Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Overland House Letters of William Beynon Phillips

William Beynon Phillips was a Union officer of the Civil War.  On July 30, 1864, he was taken prisoner at the Crater.  He spent the final eight months of the war as a prisoner of war at Camp Asylum in Columbia, South Carolina.

Following the end of the Civil War, William settled in the Welsh community of Hyde Park, Pennsylvania; married his sweetheart, Annie, and started a family.  A daughter was born in 1866 and a son in 1868.  By all appearances, his life was normal.  He started a successful store with his brother-in-law and there were no signs of the trouble that would follow.

But soon, everything changed. Like many other Union veterans tortured by their war experience, William Phillips opted to leave behind his prewar life and kin, heading west to San Francisco.  It was there that this highly educated and well-read man of great ability rented a room in the Overland House and took up work painting houses.  He also began soothing his woes with alcohol.  In two extant letters that he wrote to Annie, William Phillips describes in wrenching detail his desperate battle with alcoholism.   Here is the first of the letters and the first of a series of posts about Phillips.  Thanks to reader Greg Taylor for his willingness to share these letters with the public. 


Overland House, San Francisco

Thursday Evening, Nov.13th 1873.

My Dear Annie, Minnie, Nellie & little Johnny,

I was made most happy on Tuesday Evening by receiving your letter dated the 30th Oct and to find that you were all well, you can’t imagine how anxious I had been looking for a letter from you.  I went steady, every night, since the Thursday previous, to the letter box and went away each time disappointed until I got it, and I found it an oasis in a great desert where I was most abundantly refreshed and restored.  I was in the blues all day on Sunday, Monday & Tuesday was pretty blue too, but yesterday and today is brighter to me by far- so you can see what effect your letter has, and also the importance of being prompt in answering.  I am very glad that Minnie has a home and that she able to form syllables she & her little sister go to school.  Oh! How much I would give if I could see the little darlings, every child almost I meet on the streets, I cast a longing look after trying for some resemblance to little Minnie, Nellie or John Fofalus.  The only place that I can get any satisfaction is at a great doll store on Kearney St.  I pass there every night for there is a doll in the window that resembles Minnie, or at least I think so, and that’s enough.  Don’t force school too much on little Nell, she is too young yet, and besides being so precocious it may hurt her.  I am very proud that Johnny is so healthy & fat.  You must be very careful that he don’t get the comp.  Keep something on hand for it, for fear, the little darling, how much I would like to see him?  I was glad to hear that Mirna and her husband now, of course, had decided on that very important step, I wish them much joy and that their voyage of life will be a happy & prosperous one and that they will be abundantly blessed.  I should have liked very much to be on hand, having seen Sue & Jenna off, and of course (yourself).  There is no one left now but Johnnie & when he walks the gang-plank I suppose he will dispense with the family to a certain extent.

I presume the weather in Penn. is cold & frosty, perhaps you have snow.  It is wonderful fine here; everything is green & in full bloom, the gardens are growing, and you can see them cultivate cabbages, turnips, carrots, radish etc. etc. as if it was the height of summer.  I was painting a gentleman’s house today and we had to throw sheeting over the flowers at the base of the house, so as not to daub them with paint spots.  Every place we paint almost we have to deal gently with the sides and front of the house so as not to hurt the flowers and creeping vines.  It is a wonderful climate, in fact the Italy of the American continent- I am getting along swimmingly with my trade, and am not, already, ashamed to stand my work alongside of old hands.  I spent this afternoon painting green blinds same size as on father’s front parlor windows.  I can paint a pair of them, both sides, in 10 minutes, that’s good work, “you can bet your life”.  They are particular in painting here.  Every little crack or hole, or flaw, or roughness has to be puttied & color laid even; when I have a little time I shall draw you a front elevation & plan of the houses in general here, they look splendid, I tell you, nobody has a garden around his house, the front sides, and rear being dedicated to grass, fruits, and flowers; vegetables are so cheap and abundant and always in season that it don’t pay-  There is also no canning of fruit-no need of it; they don’t have any cellars either, no need of ice in summer nor protection from frost in winter, the basement is generally made into a wine room & cooking room, and place for the help to work in.  There is no need of depending for rain, and you would not get it if you did, only in it’s season which is about now commencing.  They have hydrants and plenty of water from top to bottom and running pipes all over the ground to which they attach hose and sprinkling snozzle  to keep the grass, plants, and flowers in moisture.

Friday evening: I missed the a.m.

There is great excitement here just now over a great race to come off at Oakland (just across the bay) for $20,000.00.  There are five entries; “True Blue”, “Hubbard”, “Joe Daniels”, & “Thad Stevens”.  The last horse is a Californian.  They are to run on Saturday, 4 miles & repeat.  One man has given $2500.00 for the privilege of selling pools and another fellow has baked for one tent of (unintelligible) 600 loaves of bread.  The California horse was offered in Frisco once for S150, and now $25,000 will not buy him.  You need not think by this that I am a sporting character, nor that I am going to the race-I won’t go—-

I heed your caution about the drinking and comply with your request about a pledge to Maggie which you will find enclosed, and by the grace of God I will continually pray that I will keep it.  I hesitated to give it for I had promised you so often and broke them that I was dubious about doing so to Maggie being afraid that I has not purpose enough to stand firmly, the habit having such a hold on me and also being so sensitive about it that I was to all intents ruined, yet I hope again to stand on my feet again and stay so.  I hope that you will pray for me and am very proud of your kind words to me that your love for me is as fresh as ever.  Mine is stronger to you, my dearest, than ever it was and I hope & pray the time will come around quickly when I can again have you and me and the little ones on our own hearthstone happy and prosperous.  I must draw my letter to a close, it is bedtime for me half an hour ago.  I send a father’s loving kisses to my dear little Minnie, Willie and John.  I let you know that I will write you again Sunday Evening.  I have just read the papers and make the request that you please go to Scranton and have an ambrotype, without case, taken of yourself and children and send me in your next letter, don’t delay for I am anxious to have it , it will do me good.  Put it in a letter, and it will come through all right. Give my respects to Father and Mother and Johnnie and the rest without mentioning names, except “brother Peck and sister Peck. I mention them, being newcomers, and being yet in the “anxious seat”.

Now dear love, I send you my warmest love and affection, how happy I would be to meet you but it is yet distant, but hope buoys me hope, and faith keeps me hopeful. Good night, my dear wife, and God have you in his tender keep.  Your loving husband,



Tagged ,

The Northern Home Front

Earlier this week, I spent a profitable afternoon at the New Jersey Historical Society in downtown Newark.  The Marcus L. Ward Papers are incredibly rich, and I will be sharing some of my findings from that collection in forthcoming posts.  What struck me during my visit, however, is how under-appreciated and little utilized local and state historical societies really are.

New Jersey Historical Society, Newark

A private, not for profit organization, the New Jersey Historical Society operates with a shoestring budget, employing only one part time librarian who keeps the place running three afternoons each week.  Sadly, budget and staffing cuts are the norm at state historical societies across the country.  I have encountered similar situations at the Ohio, Indiana, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine Historical Societies.  In several of these places, I was the lone researcher.

There is an unspoken assumption that local and state historical societies are more the province of antiquarians and genealogists than they are the dominion of academic historians.  Especially in Civil War studies, the utility of a research trip to Barre, Vermont, or Providence, Rhode Island is not readily apparent.  Hopefully, as we continue to apply the tools of social and cultural history to the Civil War era, this will no longer be the case. Some of the most important tasks I see on the horizon for emerging Civil War historians are northern community and town studies.

The social history revolution missed Civil War studies when it exploded in the 1960s and 1970s, but fortunately, historians are increasingly turning in that direction, filling a huge void in the literature.  Nicole Etcheson’s study of a single county in Indiana during the war is a fine example of what we have left to learn about the northern home front.  John Neff is also finishing up an autopsy of Civil War memory in the all-important city of Chicago, which promises to be a signal addition to the literature.  I look forward to serious books about Cleveland, Ohio; Boston, Massachusetts; and the all but neglected upper Midwest during the war and the peace.  The oft-repeated statement “there is nothing new to learn about the Civil War” has never been so erroneous.


“A Veteran’s Death, The Nation’s Shame”

My friend Ian Isherwood, a specialist of World War I who is currently teaching history at Gettysburg College, sent me a link to this article from the New York Times Sunday Review.  The article points out that on average, an American soldier dies every day and a half in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Veterans, however, take their lives at a staggering rate of one every eighty minutes.  Nearly 6,500 veteran suicides are reported each year.

 We are only now beginning to appreciate the realities of suicide after the American Civil War.  In tiny communities throughout the North in the immediate aftermath of Appomattox, veterans decided to escape the postwar once and for all.  Col. W.A. Cameron, an ex-artillerist who was “at times deranged in consequence of a wound received while in the army,” succeeded in taking his own life in Cincinnati. A bad leg wound similarly depressed Horace Acker, the veteran of a New York regiment who took to wandering after the war and somehow made his way to Hillsdale, Michigan. One Sunday afternoon, Acker found a tree near the barn of one George Merritt and hanged himself with a rope. “His wound troubled him so much that he could not work, and being without means to live on, with no friends able to provide for him, he became low-spirited and despondent.” The inquest determined that this “no doubt caused him to take this rash step.” Chillingly, one Hoosier veteran who wrote an editorial about the incident suggested that there were few among a generally scornful and “suspicious” citizenry who would have done anything to save Acker’s life — hyperbole that nonetheless revealed his intense distrust of civilians and feelings of isolation.

In November 1865, Philadelphia police discovered the body of Herman Powell, writhing in mortal agony beside a recently discharged carbine, in the dank Walnut Street basement where the ex-cavalryman boarded. A neighbor reported that Powell was insolvent and “had no money to buy food.” The fifteen cents found in his pocket and a suicide note confirmed the neighbor’s report. Described as “insane,” one Massachusetts veteran placed his army discharge papers on his person as a surrogate suicide letter before ingesting a lethal dose of rat poison, while in New York City, a disturbed ex-soldier donned his blue uniform one last time and waited on the tracks of the Hudson River Railroad for an oncoming Poughkeepsie Express locomotive to crush his body.

The pain of readjustment that confronts the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan has a long, tortured, and painful history.  Wars do not simply end; they haunt, they vex, and they linger.

Marcus L. Ward, “The Soldier’s Friend”

Well, I survived my qualifying exams and am a newly minted Ph.D. candidate.  So I will not only be back to my regular posting here at Grand Army Blog, but will now be working on “When Billy Came Marching Home” full time.  Indeed, tomorrow morning I am off to Newark, New Jersey, to examine the Marcus Lawrence Ward Papers at the New Jersey Historical Society.  Ward, who served as New Jersey’s twenty first governor from 1866 to 1869, was known after the war as “The Soldier’s Friend.”  He devoted much of his public life to laboring on behalf of Union veterans and their families, operating “Marcus L. Ward’s Office for Soldiers” in Room No. 2 of Newark’s Post Office Building.  Veterans throughout New Jersey and the mid-Atlantic region wrote heartrending letters to Ward seeking pecuniary support, aid with pension claims, or assistance with housing.  The governor also played a key role in establishing the New Jersey State Soldier’s Home, which housed hundreds of physically and mentally scarred ex-soldiers.

Thank you for your patience this past week.  It is good to be back.


Oral Exams Loom

Greetings, Grand Army Blog followers.

There will be a brief hiatus in posting this week as I make some final preparations for my Ph.D. qualifying exams.  Next Tuesday, April 17, I will take the two-hour oral exam with advisors David Blight, Joanne Freeman, and Bruno Cabanes, covering about 250 titles and three centuries of U.S. history and historiography.  This is a ritual that is at once arcane and eminently useful.  Learning how to synthesize huge chunks of material into two or three minute sound bytes is, unfortunately, so much of what we do in this profession.  Semester long surveys of U.S. history, for example, might allow the instructor to discuss Reconstruction in one or two lectures.  The qualifying exam is as much a test of one’s ability to craft a convincing meta-narrative as it is an exercise in mastering dates, arguments, and interpretive impasses.

Once the exam is behind me, I will be back to regular posts and will be able to think about Union veterans and Civil War memory full time.  Thank you for your understanding.

The Power of the Blogosphere

Hosting the Grand Army Blog has been incredibly exciting for me thus far.  For quite some time, I  contemplated the launch of a blog, but only after some recent prodding from Kevin Levin did I decide to give it a try.   What ultimately convinced me was Kevin waxing eloquently about the role that blogging played in shaping his questions and testing the conclusions that he was reaching in his own scholarship.  Indeed, Kevin’s forthcoming book on the battle of the Crater and historical memory, which I eagerly await, may be the first academic monograph “written” on a blog.

After scarcely two weeks on the blog rolls, I now understand the power of this medium to inform scholarly work and historical research.  And I sincerely hope that other academic historians, who routinely lament the increasingly limited appeal of their work, will consider joining me in this enterprise. Ten posts have already generated nearly three-dozen comments from fellow students of Civil War history, including several source leads.  I have started a dialogue about the tension between veterans and civilians with a Ph.D. student in Pittsburgh that I likely would not have had otherwise.  And my work has reached readers as far away as Australia and the Philippines.

But the most meaningful exchange that I have had thus far is with Greg Taylor, a gentleman from California whose great-great grandfather saw action at the Crater, spent time in a rebel prison, wandered west after the war, became an alcoholic, and died in the San Francisco City Jail.

Greg has very generously shared with me several letters that his great-great grandfather wrote from San Francisco.  I not only plan on using these incredible sources in my dissertation, but I will be providing them here on the blog in the coming days.  I hope to contextualize the heartrending story of Greg’s ancestor and to share it with the wide audience that it deserves.  If I achieve nothing else here, I will have succeeded.

Thanks for following.

Restoring an African-American GAR Hall

Check out this Blog Talk Radio interview about the ongoing efforts to restore the Charles Sumner Post No. 25 GAR Hall in Kent County, Maryland.  The Sumner Post was an all-black post and African-American veterans constructed the building, which was completed in 1908.  Only one other GAR Hall erected by black veterans remains standing.

Last year, Barbara Gannon gave us a fine treatment of African-Americans in the Grand Army of the Republic, the nation’s first truly interracial fraternal organization.  Gannon insists that interracial bonds of comradeship, forged at places like Ft. Wagner and Olustee, survived the war intact.  I highly recommend her book, The Won Cause, which not only received a richly deserved Honorable Mention for the 2012 Lincoln Prize, but was a finalist for the Museum of the Confederacy’s Jefferson Davis Award.   Barb’s book is one more in a growing list of titles challenging the “road to reunion” thesis.

Tagged , , ,

Bloody Shirt Politics

This past weekend, I presented a paper about the lives of Union veterans at Drew University.  My friend Justin Causey, a fellow Gettysburg College graduate who is working on his Ph.D. with historian C. Wyatt Evans, planned the event, which was organized around the theme of “The Future of Civil War History.” Joining me on a panel about reimagining the boundaries of the Civil War metanarrative were friends and colleagues Evan Rothera of the Richards Center at Penn State and Matthew Norman, a professor of history at the University of Cincinnati.  

After our panel, the audience posed great questions.  One audience member asked a question that has been troubling me for quite some time.  If Union veterans were routinely marginalized and dismissed by postwar society, what, then, explains the effectiveness of the “bloody shirt” politics of the late 1860s and 1870s?  I do not yet have a convincing answer for this question.  Perhaps northern civilians were simply all too capable of separating a lingering disdain for what they perceived as a treasonous rebellion from any sustained effort to grapple with the horrific consequences of the war.  Or perhaps “waving the bloody shirt” was simply crass political opportunism, intended to sway the votes of veterans themselves, the most significant voting bloc in postwar America.  There is, of course, no shortage of scholars ready to point out the superficiality of bloody shirt rhetoric after the Civil War.  Indeed, one distinction I hope to draw in my dissertation is the difference between “waving the bloody shirt” and living with a bloody shirt.  For the many who fell into the latter category, the charged political rhetoric of the postwar period was no doubt just that – rhetoric.

Again, I am not really satisfied with any of these answers.  What do you think?

Tagged , , ,

Counting Costs

Yesterday the New York Times’ Science page featured an article about J. David Hacker’s recent study that has revised upward the long-accepted casualty count of 620,000.  This is well-deserved publicity for Hacker and for Civil War History, the leading scholarly journal in our field.  Hacker’s study reminds us that numbers are politics.  The quest to determine precisely the social impact of the Civil War is nothing new, however — something Hacker readily admits.  Such estimates consumed blue-coated ex-soldiers in the late nineteenth century, and as such Hacker joins distinguished company, including Union veterans Thomas Leonard Livermore, Thomas Brown, and William Fox.

Gustavus Gessner

Ex-prisoners of war were particularly determined to right the record books.  Perhaps nobody was more committed to the project than Ohio Union Ex-Prisoner of War Association President Gustavus Gessner, who maintained meticulous records of the dead by corresponding with other rebel prison pen survivors. Gessner became particularly incensed when Frederick Phisterer published his Statistical Record in 1883, a supplement to Scribner’s “Campaigns of the Civil War” series.  Phisterer neglected to include death tolls for several rebel prison hells – including Cahaba, Alabama; Florence, South Carolina; and Millen, Georgia.  “As I have held before, it should be the chief duty of the Prisoner of War Association to insist that these figures shall be corrected, or that there shall be an official admission at least of their gross inaccuracy,” he wrote to Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln. The National Association of Union Ex-Prisoners of War echoed with a resolution condemning Phisterer the following year.

By disputing mortality rates, survivors responded to those who sought to reconcile Civil War prisons.  “The most convincing proof of the truth of the story of . . . sufferings endured by the Union prisoners of war is the appalling death rate which prevailed in the various prisons of the South,” Gessner explained.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that in the wake of a new generation of exciting scholarship that has reached beneath the sanitized narrative of Civil War to reveal new dimensions of human anguish, misery, and torment, we once again turn to numbers.  Somewhere,  Gustavus Gessner and his comrades are nodding approvingly.

Tagged , ,
%d bloggers like this: