Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Price of Freedom

On July 2, 1863, the 2nd New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry was overrun by Confederate forces at the Joseph Sherfy Peach Orchard. The unfortunate New Hampshire regiment lost 190 of its 354 officers and men. One bullet felled Second Lieutenant Edmund Dascomb, a twenty-five-year-old student from Tufts College. Dascomb had enlisted back in 1861--the war’s early days--leaving amid his sophomore year. Dascomb fought at his regiment's first two engagements, Bull Run and Williamsburg. At the latter action, he suffered wounds that forced him into convalescence. After recovery, he rejoined his unit and accompanied it during its three-month furlough in New Hampshire, where the members of the regiment expected to vote in the March 1863 state election. Being a political activist, Dascomb campaigned for the Republican gubernatorial candidate, delivering a speech in Manchester that “carried the audience by storm,” or so remembered the regimental historian.

(2nd Lt. Edmund Dascomb, Co. G, 2nd N. H. Vols., shown here as private.)

Dascomb’s recovery from his Williamsburg wound gave him a chance to reflect on the grim sacrifice necessary to win the war. On October 16, 1862, he penned a short poem entitled, “The Price of Freedom.” (Dascomb kept a booklet by his side that contained a collection of original poems.) The first stanza of “The Price of Freedom” depicted a horrible battlefield, one littered with groaning and dying men:

Lo, look on yonder battlefield, where mangled thousands lie,

A hundred forms of ghastly death, beneath a lurid sky—

And not alone the nerveless dead, but curse and groan and prayer,

Arise from wretches mad with pain, devoid of pitying care.

(A battlefield in aftermath.)

Dascomb’s poem presaged his own plight. Nine months after he wrote about the sights of this unnamed grisly carnage, he fell wounded himself, becoming another victim of the war's savage butchery. His regiment retreated, leaving him alone, piled among the “nerveless dead.” On July 5, three days after Dascomb received his Gettysburg wound, the survivors of the 2nd New Hampshire returned to the Peach Orchard, recovering him and any others who held on to life. Dutifully, the soldiers of the 2nd New Hampshire removed him to a field hospital, but he lasted only another eight days, succumbing to his wounds on July 13. His comrades buried him on the field, and later that autumn, grave diggers interred his body in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. To this day, his earthly remains lie under Grave 11, Section A, in the New Hampshire Plot. According to reports, his last words were: “I enjoy the sweet consciousness of always having striven to do my duty.”

(Dascomb's grave, GNMP, N. H. Plot, Section A, No. 11.)

News of Dascomb’s death shocked his friends. His professors at Tufts held a vigil for him. One friend later drafted a postmortem resolution that declared, “Dascomb was a young man of great promise, and his death is a severe loss to the community and the country. . . .  God shall grant that the fall of our lamented friend may be overruled to the furtherance of the glorious cause in which he bled and died; and hasten the day when the Stars and Stripes shall peacefully wave over our entire National Domain.” Of course, Dacomb knew that his death would cause immense grief, not unlike the deaths of many other boys in blue. There is no evidence that he naively believed that war was some glorious thing. His “Price of Freedom Poem” continued:

Yes, the soldier lives and dies, sometimes unwept; unknown,

For there be some (thank God, tis few) who travel this world alone,

The soldier’s friends in his far off home, how with fear they watch and wait,

When news of a bloody contest comes to learn of their soldier’s fate.


But what did it all mean? How did Dascomb consider death? As the title of his poem implies, he understood that Union soldiers had to sacrifice themselves to achieve the nation's greater purpose. That was the price the soldiers had to pay to purchase their country's freedom. Take note of Dascomb’s final stanza. Notice the way he talks about the liberation of slaves and the preservation of the Constitution. He wields subtle language to underscore the essential point: Free government can only come by having free men:

Gods ways are just, this much we know, His purpose we fulfill,

His Children are our Brethren all, deny it though we will,

Our brethren in the right to live, to labor and enjoy,

This Magna Charta of our hopes, none shall ‘ere destroy.


For a soldier, I imagine that Hell is a battlefield draped in aftermath. In 1862, Dascomb imagined himself as a victim of that grisly aftermath. In 1863, his vision came true. He paid the ultimate price—the price of freedom. Can bravery be distilled to its essence any more than this?

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