Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Civil War Relic Paperback Book


By E. M. Sanchez-Saavedra

Among the scarcest relics of the Civil War that pitted U.S. Federal armies against the determined forces of the breakaway Southern Confederacy are ephemeral paper items with known use in the field. These range from personal letters and documents, operational maps and dispatches, to books and magazines that somehow survived the rigors of wet tents, haversacks full of rancid pork, combat and ordinary wear and tear. Reading matter would circulate from hand to hand until it fell to pieces, and the scraps often served as everything from tinder to wrapping paper to toilet tissue.

Glenn Tucker’s High Tide at Gettysburg: The Campaign in Pennsylvania (The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1958) pp. 69-70, gives us a glimpse of Civil War reading habits in the Federal army as seen by a Southern reporter for the Daily Richmond Examiner, June 23, 1863.

In June 1863, after Union General Joseph Hooker abandoned his encampments along the Rappahannock River,

The Richmond Examiner sent a correspondent to Stafford Heights to study the Federal army by what it had left behind. The heights above the Rappahannock were a desolation, stripped of trees and fuel, littered with “innumerable dead horses and men” and camp debris.

Besides tons of foodstuffs in edible condition, the Federals had left behind fancy articles and luxury items, including books and periodicals.

The Richmond scribe had a pleasant time scanning the reading material. He discovered in the officers’ quarters occasional copies of the Atlantic and Harper’s but found that “their literature for the most part is of the lowest and most depraved character.” More specifically, “the works of licentious French authors, and the blood and thunder productions of Ned Buntline and Sylvanus Cobb, Jr., were strewed about as thick as autumnal leaves in Vallambrose.” This literature, he told Southern readers, showed “the most dissolute and abandoned” characteristics of the Army of the Potomac.”

Like many another useful commodity, reading matter often became a spoil of war. Enemy newspapers were highly prized for both their military intelligence and for their entertainment value. On June 3, 1862, the Daily Richmond Examiner advertised:

FOR SALE -- YANKEE CURIOSITY -- A copy of FRANK LESLIE's ILLUSTRATED NEWSPAPER of May 1st, captured on the battlefield last Saturday, containing Yankee scenes and pictures of the war. Enquire at Examiner Office.

Recently, an example of a “licentious French” novel owned by a young Federal soldier has come to light. (Despite the jaundiced reporting by the Confederate journalist, most French novels were respectable adventure novels by Alexandre Dumas, psychological thrillers by Victor Hugo, Vidocq’s Memoirs and melodramatic potboilers by Eugene Sue (1804-1857). The prolific Sue, the wastrel son of a wealthy surgeon, turned to journalism and fiction to pay off his debts. He soon espoused socialist ideas, embodied in his best-known work Les Mysteres de Paris of 1842-1843. This long novel spawned a flood of urban “Mystery” novels by Harrison Ainsworth in England and by George Lippard and Ned Buntline (E.Z.C. Judson) in the U.S.

One of Eugene Sue’s novels came into the possession of a teenaged soldier who proudly signed his name and unit designation on the cover and title page of the thick paperback. The 194-page book, measuring 6 x 9 ½ inches, is the first volume of an ambitious nineteen-volume work entitled The Mysteries of the People, which appeared between 1849 and 1857. It is a forerunner of the sprawling novels later written by James A. Michener, concerning the adventures of a “proletarian” family from remote antiquity in ancient Gaul up to the revolution of 1848. Slurs against the Jesuits and political revelations led to the book’s suppression by agents of the Third Empire.

Sue’s florid and often brutal novels became a mainstay of cheap publishers in Europe and America. In 1850, New York bookseller Ransom Garrett formed a co-partnership with William B. Dick and Lawrence R. Fitzgerald under the firm name of Garrett & Co. The company specialized in self-help manuals and cheap reprints of English and European novels. In July 1857, Garrett retired and the publishing house was renamed Dick & Fitzgerald. The edition of The Mysteries of the People under consideration here has a “Garrett & Co.” wrapper, but a “Dick & Fitzgerald” title page and a ten-page Dick & Fitzgerald catalogue. Since the catalogue includes Mrs. Henry Wood’s novel East Lynne, it was probably printed in 1861 or 1862. The firm continued until 1917.

In August 1862 an eighteen-year-old Ohioan named Edwin Augustus Lee enlisted in the Union Army. He was mustered into the 115th Ohio Volunteer Infantry at Camp Massillon, Ohio, on September 18, 1862. The regiment had a large proportion of skilled mechanics and artisans in its ranks. It was facetiously called the “Second Methodist Regiment” because of its preponderance of Methodists, including clergymen. Its first year of service consisted chiefly in guarding forts, arsenals, storehouses and magazines in Ohio and Kentucky, until ordered to Chattanooga, Tennessee in October 1863. The regiment became a part of the huge Army of the Cumberland and was assigned variously to the 12th and 20th Corps, 2nd Division. Much of its service involved maintaining vital railroad lines and bridges on the Nashville and Chattanooga R.R. during the 1864 siege of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The unit was mustered out on June 23, 1865, having lost one officer and eight enlisted men mortally wounded, and four officers and 138 enlisted men to disease.

Lee was assigned to Company F, which was made up of two companies too small to muster alone, raised in Decatur and Ramsey, Ohio.

Private Edwin A. Lee survived the war and became an accountant. In March 1867 he moved to Canton, Ohio, where he served as deputy county auditor under the former adjutant of the 115th Infantry, Henry C. Ellison. He became chairman of the Republican County Committee. From 1873 to 1875 he served as Auditor of Stark County, Canton Ohio.

In his official capacity he came to know another Union army veteran, a young lawyer and later prosecuting attorney (and later U.S. President) named William McKinley. Both men had been born in 1843 and had had similar life experiences. On January 25, 1871, E.A. Lee attended McKinley’s wedding to miss Ida Saxton at the First Presbyterian Church of Canton, Ohio. After McKinley’s assassination in 1901, Lee wrote a short article about the nuptials for The National Magazine.

Lee’s later career is obscure. According to his short article “I traveled West for a number of years, but whether in Portland, Oregon, or El Paso, Texas, the name of McKinley reached me.” Lee was a member of the renomination committee in 1900, and accompanied the Grand Army Band of Canton to the White House. “As the president saw me approaching in the line he said: ‘Ed, I am glad to see you,’ and taking my hand, which he held a considerable time, he passed it to that of Mrs. McKinley, who was seated, and said: ‘Ida, you must remember Mr. Lee.’”

Unlike modern armed forces personnel, most of the young soldiers of the 1860s had never been more than a few miles from home. Coming from isolated rural communities, they had little immunity to disease and no experience with worldly temptations. Many suffered horribly from loneliness and homesickness and the shock of being herded with uncouth strangers. Some succumbed, others thrived and most stoically endured the hardships of camp, battle and/or prison. A number of men from the 115th O.V.I. were captured at Murfreesboro, paroled and died tragically when the overcrowded riverboat Sultana exploded on their homeward journey. Others died in Andersonville and other Confederate prison camps. The survivors returned home changed men. Edwin Lee and his comrades were among the more fortunate ones. Their service did not include the horrific meatgrinder slaughter fields of Antietam, Shiloh, Gettysburg, the Seven Days’ battles, Franklin and other unimaginable struggles. This is why Private Lee’s paperback book still exists. Perhaps he purchased it from the regimental sutler (storekeeper) who marked it up from 50 cents to 60 cents. It doubtless whiled away dull off-duty hours at remote block houses and railroad sidings in rural Tennessee. When examining antiques and artifacts, the phrase “Oh, if this object could only talk” tends to crop up. Private Lee’s little paperback speaks volumes.

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