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Mike Pride: 'Our War,' our stories

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A book begins long before it begins. At least that is my experience. In the case of Our War, my new book about the Civil War as New Hampshire people lived it, the pieces began to come together on May 19, 2002. On that day I received an email from a man I had contacted after hearing he had some New Hampshire letters. It read in part:

“Hello Mike: I do have several letters written by my 2 Civil War ancestors as well as diaries. I would be most happy to provide you with whatever you would like and in whatever form you need. . . . I also have a sketch of the little camp that the two of them set up after Eldad was wounded in the lung.”

The writer was Fred Goodwin, a stranger to me, and although his ancestors were from New Hampshire, he lived in Nampa, Idaho. He soon sent me copies of some of the family letters. When I reconnected with him a couple of years ago, he shared everything he had.

By then I had hit upon the idea for Our War and met several other people willing to share their Civil War ancestors’ letters and diaries with me. I had also begun to dig into public archives at the New Hampshire Historical Society, the University of New Hampshire and Dartmouth College as well as local historical societies.

I have been reading about the Civil War since my early teens. Two favorite authors years ago were Bruce Catton, who combined a general’s eye view with the ground-level travails of men in arms, and Bell Irvin Wiley, who focused on soldier life in all its aspects. For Our War, my idea was to combine and expand upon what these historians did. Although I loved the way they quoted letters and diaries, I often yearned for a fuller picture of the soldiers and their stories.

Because millions of men fought in the Civil War, my first challenge was to narrow the subject. Although Our War deals with universal ideas and experiences, I write about the war from a Union perspective as lived by New Hampshire people. To draw out my characters, I tell 50 stories covering a broad spectrum of themes. I tell them in chronological order, beginning with the first volunteer from our state and ending with the bittersweet homecoming of a fifer from New London.

I had forgotten Fred Goodwin’s email when I set out to choose my 50 stories. Then, while reading wartime New Hampshire newspapers, which printed many letters from soldiers, I ran across one written by “F.M.R.” It was titled “My Hunt after the Sergeant” and told of the writer’s search for a “Sergeant R.” who had been wounded at Antietam and was feared dead. It was a lovely, detailed story, and it sent me on my own search, for the identity of F.M.R.

From clues in his story I guessed that he was a member of the 14th New Hampshire Volunteers. I searched the 14th’s roster of 1,000-plus men and found only one with those initials, a captain named (wonderfully) Freedom M. Rhodes. I turned to the rosters of the New Hampshire units that had fought at Antietam to look for a Sergeant R. who had been wounded there. And I found one: Eldad Rhodes of the Fifth New Hampshire.

A bell sounded in the recesses of my brain. I searched my email account for “Eldad,” and Fred Goodwin’s decade-old note turned up. Hoping he was still around and had the same address, I emailed him. Within a day or two, he had sent me Eldad’s diary (with several mentions of his brother Freedom), his letters, the drawing he made of the lean-to where he recovered at Antietam, a picture of the shirt he was wearing when he was shot and a postwar portrait of Eldad. This material was invaluable in telling the story of two brothers and their carriage ride to revisit the spot at Antietam where Eldad was shot.

Their story touched on several themes: brotherly love, wartime medicine and the way survivors of the bloodiest day in American history grasped its significance from the beginning.

Two of the many other elements I wanted to include in the book were the roles of women and the issues of race and slavery. In books about female soldiers or black regiments, these subjects are often isolated from the central narrative of the war. My hope was to weave them into the story, and it proved to be easier than I thought.

In reading the letters of a Manchester private named Martin A. Haynes, I learned that he burned his wife’s letters on the way to the battle of Gettysburg. This was typical, as soldiers had to travel light. They also feared, with good reason, that if they were killed, their personal belongings, including any letters, would fall into the hands of the enemy. Wives, mothers and girlfriends were much likelier to keep letters from soldiers. This has led to an abundance of one-sided conversations in Civil War archives.

One of several exceptions I found was the correspondence of Samuel A. Duncan, an officer with Dartmouth College connections, and Julia E. Jones, an educator from East Washington, N.H. They fell in love by mail. Along the way Jones applied her saucy pen to home life, politics and Union generals. After Duncan volunteered to become the colonel of a black regiment, she held forth on race and slavery. He, meanwhile, shared his wartime exploits and opinions with gusto.

Like Jones and Duncan, the remarkable Esther Hill Hawks appears in multiple chapters of Our War. Hawks was a medical doctor and abolitionist who traveled south to do what she could for the cause. She attended a party with black soldiers the day the Emancipation Proclamation took effect. She also treated the wounded of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers, the black regiment in the movie Glory!, after the attack on Fort Wagner. And she taught black children and adults to read and write.

Hawks, who lived in Manchester when the war broke out, kept a diary and other papers about her wartime experiences. In 1975, long after her death, these were saved from the trash. They are now at the Library of Congress, where I examined them, and a large selection of them has been published in A Woman Doctor’s Civil War.

The Civil War touched every family in New Hampshire, dominated life here for four years and tested the public’s will through enormous personal sacrifice. Although I have taken what I hope is an innovative approach to bringing the war home to modern readers, by no means have I written the last word on that history.

I was reminded of this in August when I spoke about my project at the public library in Goshen. I mentioned my chapter on the illnesses that doomed hundreds of members of the 16th New Hampshire in 1863– the chapter on today’s front page. A woman raised her hand and informed the audience that in the town archive was the diary of a Goshen soldier who had served in the 16th.

Alas, too late for me. My book was already on the way to the printer.

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