The Resting Place of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

A couple of years ago, long time friend Ken generously agreed to post an photo essay about scenes from the Civil War, then and now. This has deservedly become one of the most popular posts on You’re History, and if you missed it, you can find it here. This past summer, Ken and Eileen made another CW pilgrimage of sorts, to the grave of Union hero Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who is also a favorite of mine. I’m so pleased that Ken has agreed to do a guest post on his thoughts about our mutual hero from Maine.

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What to Do in Maine,

When All You See is Rain


Several years back, my wife, Eileen, and I, traveled up to Maine for a short three day vacation, our destination being Orr’s Island, located on a finger of land roughly 
eleven miles east of the town of Brunswick. As luck would have it, the clouds gathered shortly after leaving CT, and we never saw sunshine again until sometime on our return drive back to our home state. To make matters worse, a good portion of the time, it poured like the dickens. Naturally this put a “damper” on a lot of the activities we were planning, so we started thinking of alternative things to do. As I am an absolute Civil War nut, and knowing that the town of Brunswick was the home to one of the true heroes of that war, Joshua Chamberlain, I had made a comment to Eileen as we passed through there on our first day, about him being from that town. Luckily we had internet capabilities at our lodging. So during a rain 

storm on our second day, Eileen, being an internet surfing queen, in no time at all, came up with the burial site of Chamberlain, a cemetery named Pine Grove. And to boot, she recalled seeing said cemetery when we had driven through Brunswick the day before. It was, she said, located adjacent to Bowdoin College. So off we went back to Brunswick during an infrequent rain break, located the cemetery, and after getting our sneakers and socks thoroughly drenched from the wet grass, we finally found the grave site of Joshua Chamberlain, and took a few photos. He is surrounded by family members, wife, children, etc. So, being a Civil War fanatic, this was a real high point to an otherwise wet and dreary trip, an unexpected little pleasure for me. And, as usual, Eileen was a real trooper, dealing with my interest in the Civil War.

As I mentioned, Joshua Chamberlain is one of the real heroes of that war, in my opinion, very much overlooked. Here is short list of his accomplishments and activities, both during the war and the years following. After attending Bowdoin College, he eventually became a faculty member, teaching various subjects over a number of years. At the outbreak of the war, he volunteered his services, and was offered a rank of Lt. Col. of the 20th Maine regiment. After a few minor skirmishes, this regiment saw it’s first major engagement at the battle of Fredericksburg, participating in the famous assault on Marye’s Heights. After missing the next big engagement, the battle of Chancellorsville, due to the regiment being decimated with disease, the unit was next involved in the march to Gettysburg, where the Confederate armies of R.E.Lee were in the process of invading the northern states. Upon arriving at Gettysburg, the regiment was assigned to a position on a hill named Little Round Top, which ended up being the extreme left flank of the Union Army. On the second day of the battle, his regiment repulsed numerous assaults by the 15th Alabama, until such time when his men were running out of ammunition, he ordered a bayonet charge, which completely routed the Confederate forces, securing the vulnerable left flank of the army. He suffered two minor wounds at this engagement. During the next two years of the war, he was involved in the fighting under U.S. Grant and his march south, which eventually ended at the surrender at Appomattox, VA. He was given the honor of receiving the official surrender of the Confederate forces there.

After the war, Chamberlain returned to Maine, eventually entering into politics. He served four one year terms as Governor of Maine, and after leaving politics, served as president of Bowdoin College. Chamberlain died in 1914, at the age of 85, from the lingering effects of wounds suffered in the war. He is the last known veteran to have died from wounds received during the war.

War record:

He was involved in 20 battles and numerous minor skirmishes.

He was cited for bravery four times, and received the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Had six horses shot out from underneath him.

Wounded six times, one of which was thought to be mortal.

Rose to Brig. General (Brevet Maj. General).

Received the Medal of Honor for his actions on Little Round Top.to do in Maine,
When all you see is rain
Last month, my wife, Eileen, and I, traveled up to Maine for a short three day vacation, our
destination being Orr’s Island, located on a finger of land roughly eleven miles east of the
town of Brunswick. As luck would have it, the clouds gathered shortly after leaving CT.,
and we never saw sunshine again until sometime on our return drive back to our home state.
To make matters worse, a good portion of the time, it poured like the dickens. Naturally this
put a “damper” on a lot of the activities we were planning, so we started thinking of alternative
things to do. As I am an absolute Civil War nut, and knowing that the town of Brunswick was
the home to one of the true heroes of that war, Joshua Chamberlain, I had made a comment to
Eileen as we passed through there on our first day, about him being from that town. Luckily
we had internet capabilities at our lodging. So during a rain storm on our second day, Eileen,
being an internet surfing queen, in no time at all, came up with the burial site of Chamberlain,
a cemetery named Pine Grove. And to boot, she recalled seeing said cemetery when we had
driven through Brunswick the day before. It was, she said, located adjacent to Bowdoin
College. So off we went back to Brunswick during an infrequent rain break, located the
cemetery, and after getting our sneakers and socks thoroughly drenched from the wet grass,
we finally found the grave site of Joshua Chamberlain, and took a few photos. He is surrounded
by family members, wife, children, etc. So, being a Civil War fanatic, this was a real high point
to an otherwise, wet and dreary trip, an unexpected little pleasure for me. And, as usual, Eileen
was a real trooper, dealing with my interest in the Civil War.
As I mentioned, Joshua Chamberlain is one of the real heroes of that war, in my opinion, very
much overlooked. Here is short list of his accomplishments and activities, both during the war
and the years following.
After attending Bowdoin College, he eventually became a faculty member, teaching various
subjects over a number of years. At the outbreak of the war, he volunteered his services,
and was offered a rank of Lt. Col. of the 20th Maine regiment. After a few minor skirmishes,
this regiment saw it’s first major engagement at the battle of Fredericksburg,  participating
in the famous assault on Marye’s Heights. After missing the next big engagement, the battle
of Chancellorsville, due to the regiment being decimated with disease, the unit was next
involved in the march to Gettysburg, where the Confederate armies of R.E.Lee were in the
process of invading the northern states. Upon arriving at Gettysburg, the regiment was assigned
to a  position on a hill named Little Round Top, which ended up being the extreme left flank of
the Union Army. On the second day of the battle, his regiment repulsed numerous assaults by
the 15th Alabama, until such time when his men were running out of ammunition, he ordered a
bayonet charge, which completely routed the Confederate forces, securing the vulnerable left
flank of the army.  He suffered two minor wounds at this engagement. During the next two
years of the war, he was involved in the fighting under U.S. Grant and his march south, which
eventually ended at the surrender at Appomattox, VA. He was given the honor of receiving the
official surrender of the Confederate forces there.
After the war, he returned to Maine, eventually entering into politics. He served four one year
terms as Governor of Maine, and after leaving politics, served as president of Bowdoin College.
Chamberlain died in 1914, at the age of 85, from the lingering effects of wounds suffered in
the war. He is the last known veteran to have died from wounds received during the war.
War record:
He was involved in 20 battles and numerous minor skirmishes.
He was cited for bravery four times.
Had six horses shot out from underneath him.
Wounded six times, one of which was thought to be mortal.
Rose to Brig. General (Brevet Maj. General).
Received the Medal of Honor for his actions on Little Round Top.
to do in Maine,
When all you see is rain
Last month, my wife, Eileen, and I, traveled up to Maine for a short three day vacation, our
destination being Orr’s Island, located on a finger of land roughly eleven miles east of the
town of Brunswick. As luck would have it, the clouds gathered shortly after leaving CT.,
and we never saw sunshine again until sometime on our return drive back to our home state.
To make matters worse, a good portion of the time, it poured like the dickens. Naturally this
put a “damper” on a lot of the activities we were planning, so we started thinking of alternative
things to do. As I am an absolute Civil War nut, and knowing that the town of Brunswick was
the home to one of the true heroes of that war, Joshua Chamberlain, I had made a comment to
Eileen as we passed through there on our first day, about him being from that town. Luckily
we had internet capabilities at our lodging. So during a rain storm on our second day, Eileen,
being an internet surfing queen, in no time at all, came up with the burial site of Chamberlain,
a cemetery named Pine Grove. And to boot, she recalled seeing said cemetery when we had
driven through Brunswick the day before. It was, she said, located adjacent to Bowdoin
College. So off we went back to Brunswick during an infrequent rain break, located the
cemetery, and after getting our sneakers and socks thoroughly drenched from the wet grass,
we finally found the grave site of Joshua Chamberlain, and took a few photos. He is surrounded
by family members, wife, children, etc. So, being a Civil War fanatic, this was a real high point
to an otherwise, wet and dreary trip, an unexpected little pleasure for me. And, as usual, Eileen
was a real trooper, dealing with my interest in the Civil War.
As I mentioned, Joshua Chamberlain is one of the real heroes of that war, in my opinion, very
much overlooked. Here is short list of his accomplishments and activities, both during the war
and the years following.
After attending Bowdoin College, he eventually became a faculty member, teaching various
subjects over a number of years. At the outbreak of the war, he volunteered his services,
and was offered a rank of Lt. Col. of the 20th Maine regiment. After a few minor skirmishes,
this regiment saw it’s first major engagement at the battle of Fredericksburg,  participating
in the famous assault on Marye’s Heights. After missing the next big engagement, the battle
of Chancellorsville, due to the regiment being decimated with disease, the unit was next
involved in the march to Gettysburg, where the Confederate armies of R.E.Lee were in the
process of invading the northern states. Upon arriving at Gettysburg, the regiment was assigned
to a  position on a hill named Little Round Top, which ended up being the extreme left flank of
the Union Army. On the second day of the battle, his regiment repulsed numerous assaults by
the 15th Alabama, until such time when his men were running out of ammunition, he ordered a
bayonet charge, which completely routed the Confederate forces, securing the vulnerable left
flank of the army.  He suffered two minor wounds at this engagement. During the next two
years of the war, he was involved in the fighting under U.S. Grant and his march south, which
eventually ended at the surrender at Appomattox, VA. He was given the honor of receiving the
official surrender of the Confederate forces there.
After the war, he returned to Maine, eventually entering into politics. He served four one year
terms as Governor of Maine, and after leaving politics, served as president of Bowdoin College.
Chamberlain died in 1914, at the age of 85, from the lingering effects of wounds suffered in
the war. He is the last known veteran to have died from wounds received during the war.
War record:
He was involved in 20 battles and numerous minor skirmishes.
He was cited for bravery four times.
Had six horses shot out from underneath him.
Wounded six times, one of which was thought to be mortal.
Rose to Brig. General (Brevet Maj. General).
Received the Medal of Honor for his actions on Little Round Top.
to do in Maine,
When all you see is rain
Last month, my wife, Eileen, and I, traveled up to Maine for a short three day vacation, our
destination being Orr’s Island, located on a finger of land roughly eleven miles east of the
town of Brunswick. As luck would have it, the clouds gathered shortly after leaving CT.,
and we never saw sunshine again until sometime on our return drive back to our home state.
To make matters worse, a good portion of the time, it poured like the dickens. Naturally this
put a “damper” on a lot of the activities we were planning, so we started thinking of alternative
things to do. As I am an absolute Civil War nut, and knowing that the town of Brunswick was
the home to one of the true heroes of that war, Joshua Chamberlain, I had made a comment to
Eileen as we passed through there on our first day, about him being from that town. Luckily
we had internet capabilities at our lodging. So during a rain storm on our second day, Eileen,
being an internet surfing queen, in no time at all, came up with the burial site of Chamberlain,
a cemetery named Pine Grove. And to boot, she recalled seeing said cemetery when we had
driven through Brunswick the day before. It was, she said, located adjacent to Bowdoin
College. So off we went back to Brunswick during an infrequent rain break, located the
cemetery, and after getting our sneakers and socks thoroughly drenched from the wet grass,
we finally found the grave site of Joshua Chamberlain, and took a few photos. He is surrounded
by family members, wife, children, etc. So, being a Civil War fanatic, this was a real high point
to an otherwise, wet and dreary trip, an unexpected little pleasure for me. And, as usual, Eileen
was a real trooper, dealing with my interest in the Civil War.
As I mentioned, Joshua Chamberlain is one of the real heroes of that war, in my opinion, very
much overlooked. Here is short list of his accomplishments and activities, both during the war
and the years following.
After attending Bowdoin College, he eventually became a faculty member, teaching various
subjects over a number of years. At the outbreak of the war, he volunteered his services,
and was offered a rank of Lt. Col. of the 20th Maine regiment. After a few minor skirmishes,
this regiment saw it’s first major engagement at the battle of Fredericksburg,  participating
in the famous assault on Marye’s Heights. After missing the next big engagement, the battle
of Chancellorsville, due to the regiment being decimated with disease, the unit was next
involved in the march to Gettysburg, where the Confederate armies of R.E.Lee were in the
process of invading the northern states. Upon arriving at Gettysburg, the regiment was assigned
to a  position on a hill named Little Round Top, which ended up being the extreme left flank of
the Union Army. On the second day of the battle, his regiment repulsed numerous assaults by
the 15th Alabama, until such time when his men were running out of ammunition, he ordered a
bayonet charge, which completely routed the Confederate forces, securing the vulnerable left
flank of the army.  He suffered two minor wounds at this engagement. During the next two
years of the war, he was involved in the fighting under U.S. Grant and his march south, which
eventually ended at the surrender at Appomattox, VA. He was given the honor of receiving the
official surrender of the Confederate forces there.
After the war, he returned to Maine, eventually entering into politics. He served four one year
terms as Governor of Maine, and after leaving politics, served as president of Bowdoin College.
Chamberlain died in 1914, at the age of 85, from the lingering effects of wounds suffered in
the war. He is the last known veteran to have died from wounds received during the war.
War record:
He was involved in 20 battles and numerous minor skirmishes.
He was cited for bravery four times.
Had six horses shot out from underneath him.
Wounded six times, one of which was thought to be mortal.
Rose to Brig. General (Brevet Maj. General).
Received the Medal of Honor for his actions on Little Round TopWhat to do in Maine,
When all you see is rain
Last month, my wife, Eileen, and I, traveled up to Maine for a short three day vacation, our
destination being Orr’s Island, located on a finger of land roughly eleven miles east of the
town of Brunswick. As luck would have it, the clouds gathered shortly after leaving CT.,
and we never saw sunshine again until sometime on our return drive back to our home state.
To make matters worse, a good portion of the time, it poured like the dickens. Naturally this
put a “damper” on a lot of the activities we were planning, so we started thinking of alternative
things to do. As I am an absolute Civil War nut, and knowing that the town of Brunswick was
the home to one of the true heroes of that war, Joshua Chamberlain, I had made a comment to
Eileen as we passed through there on our first day, about him being from that town. Luckily
we had internet capabilities at our lodging. So during a rain storm on our second day, Eileen,
being an internet surfing queen, in no time at all, came up with the burial site of Chamberlain,
a cemetery named Pine Grove. And to boot, she recalled seeing said cemetery when we had
driven through Brunswick the day before. It was, she said, located adjacent to Bowdoin
College. So off we went back to Brunswick during an infrequent rain break, located the
cemetery, and after getting our sneakers and socks thoroughly drenched from the wet grass,
we finally found the grave site of Joshua Chamberlain, and took a few photos. He is surrounded
by family members, wife, children, etc. So, being a Civil War fanatic, this was a real high point
to an otherwise, wet and dreary trip, an unexpected little pleasure for me. And, as usual, Eileen
was a real trooper, dealing with my interest in the Civil War.
As I mentioned, Joshua Chamberlain is one of the real heroes of that war, in my opinion, very
much overlooked. Here is short list of his accomplishments and activities, both during the war
and the years following.
After attending Bowdoin College, he eventually became a faculty member, teaching various
subjects over a number of years. At the outbreak of the war, he volunteered his services,
and was offered a rank of Lt. Col. of the 20th Maine regiment. After a few minor skirmishes,
this regiment saw it’s first major engagement at the battle of Fredericksburg,  participating
in the famous assault on Marye’s Heights. After missing the next big engagement, the battle
of Chancellorsville, due to the regiment being decimated with disease, the unit was next
involved in the march to Gettysburg, where the Confederate armies of R.E.Lee were in the
process of invading the northern states. Upon arriving at Gettysburg, the regiment was assigned
to a  position on a hill named Little Round Top, which ended up being the extreme left flank of
the Union Army. On the second day of the battle, his regiment repulsed numerous assaults by
the 15th Alabama, until such time when his men were running out of ammunition, he ordered a
bayonet charge, which completely routed the Confederate forces, securing the vulnerable left
flank of the army.  He suffered two minor wounds at this engagement. During the next two
years of the war, he was involved in the fighting under U.S. Grant and his march south, which
eventually ended at the surrender at Appomattox, VA. He was given the honor of receiving the
official surrender of the Confederate forces there.
After the war, he returned to Maine, eventually entering into politics. He served four one year
terms as Governor of Maine, and after leaving politics, served as president of Bowdoin College.
Chamberlain died in 1914, at the age of 85, from the lingering effects of wounds suffered in
the war. He is the last known veteran to have died from wounds received during the war.
War record:
He was involved in 20 battles and numerous minor skirmishes.
He was cited for bravery four times.
Had six horses shot out from underneath him.
Wounded six times, one of which was thought to be mortal.
Rose to Brig. General (Brevet Maj. General).
Received the Medal of Honor for his actions on Little Round Top.

Intriguing Nonfiction: The Hermit in the Garden, by Gordon Campbell

 

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Just this very minute, I stumbled upon an article at Smithsonian.com about the town of Saalfelden, Austria, which has one of the last remaining hermitages in Europe. Recently, the resident hermits left to return to their secular careers, and the town is seeking a new hermit. Among the job requirements is a willingness to live without heat, running water, or electronics of any kind, and to serve a listener to strangers who might want to stop by to confide in someone trustworthy. Applications close in March. Click on the link above to read this intriguing story.

Book review:

Sometimes it really is true that fact is stranger than fiction. You know those little men in the pointy hats that we generally refer to as garden gnomes? They now have a history. You know those classical little “folly” buildings that dot the stately English garden landscape? Well, it turns out that some of these were not strictly decorative.  Gordon Campbell, a Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester, has published The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome , the first book to describe the phenomenon of the ornamental hermit in Georgian England.

Professor Campbell believes that during the Reformation, the ancient custom of religious persons, sometimes called hermits,  choosing to shut themselves away from the world for constant prayer and meditation came to an end with the dissolution of the great religious houses.   During the 18th century, it became fashionable among the educated and the elite to be “melancholy”, devoting time to the admiration of nature and the study of philosophy. Gradually, some began constructing small rustic cottages, to use as retreats for deep thinking, or, in many cases, to impress visitors with their erudition. It wasn’t long before the wealthy began to  hire men to live in their garden “hermitage”, pretending to be a reclusive but romantic part of the landscape. Although this book is a serious and impressive work of research, Professor Campbell injects threads of humor where appropriate, as when he describes the difficulties inherent in finding men willing to don rough robes, go barefooted, allow their hair, beards, and nails to grow, and, perhaps hardest of all, remain silent, for a period of seven years.

Much of the book is a survey of historic and modern “hermitages” in England, Scotland, France, and parts of Europe, many of which are illustrated. There are numerous extant sites that can still be visited, though they’re no longer inhabited; health regulations prohibit! It ends with some speculation about how the ornamental garden hermit morphed slowly into the ornamental garden gnome, helped along by Disney’s Grumpy, Sleepy, et al.

It’s probably safe to say that there is no  more extensive compilation of information on this topic than The Hermit in the Garden. It’s a valuable addition to the field of garden history, and has much to say, or imply, about Western Civ.

Last summer, I acquired  the perfect little  gnome for my own garden.

President Lincoln and Fido

Heather on History is one of my favorites among the blogs I follow. She’s running a series on presidential pets, many of which I remember. But I never knew that the Lincolns were once dog owners, so am reposting Heather’ s article for You’re History readers. Heeer’s Fido!

Presidential Pets: Abraham Lincoln’s Dog Fido

Abraham Lincoln’s dog Fido was the first presidential dog to be photographed. Lincoln had the photo taken in 1861 just before he left Springfield, Illinois for his presidential inauguration. He told his sons Tad and Willie that they could take the photo with them to Washington, but not the dog.

During his time in Springfield Fido was a great companion to Lincoln. The yellow-and-brown mutt accompanied Lincoln on errands and often waited outside the barbershop for him. Unlike his master, however, Fido wasn’t meant for public life. After Lincoln’s presidential nomination, local politicians came to the house and tried to greet Fido, who retreated under the family sofa. Fido also was less than enthused about the fireworks and cannons going off when his master won the election.

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Mary Lincoln was not a big fan of dogs and she was probably happy not to have to clean up after Fido anymore. Lincoln, however, loved dogs and made sure that Fido had a good home. Lincoln gave the dog to the Roll family who were friends and neighbors of the Lincolns and their children.

Before giving away his pet, Lincoln gave the Rolls strict instructions about Fido’s care. For example, Lincoln insisted that Fido never be punished for coming inside with muddy paws. He also wanted the dog to be allowed in the dining room where he could beg for table scraps. The Rolls were also given the Lincoln family sofa to make Fido feel more at home. It was his favorite place to sleep. Finally, the Rolls promised to give the dog back when the Lincolns returned to Springfield.

Fido was never reunited with his master, though he did watch the funeral procession in Springfield after Lincoln’s assassination. Several months later Fido ran away from the Roll’s home. John Roll wrote, “The dog in a playful manner put his dirty paws upon a drunken man sitting on the street curbing. In his drunken rage the man thrust a knife into the body of poor old Fido. So Fido, just a poor yellow dog was assassinated like his illustrious master.” The Roll children buried Lincoln’s beloved dog in their yard.

Historic Buildings of Coventry, CT

Fellow museum guide, interpreter, and teacher Dan Sterner travels all throughout Connecticut photographing the thousands of 18th and 19th century buildings that remain in our 163 towns. He posts the pictures with descriptions and historical information on his web site, town by town. Dan recently put up some pages about what’s to be found in Coventry, which was founded in 1712 and still has more than 400 old places, many in fine condition,  along its roads and byways. He generously agreed to permit me to link up to that page here on You’re History. I’m including the Coventry index here, but there’s a complete index of all the places he’s visited on Historic Buildings of Connecticut .

Thanks, Dan, great work!

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Buildings Index

Boston Turnpike
12 Brigham’s Tavern (1778)
1064 Nathaniel Root House (1809)
1630 Coventry Grange Hall (1834)
1746 Second Congregational Church (1847)
1747 Loomis-Pomeroy House (1833)
1804 Pomeroy Tavern (1801)

Bread & Milk Street
21 Jacob Wilson Tavern (1735)

Main Street
1129 Capron-Philips House (1864)
1134 Booth & Dimock Memorial Library (1913)
1141 Former Methodist Church (1867)
1171 First Congregational Church (1849)
1195 Coventry Visitors’ Center (1876)
1220 Bidwell Hotel (1822)
2011 Daniel Rust House (1731)

North River Road
290 John Turner House (1814)
941 Charles Hanover House (1825)

South Street
2187 Elias Sprague House (1821)
2299 Nathan Hale Homestead (1776)
2382 Strong-Porter House (1730)

Historical Fiction: Fates and Traitors, by Jennifer Chiaverini

Fates and Traitors

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jennifer Chiaverini is making a name for herself as the author of novels about quilts, but I prefer her works about historical characters, among them Mary Todd Lincoln, Elizabeth Keckley, and Julia Grant. My favorite among the historicals is The Spymistress, which told the story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a truly courageous woman who managed to spy for the Union while living in the midst of Confederate Richmond.

Fates and Traitors, which is scheduled for publication in September, caught my interest because it features John Wilkes Booth and some of the important women in his life. The plot traces the trajectory of Booth’s decision to assassinate President Lincoln, from the points of view of his mother and sister, one of his sweethearts, and Mary Surratt, at whose home the conspirators met. Chiaverini makes use of the slender evidence available about Booth’s relationship with these women to flesh out the story line, which was a bit too romance-y for my liking, but she managed to make it interesting and factual enough to sustain my interest. There is nothing really new here, but it was edifying to read about Booth as a real person rather than the demon he is usually portrayed as being. The title, which is a bit clumsy, I think, refers to a vision Booth’s mother experienced when John was born, in which he was fated to become famous. Lucy Hale, thought by many to have been his fiancee, comes across as incredibly naive; while her family thinks Booth is a bounder, she remains blind to many signs that he was up to no good.

Fates and Traitors has not supplanted The Spymistress in my estimation, but it was an interesting and divergent picture of the Booth I’m accustomed to reading about. It left me with the impression that if he had been more respected as an actor, his life might have taken a far different course.

View all my reviews

Great Nonfiction: Rebel Yell, by S. C. Gwynne

Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall JacksonTom Fool to Stonewall
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Thomas J. Jackson was an unlikely hero. Though after graduating from West Point he distinguished himself in the Mexican-American War, peace time turned him into a pedantic teacher at Virginia Military Academy. A socially awkward man with tendencies toward hypochondria, Prof. Jackson was baited by his students and called “Tom Fool.” His religious fervency, which he frequently expressed in words, further distanced him from others. (Hindsight is better than foresight, and today, some historians speculate that he may have had a form of autism.) At the start of the Civil War, he was refused a position of command. After his astonishing first campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, people began to view Jackson in a new way. After First Manassas, he and his unit, comprised of many of his former VMI students, became known as the Stonewall Brigade for their refusal to back down under heavy fire. Once Robert E. Lee took command of the Army of Northern Virginia, he was quick to recognize Jackson’s brilliant ability to manage and win battles, even when grossly outnumbered. If Jackson had survived the loss of an arm at Chancellorsville, who knows how the war would have played out. Imagine Stonewall Jackson vs. U. S. Grant. But when Jackson died, it had a profound effect on the South, where many viewed his loss as the beginning of the end.

Author S. C. Gwynne is a professional writer but not a trained historian, though you’d never guess it while reading his lively, often riveting account of Stonewall Jackson’s astonishing transformation and accomplishments. Gwynne covers each of his battles in detail, but it is in the study of the many facets, often contradictory, of Jackson’s personality and character that this book really shines. In battle, one singular trait, that of a ferocious, dauntless determination to win at any cost, utterly obscured the eccentricities and foibles that dogged Jackson at all other times. Many biographical accounts of military careers are factual but very dry in the telling, but in Rebel Yell, one never loses the sense of the presence of General Jackson as a man. His demands took a huge toll on his soldiers, and as is generally true of charisma, it’s difficult to grasp exactly why they bonded so strongly to their leader. But that bond held until the day he died.

P.S. Did you know that it was the Stonewall Brigade that devised the infamous Rebel Yell? “On one occasion during the Valley Campaign, while the Stonewall Brigade was in camp, one of its five regiments began yelling. Soon another regiment took it up, and then another, and another, until every member of the entire brigade was delivering the Yell at the top of his lungs. General Jackson came out of his tent, leaned on a fence, and listened. The cacophony continued for several moments and then began dying away. When the last echo had rebounded from the Blue Ridge, old Blue-Light, universally known to be totally tone deaf, turning toward his tent and said “That was the sweetest music I ever heard.” S. C. Gwynne provides a recorded reproduction of the sound early in the audio version of his book.

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The Death and Burial of Nathaniel Hawthorne

Did you realize that Nathaniel Hawthorne was very hot when he was young? Lucky Sophia, his wife! His image certainly doesn’t fit that of the typical 19th century author. He and Sophia spent a good part of their marriage in Concord, Massachusetts, where they mingled with the literary giants of their place and time. Today the New England Historical Society posted an article on Facebook about Hawthorne’s later years, specifically about his final days. I’ve read a lot about his life, and visited his grave, but did not know the details about his death and funeral. They’re quite amazing, as it turns out! Quite fitting for an author who was so obsessed with all things Puritanical.

During a visit to Salem, MA, where Hawthorne was born (the descendant of a Salem witchcraft judge, but that’s another story), I learned of his friendship, which began at Bowdoin College, with Franklin Pierce, who would become America’s 14th president. Pierce, ever supportive of Hawthorne’s writing career, appointed him as measurer of coal and salt at the Boston Customs House, a job that permitted him much free time to devote to his true calling.

The two men maintained their friendship throughout Pierce’s stormy presidency, with Hawthorne standing by Pierce when many of his friends abandoned him. When Pierce’s beloved wife Jane died, Hawthorne provided much needed support to the grieving ex-president. By this time, Hawthorne’s health was failing, and he decided that a holiday in New Hampshire’s White Mountains might be a panacea. Pierce accompanied him on his travels. On May 18, 1864, they booked into the Pemigewasset Hotel in Plymouth, NH. Before retiring for the night, they shared a cup of tea, and  retired to their adjoining rooms. Worried about his friend, Pierce left the door ajar with a lamp burning low. He awoke around three AM to check on Hawthorne, and when he approached his bedside, Pierce realized that he had stopped breathing.

Hawthorne’s body was moved to Concord for his funeral and burial. The pallbearers who carried him to his grave at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery included Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and John Greenleaf Whittier. Attended at death by a former president, and transported to his grave by America’s literati – was there ever a more noble funeral celebrated in New England? Many of them lie near Hawthorne on Author’s Hill.