The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: From Our Collections

“The Moonlight Is Wasted”: Not So Quiet on the Western Front

The stacks of the MHS are filled with innumerable letters written by soldiers serving in U.S. wars to their families back home. This year marks both the sesquicentennial of the penultimate year of the Civil War and the centennial of the first year of World War I. It’s a disheartening fact that we rarely lack for war-related anniversaries to commemorate, but these letters are an invaluable resource for a true understanding of U.S. wars.

Some of them were written to anxious parents by very young soldiers, barely out of high school and full of bravado. Others come from older, battle-hardened men who write wistfully to their children while shells fall around them. Sometimes a soldier breezily anticipates the upcoming battle in which we know he will be killed, or has an eerie premonition of his own death. While it’s impossible for most of us to comprehend the realities of war as experienced by those in the thick of it, little details speak volumes. I always find it interesting how the ordinary things we take for granted are perceived in radically different ways by a soldier on the front lines.

Take moonlight, for example. Lovers serenade in it, poets write about it, dreamers gaze up at it. Moonlight is one of the universally acknowledged beauties of life, right? Well, not if you’re digging trenches in northern France in 1918. William F. Wolohan, serving with the American Expeditionary Forces, 103rd Engineers, Co. E, explained in a letter to his mother on 30 Nov. 1918 that he and his fellow soldiers had a different perspective:

Night work was the hardest as this country over here is positively the blackest place I have ever been in at night. Our night work consisted mostly of barbed wire work. A funny thing, still we over here can not realize the jokers regarding Beautiful-moon light nights. One mother wrote to her son who is sleeping in here with us, said that outside a beautiful moon was shining down, how much she enjoyed these moon light nights and she could always think that this same old moon was shining down on him. Yes Henry said the same moon shines but I wish the moon would die or never come out. You see on moonlight nights these big bombing planes come over and drop everything from pins to rail road engines, including boocoo bombs….So on moon l[ight n]ights we are always careful and we figure th[at] the moonlight is wasted. I wish I could remember some of the funny expressions I have heard when we did not know but the next minute we would be blown to atoms.

Henry had good reason to dislike the moon, it turns out. He had nearly been killed in a German bombing raid while working on a trench near the French town of Fismes on the Vesle River. Wolohan illustrated Henry’s story with this diagram of trenchworks. The sketch is in pencil, so it’s hard to make out some of the details in this reproduction here, but Henry and the “Bomb Hole” are marked by asterisks at the top. Below that, you can see the “Barb wire,” “no mans land,” and the “German wire.”

 

Wolohan wrote this letter to his mother shortly after the end of the war but before he was shipped home. In it, he proposed this theory for the Allies’ success:

As one of our fellows said the other night It was the American Smile that won this war, and I agree with him. Even in the darkest minutes you can always get a smile out of these A.E.F. wargoing Americans. I have seen men come back all shot up an[d] smiling to beat the band. One night when on a long march we were held up by our divisional train for four hours. So we gave a show right in the middle of the road.

The William F. Wolohan papers is one of our smaller collections at the MHS. It contains only three letters and three postcards, but the terrific content more than makes up for its small size. I particularly like this poignant throwaway line on the back of a postcard dated 6 Oct. 1918:

This is a French soldiers postal card. It was taken by the Germans off a captured French Soldier. We took it off a dead German soldier. Such is the fortune of war in both the big and little things.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 8 October, 2014, 1:00 AM

Mysteries of the Elisha W. Smith, Jr. Logbook: Part III

Research is a nonlinear process rife with search strategies and dead ends. While researching the inside front cover note and the scrapbook engravings of the Elisha W. Smith Jr. logbook, I remained curious about the scrapbooker’s identity. Several clues exist within the logbook to identify the individual. The efforts of penmanship practice garnishes the pages with the initials “E D F” and the names “Elbridge” and “Freeman.” While this clue offered a name as a place to start, I still found myself running into dead ends.

 

A plethora of physical and digital resources exist to help researchers locate genealogical information. I started with a physical resource research strategy that proved unsuccessful. I searched through family histories Freeman Genealogy and Genealogy of the Freeman Family for “Elbridge Freeman” and “William Freeman.” I assumed that the ship’s name, the schooner William Freeman, referred to a relative of Elbridge Freeman. I also surmised that Elbridge Freeman was born in the late 1850s to early 1860s because the scrapbooker pasted Gleason’s Literary Companion engravings in the volume. Gleason’s Literary Companion ran in publication from 1860 to 1870 so the individual who read the juvenile literary magazine was young. These names and time frame narrowed my search, but these criteria also narrowed my results to zero.

Moments of revelation for researchers occasionally come from other researchers’ insight or suggestion. I found a lack of answers in the physical resources, but Librarian Elaine Heavey utilized online databases to find Elbridge D. Freeman’s birth certificate from FamilySearch, a free, online tool for genealogists. Elaine provided the document that put all the pieces together!

William D. Freeman sailed with supercargo Elisha W. Smith Jr. on the schooner William Freeman to Jacmel, Haiti in 1857. Both men and the schooner originated in Wellfleet. William Freeman later served as acting master of the Portsmouth, New Hampshire Navy yard. On 31 July 1861 William D. Freeman and Harriet A. Freeman welcomed their first born son Elbridge D. Freeman into the world. Somehow the logbook ended up in William Freeman’s hands after the voyage of the schooner William Freeman. Young Elbridge turned one of his father’s possessions, Elisha W. Smith’s logbook, into an eccentric scrapbook in the late 1860s.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 4 October, 2014, 1:00 AM

Marion’s Hidden Curriculum: Sexuality Education in the 1930s (Part Two)

In my last post, I highlighted the curriculum for a mid-twentieth-century course on “the family” located in the Frank Irving Howe, Jr. Family Papers. The young woman who attended the course was eighteen-year-old Marion Howe, whose diaries from the period elliptically document her questions and anxieties about sexual desire. These diaries, read in counterpoint to the formal curriculum on family life, suggest a hidden curriculum of social constraint that shaped Marion’s experience of her body, her emotions, and the choices she would face in forming adult relationships.

As an adolescent in the newly-constructed American youth culture, Marion’s experience of heterosocial was shaped by the social norms and expectations of her high school peers. Consider these snippets from the winter of 1934:

Johnnie snubbed me, and he and Charlie had another ‘argument.’ Gosh, I don’t know what to do. I like Charlie, I like Johnny, and I like Joe -- and I’m in love with one of them, and I don’t know who. I wouldn’t want to give up any of them -- Gee, I guess I must be awfully selfish. … I know I’m going to be called a ‘two-timer,’ but what on earth can I do about it? (3 January)

 

I can’t love Charlie. I might -- ! Wotta life! I wrote a note to Johnny, but I haven’t the courage to give it to him. But when I do, I’m gonna ask him if he’s going ‘steady’ with Elie. Gee, how I hate her, even tho’ I don’t know her! (5 January)

 

Got up rather late after raising Cain in bed with Shrimp and Dutch this morning. … Shrimp and I had a talk last night before going to sleep -- and we decided C, J, and I should all have an understanding. … I don’t know what Shrimp means when she says I haven’t learned my lesson yet. (13 January)

 

I guess I’m fickle, but as long as I’m gonna be an old maid, it’s okay. (23 February)

 

Charlie came up. Joe asked me if I would go to the movies. Though I liked Johnny. G[eorgie] G[lebus] asked me for a date. Helped prepare Ma’s party at church tomorrow. Cooked 100 or so cakes. (14 March)

As historian Beth Bailey has documented in From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), mid-twentieth-century youth culture differentiated between dating and “going steady.” Dating was nonexclusive and embedded one’s peer network whereas “going steady” meant exclusivity and a more serious intention to consider engagement or marriage. Yet in practice, where did one slide into the other? It’s clear in these diary entries that Marion is caught up in the pleasure of dating and fantasizing about the relationship potential of the young men who appear to be competing for her attention. Yet she also worries about being read as a “two-timer” for refusing to “give up” Charlie, Johnnie, or Joe. But Johnnie might be “going steady” with Elie -- and thus out of bounds for a casual date? Maybe it’s better just to be an “old maid” rather than navigate these uncertain waters.

Dating, and going steady, also meant negotiating physical intimacies -- something that Marion expresses a deep ambivalence about. Consider the entry from 1 April 1934:

After church at night Joe and I went for a ride. He let me drive. I’m glad he doesn’t try to get mushy. That’s the greatest trouble of boys of this age. Whenever they take you in their car, they expect you to start petting; and if there’s one thing only in this world that is sickening, it’s petting and the like. (Maybe it’s all right with the right boy.)

Is Marion’s “sickening” displeasure at getting “mushy” due to her own discomfort with relational sex, her disinterest in Joe (whom she will marry two years later), or tension borne of her social role as gatekeeper? It’s impossible to know -- likely a combination of all three. 

By her late teens, a job-seeking high school graduate whose parents resist her interest in attending college, Marion’s adolescent dating relationships take on a greater degree of seriousness and urgency as the year moves on. In August 1935 she writes of a flirtation with Jim, a lifeguard she has had a crush on, and then a series of entries are cut out of the volume. When the diary resumes, it seems clear she has had some sort of unsettling or violating sexual experience:

Got up about 8. All I could think of was what Jim would be doing. … I’d get thinking of Jim and then lose the sequence of the plot. I hate myself for falling for him. … [her close friend] Shrimp wanted to know more of the Experience Monday, so to oblige her, I told her some of it. The rest she doesn’t know, and so I won’t hurt her. At night it hurts most to remember. And I can’t forget, much as I try. (28 August)

Whatever lessons she has had about human sexuality have not helped her feel confident making sense of her the situation. Several days later, she reports that she’s “had the talk with Shrimp today about generation [and] realize how completely ignorant I have been” (1 September 1935). The details relayed by Shrimp, however, fail to relieve the anxiety she feels about sexual intimacy, and the following spring -- shortly after she and Joe commit “the indiscretion” together -- she screws up her courage and seeks medical advice:

I went to see a doctor, not so much because I’m afraid but because I am curious, and would like to end this lethal ignorance that always leads to worry. My greatest misery, however, lies in the fact that HE DOESN’T CARE if I worry…

The rest of the entry is ripped out, leaving the question of what constituted Marion’s worries unanswered, though we can make our educated guesses.

Diaries such as Marion’s shed invaluable light on the experience of Depression-era teens exploring their sexuality and emerging adulthood in an era where reliable sexual health information was often difficult to come by -- particularly for young women. If you are interested in exploring Marion’s story further, the Frank Irving Howe, Jr. Family Papers are open for research and can be requested from offsite storage by contacting the reference department.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 3 October, 2014, 12:00 AM

Just Launched! Nine Fully Digitized Civil War Collections

Reading handwritten letters and documents by men who experienced Civil War battles and military life can be a riveting experience.  Nine collections of Civil War manuscripts are available at the Massachusetts Historical Society's website as complete online collections.   You are invited to examine digital facsimiles of over 9,000 pages including letters from a surgeon (Charles Briggs) serving in the 54th Regiment, letters from a 16-year-old drummer (Edward Peirce, who later served as a private) describing routine life within a military unit, and warm and informative letters from a Captain (Richard Cary) in the 2nd Regiment to his wife.

The following collections are available on our website:

Charles E. Briggs letters

This collection primarily contains letters by Dr. Charles E. Briggs, assistant surgeon with the 24th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, 1862-1863, and surgeon with the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, 1863-1865. 

Richard Cary letters

Captain Richard Cary served in the 2nd Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.  Unfortunately he was shot during the battle at Cedar Mountain in Virginia and died a short time later.  This collection includes the letters he sent to his wife, as well as condolence letters she received after her husband’s death.

Norwood Penrose Hallowell papers

Hallowell began his service in the Civil War in the 20th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and then later served as lieutenant colonel of the 55th  Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the second Black regiment in the state.  This collection contains letters and a large number of clippings assembled in scrapbooks. These materials relate to a wide variety of Hallowell’s activities—from his time as a student at Harvard College, through his years serving in the Civil War, to his activities as a Boston businessman.

Frederick Newman Knapp papers

Knapp was a clergyman and teacher from Plymouth, Massachusetts. He wasn’t a soldier, but he held the position of superintendent of the Special Relief Department, U.S. Sanitary Commission.  The focus of this commission was to assist sick and wounded Union soldiers.  This collection includes Knapp’s personal and professional letters as well as a manuscript of a history of the Sanitary Commission.

Francis William Loring papers

This collection contains letters Loring wrote to his mother and sister while he served in a variety of military units.  Loring was a sergeant major in the 24th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry; first lieutenant and adjutant in the 38th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry; and aide-de-camp for Gen. William H. Emory of the 19th Corps.

Edmund Miles papers

Miles was a lieutenant in the 41st Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, later renamed the 3rd Regiment of Cavalry Massachusetts Volunteers.  This collection includes letters Miles sent to his family describing his activities in the Civil War, and letters he received from his family in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Charles F. Morse papers

This collection contains letters (some with drawings) written by Lieutenant Colonel Morse of the 2nd Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, who saw action at Cedar Mountain, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Resaca, and the Siege of Atlanta in 1864. The collection also includes some correspondence relating to his post-war activities in the railroad business.

Edward Burgess Peirce letters

Peirce was a drummer and a private in Company F. of the 2nd Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Heavy Artillery, from July 1863 to September 1865. This collection includes letters he wrote to his parents in Lowell in which he described many aspects of day-to-day activities as an enlisted soldier including accounts of camp life and troop movements.

Stephen Minot Weld papers

This collection contains letters written by Weld who was promoted several times during the four years he served in the Union Army. Weld was a second lieutenant and then captain in the 18th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1862-1863, and later was lieutenant colonel and then colonel in the 56th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1864-1865.

Please explore and read these collections from any location where you have a web browser and access to the Internet!

Funding for the digitization of the nine Civil War manuscript collections that enabled both the creation of preservation microfilm and the online version of the collections was provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act grant as administered by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 2 October, 2014, 1:00 AM

The Mysteries of the Elisha W. Smith, Jr. Logbook, 1853-1857: Part II

In a prior blog post I discussed a note on the inside cover of the logbook of the schooners Flying Dragon (1853) and William Freeman (1857), which identified the log keeper as Elisha W. Smith. This particular logbook contains a mystifying collection of logs, sketches, poems, engravings, and literary clippings. The engravings caught my attention with the bright crayon colors. A scrapbooker clipped, hand-colored, and pasted images into this logbook. Intrigued by the scrapbook curation, I hoped that identifying the engravings would tell me when the creator fashioned this curious assemblage.  

After coming up empty searching Google Books and Internet Archive for the poems and literary clippings within the volume, I examined the engravings in closer detail. The informative images depict locations such as the White Mountains and Lapland and highlight the creator’s clear interest in travel. Other selections within include maps, images of sailing ships, more distant locations and depictions of native peoples.

 

Then I spotted a timeworn masthead of a literary magazine pasted under the engraving of travelling Laplanders. Through the wear and tear I could clearly read the words “Gleason” and “Companion.” The Gleason’s Literary Companion masthead appeared several times in the scrapbook. The inclusion of an official “citation” made my day. I researched the Literary Companion and found that Frederick Gleason published this literary magazine from his Boston home near Franklin Park from 1860 to 1870. He also published several other pictorial magazines during his career. The MHS does not hold Gleason’s Literary Company but does hold Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-room Companion (1851) and several of Gleason’s engravings.

Satisfied that I had discovered the origin of the engravings, I remained curious about the scrapbook’s creator. Who put the care into selecting, coloring, and pasting these images into the logbook? In my final post, I will delve into discovering the scrapbooker’s identity.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 19 September, 2014, 1:00 AM

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