A recent trip to see my brother Randy in Maine gave me an opportunity to get a good image of one of the photographs we have of Abiel. (There's a reproduction of it on the hard-copy of the diaries that my mother published, but the image quality wasn't worth putting it through another generation of reproduction to use here.) He's clearly in some sort of uniform, and it isn't too bad a guess that this may have been taken at the time of his enlistment. He's just a kid. So many of them were just kids. So many of them are still just kids. It makes you ask: what are we thinking?
As previously noted, this entry jumps us back to the beginning of 1865. Although the end of the war isn't necessarily clearly in sight, the tide has definitely turned. General Sherman has just completed his "march to the sea". Within four months, General Lee will surrender. And Abiel is embarking on his new duties serving on the court martial.
After working halfway though this month, I decided to break it up into two entries.
Sunday January 1st 1865
Lee did not astonish the world this A.M. neither did he surprise Grant. On the contrary this has been an unusually quiet day. Our flag presentation which has so long been delayed came off. The Regiment was formed in square and the adjutant brought out the beautiful banner and presented it to the commanding officer in the name of the Ladies of St. Lawrence. Then the Commandant presented it to the Regiment after which the Regiment was dismissed and the officers adjourned to Head Quarters, and of course we had a good time. The Division General & staff and the Brigade General & staff witnessed the presentation, which was altogether a fine spectacle. There is being considerable whiskey being drank in the army, but if there is any fist fights they are not likely to become general, for it is too cold for the men to come outdoors to fight.
Monday January 2nd
The Court Martial met today. There is ten members. We organized and tried one case for Desertion. The law in Court Martial cases dose not allow us to publish what our sentence and findings are until it is published by the proper authority. There is much about military matters to be learned by the members of a court, which they would never learn in any other capacity. Many little intricate matters which would never come to their observation about the administration of military affairs, which it is not intended to become generally known. I find it is no light matter to sit in judgment on the life of a fellow creature and brother soldier, as we have today.
Commenced snowing about noon and is still at it. Had a very interesting case to try at Court. Also some fun. Last night one of Barney's officers returned to the Regiment. He is Sergeant Monroe, who I reduced to the ranks the other day. How he is hated by the officers. I would not like to be in his place. [Note: In December, Monroe was demoted for unauthorized absence. It isn't clear to me whether he was demoted from Sergeant or to Sergeant.]
I received a reply to my communication to the Adjutant General last night. I must fill certain blanks before I can receive my pay as private of the 85th New York Volunteers. We learn that Colonel Barney has thrown up his commission and that Major McDonald our old Commander is Colonel and Major Allen Lieutenant Colonel. Also Adjutant Robinson is Major. Last month I was recommended- 6.15'.18'- 3.1.16'.20".19"-3.15'.13'.13'.9.19". 19".9.15"14'- but don't believe I shall 17'.5.20"-9.20"- as 17'.15'.22"- 19".5.25".13'.15'.21".18'- fills them 8.9.19'- 15'23"14'. way. [Note: Out of a new sense of discretion, Abiel is using a simple substitution cipher: 1=A, 2=B, etc. Assuming that the 17's should be 7's this gives: "Last month I was recommended for Capts commission but dont believe I shall get it as Gov Seymour fills them his own way." The code seems unaffected by the fact that numbers from 13-18 are marked with ' and those from 19-25 are marked with ". A later use of the cipher is slightly more complex.]
LETTER (written at end of diary page)
Head Quarters "I" Company 106th New York Volunteers Camp Townsend Virginia
January 3rd 1865
My Dear Sister & Friends,
I concluded to write you tonight even if it is pretty late, as I have not written for over a week.
Ever since our baggage came down to us, I have been very busy finishing up my accounts for last year & I expect to be very much engaged for some time to come, as I am a member of a court martial, which has its sessions from 10 A.M. to 3 P.M. daily. Sundays excepted. The only time I have for correspondence or work is after its sessions are over in the afternoon, so I am afraid some of my numerous friends will be glad that I have something to do besides writing to them and boring them.
Winter has really set in upon us now, and we have experienced some very cold weather, which made all the clothes we could cover ourselves with at night very acceptable. I have often thought of that little bedroom and the numerous blankets you used to have piled upon it for me. The baby, too, used to be piled upon it once in a while with his uncle Bijou. [Note: This must be referring to Abiel's visit on leave, rather than to his time there before enlisting.] Has the boy cut teeth yet? If so, I hope he don't bite bad, the little cherub. Give him my kind wishes. I hope you follow up your long dress system, how does the new one look? [Note: The phrase "long dress system" seems to carry some specific meaning. A quick Google on "dress system" turns up uses of the phrase in connection with dress reform movements in the later 19th century. But also suggestions that this may simply have been a way of referring to a set of garments worn together.]
I am sorry mother keeps so poorly. Give her her boy's love and kind wishes, also to Martha. Janey is getting that flesh back again that she lost the last time she was sick, I hope. When I come home, I hope she will be as stout as ever, if not stouter as than ever. Has Josey's mare been out late at night since I came away? She seemed very much surprised at my irregular hours when I had her. I am sorry I created so much gossip when I was home, for it spoils a person's character too quick. [Note: I'm guessing that the "gossip" in question was related to his flirtations with a number of women, as detailed in his account of the visit.]
Your brother, Abiel
Wednesday January 4th 1865
About an inch of snow on the ground this morning, pretty cold too. Court adjourned at noon today. We only finished the case we had before us yesterday. Our Pay Rolls came back last night for correction. Mine needed none. I wrote to Miss 1.9'.1.3'.3 v.v. last night--took some pains, I dare say. [Note: Perhaps thinking on that "gossip," Abiel seems to be expanding his use of a discreet cipher to references to his female correspondents. This is a slightly different version, substituting A-I for numbers 1-9 and J-R for 1'-9', which gives "aralc" or Clara spelled backwards. Presumably Clara Crandall is meant.] I also wrote to my dear kind friends in Andover. I expect a letter from them before long.
Rather sloppy under foot, pleasant above. The court agreed on the sentence I proposed by which to punish the prisoner today. I wrote to Uncle John last night. Moved into my new shanty tonight. Cox is out on picket and I shall have to sleep here alone one night. The Regimental Commander, the Quarter Master, and myself took our Band and went over to visit the Brigadier. Had very good entertainment. Came back before midnight. Good fire in my shanty when I got here, my old servant must have been here. [Note: It's been quite some time since Abiel made any reference to his servant. I don't even know if this is a literal reference or one of his humorous notes, along the lines of, "It's so convenient to have a fire waiting for me that it's just like my old servant was here." Except that presumably he does currently have someone taking care of him. I'm not sure why I'm so obsessed with knowing more details of this relationship, except due to the echoing silence of the man's existence, and the knowledge that oblivious racism is part of the reason for that silence.]
Rained nearly all day. Very muddy. Came near getting stuck coming from the court room. We adjourned to meet Monday. I made out my ordnance return for 4th Quarter 1864. Cox and I are proposing to have a good bath. Susey should have written me before this. She is getting to be a poor correspondent.
Pretty Cold. I confined myself closely to business, of which I have plenty. I was up to Head Quarters this evening. They had the string band up there and some dancing and other fun was going on. The Chaplain has got a leave of Absence and started home today. He is the third officer of our regiment who is now off on leave. Yes, the fourth, for Major McDonald has escaped from the Rebs and is now home on leave. The Major has been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and Colonel since he has been away. We are looking for his return anxiously.
I had to assume command of the regiment today, as Captain Briggs was detailed as Division officer of the day, and I am the senior officer left in camp. Mounted my horse this evening and took the men out for Brigade parade. A new Lieutenant Colonel came to us this evening. It is the gentleman we saw in Winchester--he then had a Major's commission--the one eyed Allen. We are working against him with all the faculty we have got. I telegraphed to McDonald at Ogdensburg to come to us at once and get mustered before this man can do so. But I fear with all our efforts to the contrary he will be able to get mustered, Oh! How heartily we hate him! He got his position through being a personal friend of Governor Seymour's.
I got a letter from Perry's & Joseph's people too, with $25.00 from Perry, which I began to need pretty badly. [Note: With regard to funds, recall Abiel's earlier complaint that he still hasn't managed to get the last of his pay as private from his former regiment. But it also seems to be the case that he sends home any pay above what he expects to need for daily expenses. So any delays or shortfalls in pay may bring him up short.]
Captain Briggs was away and I had to take the Regiment out on Brigade Dress Parade. Felt gay as a young Cock riding at the head of the regiment. Then when Parade was dismissed, returning my sword, and riding with the Colonels up to salute the general. Thinks I, this is getting along pretty fast for a 1st Lieutenant! When I came back, found Captain Briggs had returned. He said I did it as well as he could himself, so I felt satisfied with myself. [Note: This and another reference to returning a sword as part of Dress Parade suggests that the sword is only borrowed for the ceremony. I'm trying to remember if Abiel purchased his own sword when he got his commission.]
The court were divided on a legal question and adjourned until the 11th to look it up.
Rained hard last night and all day. Lieutenant Cox and I have been at work in our shanty, putting up shelves and a table and squaring off the logs some. So our house (which we have decided to call the Anglo-French Hotel, as he is English & I am French) is now pretty comfortable, and we begin to enjoy ourselves.
[Note: This is an interesting and rather peculiar statement. While it's true that the surname LaForge is of unmistakably French origin, Abiel's LaForge ancestors had been living in America for over a century and a half at this point. So is this a light joke simply about the name's origin? Or does Abiel genuinely think of himself as "French" in some relevant way? Back in the middle of 1864 when Abiel was taking a boat down to start active duty, he comments about how his fellow officers are "twelve men of six nations", listing the nations as Irish, Italian, German, French, English, and Scottish. Note the absence of "American" or any other non-European "nation" in the list. So he associated the twelve men (including himself) all with some specific national origin. In that context, he doesn't mention his own identification with any of the "nations", and he presents them with rather broad stage-caricature stereotypes. It makes me wonder if anyone has doing research on ethnic self-identity in mid-19th century America, and just when it was that a person like Abiel stopped thinking of himself as "French", if six generations residence wasn't sufficient.]
The question before the court yesterday was: have we a right to find a man guilty of the charge and not of the specification, and sentence him when the specification does verify the charge? The Court has various opinions. Mine is that the court may set aside the Specification as imperfect, and be governed solely by the evidence as it bears on the charge. The General Commanding sent back two or three of our cases for review. He made some suggestions, a few of which we adopted and others rejected. Our authority is above his while we are on this duty.
[Note: I haven't looked deeply into the details of how a court martial works, but here is a page discussing modern practice, and it defines "charge" and "specification" thusly: "On a court-martial charge sheet there will be one or more “charges” and one or more “specifications.” A court-martial “charge” is the Article of the UCMJ that was allegedly violated. A court-martial “specification” is a description of the distinct alleged criminal act. All specifications fall under the charged UCMJ Article. So, for example, there could be one charge of Larceny under UCMJ Article 121, and several specifications under that charge that describe each specific claim of theft under that charge." So it sounds like in this case they were convinced that the defendant was guilty of some act falling under the relevant "charge" but that they did not believe the particular "specification" was correct.]
Adjutant Hepburn showed me some letters from some young ladies to whom he introduced me while we were at Martinsburg. I judge they are somewhat given to flatter the boyish-looking Lieutenant, as they call me. Lieutenant Colonel Allen has went to Washington to procure an order for his muster. [Note: Recall that this is the man Abiel said they were "working against".] He said before he went that, if we had taken the right course with him, he would have filled the vacancies with men of the Regiment, but now he will take another course, which means that he will fill them with his own personal friends, I suppose. Bah. [Note: So evidently the feeling is mutual.]
The Court met and were divided as ever on the question of which I spoke before. Finally we agreed to send the proceedings up for the consideration of the General, and then adjourned over to meet the 13th. This evening I went up to the Surgeons and had a very pleasant game of chess. The Doctor beat me on the game.
Very cold last night; froze up hard. And as a consequence, clear, warm & muddy today. I sent my Quarter Master Returns for August & September off. Now all I have to make are for October & December, 1864, which I shall have done tomorrow night, if nothing happens. Then my last year's work will all be up snug and I can play for a while. I do not make Returns for November, as I was home that month. We had Battalion Drill this afternoon. While I am on Court I do not have any of that duty to perform. The Captain Commanding sent for me when the Regiment got out and asked me to go on drill, because if I did not, he would not have a single officer to assist him, as all the rest just came in from Picket & Guard duty. So I went.
Clear and pretty warm, Attended Court. Had a pretty stormy debate, in which I was in the minority, as they say in Congress. "A small but very respectable minority" it was. We only reviewed cases which we had already sentenced. When I came to camp, the regiment had just turned out for monthly inspection. I should have went out if I had got back a few minutes sooner. We drew clothing, and Camp and Garrison Equipage this P.M. I issued it after I returned. I also finished and sent my Quarter Master Returns for October & December 1864. This evening I hardly know what I shall do now, as I have been at work so hard lately upon my papers as to make a moments idleness seem almost a sin.
I received a letter from Miss Porter tonight, which was one of her funniest and most laughable productions. She requested me not to show it to anyone, especially my lady friends. I did show it to Lieutenant Cox however, in order that he might help me laugh over her mirth provoking sallies. I think I must burn it as soon as answered, for if my dear Susie or any of the girls in Andover should see it, I would not hear the last of the matter in a long time. Our forces are now building abattis in front of the picket line, so that the Johnnies cannot make those sudden dashes and capture our boys.
Saturday January 14ty, 1865
Very clear and pleasant. General Seymour decided with me today on my definition of Desertion. He returned one of our cases which was sent up for him to review. All of the court but myself decided that "from the evidence adduced, they could find the prisoner only guilty of Absence without leave." I claimed from the evidence "he was guilty of Desertion." The General says Desertion is the crime of which he is guilty, so I am all right.
I had to take command of the regiment on Dress Parade this evening, as Captain Briggs was away. We had a considerable fun over it after the men were dismissed. I wrote to my dearest sister and friends at Andover, and look for a letter from her daily. I have not heard from father in a long time.
LETTER Head Quarters "I" Company 106th New York Volunteers, "Anglo-French Hotel"
Before Petersburg Virginia January 14th 1865
My Dear Friends,
I am sitting in a nice comfortable shanty, on a rather uncomfortable stool, with my back to a blazing fire of pine knots, my face toward the Aurora Borealis, at least as far in that direction as Andover, where the dearest of human ties bind them at present. Perhaps some day, when I am not looking for such an event, a "dearer tie" than any which binds me now may be formed, and I shall find that instead of Andover being the location of the loadstone to which my thoughts are constantly turning, some other place will have usurped its position in my heart. (I don't see how it is, sister, that I should live to be twenty three years old and not be in love, do you? It must be because we are not exposed in the army. I added this parenthetically.) But at present, no such place looms up in my mental vision.
The cold wind is howling around outside tonight in such a manner as to make our really comfortable hotel feel very much like home. Lieutenant Cox and I enjoy ourselves like two monarchs, indeed we are monarchs "of all we survey" when inside our hotel. In your last, you wanted to know what color we should paint our house. Well Cox & I have decided to have it as near the color of the outside of an unhewn pine log, plastered with mud as we could get it, so it is of that color.
I had a good laugh after parade tonight. I was the senior officer off duty and had to command the parade. When the regiment was formed, I marched down and took my place 30 paces in front of the center. Everything went on well until the command to Dismiss the Parade. When I found there was but one line officer on parade, & that was Cox, to see him return his sword, face to the center, march down to the front of the colors, then face me and march up and salute me (as would have been proper if all the officers had been there) without a muscle of his face changing, was more than I or any of the other officers who were behind me could stand. I am afraid the last of that parade was not decorous. [Note: I'm easily envisioning this scene, where the dictates of military ceremony and protocol come face-to-face with the absurdities of the short-staffed company and the ad hoc nature of some of the hierarchical duties.]
Well, here I am pretty near the end of my paper and have not said a word about the boy. Well, give the little rascal my regards and tell him to "h∼ve his self" [i.e., "behave his self"] till I come home again. My love to mother, husband, brother, & sisters, and also Susan & the boy.
Your dutiful brother