Saturday, January 21, 2023

New Enlistee’s Camp Life Reflections – T R Sterns – 29th Wisconsin Infantry

 What was life like for a newly enlisted Union soldier?
    The following transcript of a letter by Thomas Rescum Sterns, enlisted Aug.1862, to his wife Lavinia [in Iowa University Digital Library – Civil War Diaries and Letters] has some interesting perspectives on camp life’s challenges:

Camp Randall, Madison, Wis. Sept 24, 1862

Dear wife 
    I take the pleasure of writing a few lines to you to let you know how thing are here in camp. We arrived here last Saturday about 8 o'clock in the evening. After we arrived each one eat his allowance and went to repose. Our bunks as they are called are just wide enough for two to sleep in. In which is put about a handful of straw and then we spread down a blanket and crawl on that and spread another over and in this we start for the land of dreams. After we arrived here on Saturday night, we ate our supper and the next morning we had our breakfast about noon. I have a headache today caused from the loss of sleep being on guard duty last night but when I get my regular sleep again, I shall be all right. My duty was last night when on guard was to guard prisoners, that is men from our regiment that got drunk and was shut up in the guard house. We had three last night but none from our company. 
    Tell Mrs. Parsons that if she take the blanket back again I will much obliged as I drew one and shall not want more than one. I merely speak of it for she will be looking for the money for it. I cannot get a furlough until we are mustered in U. S. service which we expect to be this week and if we are I think I can get home next week and when I come, I shall bring home all of my old clothes for I expect to get my uniform as soon as we are mustered into U. S. service. The 29th is all here in camp now we are quartered new barracks. For breakfast we have bread, meat and tea or coffee. For dinner coffee, bread and meat. For supper meat, bread and coffee. Sometimes we have in addition to the above potatoes or beans. 
    I suppose you have heard what news there has been. I have not heard much and all I have heard is the President has issued a proclamation declaring all slaves free after the 1st of Jan, and also for 400,000 more troops. 
    Everybody that wants to hear from me must write me a letter and I will answer it; for if I have any more regular correspondents than I have got some of them will get neglected. I shall have five regular correspondents. They are yourself, mother, George, aunts [Huldah?] and [Bethia?]. I have not time nor space to write much more this time. Next time I will try to write something about this city as I have not seen much of it yet. Write as soon as you get this for I shall want to hear from home soon. If I should not get home next week, it would be lonesome if I should not hear from you. How is the little boy? No more at present. so good bye. 

From your Husband, Rescum 
Direct yours to Camp Randall Madison Wis. If you direct as I have told you I will get it for I am acquainted with the P. M.

    Camp Randall, in Madison, Wisconsin was established in 1861 and named after governor Alexander Randall who served from 1858 to 1861.  (Guess it has always paid to be a politician.)  It served as a training facility for over 70,000 recruits from the area during the Civil War.  Here they received basic training, uniforms and gear.  But they did not get weapons until they arrived at federal depots in other states.  During the course of the war 27 infantry regiments trained at Camp Randall as well as nine heavy artillery companies, two batteries of light artillery and a company of sharpshooters.  The army also set up a hospital there.  In the spring of 1862, it served briefly as prisoner-of-war camp.  Today there is an arch monument erected in 1912 by veterans of the war, and a marker to the confederate dead buried in Forest Hill Cemetery; at least as I write this, the monuments haven’t been torn down yet.

    Thomas Rescum Sterns was born January 18, 1839 in Amsterdam NY.  He married Lavinia on April 25, 1860 in Jefferson County, Wisconsin.  He farmed and also taught in the local school.  In August 1862 he enlisted for a three year service, received a $25 bounty and was mustered in as a private in Company F of the 29th Wisconsin Infantry on Sept.27.
    Sterns’ letter gives a brief glimpse into camp life from an enlisted man’s perspective.  Sleeping quarters sound luxurious, don’t they?  Food rations actually seem pretty good.  Wonder if it was all organic?  Evidently there were a few ‘troubled souls’ that had signed up, which had to be held in confinement until they ‘slept it off’.  Interesting that he wants to return the blanket bought with ‘credit’ since he has gotten a government issue one.
    There is mention of the Emancipation Proclamation issued on Sept.22, 1862 to go into effect on Jan.1, 1863.  Sterns does not have an accurate understanding of the details of Lincoln’s executive order (it only freed slaves in states in rebellion against the government), but shows it was evidently a topic of conversation at the camp.
    Again, we see that he highly prized letters.  He assures his wife he will write regularly to certain correspondents.  And he will try to answer letters from others as he gets them.  McCown says that Sterns wrote at least 77 letters to his wife (Books at Iowa, p.38), so we see Sterns was diligent in correspondence with Lavinia until he died Sept.2, 1863.

    The Patriotic Envelope -- The saying printed on it:
            The union of lakes -- the union of lands -- the Union of States none can Sever
            The union of hearts -- the union of hands -- the Flag of our Union Forever

                Sold by Bliss, Eberhard & Festner  Madison
    Since he is in Madison WI, it makes sense that Sterns bought this envelope from a local merchant, maybe even the printer directly. 

        The stamp position: I've always heard an upside down stamp means "I love you".  Did just a bit of research on stamp positions and found that meaning varies with time period as well as position like straight or at an angle etc.  At one angle it could mean "Do you still love me?".  At another angle it could mean "Write no more", which obviously Sterns does not mean. And people could have their own personal messages via the stamp's placement on the envelope.  So I will not pontificate on the meaning of the stamp Sterns put on the letter.

Children’s Projects:
1) Explore a bit about the Emancipation Proclamation that President Lincoln issued.  No, it did not resolve the issue of slavery.  But it was an honest step in that direction, and led to the 13th amendment being adopted in 1865.  In an imperfect world, steps in a good direction should be praised, not condemned “because it didn’t go far enough”.
2) Should the post-war monuments erected on the site to the Wisconsin veterans and also the confederate dead prisoners of war be torn down?  Discuss the attack on American history being waged today.  Or ignore it, to your children’s future detriment.  As I always say to spectators at Civil War reenactments:  Study history, learn from it, improve upon it.  Do not white wash it.  Also do not erase it.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Sleep Lovely Youth of Infant Years, Death Claims Thee for His Own

In the 1800s a common saying upon the death of a child was: “The Lord has spared the child the trials and tribulations of this world.”  The following is a poem written by Maria Gilbert Webber as she grieved the loss of her young daughter, March 14th, 1840.  I read this poem at the memorial service for my grandson, Jedidiah who died at birth on January 15, 2018.  Maria’s poem reached across the years to touch and encourage hearts 178 years later.  Read the poem, and then the information background to see why I value exploring history.

Sleep lovely youth of infant years,
Death claims thee for his own;
That form so charming to our view,
From our embrace is torn.
Thine infant prattle oft had cheered
A mother’s happy home;
Thy riper age in hope appeared,
That age can never come.

The hope of future years thou wast,
A father’s joy and pride;
The idol of his heart – sweet child,
Would that thou had’st not died.
Oft have they watched thy growing charms,
Thy mind’s expanding grace –
The sweetness of thy smiles had won,
What time could ne’er erase.

The deep affection of their hearts;
Love of the purest cast,
The anxious care of sleepless nights,
The soul’s eternal fate;
Yet none of these could e’er avert
Death’s arrow from its mark;
The summons came – disease was there,
To quench the vital spark.

Angelic form! Human, divine!
Thy spirit has winged its flight.
Now robbed in righteousness alone,
It sheds ethereal light.
Bles’d spirit we would not call thee hence,
To thee we fain would go –
Our Father’s there – our Saviour too, --
How mournful all below.

Our Father did we say was there?
To us, is ‘the promise’ good?
Our Saviour too!  These souls of ours--
Have they been washed in blood?
They were purchased by the Son of God:
Lord seal them with Thy blood;
Let justifying faith be ours –
And fill our hearts with love.

Fill these our mourning hearts with peace,
Shed on them healing grace.
Give us Thy Spirit for our guide,
Grant we may see Thy face.
And when from earth Thou us remove,
Be heaven our destined home,
Where sin and sorrow ever cease,
And death can never come.

In that blest region of the skies,
We’ll join angelic lays,
We’ll spend eternity home,
In chanting Heavenly praise.

History of this poem
    This poem is from the journal of Maria Gilbert Webber, the mother of Samuel Gilbert Webber who was a Civil War Union Navy assistant surgeon.  A friend of mine bought a collection of Samuel Webber’s Civil War letters which also had the journal among the items.  He gave the journal to me as a Christmas gift in 1996 because he thought it would give me a resource in exploring thoughts and attitudes about life and faith prior to the Civil War.  I had no idea then that a poem written so long ago would be an encouragement to my family in our time of loss of a child.
    “Samuel Gilbert Webber was born July 24, 1838 in Boston, Massachusetts, son of Aaron D. and Maria (Gilbert) Webber. He graduated from Harvard with a bachelor's degree in 1860. Webber joined the Union navy in 1862 as an assistant surgeon. He served on board the receiving ship Ohio in 1862 and then on Rhode Island in December 1862. He later served aboard the ironclad Nahant. In February 1864 he was again on board the Rhode Island. He was on board while Rhode Island was towing US Steam Battery Monitor toward Wilmington, NC, a voyage that was interrupted by the sinking of the ironclad. He married Nancy Pope Sturtevant in 1864 and mustered out of the Navy a year later. Harvard awarded Webber his medical degree in 1865; his experience in the Navy took the place of actual classes. He continued study for two years in Vienna, Austria and returned to Boston. Webber served in various hospitals, clinics and medical schools in the Boston area and lived in Boston suburbs. He was appointed member of the first faculty of the Tufts College Medical School, and finally retired from all appointments in 1917, at age 79. Webber died on December 5, 1926.” [quoted from the Mariner’s Museum & Park Letters Archival Collection]
    The journal has on its first page a notation that Samuel Gilbert gave it to his daughter, Maria Gilbert on November 3, 1831 with this inscription "May you grow up in virtue and goodness, prove an ornament to society, and live to a good old age, is the prayer of your parents".  Later in the journal is the notation that she at age 21 married Aaron D Webber at age 29 on Oct.29, 1835.  Maria wrote on a variety of topics, some in poetic form, others in just regular script.  She has entries on family relationships, hardships, prayer, faith in Christ, loss of loved ones, as well as some quotes from other people which she found inspirational and wanted to preserve for herself. She wrote poems celebrating the birth of her first child, a daughter named Maria, born on Oct.7th 1836 and then of Samuel (the Union Navy assistant surgeon) born July 24th, 1838.
    Then comes the poem quoted above when her daughter dies of “dropsy on the brain” on March 14th 1840.  There is also a second poem about her struggle with grief over the death of her daughter.  Among later entries by her are ones about two other children who also died at young ages, one 3 days old and another a year and half old.  Through all her experiences of sadness shines her faith in the Lord and His strength to help her walk through the valley of the shadow of death.  Her son who did live to grow up, Samuel Gilbert Weber, learned from his mother a deep faith in Jesus as his letters show.

Encouragement to my family through Maria’s poem
    When my son asked me to do the memorial service for my grandson, Jedidiah Josiah Rowe, who had died at birth, I remembered reading Maria’s poem years ago and wanted to use her words as a part of the message I would share.  I had to hunt up the journal which the Lord was kind in helping me find.  I read Maria’s’ poem at the beginning of the message.  After the service I had several people mention that they found the poem helpful and encouraging in dealing with the loss of Jedidiah. 
    So the Lord used the grief mixed with faith of a woman from 178 years ago to help my family and friends as we faced a similar loss of a young child.  God gave my family this providential gift of encouragement.  Maria’s daughter and my grandson are both in heaven by the forgiving grace that comes through Jesus.  Maria is with her daughter because as an adult she chose to put her faith in Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross – His shed blood.  My grandson is with his grandma, my wife Vicki who died in 2016 because she put her faith in Jesus.  Someday because I trust in what Jesus did on the cross, I look forward to seeing my wife and my grandson at the tent in heaven.  And I also look forward to meeting Maria Gilbert Webber, and thanking her for her gift to my family.  Discovering her family story gave some aid and comfort to my family story.  Who would imagine that exploring history would be so helpful?  

    “At the tent in heaven” is one of our family sayings.  It originated from a post that I put up on Facebook shortly after my wife Vicki died.  I said it would not surprise me if she had already setup just inside Heaven’s gate a tent where she was welcoming newcomers in with “Welcome Home! God’s love is free and so is this! Come on in and get something to eat and a nice cold cup of lemonade!”  The reenactors who knew her and had often been to our tent at reenactments agreed.  And among my grandkids the saying became “Can’t wait to see Grandma at the tent in Heaven.”
    Well on the day that Jedidiah died we gathered as a family in the hospital room with many tears and hugs, trying to encourage each other.  My eldest grandson Jonas, came over to me and gave me a hug and was crying.  As I hugged him, I said “your brother is with Grandma at the tent in Heaven.”  He looked up at me and exclaimed “Then he’s alright!  She’ll take really good care of him!”  I said “yes, she will teach him to make lemonade and serve goodies just like she taught you.”  For Jonas it was a visual that gave him comfort that his young brother was OK, even as we grieved over our loss of Jedidiah.

    The poem is not copyrighted.  Feel free to pass it along to someone else who might be encouraged by reading it.  But please also share the background of Maria Gilbert Webber as that will make it more meaningful to people who read it.