Saturday, October 03, 2009

Ghostly Phantoms at Petersburg

Captain Ludlum Crossman Drake (1839-1924) wrote a twenty-page account of his Civil War experience titled War Reminiscences, a memoir of his service with the Eighteenth Michigan and the 114th U.S. Colored Infantries. This document is part of the Survey of State and Local Historical Records by the Works Progress Administration. It was filed on June 2, 1937. The handwritten narrative is undated. A reference to Spanish American War veterans indicates Drake wrote it in 1898 or later.

One of the highlights is the following paragraph, in which Drake describes Union POWs at Petersburg, Va., in early 1865.
I never can forget some exchanged prisoners brought into our lines as they went staggering by. Those once strong men with eyes like eagles and nerves like steel. Men who had stood by Grant in the Wilderness and by Thomas at Chicamauga. Men who had rode with Sheridan in that wild hurricane which swept the Shenandoah. Men who had helped Grant take Vicksburg and Sherman capture Atlanta, now slowly and scientifically starved till the marrow had rotted from their bones and the light of reason gone out. Ghostly phantoms belonging to neither this world nor the next. Their wasted forms and idiotic features haunt me to this day.
— Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Michigan Commandery Records, 1885-1951. Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.
These few lines convey the shock Drake still felt four decades after seeing these human skeletons, and remind us today that the horrors of war are as real today as they were a century-and-a-half ago.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

USCT Soldier Surfaces at Richmond Show

I had not been to the North South Trader's Show in Richmond for some years. My gut told me to make the trip yesterday and am glad I did. About a quarter of the way through the show I walked by C.J. Delery's table (he operates The Historical Shop, and I have a fond memory of a Pennsylvania show some years ago at which I of purchased a pristine group of officer cartes de visite, all members of the Fifty-third Massachusetts Infantry). Delery asked if he could help. I told him about my latest project and he pointed me in the direction of Howard Norton's table.

Within a few minutes I was at Howard's table looking at a quarter plate tintype of Pvt. William Wright of the 114th U.S. Colored Infantry. An airtight identification by way of a piece of paper attached to the back of the metal plate, inscribed in period pen.

To be certain that Wright was a member of the regiment, I whipped out my laptop only to find there was no wireless access in the building. So, I called up Anne at home and joked that I was stuck at the Civil War show and required immediate table-side assistance from "AnneStar." She logged on to our home computer and I guided her through the American Civil War Research Database operated by Historical Data Systems. In minutes she verified that Wright did indeed serve in the 114th. I left with the image, a detail pictured here.

Howard and I talked for awhile after completing the purchase. Turns out he had come into possession of this photograph six weeks ago after buying a group of images from a Missouri collector. Howard is a long-time dealer, and I've seen him at a number of shows. His soft Southern accent reflects his Mississippi roots and birth in Arkansas. He is sixty-eight years old. His father, a Spanish American War veteran, was the same age when Howard was born. We finished our conversation reflecting on our shared joy of Civil War photography. "The ability to see the face of a soldier, then read about his life and what happened to him in the war is a powerful thing and it puts me in a different place" I explained to Howard, who nodded his head in agreement. He knew exactly what I meant, "I know, I know. You're There. It takes you There."

Howard Norton said it better than I could.

You're There.

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