Thursday, January 15, 2015

In My Time of Dying

Every Civil War nerd knows the dying words of Stonewall Jackson. (For the uninitiated, they are, “Let us cross over the river and rest in the shade of the trees.”) We know where Jackson died, when he died, and who surrounded him as he breathed his last. Indeed, we might even make an educated guess as to what was on his mind as he expired.

We are often at a loss to do the same for the other 620,000 soldiers who perished. Not all were lucky enough to have their last words recorded. I have, however, found an exception to this rule. His name was Simeon Smith. He died on November 7, 1863.

That day, five regiments from the Union 6th Corps made a daring attack against Confederate earthworks at Rappahannock Station. Although Smith’s regiment was not involved in the assault, it was close enough to the action to come under fire. During the fighting, a stray shell struck the ranks of Company I, 10th Massachusetts, mortally wounding two men. One of them was Private Simeon P. Smith, a twenty-two-year-old soldier from Meredith, New Hampshire. The Confederate shell shattered his left knee, which might have meant instant death for him, but Smith had the wherewithal to draw out a handkerchief, tie it around his leg, and then use his bayonet to create a makeshift tourniquet.

Unfortunately, the tourniquet bought Smith only a few hours of additional life. An ambulance carried him to a hospital in town, but the surgeons pronounced him a lost cause. A chaplain from the 77th New York, Norman Fox, came over to give Smith his final absolution. Fox remembered, “I found a young man of the 10th Mass. Regiment, with his leg crushed and mangled by a piece of shell. The shock had been so severe that amputation was useless, and he was sinking rapidly. I inquired concerning his religious history. It was the old story,—a bright hope, active church membership, army life and irregularities, and the abandonment of his profession. ‘And now,’ said he, if there can be forgiveness for such a wanderer, pray for me’.”

Chaplain Fox did his sworn duty, to pray for the soul of a dying soldier in his final hour. He noted how the whole scene looked rather bizarre. He felt awkward about lifting up a prayer amid the assorted group of soldiers who stood nearby:

I confess I felt more backwardness than was right. There stood a circle of rough soldiers surveying the solemn scene with morbid curiosity. There stood another group, more educated and refined,—a knot of surgeons, some of whom, I knew, had no belief in God or eternity, and considered my interview with the dying man as at best but amiable uselessness. But there lay the sinking sufferer, and I wore the uniform of a minister of Christ. Bending over the table where he lay, I asked the Good Shepherd to pardon the returning wanderer. Murmured responses throughout the prayer disclosed his own earnestness in the petition; the smothered hope revived again; and faint at first, but growing brighter and brighter, there beamed on him the full radiance of that faith which supports in the stern hour.

As an aside, Smith had a family member at his final bedside. Another young soldier stood by, affectionately smoothing Smith’s hair. Initially, Fox believed he was just a hospital steward. But growing suspicious, Fox asked him, “Is this a friend of yours?”

The soldier replied, “It is my younger brother.” Indeed, Private Smith’s older brother, Corporal Hanniel P. Smith, served in the same company. His company commander allowed the older Smith to accompany Simeon to the field hospital.

At this point, Fox decided to sing a hymn, “Why Should We Start and Fear to Die?” It dated back to the 1830s, but the lyrics later became more well-known when it was incorporated into a popular gospel hymn entitled, “In My Time of Dying,” which, among other things, was commercialized by both Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin. Typically, “Why Should We Start and Fear to Die?” was sung in four verses, although some versions contained as many as twelve. Fox maintained that he got to the fourth verse:

Jesus can make a dying bed
feel soft as downy pillows are
While on his breast I lean my head
And breath my life out sweetly there

At about this point, Private Smith tried to write out a final message, a missive written to some unknown friend. According to Fox, the dying soldier garbled a few words: “There’s—a—silver—pencil—in—pocket.” Fox recalled, “It was with deepest sorrow that he could not speak friendship’s last message. There was but one friend of whom he could speak now.” Smith soon died, although his last words represented something of a bang, not a whimper. Fox explained, “We watched him silently, while he lay for some minutes motionless; I thought all was over; but rousing suddenly, he said—‘Jesus, lover of my soul,—oh, repeat that again!’ My voice choked up so that I could hardly speak. I know not if he heard me, for before I reached the last verse, ‘the storm of life,’ was over, the ‘haven’ was reached, and ‘billows’ had died away in the eternal peace.”

It happened at 10 o’clock, P.M.

If you’re the religious sort, you’ll likely take solace in the fact that faith was the last thing on Private Smith’s mind as he parted this world. If you’re not religious, you can still appreciate this tale. I, for one, find it incredible that the final moments in the life of an ordinary twenty-two-year soldier can be told so thoroughly. How often can we be exactly certain of what a man was thinking as he died? In Simeon Smith’s case, we can be pretty sure.

This is Chaplain Norman Fox, 77th New York, the minister who watched Pvt. Simeon Smith breathe his last.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Speak in Code

Years ago, I had a chance to research an original Civil War diary. It belonged to Lt. James H. Walker, 81st Pennsylvania. I possessed a keen interest in reading Walker’s diary because his regiment left behind so few primary accounts.

I thoroughly enjoyed Walker’s entries. He wrote with flair and purpose. However, quite aggravatingly, he wrote in code. It was infuriating. What did he do? Check out this odd sentence. He wrote: “I could perceive at once that the lzm vzr gzke bqzyx.”

When I saw this code, I muttered, “Ah, what the hell!” You see, it’s hard enough to read nineteenth-century handwriting. In addition to reading his English script, I had to decode his cypher. Not having any experience in cryptology, I fretted, believing that I would never get the answer. Then, I noticed an odd sentence. Someone (perhaps an archivist) had defaced a single word in the diary. (I’m a bit torn here. I’m not sure whether I should thank the unknown defacer for giving me the key to Walker’s code or chastise him for writing inside this irreplaceable artifact.)

Anyway, one sentence read, “staid awhile and stopped in bgzladqr on my way down.” Above the coded word, “bgzladqr,” the defacer had written the word, “chambers.” Indeed, “chambers” was the correct word, and no doubt the defacer had figured it out from the context of the previous sentence. Using this one word, I did my best to figure out Walker’s cypher. Eventually, it dawned on me. Walker intended each coded letter to refer to the next letter of the alphabet. For instance, if Walker wrote “b,” he actually wanted to write the letter, “c.” Coded letter “d” actually meant, “e,” and so forth. (Coded letter “z” meant “a.”)

Having figured out Walker’s method, I set about decoding his entries.

What kind of information did Walker encode? Believe it or not, he disguised entries about, uh, booty calls, for lack of a better phrase. In March 1864, Lt. Walker returned home to Philadelphia as part of his regiment’s recruiting detail. He was responsible for finding new recruits and forwarding them to the Army of the Potomac’s winter encampment at Brandy Station in preparation for Ulysses Grant’s Overland Campaign. While staying in Philadelphia, he looked up some old girlfriends and had romantic liaisons with them. Most of the decoded material related to these saucy hook-ups.

For instance, on April 24, he wrote this about a girl named Sallie: “[I] Did not go forward [meaning he did not return to Brandy Station]. In [the] evening [I] called for Sallie [and] I went with her to church. [to] Have her to understand how I regarded her. [I] Found that I was not altogether obnoxious.” All of this had been encoded. Each word was incomprehensible until I applied the cypher to it.

Walker really liked Sallie, whoever she was. A week later, he skipped church, presumably to fool around with her. On May 1, he wrote, “In the afternoon [I] went up to see Sallie [and I] did not go to Church. I thought it might be the last afternoon I should spend with the only woman I ever loved.”

Yet, Walker’s most scandalous entries involved a love triangle that involved him, a woman named Lucy McGonigal, and a man named Pendleton. Lucy loved Walker, so it seemed, but she could not shake the unwanted attentions of her other suitor, Pendleton. Here’s what Walker wrote about it.

[I] went down where I had left my baggage & found Ktbx & a number of others waiting staid all night – learned that mia amiga carina con los ojos azul gzc lzmzfdc  sn fds gdqrdke hmsn  cheebtksx  – un muchacho maquinista & cantador en una iglesia methodisto amaba ella y tenia su compromiso de casa pero cuando ese caballero gdzqc sgzs  su carina tenia poco gusto del soldado Ihl gd vzr rdhydc  vhsg z idzkntr ehs zme vdms sn gdq ezsgdq.

Did you figure it out what he said? This one is tricky. Walker injected some Spanish (as if his code was not hard enough.) Here’s what he wrote, if everything is translated into English:

[I] went down where I had left my baggage & found Lucy & a number of others waiting[.] [I] staid all night – learned that my friend and sweetheart with the blue eyes had managed to get herself into difficulty – an engineer and singer at the Methodist Church loved her and had her commitment but when that cowboy heard that my sweetheart had had a little taste of soldier Jim he was seized with a jealous fit and went to her father.

So, in this account, Walker met his “sweetheart with the blue eyes,” Lucy, who had gotten a “little taste” of him, whatever that means, and when Pendleton (the singer at the church) found out about her affection for Walker, he got angry and tattled to her father.

The intrigue got worse, in fact. The next day, Walker attended a party. Pendleton brought Lucy as his date, but Lucy wanted to be with Walker. Lt. Walker described the tense scene that arose. As usual, he wrote his entry in a mix of coded words and Spanish. He wrote, “soon after we arrived Mr. Pendleton came with the first of the fair [meaning Lucy]. I could perceive at once that the man was half crazy. One of the young ladies gave me an introduction & I afterwards drank along with him and the rest of the male members of the party – he seemed greatly excited but had nothing to be angry at me for. – when saying, ‘toast to your good health,’ he told me that, ‘you are a fine looking fellow I must confess though I say it to your face;’ . . . I saw at once that he loved her [Lucy] deeply & thought that she thought more of me than of him.” (Here, I have decoded the coded language and translated the Spanish text.)

Pendleton gave Walker the evil eye all evening. Being a bold man, Walker decided to give her a kiss goodbye, something that Pendleton would not forget. He wrote, “Between one thing and another Lucy felt pretty well worried and her tears were falling fast when I kissed her good bye which operation must have been daggers in the heart of her poor lover.” (The italicized text indicates the encoded portion.)

Walker didn’t remain long in Philadelphia. A few days later, he left for the front and arrived at Belle Plain on May 12. He was wounded at Cold Harbor but remained in the army until February 1865.

After that, I don’t have much to say about the enigmatic Lt. Walker. Probably, he returned to Philadelphia. I wonder if all the romantic drama he left behind in 1864 still troubled him. He took pains to write  about it in code, after all.

Two Brothers, One Face

Recently, I was reading “Dear Pa—and So it Goes,” a collection of letters edited by Gertrude K. Johnston. It’s an old book, known by a few Civil War scholars as the collected letters of the Pardee family, a family of wealthy coal mine owners centered in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. In my personal opinion, it’s a wonderful collection, especially because  it contains plenty of material written by the daughters of the family. (Letters written by Civil War women are, of course, rare finds.)

Anyway, the collection also contains letters from two brothers, Lt. James Boyd Robison and Lt. Isaiah Robison. (These letters are in the collection because the Robisons’ older sister, Anna, married Ario Pardee, Sr., the family patriarch.) Army of the Potomac enthusiasts might recognize the Robison boys because they served in some of the army’s famous campaigns. James Boyd Robison (b. 1838) served with Company G, 10th Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry from 1861 to 1862. He was wounded in the hand at Second Manassas. The younger of the two, Isaiah Robison (b. 1840), served in Company A, 28th Pennsylvania, until he was killed-in-action at the Battle of Peach Tree Creek, July 20, 1864. Both brothers served as officers in their respective units.

I was looking at the images of the two men and I noticed something odd.

This is J. Boyd Robison:

This is (purportedly) Lt. James Boyd Robison, Co. G, 10th Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry.

This is Isaiah Robison:

This is (purportedly) Lt. Isaiah Robison, Co. A, 28th Pennsylvania Infantry.

The faces of these men look identical.

What’s going on?

Obviously, there are several options to explain this:

1)      The first (and most likely) possibility is that these images depict only one of the two brothers, not both. Someone must have mislabeled one of the images and since then all subsequent historians have perpetuated the error.
2)      The second possibility is that the two men are identical twins. All evidence suggests that they were born two years apart, so unless someone recorded their birthdays incorrectly, this possibility is not likely.

3)      It’s also possible that the two brothers looked really, really alike, but I can’t imagine that two men born of the same parents two years apart could appear so identical in facial structure.

Anyway, which of the brothers are we looking at in these two images, Boyd or Isaiah? It is a mystery.