How 1st Lieutenant James Larkin Saw Slaves with His Camera

It’s always a good time to talk about race, but the present is an especially apposite moment. Today, I’d like to examine a photo that shows how one member of the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry saw African American slaves when most of his comrades did not. And in so doing, he started trying to understand a people who would change the course of the war. This examination might give us something important to think about in our own time; it’s not always easy to see others, let alone understand them, unless you make the effort. Unfortunately, people are not inclined to do so unless they feel a compelling reason.

The image above was taken during the Civil War at Volusia, a plantation near Alexandria, VA. Volusia was next to Camp California which is where the 5th New Hampshire was quartered between December 1861 and March 1862. It appears that James E. Larkin, then a 1st Lieutenant in Company A of the 5th New Hampshire, took this picture. A house, sign, and carriage painter from Concord, NH, who dabbled in photography as a hobby, Larkin somehow managed to lug his camera and photographic equipment with him to Virginia for the first winter of the war. In a diary that he kept briefly in January 1862 (he was a much more prolific correspondent, writing dozens and dozens of letters to his wife throughout the conflict), Larkin referred repeatedly to having made a fair bit of money by taking photos. I assume these images were mainly portraits since he charged for them. As evidenced by the pictures on Mike Pride’s Our War blog, however, Larkin was also interested in capturing interesting scenes. The photo above was one of these scenes.[i]

The subjects of this image were enslaved members of the Hughes family. The National Museum of African American History and Culture identifies them, from left to right, as William (b. 1856), Lucinda (b. ca. 1824), Fannie (b. 1860), Mary (b. 1860), Frances (b. 1834), Martha (b. 1857), Julia (b. 1859), Harriet (b. 1852), and Charles or Marshall (the former born in 1853, the latter, in 1854). The two adults in this image were sisters-in-law; Frances was married to Lucinda’s brother, David Hughes. Frances and her children belonged to Felix Richards, who owned Volusia at the time, while Lucinda and her children were the property of Richards’s wife, Amelia Macrae Richards.[ii]

Photographs of people still living in a state of slavery during the Civil War are apparently fairly rare. So why did Larkin take this image? This question is impossible to answer because he doesn’t mention it in his correspondence. But there is evidence that Volusia, whose owner was a Unionist, had extensive dealings with Colonel Edward E. Cross, the 5th New Hampshire’s commander. At one point in early 1862, Cross ordered 300 cords of wood from Felix Richards for use by the regiment. Perhaps most intriguingly, Cross also asked Amelia Richards if her “servant” would wash his clothes. Is this how Larkin came to know these slaves? Is it a coincidence that the women in this image appear to have been doing laundry? (In the photo, Frances seems to be ironing a blanket, and an image taken at the same time—but from a slightly different angle—shows laundry baskets and tubs nearby.)[iii]

This photo is not just interesting because it is one of few that show slaves at work during the Civil War. It is also interesting because Larkin obviously took some care in composing the image and instructing his subjects how to pose. I don’t want to get all Errol Morris on you (or at least the Errol Morris one reads in Believing is Seeing), but it is instructive to compare the two photographs that Larkin took of this group.

In the image above, Larkin was much closer and to the group’s right. Both Lucinda and Frances look straight at the camera, their heads slightly bowed. While the subjects are obviously posing, the result seems more naturalistic and candid than the image below. The photo has the character of an anthropological study in its attempt to capture the nature of slaves. Is there perhaps a whiff of the imperial gaze here? Maybe that’s reading too deeply into poor Larkin’s intentions.

There is more artistry involved in the image above. Larkin’s camera now met the family head-on. The composition presents a more balanced and symmetrical pyramid which was the standard of classical art. This arrangement unifies the group and draws attention to Frances, particularly her white kerchief. Also, the two women look in each other’s direction: Frances at Luncinda, and Lucinda at the blanket that Frances is ironing. It is difficult to understand the significance of this pose and one can produce several related interpretations. Did their averted eyes suggest that they were a mystery that could not be understood? Or did they gaze at one another to share a confidence or a knowledge—perhaps the experience of slavery—that excluded the viewer? Whatever the case, Frances emerges in both images as a woman of strength and dignity mainly because of her posture and her position in the pyramidal composition. It was a staple of the free labor ideology that prevailed in the North during the late antebellum period and the Civil War that slavery degraded labor. But in Larkin’s portrayal of Frances, do we see a statement that all labor is dignified, that the grandeur of work transcends the status of the person who does it? That slavery, then, was riven by contradictions impossible to reconcile? Maybe Larkin did not seek to convey this message—but we ourselves can see it.  From the foregoing, it appears as if Larkin was struggling—but attempting—to understand the people in these images.

The careful attention that Larkin devoted to this group contrasts with the regiment’s general lack of interest in slaves during this period. This lack of interest is surprising. According to the Census of 1860, just under 500 African Americans lived in New Hampshire (out of a population of 326,000) so they were something of a rarity.[iv] And since the vast majority of soldiers in the 5th New Hampshire were born and raised in the state, practically none of them had any direct experience with slavery. You would think that their letters and their correspondence with newspapers would be full of observations about African American slaves whom they had never seen before or the “peculiar institution” that they had never witnessed in practice. But even more important, Northerners were convinced that this institution was the root of secession. Why did they not show more interest in the institution and its victims?[v]

There are, no doubt, several reasons. The regiment was young. If my calculations are correct, about 45% of the 5th New Hampshire were too young to have voted in the presidential election of 1860 (the voting age was 21). It is always hazardous to make generalizations of the following sort, but it is possible that these teenagers and twenty-somethings were less articulate and politically aware than their elders. At the same time, the members of the regiment were still making the difficult psychological transition from civilian to soldier.[vi] In early December 1861, when the 5th New Hampshire arrived at Camp California, the soldiers had officially been in the army for only a month and a half, most of them having been mustered in around mid-October.[vii] There was plenty of hardship and danger. Some men were killed in accidents and others died of illness. But there was adventure, too, as the regiment sent patrols into close proximity to the enemy. Many letters during this period refer to the peculiarities of army life, the monotony of drill, incidents in the course of their small incursions, encounters with Southern civilians, and the welfare of various acquaintances in the regiment. It was the novelty of this life that soldiers often attempted to convey to readers back home. Under these new circumstances, it was easy to overlook slaves and slavery.

But there is another reason, perhaps, why soldiers generally neglected to mention slaves and slavery in their letters. In later 1861 and early 1862, they would still have seen the conflict as a white man’s war. At this point, although there may have been a few abolitionists among them, the soldiers of the 5th New Hampshire mainly fought for the preservation of the Union. That Union was dear to them because it guaranteed liberties that they as white men could fully enjoy. They may have found slavery distasteful, but their main complaint with the “slave power” was that it infringed on their liberties. In other words, they believed that white men—southerners and northerners—were the main players in this drama. Indeed, the men of the regiment understood themselves to have assumed a leading role by taking up arms for their cause. From this perspective, the interests of the slaves themselves were purely incidental to what was a white story.

By the fall of 1862, this attitude had changed dramatically. In December 1861, Colonel Cross had declared that the “attempt to make an abolition war is going to make trouble if not stopped. A little more attention to soldiers and less to Negroes is what is wanted.”[viii] But even as Cross wrote, slaves had just begun to free themselves and play such an important part in the American war that they could no longer be ignored. When matched with the Northern desire to preserve the Union and the course of events, the emergence of slaves as a significant force in the war inexorably drew the North (and the 5th New Hampshire along with it) toward the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862. Overlooking slaves and pretending that they were not an integral part of the national story was no longer possible. At some point, the people in the photograph—Frances, Lucinda, and their children—were swept up in this drama; Union soldiers came to Volusia and took them away.[ix]

James E. Larkin (ca. 1861-1862): The shoulder straps on his uniform indicate that Larkin was still a 1st Lieutenant when this image was taken. I’d like to think this photo was captured with Larkin’s own camera during the 5th New Hampshire’s first winter in Virginia. Throughout the war, Larkin was repeatedly promoted, becoming the regiment’s third commander after Charles Hapgood was wounded in June 1864. In September 1864, shortly before mustering out, Larkin was made a Lieutenant-Colonel  (Image courtesy of David Morin.)

During the winter of 1861-1862, these later events and the important role that slaves would play in them were difficult to foretell. It was not clear that slaves would have an interest in the war’s outcome, and many white Americans thought that the South’s human property would watch the war inertly from the margins. Yet James Larkin took the time and trouble to photograph a group of these people. The images he took may have been influenced by the privileged position from which he surveyed America. But the varied compositions and angles that he experimented with suggest that he was trying to “see” and understand his subjects in a way that his comrades did not. And, overall, his engagement with his subjects was sympathetic.

There might be a lesson in this story for all of us here and now. Regardless of where we stand in the world, we should make the effort to see others with both curiosity and empathy as a first step toward understanding them. That way, when the storm breaks, we might not be so surprised by the course of events and utterly unprepared to meet it.


[i] https://www.alexandriava.gov/uploadedFiles/oha/info/VolusiaFelix RichardsSlaves.pdf. See also James E. Larkin Papers, Diary, entries for January 21 and January 23, 1862, New Hampshire Historical Society, 1997.005. For Larkin’s occupation, see Merrill & Son’s Concord City Directory 1860-1861 (https://archive.org/details/merrillsonsconco1860merr/page/n157/mode/2up?q=Larkin).

[ii]  https://nmaahc.si.edu/object/nmaahc_2014.174.8

[iii] https://www.alexandriava.gov/uploadedFiles/oha/info/VolusiaFelix RichardsSlaves.pdf

[iv] See this pdf pulled from the Census of 1860.

[v] It is true that we have a couple of letters that engage with slavery during this period. After the regiment marched to Upper and Lower Marlborough in early November 1861 to ensure that elections proceeded smoothly in the eastern Maryland, Private Miles Peabody of Company K wrote to his parents about his encounter with black slaves (“they are a good eal more intelegent than I had suposed”) and observed that they all wanted their freedom. As the regiment returned to camp, a young slave (a “very intelegent little fellow”) sought to join the regiment, and he was invited by Captain Richard Welch (Peabody’s company commander) to come along. When the slave’s owner came looking for the boy, the soldiers concealed him and brought him back to Bladensburg. The only other letter that dates from this period was written by “W.S.D.” (possibly Corporal Walter S. Drew of Company A) that appeared in a January 1862 issue of the Concord Independent Democrat. In this missive, he recorded a conversation with a Virginian slaveowner who related a story about his neighbor who had lost his wife and whose children had been brought up by female slave. The slaveowner stated: “Her master thought as much of her as he did of his own children and indulged her the same but,’ he added, bitterly, ‘no sooner did this war break out and the Union troops took possession of Alexandria than she deserted her master and went to washing to support herself.” Having related this tale, W.S.D. stated: “Here is a nut for our Northern Pro-Slavery men to crack who say the slaves are better off and better contented in bondage than when free. Here we see an old negro woman, who had been in bondage for sixty-three years, and according to Southern doctrine, kindly treated; yet the first opportunity that presented itself for escape she took advantage of. And where is the bondman that would not?” These are the only two letters that touch upon slavery or slaves, and when set against the volume of extant correspondence generated by the regiment during this period, it is not much. See Mike Pride and Mark Travis, My Brave Boys: To War with Colonel Cross & the Fighting Fifth (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2001), 48 and the Concord Independent Democrat, January 9, 1862, 1.

[vi] Reid Mitchell, Civil War Soldiers: Their Expectations and Their Experiences (New York: Viking Press, 1988), pp. 56-58.

[vii] The first companies showed up at Camp Jackson outside of Concord, NH, in late September 1861.

[viii] Cross to Henry Kent, December 17, 1861 in Stand Firm and Fire Low: The Civil War Writings of Colonel Edward E. Cross, eds. Walter Holden, William E. Ross, and Elizabeth Slomba (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2003),  97.

[ix] https://www.alexandriava.gov/uploadedFiles/oha/info/VolusiaFelix RichardsSlaves.pdf

George Gove at Fredericksburg

Today is the 157th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg, perhaps the greatest disaster to befall the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War. I thought it would perhaps be appropriate to commemorate the battle by looking at it through the eyes of George S. Gove who provided a long account of his experiences in that fight.

Gove was born and raised in Raymond, NH, the son of a prosperous farmer. When he volunteered for the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry in September 1861, he had no military experience and he was only 20, but he was over six feet tall, and perhaps his commanding presence led his superiors to think of him as a potential leader. He was enrolled as a sergeant in Company K.[i] He was wounded severely at the Battle of Fair Oaks (June 1, 1862) in the right arm and finger. He recovered in time to rejoin his regiment before the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862) through which he mercifully passed unscathed. Fredericksburg, however, proved a much harsher test for Gove and the regiment.

George Gove (ca. 1863-1864) (image courtesy of Dave Morin)

We know about Gove’s experiences during the war because his letters to his sister Julia now rest at the University of New Hampshire Library’s Special Collections and Archives. Julia married Warren Parsons, and it is as part of the Parsons Family Papers that Gove’s letters have been preserved.

The day after the Battle of Fredericksburg, Gove, who was lying in a hospital, wrote to his mother who forwarded his letter to Julia. Gove had been hit in the shoulder by a shell fragment, and while lying on the field, he had been struck by two spent balls—once in the back and once in the leg. What follows is his story of the battle extracted from this letter.

On the landing, yesterday . . . we formed & started for the field. The reb shelled us all the way up thru the city, their batteries, raking the streets, just out of the city we crossed this canal & formed on line under a little rise. Then came the order forward. The Irish Brigade went in ahead of us, after us climbing this little rise we came upon a broad plain at least 2,000 yards across it at the further sides is a high ridge covered with trees & bushes, here the rebs had their batteries and rifle pits, here they powered an awful fire of shell grape and canisters & musketry. We had to advance across this plain in the face of all this. It opened on us the moment we showed our heads on the plain. Our men dropped fast large gaps were made by the shells. Still we kept on—“Forward boys, forward”, the Col. kept shouting. When we got within 100 yds their musketry opened on us from the rifle pits. Then our line melted away like snow, at this place & right in the way of us was a brick house our line had to break to the right to [illegible] it behind it was several fences, we had to climb over these to form on line. This got the boys into confusion. They could not form under such a fire. The colors fell back to the house & behind the fences. All the men fell back, then the colors fell—Frank Swift, an Irish man of our Co. caught the state banner, jumped the fence & marched out about 30 yds to the front waving it, he was all alone. I saw him and followed. I got to his side and told him to stick to the flag and I would stick by him. In a few moment he was shot down. I picked up the banner. Two men came up beside me. Perhaps 50 men came up The other color did not neither did the regt. I had not held the flag more than half a minute, before I was hit in the shoulder by a piece of shell & knocked down. One of the two men was shot down the other picked up the Banner & ran back to the house and fences. Most of our—what there was left had got behind the house and fences. I lay about 30 yds in front of them & about 30 yrds from the rebel rifle pits. I was between two fires. It was horrible. The bullets flew over me like swarms of bees. They were continually striking all around me. Two bullets hit me one in the back & one in the leg they probably were spent balls & only bruised the skin, and then the shells which our batteries threw over burst over me and pieces from them kept falling all about me, I felt that any moment might be my last. I lay there over an hour, I did not dare to get up to go back. Often our boys stopped firing & the rebs slacked theirs I crawled back to the house. There were more than 200 hundred men mostly wounded that had crawled behind it. I lay down in the mud with the rest. Soon we saw another line come up, on the plain. The reb batteries opened on them, when they got most up to us the rebs opened with musketry from rifle pits, they came up to the house, wavered tried to rally & fell back in confusion. Then came another line—it came up the same faltered at the house & fell back—then another line & the same with that. Towards the night a battery came up, took a position close to the house with a line of infantry to support it. They held the position perhaps half an hour, & then had to retreat, this was our last attempt. As soon as it was a little dark I got up & started for the city. I was afraid the rebs would come out & take us. I had expected every time one of our lines was driven back that they would charge down and take us. I came back across the plain, it was covered with killed and wounded—hundreds of lives lost & thousands wounded and maimed for life & nothing gained. I found our regt hospital I expected I was wounded in the back but found that the skin was not broken my shoulder, back & leg are much swelled today & are very sore & lame but I shall be all right in a day or two.[ii]  

How do we place Gove’s account in context? What exactly happened to him and the regiment during the fight? What else might he have seen that he did not describe?

The 5th New Hampshire had spent the night in Fredericksburg which had been badly pillaged by Federal troops (a point that Gove refers to elsewhere in his letter). By the time the regiment was assembled for action near the town’s landing along the Rappahannock River, the Union assault on the Confederate position at the foot of Marye’s Heights had been proceeding for some time. The three brigades in Brigadier General William H. French’s division (in Major General Darius N. Couch’s II Corps) had already launched attacks that had stalled short of the Confederate line. Next, Brigadier General Winfield Scott Hancock’s division (II Corps), which consisted of Meagher, Caldwell, and Zook’s brigades, was called forward. As Gove points out, Meagher’s Irish Brigade led the way, followed by Caldwell’s brigade (to which the 5th New Hampshire belonged). Mike Pride and Mark Travis state that the 5th New Hampshire, marching four abreast, trailed the Irish Brigade down Sophia Street and then turned left toward the Confederate position.[iii] Throughout its advance, then, the 5th New Hampshire would have seen the Irish Brigade’s dead, wounded, and stragglers.

Once it cleared the outskirts of town, the regiment advanced about 200 yards before encountering a mill-race (the “canal” that Gove refers to). This obstacle was usually five feet deep and 15 feet wide, but Federal engineers had partially drained it before the battle.[iv] George Rable claims the Irish Brigade crossed it in the following manner: “Some used a rickety bridge; others scrambled over on stringers; many seizing the quickest way to the relative safety of the far bank, splashed through the shallow water.”[v] Pride and Travis write that the 5th New Hampshire probably did much the same thing: “a narrow bridge crossed the canal, but most of its planks had been removed,” and so the regiment “faltered briefly here as men either crossed the bridge with difficulty or splashed through the shallow water.”[vi] Having crossed the mill-race, the regiment reformed on the other side under the shelter of a slight rise. Hancock’s official report captured the difficulty of this maneuver when he wrote: “It was impossible to deploy, except by marching the whole length of each brigade by the flank in a line parallel to the enemy’s works after we had crossed the mill-race by the bridge.”[vii] I assume that the bridge to which all these sources refer was where Hanover Street crossed the canal because the attack appears to have followed that thoroughfare, more or less, to the west.  

Whatever the case, once it mounted the rise that sheltered the mill-race, the 5th New Hampshire was still 400 yards away from the Confederate position located behind the infamous stone wall on Telegraph Road. The regiment advanced on the extreme right of Caldwell’s brigade with the 81st Pennsylvania immediately to its left.

This fantastic image (click to enlarge) captures a good portion of the ground over which the 5th New Hampshire advanced during the Battle of Fredericksburg. It looks west from the outskirts of Fredericksburg to the Confederate position. To the right, you can see Hanover Street. In the middle distance, stretching horizontally across the image, is the mill-race where Caldwell’s brigade had to cross. Some members of the regiment skipped across the mill-race while others took the narrow Hanover Street bridge which was partially dismantled. In the plain beyond, all by itself, is the Stratton House. Behind the Stratton House, on either side, are two light-colored structures. The one on the left is the Stephens House while the one on the right is the Innis House. Both abutted the stone wall behind which the Confederate infantry sheltered. Confederate artillery was located on the heights in the line of sight behind the Stephens House. This image was taken in 1863, probably after forces under Major General John Sedgwick drove Confederate troops from their positions during the Chancellorsville campaign. I have not been able to locate this image on the National Archives or Library of Congress websites, but it appears on the wonderful Mysteries and Conundrums blog. Excellent analyses of this photograph and others that cover the same ground appear on The Swale at Mercer Square blog, here and here

As Gove also relates, from the very start of the 5th New Hampshire’s advance, which commenced in the streets of Fredericksburg, the regiment was pounded mercilessly by Confederate artillery. This bombardment continued for the entirety of the regiment’s assault. Although several witnesses attested to the steady and disciplined character of the unit’s advance, the shellfire not only inflicted a large number of casualties (as Gove described) but also undoubtedly slowed the attack. The “large gaps . . .  made by the shells” wreaked havoc with the regiment’s command. When the regiment had advanced about hallway to the Confederate position, Colonel Edward Cross was badly wounded when a shell exploded right in front of him. Major Edward Sturtevant, the regiment’s only other field officer, was killed by a shell at about the same time.[viii] Interestingly enough, Gove claimed he was near enough to hear the colonel’s shouting, but he did not appear to see Cross fall. Cross must have been extremely close to Company A, though, because Captain James Larkin, then its commander, wrote home several days later,

Col. Cross was shot when the line had advanced about half way a shell exploded rite in his face I saw him fall and thought he was all stove in pieces but he is coming out all right but was badly hurt.[ix]

The condition of the battlefield also probably slowed the regiment’s assault. Contrary to popular belief, the day was not particularly cold; mud, not ice, was the greater obstacle. If the regiment had indeed crossed the mill-race on the Hanover Street bridge, it veered slightly leftward to remain in contact with the 81st Pennsylvania. This course brought it south of Hanover Street and towards the Stratton House. 


This detail (click to enlarge) from a National Park Service map shows the ground that the 5th New Hampshire covered during its assault. Fredericksburg sits on the right of the map while the Confederate position is on the left. The 5th New Hampshire started its advance northward on Sophia Street and probably turned west on Hanover. It crossed the mill-race (indicated as a “Canal Ditch” on this map) around Hanover Street, which is colored orange there. From there, the regiment veered west-southwest toward the Stratton House which appears as a reddish-pink block. Some men, like Gove, advanced beyond the Stratton House toward the “Sunken Road” where the Confederates were. The regiment was fired upon by Confederate infantry stationed behind the stone wall (clearly indicated on the map) between the Innis and Ebert houses. Confederate artillery was posted on the heights to the west-southwest of the Innis House. 

Exposure to heavy shellfire during an advance of about a third of a mile took its toll. The regiment’s morale was now brittle, and once it encountered Confederate small arms fire, the unit began to fall apart (the battle line “melted like snow”). Having to navigate its way to the right of the Stratton House and push through several fences under heavy fire, the 5th New Hampshire found it impossible to reform. The regiment appears to have broken apart into several knots of men with a number of individuals scattering in different directions. According to Gove, only 50 men moved up past the last fence to accompany him once he picked up the standard. I must admit that there are some difficulties in reconciling this part of Gove’s account with facts on the ground. First, Gove stated that the Confederate infantry opened fire on the 5th New Hampshire when it was about 100 yards away. At this point, according to Gove, the regiment had not reached the Stratton House yet. That does not square with what we know about the distance between the Stratton House and the stone wall, which is about 170 yards. Second, Gove mentions how the regiment had to scale several fences beyond the Stratton House as it worked its way closer to the stone wall. Eventually, Gove ended up with Frank Swift, waving the state colors some 30 yards beyond the last fence behind the Stratton House. Gove claims that this spot was only 30 yards from Confederate position. If that were the case, the last fence would have been 110 yards behind the Stratton House which seems unlikely. We can forgive Gove for miscalculating these distances; after all, he was undergoing a harrowing ordeal. But we must also recall that the soldiers of the 5th New Hampshire resented that no matter how hard they fought, the Irish Brigade always grabbed the headlines. One can’t help but suspect that under these circumstances Gove’s narrative was shaped by a desire to obtain credit for outdoing the Irish in advancing toward the stone wall.

In any event, after having been hit by a shell fragment and lying on the field for some time, Gove crawled back to the Stratton House where quite a crowd of wounded and demoralized men had gathered. Indeed, the crowd proved so large that later Union assaults found it difficult to push through the area. Successive waves of Union troops advanced into this portion of the battlefield. The last remaining troops in Couch’s II’s Corps came up: Brigadier General Oliver Otis Howard’s division, consisting of Owen, Hall, and Sully’s brigades. Owen’s brigade retraced the steps of Caldwell’s men and were stopped around Stratton House. Hall’s brigade advanced along the north edge of Hanover Street in a vain attempt to outflank the Confederate left. Finally, regiments from Sully’s brigade were supplied as reinforcement to supplement Owen and Hall’s efforts. Nothing was gained, and the killing went on. The battery that Gove noticed toward the end of the fight may have been Battery B of the 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery, which came up near the Stratton House in an attempt to silence some of the Confederate guns on Marye’s Heights that had inflicted such heavy casualties on the Union soldiers. But as Rable points out, although the battery “got off a few well-aimed shots, disabling at least one Rebel gun” some “fifteen horses and sixteen men . . . were out of action” after 30 minutes and the battery had to limber up and retreat.[x]

Eventually, Gove limped back to Fredericksburg. Even before night had begun to fall, large numbers of wounded men and stragglers had begun to make their way to town, so much so that regiments from Howard’s division had difficulty advancing forward through the crowd. How Gove found the regimental hospital and where it was remain a mystery to me. Pride and Travis indicate that John Bucknam, the regiment’s senior assistant surgeon, had set up a hospital near the regiment’s camp in the streets of Fredericksburg.[xi] William Child, who was then the regiment’s junior assistant surgeon, later wrote that he arrived in Fredericksburg on the afternoon of the 13th and reported for duty at “a large church, used as a hospital.” The next day, he found the regiment “and was at once detailed to assist Surgeon [Laurence] Reynolds of the Irish Brigade in operating.”[xii] But it is not clear where any of these hospitals were.

Gove reported that on the morning of the 14th, only 35 men in the regiment remained to answer roll call. In an addendum to his letter of the 14th, Gove wrote that on the morning of the 16th the number had swelled to only 50. Writing on that same day, however, Larkin, now the second ranking officer in the regiment, wrote that there were just over 80 men available for duty.[xiii] Whatever the case, William Fox’s Regimental Losses of the American Civil War 1861-1865, perhaps the most thorough work on the topic, reports that the regiment suffered 20 killed in action, 154 wounded (including mortally wounded), and 19 missing out of a total of 303 engaged.[xiv] Pride and Travis state the total as 57 killed and mortally wounded along with another 100 or so wounded out of 268 engaged.[xv] Whichever numbers you credit (and numbers are always a problem in the Civil War because despite their apparent exactitude they disagree with one another), the regiment lost just above or below 60% of its effective strength at Fredericksburg. In the several weeks that followed the battle, the letters of the men indicated they all felt quite low. Well might Gove have written in his diary several days after the battle, “The Fifth New Hampshire Regiment is played out.”[xvi]


[i] See “United States Census, 1860”, database with images, FamilySearch(https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:M7W2-GDJ : 14 December 2017), George S Gove in entry for Sherburne Gove, 1860.; “New Hampshire, Civil War Service and Pension Records, 1861-1866,” database with images, FamilySearch(https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:Q2Q1-YFB6 : 16 March 2018), George S Gove, 17 Sep 1861; citing Rockingham, Newfields, Rockingham, New Hampshire, United States, New Hampshire Secretary of State, Division of Records Management & Archive; FHL microfilm 2,217,640.; New Hampshire Statesman (Concord, NH), June 21, 1862, 2;

[ii] George S. Gove to mother, December 14, 1862, Parsons Family Papers, Series 2: Correspondence, 1861-1865, Box 2, Folder 11 (Transcript).

[iii] Mike Pride and Mark Travis, My Brave Boys: To War with Colonel Cross & the Fighting Fifth (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2001), 171.

[iv] George Rable, Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 219.

[v] Ibid., 232.

[vi] Pride and Travis, 171.

[vii] Ibid., 171, 176.

[viii] Pride and Travis, 172.

[ix] James Larkin to Family, December 16, 1862, Larkin Papers, New Hampshire Historical Society.

[x] Rable, 258-259.

[xi] Pride and Travis, 178.

[xii] William Child, A History of the Fifth Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers in the Civil War, 1861-1865 (Bristol, NH: R. W Musgrove, Printer, 1893), 162-163. In his “official” history of the regiment, Child added that Reynolds’ hospital “was in a brick house directly west of the railroad on the main street.” “This house,” he wrote, “belonged to a merchant, whose name was Caldwell.” In a letter to his wife on December 18, Child was no more specific: “I arrived just before dark—the battle was raging furiously. I was there in a church among the wounded during the night under the shell of the enemy—we remained there until noon the next day—then all left for the other side of the river.” In this case, there is no mention of working with Reynolds in the brick house. William Child, Letters from a Civil War Surgeon (Solon, ME: Polar Bear & Company, 2001), 71.

[xiii] James Larkin to Wife, December 16, 1862, Larkin Papers, New Hampshire Historical Society.

[xiv] William F. Fox, Regimental Losses of the American Civil War 1861-1865 (Albany, NY: Albany Publishing Company, 1889), 35.

[xv] Pride and Travis, 171, 176.

[xvi] Child, 150.

About the Header Image

Before I get to the serious work of discussing the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry and the Civil War, I thought that in this inaugural post I would say something about the header image.

I thought long and hard about what I would do on this blog and whether or not I had the time to do it. It took me very little time, however, to choose a header image for this blog.

This photograph is perhaps not as well know as some of the others that Alexander Gardner took after the Battle of Antietam (e.g. the Confederate dead along the Hagerstown Pike or in the Bloody Lane). According to William A. Frassanito’s pioneering work, Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America’s Bloody Day (1978), this image was taken on the northern end of the battlefield, just 60 yards across the Hagerstown Pike from the southwestern corner of Miller’s Cornfield. The view looks north-northwest toward the North Woods.

In this photograph, a Union burial party pauses as it inters dead Northern soldiers. In his analysis of this photo, Frassanito comments:

It is probably because of the presence of a the burial detail that Gardner produced only one negative of this group of bodies. Glass-plate negatives of the Civil War period were not sensitive enough to stop motion, and all movement produced a noticeable blur on the finished plate. The burial party was willing to halt its activities for one exposure, but they probably would not have tolerated successive interruptions (p. 146).

It is worth noting in this context that Frassanito believes this photograph was taken on September 19, 1862, two days after the battle, and no doubt the bodies had begun to ripen a bit. Indeed, one can tell from the image that they had already started bloating substantially. So the burial detail was probably in a hurry to complete its work.

“Ok, but why this photo?” you may ask.

The composition and the lighting of this image intrigue me. More than half of the photograph is consumed by the sky. The North Woods also take up a substantial portion of the image. The burial party only occupies a small part of the photograph, something that seems to diminish the group’s significance. At the same time the lighting looks dim. The forest in the distance appears to be slightly obscured by mist. Was it cloudy or humid that day? Was the glass negative underexposed? Whatever the case, the image is a bit on the dark side.

There is also the attitude of the soldiers in the burial party.

Many of them wear grim expressions, but their postures are casual, and they look for all the world like a department of public works crew watching a steamroller smooth out a newly laid pavement.

And finally, there are the poor dead.

They are twisted, bloated, and mutilated. Some of the bodies are so badly damaged that they are covered by blankets. They are human wreckage.

To my mind (and I understand if others don’t see it), there are several incongruities in this image. On the one hand, there is something awful, special, and portentous here. A small portion of the 3,700 men slaughtered near Sharpsburg are being buried. Collected from where they fell, their broken bodies lie in a sad row. The lighting literally suggests a darkness has descended across the land. And yet, on the other hand, the composition appears to minimize the significance of the event. The burial detail and its task seem unimportant when measured against the size of the sky. Moreover, the stances of the burial party do not suggest reverence. Rather, they look like they are performing a mundane and unpleasant task. Death here, then, is important due to its significance and yet unimportant because it is commonplace.

This image puts me in mind of Snowden’s “secret” in Catch-22. In what is the climactic scene of the novel (sorry, here comes a spoiler), Yossarian realizes in the most awful way that Snowden is not merely suffering from a wound “as large as a football” on his outer thigh. In addition, “a chunk of flak more than three inches big had shot into his [Snowden’s] other side just underneath the arm and blasted all the way through, drawing whole mottled quarts of Snowden along with it through the gigantic hole in his ribs it made as it blasted out.” As a result of this wound, “Snowden’s insides slithered down to the floor in a soggy pile and just kept dripping out.” It is at this moment that Yossarian makes a discovery.

[He] gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret. Ripeness was all.

It’s a prosaic truth but no less awful for being prosaic and true. And for me, this photo captures the awful and prosaic truth of death during the Civil War.