front and to it’s left there were only oak scrub and bushes, the ground sloping away, the men’s vision almost wholly obscured by the dense foliage. Ten minutes later the shelling stopped. And then the eerie sound of a peculiar yelling as scores of gray clad men emerged from among the trees below them, firing as they came on. *Thomas A. Desjardin “Stand Firm Ye Boys From Maine” pg. 37

The Road to the Death Strewn Slope: Part Five

The fifth of a nine-part series about the journey of Benjamin Franklin Heald and Llewellyn Heald to Gettysburg with the Twentieth Maine Regiment, June 29-July 2, 1863.

Some time after midnight on July 2, a halt was called and the men got two or three hours of sleep before the sun rose red around 4:30. Frank and Lew got up stiff and bone weary and fell into line to cover the last few remaining miles. Arriving southeast of Gettysburg at 11, the regiment stacked arms in a peach orchard and the men passed the afternoon dozing or talking quietly. Behind them, from beyond the hills and woods, the booming of cannon and rising rattle of musketry roused them. Bugles sounded and the Fifth Corps, with their brigade leading the way, marched off-road through a swamp and over stonewalls while the earth shook beneath*. Ahead and to their left was the western face of a bare, boulder strewn hill, its other half covered in thick woods. It was known locally as Little Round Top. * Thomas A. Desjardin Stand Firm Ye Boys From Maine pg. 35 

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Road to the Death Strewn Slope: Part Four

The fourth of a nine-part series about the journey of Benjamin Franklin Heald and Llewellyn Heald to Gettysburg with the Twentieth Maine Regiment, June 29-July2, 1863.

Frank’s brother James had died eight months before at a hospital in Annapolis. A member of the Twenty-ninth Massachusetts Regiment, he had been taken prisoner of war at Savage Station and was held in a Richmond prison. As the regiment was ordered back into line at sunset on July 1, Frank knew that a battle was not far off. He may again have thought of his older brother, the closest of his eleven siblings. But now, he took solace in the nearness of his cousin Lew as they marched alongside into the moonlit evening. Rumors drifted through the corps that their beloved General McClellan was back in command and cheering broke out in the ranks. Later, another rumor arose that General George Washington had been seen riding on a white horse among the hills of Gettysburg. Years hence, reflecting on that surreal evening, Joshua Chamberlain would write: “I half believed it myself—so did the powers of the other world draw nigh!”*Thomas A. Desjardin “Stand Firm Ye Boys from Maine” pg. 30.

The Road to the Death Strewn Slope: Part Three

The third of a nine-part series about the journey of Benjamin Franklin Heald and Llewellyn Heald to Gettysburg with the Twentieth Maine Regiment, June 29-July 2, 1863.

The men’s spirits were high and their step quickened as they crossed over into Pennsylvania the next day, July 1. They were marching through a “beautiful, big-barned country, rich with ripening grain, knee high corn and lush orchards.”* Further north, as they approached Hanover, they came across signs of rebel depredations—burned carts, wagons and dead horses. Confederate cavalry had come this way the night before. Far over the horizon, there were “disturbances in the atmosphere,” an ominous distant booming. As the evening drew near, they went searching for fence rails to fuel their campfires. News spread through the camp that the First and Eleventh Corps had collided with Lee in a crossroads town called Gettysburg, some fourteen miles to the west. * See John J. Pullen, “The Twentieth Maine” pg. 94.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Road to the Death Strewn Slope: Part Two

The second of a nine-part series about the journey of Benjamin Franklin Heald and Llewellyn Heald to Gettysburg with the Twentieth Maine Regiment.

The bugle sounded reveille before daylight and the men of the Twentieth Maine heeded the command to fall in. The heat diminished but the rain made the marching all the more miserable, as worn-out and ragged, they walked foot-sore for another twenty-five miles before making camp. That day, June 30, in lightest possible marching order, they passed through Unionville, Union Bridge, Uniontown, and bivouacked for the night at Union Mills. They were names all reminiscent of friendlier territory*. Now only five miles from the Pennsylvania border, they heard cannonading off to the northeast, toward Hanover. Two days before, on the Sabbath, after a sixteen day hiatus when the regiment received no mail, Frank and Lew sat down with letters from home. Now, on this night, Sumner Hill had never seemed farther away, nor more missed. *Thomas A. Desjardin, “Stand Firm Ye Boys from Maine” pg. 25

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Road to the Death Strewn Slope: Part One

The first of a nine-part series about the journey of Benjamin Franklin Heald and Llewellyn Heald to Gettysburg with the Twentieth Maine Regiment, June 29-July 2, 1863.

For some time now they had known that a large battle was brewing to the north. There were signs of heightened tension in camp and in the Fifth Corps. In the last three days, they had trudged nearly sixty miles in intense summer heat. On June 29, with colors unfurled, they marched through Frederick, Maryland. Flags were flying from nearly every window and the weary men were welcomed with food and water. Among the soldiers of the Twentieth Maine were Benjamin Franklin Heald and his cousin Llewellyn, both farmers from Sumner, a town in the foothills of the western mountains. Later that day, toward evening, a heavy rain began to fall. Without tents, they hunkered down as best they could and awaited the dawn.