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Tuesday, March 14, 2017 - 07:59

Given the amount of thought and effort I've put into creating aspects of the Alpennian language, it might seem strange that so little of it appears in the books themselves. Other than proper names, most of what readers have seen have been the occasional technical terms that don't have a simple English equivalent (armin, markein, vizeino). I'm not counting all the Latin terms used for mysteries, of course.

A major reason for this is the principle that, in theory, the stories are entirely "translated" from Alpennian, and that therefore any time a character is thinking or speaking in their native tongue, it should be rendered transparently in English. I occasionally throw in non-English words and phrases when a character is speaking something other than Alpennian, as when Jeanne self-consciously uses French words and phrases. But within Alpennian itself, I have to find other ways of reminding the reader that we're in the midst of a different culture.

One of the things I've done is to have characters take words or phrases that relate to special aspects of their experience and use them in extended, more everyday senses. An example of this is how characters use the word "ambit." This is an ordinary (more or less) English word meaning "the scope, extent, or range of something." I've established it as being an ordinary technical term from the structure of mysteries meaning "the defined bounds or scope within with a mystery is intended to take effect." But then, having established that, I show characters using it (in both speech and thought) for a more general sense of "the sphere of influence or responsibility of some person or institution." So, for example, a person's place of residence will place them within the "ambit" of a particular local church. Or when Barbara thinks about the people she feels a nebulous sense of responsibility for, she thinks of them as being "within her ambit." The intent is to indicate that this word is translating an Alpennian term that has a set of meanings that don't correspond exactly to a more common English word. At the same time, the intent is to connect that word with the pervasive presence of mysteries in Alpennian lives, such that even people who have no sensitivity to mystical forces, will think about other aspects of their lives with the same concepts.

A more extreme version of this sort of idiomatic word use is the "literal translation" of Alpennian idioms or sayings. One that I've used in several of the stories is the phrase "to trespass in someone's garden" with a sense equivalent to "to step on someone's toes, to give offense by violating someone's sense of social 'ownership' of a person, idea, or activity." The literal meaning makes it easy to work out the figurative sense, but it isn't a fixed saying in English the way it's being used. That gives it the ever-so-slightly-off-balance sense of translating another culture that I'm aiming for, without tripping the reader up too badly. Alternately, I might make a figurative phrase like this "more Alpennian" by using a different wording than the familiar English expression. For example, rather than a person saying, "I know which side my bread is buttered on," I have a character saying, "I know where the butter for my bread comes from."

Similarly to that sort of elaborate "literal translation" are a few turns of phrase I've established as "Alpennian idiom" that are closer to being grammatical quirks than meaningful phrases. One that I've used in several of the books is the phrase "to do for" as indicating a fairly specific personal relationship between a servant or attendant and their employer. So, for example, an armin "does for" the person he protects. A valet or lady's maid "does for" the specific person they serve. But you wouldn't use the phrase about a more general household servant like a footman or a kitchen maid. Another example in this category is, "It doesn't belong to you to do X" with the meaning "It's none of your business to do X, it isn't your responsibility" but with a sense of intrusion and butting in.

The idea here isn't to constantly bombard the reader with unfamiliar turns of phrase and jargon, but to lightly season the prose with reminders that this is a different culture with different ways of thinking and talking about things. Ways that will influence far more than just the words they use.

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Writing Process
Monday, March 13, 2017 - 10:00
LHMP logo

Have you ever wondered about the image I used as the icon for this series? Maybe you weren’t even sure what is was depicting. I’ve been wanting to cover publications about the presentation of same-sex desire in visual arts in the pre-modern period for some time, but it isn’t a topic that’s received a lot of attention. And it isn’t always easy to determine what images are showing same-sex desire as opposed to same-sex interactions that were not, at that time, considered to be erotic or sexual. (For example, kissing was used as a non-sexual ritual in many different situations.)

So when I spotted this book last May during my annual pilgrimage to the medieval studies congress at Kalamazoo, I knew I'd struck gold. I only wish that I could do a better job of sharing the actual art with my readers, but you'll have to make do with my poor redrawing talents.

Although this book focuses far more heavily on male topics than female ones, the balance probably reflects the relative amounts of material available and the different emphasis on them in the period being studied. And the inclusion of depictions of transgender subjects is delightfully unexpected.

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Full citation: 

Mills, Robert. 2015. Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 978-0-226-16912-5

Publication summary: 

This is an in-depth study of the visual cues and visual representations of the concept of “sodomy” in medieval manuscripts and art, using the definition of that concept at the time, not the more specific modern sense. Mills looks at how gender and sexuality interact and challenges the perception that there was no coherent framework for understanding gender and sexual dissidence in the middle ages. The topics covered include images associated with the label “sodomite”, gender transformations and sex changes (especially in Ovid), and sexual relations in closed communities (such as religious houses). The analysis includes a consideration of the relevance of modern categories to the study of medieval culture.

Introduction: Jerome in a Dress

Around 1408 the Limbourg brothers (who created some of the most fabulous illuminated manuscripts of the 15th century) created a Book of Hours for the Duc de Berry. In the section covering the life of Saint Jerome, it includes a depiction of a “practical joke” where Jerome was tricked into putting on a woman’s dress without realizing it. The illustration shows Jerome being mocked for wearing women’s clothes, highlighting the incongruity by the visual contrast of the dress with Jerome’s prominent beard. In the first image, we see Jerome dressing for prayers with the garment lying easily to hand. In the second image, he prays, while two monks in the background are whispering together while looking at him.

How, Mills asks, are we to interpret the interaction of text, picture, and the portrayed reaction? What did this inadvertent gender transgression mean to the book’s owner or to the clerical culture depicted in the paintings? And how does this relate to the concept of--and reactions to--sodomy?

Treatments of sodomy cross gender as well as sexual lines. Women’s same-sex relationships were often treated differently from men's. Penitential manuals, among others, often avoided specifying what was meant by “sodomy”. It is often assumed that it covered male homosexuality and, in particular, anal intercourse, but there was a broader category of activities “contrary to nature”. In this era and earlier, the more general use could mean “any act that wastes semen.” Penitential texts frequently used circumlocutions such as “the vice that should not be named,” which makes specific acts hard to identify. The vagueness of the term made it a useful accusation against political enemies.

The 11th century monk Peter Damian, in a letter to the Pope asking for stronger condemnation of sodomy, specified four acts in order of ascending severity:

  1. Self-pollution (i.e., masturbation)
  2. Mutual rubbing of penises
  3. Inter-femoral intercourse
  4. Anal intercourse

Note that this text was aimed only at male activities. Gender comes into consideration as Peter alleges that these activities “feminize” men, making no distinction between “active” and “passive” partners. This feminization of the concept of sodomy appears in art where Sodomia is portrayed as a sexually voracious woman. Other writers echo this implication that sodomy turns men into women.

Getting back to Saint Jerome, we can’t assume the reverse, i.e., that a feminized man is perceived by others as a sodomite. The Golden Legend provides more context for these images. Jerome was being considered for the Papacy, but was opposed by monks that he had condemned for living “lascivious lives”. Those monks set a trap for him by planting a woman’s dress in his room, meaning to imply that he had a female visitor (who presumably had taken her clothing off there). I.e., the intent was to accuse him of heterosexual misconduct. But Jerome is so fixated on getting up to pray, he obliviously puts the dress on and goes out into the church in women’s clothing. The issue here is not sodomy, but chastity. The lesson Mills intends by starting with the Jerome episode is to warn against jumping to conclusions about what message a depiction intends to convey.

Depictions or descriptions of male effeminacy could be used to signal courtliness or excess libido, not necessarily homosexuality. In parallel with this, depictions or descriptions of female masculinity could represent (masculine) virtue and could be meant as positive signifiers, as in the case of cross-dressing saints. In some genres, e.g., courtly love literature, ideals of beauty and desirability are not sexually dimorphic. There is a common physical ideal for both men and women. Attraction is expected to arise, not on the basis of "opposites attract", but inspired by that courtly ideal. Thus, same-sex attraction is not necessarily framed as transgressive in the way a modern reader might expect.

Images of men cross-dressing as women are less common than the converse, due to status differences between the sexes. Another example with a different context than Jerome is that of a 14th century English mystic who wanted to wear women’s garments, possibly in connection with the symbolism of becoming a “bride of Christ” as expressed in the Song of Songs. But when he actually wears the dress, his sister declares him mad.

The Duc de Berry (patron of the S. Jerome illustration) himself was accused of sodomitical desires, especially in one anonymous poem that uses explicit language. He clearly had male favorites, but it is impossible to untangle political motivations for the accusations from whatever his sexual interests may have been. The Limbourg brothers also illustrated a Bible Moralisée for de Berry. This genre of text (which will be the focus of the next chapter) often includes illustrations of types of “sins against nature”. In de Berry’s book, the corresponding set of images includes a cleric and layman embracing but also heterosexual couples. And the cleric-layman pair also brings in issues relating to clerical categories. The question remains: how do you know a sodomite when you see one?

Mills spends some time discussing Foucault and Lochrie's views about how to interpret medieval concepts of “sodomy”, and whether the category is hopelessly confused or overly specific. Concepts of gender also come into the discussion. Many consider a distinction between gender identity and sexual orientation to be very recent. The 19th century saw an erosion of the association between cross-dressing and sexual dissidence. If homoerotic desire is understood as “wanting to be the other sex” (as it is commonly portrayed in medieval literature) then there is no distinct category of “homosexual orientation” but only conflicts of gender identity. In some ways, only with a focus on transgender identities has a distinction between gender identity and sexual orientation been clearly distinguished. Mills uses a transgender framing as a way of looking at medieval concepts of gender inversion. He considers when and where a distinction between gender transgression and homoerotics was recognized and when it was conflated.

Understanding the category of “sodomy” requires an understanding of the Christian framework for the evolution of ideas about “nature” and the Fall. The broadest definition of sodomy was any sort of sexual activity that was “against nature”.

[Jumping a bit in topic.] In other images of the Limbourg’s Jerome, the saint is troubled by dreams of “choirs of girls.” The image shows two girls dancing, with their attention focused on each other, but not actively on Jerome. So how are they inspiring lust to torment him? The girls don’t register visually as “sodomitic” and conform to feminine ideals.

[Another topic jump.] The theme of friendship complicates studies of sodomy. Physical expressions of same-sex intimacy were “ennobling” between friends. But even so, they can be reframed as transgressive for political purposes. Intimate friendships between women were less problematic due to their lesser political importance. Chapter 5 will examine an exception to this lesser concern when it involved cloistered women.

Mills spends some time acknowledging the difficulty of studying male and female homoeroticism in parallel. A false equivalence tends to erase female presence by the sheer weight and volume of available material. He notes recent work (e.g., by Traub and Amer) on the cultural transmission of constructions of desire between women.

Mills approaches much of his analysis from a framework of “translation”--how concepts are translated between text and image, and between the medieval and the modern. In this context, he deliberately embraces anachronistic terms such as “transgender”, “butch/femme”, etc. as acknowledging that translation process. He uses the term “queer” very carefully due to its instability of meaning and its focus on modern reception, plus the tendency for it to simply replace more meaningful terms. He still feels it has utility, though.

The introduction concludes with a summary of the contents of the book. Chapter 1 looks at images in 13-15th century Bibles moralisées produced for the French court. Chapter 2 examines images of transgressive sexuality through a transgender lens. Chapter 3 looks at the figure of Orpheus as the “first sodomite”. Chapter 4 looks at the figure of Ganymede and the sexuality of monks. [Note: it’s likely that I’ll gloss over these two chapters fairly briefly if they contain little material relevant to women.] Chapter 5 considers depictions of sexual orientation in terms of literal “turning” (orienting), especially involving women.

Event / person: 
Friday, March 10, 2017 - 09:00

Green - cover image Marsot - cover image Vicinus - cover image Carlin Crouch - cover image

I haven't done a book intake post in a while and several individual purchases have been piling up waiting to be cataloged. So let's do the double duty of getting these in the spreadsheet and talking about why I bought them.

Green, Nile. 2016. The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austen's London. Princeton University Press, Princeton. ISBN 978-0-691-16832-6

In a testament to the principle that every book review may sell a book to someone, no matter what the reviewer thought of it, I spotted this on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, where the reviewer seemed to think that this scholarly study was a bit lacking in plot and characterization. No doubt true, but it looked like it might be a good addition to my deep background research on the lives and practices of Muslims living in western Europe in the early 19th century. It carries several caveats with regard to my own purposes, given that  the visitors were from Iran, were living in England, and were men. But I expect to do a lot of triangulation in figuring out the parameters of Zobaida's life.

Marsot, Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid. 1995. Women and Men in Late Eighteenth-Century Egypt. University of Texas Press, Austin. ISBN 978-0-292-71736-7

Another book purchased for the same research project, this one with more overlap on my target (women and Egypt) although without the element of how cultural and religious practices were exercised in immigrant situations. Despite being given equal billing in the title, this study is primarily on the lives of women. Rather delightfully for my purposes, it covers all social classes and at least several of the ethnic/religious cultures that were significant at the time. Lots of juicy economic and domestic data, and at least some discussion of woman-centered religious practices.

Vicinus, Martha. 2004. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-85564-3

Somewhat obviously, I picked this up for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. "The fascinating history of the erotic friendships of educated English and American women over the 150-year period leading up to the 1928 publication of Radclyffe Hall's landmark novel, The Well of Loneliness." This may make an interesting counterpoint to Faderman, in that it covers the same heyday of "romantic friendship" but is focused much more strongly on the erotic potential in women's relationships.

Carlin, Martha & David Crouch (editors and translators). 2013. Lost Letters of Medieval Life: English Society, 1200-1250. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia. ISBN 978-0-8122-2336-1

For writers of historical fiction, one of the greatest difficulties is to get inside the heads and the everyday lives of your characters. While the correspondence that survives is rarely completely unfiltered conversation, it can shed light on topics that might otherwise be considered too trivial for history books. Skimming through the table of contents, there are topics such as:

  • An Earl orders furs from his skinner, to whom he owes money
  • A warning to a friend to get his grain off the road, because the king is about to go to Wales and will seize all provisions that he finds along the way
  • A tenant informs on a landowner's corrupt bailiff
  • A baron asks a baron to have the latter's son train his goshawk, which he sends
  • A student at Paris writes to his father for money
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Thursday, March 9, 2017 - 07:19

There are times when you scramble just to keep up with yourself. This is one of those times! I'll be a program participant at FOGcon in Walnut Creek this weekend and I only just got the information into my appearances page. (I also only just noticed that they have me scheduled for two different reading slots, one on Saturday and one on Sunday. I've popped off an e-mail requesting that they give the Sunday slot to someone else, so I've only included the Saturday time in the schedule here.)

FOGcon is a wonderful small local literary-oriented convention and I've usually had a great time whether or not I'm on programming. I'll tell you all about it next week.

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Wednesday, March 8, 2017 - 07:00

This selection of letters explains Abiel's continued presence at Camp Convalescent. His health (which he previously claimed to be quite recoverd) was proclaimed to be not up to the rigors of a winter at the front. And (as I intimated previously) his services were snapped up by the camp commander, presumably due to his reliable qualities shining through.

In this group is also the letter that may be my favorite of the entire set, describing the joys of a care package from home. Yet so firmly were [the boiled chickens] convinced that it was their duty (under any circumstances) to carry out the principles of their existance, that they had laid one dozen hard boiled eggs in their transit from Andover to camp Convalescent!

Content Warning: reference to a soldier committing suicide.

The Diary and Letters of Abiel Teple LaForge 1842-1878

Transcribed, edited, and annotated by Phyllis G. Jones (his great-granddaughter)

Copyright © 1993, Phyllis G. Jones, All rights reserved

January - March 1863


1863 Contents

  • January 11, 1863
  • January 26, 1863
  • February 15, 1863 - The Wonderful "Care Package"
  • March 2, 1863
  • March 20, 1863
  • April 30, 1863
  • May 27, 1863
  • June 26, 1863
  • August 3, 1863
  • August 25, 1863
  • September 24, 1863 - A Night at Ford's Theater
  • October 20, 1863
  • October 30, 1863
  • December 10, 1863 - Transporting Prisoners to Washington and Some Sightseeing


January 11, 1863 - HeadQuarters, Convalescent Camp. Near Ft. Barnard, Virginia

Dear Sister,

Yours of December 30th is at hand. I was reading it over tonight in the greatest state of perplexity you can imagine. It seems to me I have answered it, and yet I do not know. And as that is the case, to make "everything sure," as the dutch Captain said, I will write again.

In the first place then, this is no longer Post Hospital, but Convalescent Camp Near Fort Barnard, Virginia. This for some time will be your address for your dear kind letters to me. You made a funny mistake in the direction of yours mailed New Years Day. It was directed to McKim's Hospital. However the Postmaster there is a friend of mine and, knowing where I am, he redirected it and sent it to me, so that's all right. In your letter of December 20th, which I send back to you to see if it is the one you sent the money in (for there was none in it when I received it), you make the following inquireies:

  • 1st How far are you from Baltimore?
  • 2nd How far from Washington?
  • 3rd Where is Alexandria Va?
  • 4th What way and how much would it cost to come from Andover to this place?

To which I answer, this camp is about forty-five miles from Baltimore, 3-1/2 or 4 from Washington. To come here you would change cars at Elmira, and at Baltimore you would have to change again, and be carried in a "bus" from one depot to the other, about two miles. It would cost about ($12) twelve dollars, and much as I should like to see you, I should not advise you to come at this season of the year.

You say you can't find any Alexandria in Virginia. Now get my "atlas," which is in my trunk or some other place, and I will show you where it is. There now, you have the map of Virginia? You see Washington on the Maryland side of the Potomack. Now look on the opposite side of the river and a little way below Washington and you have Alexandria, Virginia. Now do you see it?

I gave up going back to the Army this winter. The surgeon said I would not be able to stand a winter campaign, and as I did not like to remain Idle, I accepted the offer made me to become one of the orderlies at Head Quarters. In this I stayed from December 4th untill January 7th, 1863.

At this time, a new Colonel came to take command of the camp, and when he got up his private quarters, he called me to him, and said he, "I want you to be my private orderly, as you appear to understand your business, and that's what I want." Now as there was seven other orderlies, I felt quite flattered to be chosen. I would not write this to any person but my dear sister, and I have a right to, to you, for you will make allowances for my vanity.

Tell father I thank him very much for those Postage Stamps. They came just in time for I was out of money and out of stamps. This is a much more pleasant winter than the last. It is getting rather muddy now but it is almost the first mud we have had. Tell Billings I am much obliged to him for his kind offer to come down and relieve me for a while, but as I don't see you coming, I shall have to take it as a mere offer.

Give my love to mother and Jane. Tell Joseph I wish I had a bushel of oats of his raising to eat, anything from Andover.

There are eight of us boarding togather. We live well just now. Two of the boys have boxes from home. One contains 105 lbs. and the other 85: chicken, rosted turkey, apples, pickels in jars etc. [Note: If this was a broad hint to his sister about receiving a box from home, she seems to have taken the hint, as the next couple of letters will show.]

But I must close,

Your loveing brother, A. T. LaForge, Orderly

Mrs. Joseph Potter Andover, N.Y.

[written in the margins]

I give up that riddle. Accept it is as Little Mattie says, but Jonah didn't dwell long, for the whale got sick of him.

[Note: I tried searching online for "riddle + Jonah" and found a few riddles in the right timeframe, but none for which this would be the answer.]

The letter December 20th Is not the one you sent the money in, for you mention in that having sent it the Friday before. Let the letter go. A dollar wont break me anyway, if I don't get [it]. Goodbye. A T LaF.


Head Quarters, Camp convalescent, Monday, January 26th 1863

Dear Sister,

Your kind letter of January 18th I received the 22nd. You may guess it gave me some pleasure! A box from home--why the very thought is joy. Just the box without any thing in it is enough to make me homesick, and the contents will have to be used to cure me I suppose.

You want to know what I want in it? Well thats a poser. I can hardly tell. Sweet meats are not in much demand; something more solid is better, such as a roast chicken or roll of butter, and above all things a loaf of your bread.

I am not in want of socks or shirts, thanks to the kind Matron of McKim's. She supplied me well with both before I came from there. Mittens I could not use here, for I often have to write in the open air. I shall buy a pair of gloves as soon as we are paid off. I wish you would send me a red silk pocket handkerchief, if you can get one that won't fade, and let me know the price. I should be afraid of being cheated if I bought one. And send me one or two old Genesee Valleys if you have them [Note: possibly a newspaper?], and if you will be so kind, send me my old account book (after copying my account with brother Josey's in some other book). If you have used it to write anything else in, never mind sending it. I only wanted it to make a kind of report of myself.

Well, I think I have said enough about the box. I am ashamed of myself, but I must add that it should be strong and well packed (if there are any breakables it) with straw or something, for they are handled rather rough sometimes.

The direction will be:

New Convalescent Camp

Near Fort Barnard, Virginia

Via Alexandria, Virginia

I received a letter from Uncle Siars to day. They were all well and had just received a letter from you. They want me to come that way when I go home, but that is such an uncertain date that I can hardly promise. [Note: I need to search and see if I can interpret "Uncle Siars" better.]

Janey sends me a piece of her dress to see how I like it, does she? Well she only does it to make me show my ignorance on such subjects. Well, I won't get mad with her, for she is too far away for me to punish her with a good kiss. So I merely give my candid opinion of it, so here it is. I think it is very pretty and only wish I was there to christen it for her. Well I'll delegate Billings for that. "Ha ha," wont he get his ears slapped! [Note: There is a running thread of semi-flirtation with Janey over a long period. I keep meaning to check the genealogy charts to determine exactly who she is.]

You found where Alexandria, Virginia was, didn't you? You say you want me to visit the Smithsonian Institute. I did that three times last winter. Did I not write to you of it? A person might spend a month there and not see all there is to be seen. It is the best free insititution in the country.

The name of the commander of the camp is Samuel McKelvy. He is a Lieutenant Colonel and is attached to Major General Hentzelman's staff. Last week we had some wet weather--mud a foot deep. Not near so bad as it was last winter, though. It is getting better now. This afternoon we have news that Burnside has resigned and Hooker is in command. [He] has crossed the Rappahannock and is as near Richmond as the mud will allow him to get. Hooker is a fighting man and I hope will do something. McKlellan is the only man who has proved himself worthy of handling a large army as yet. He will be in command again, if Hooker fails and Sumner after him.

It is half past nine P.M. and I must close with my best wishes to you all.

Your loving brother,

A. T. LaForge

Chief Orderly

P.S. Please put in the box a few hard boiled eggs, and an ear or two of popcorn, if you have it. None of the boys from there are in our mess.

A T L.F.


Head Quarters, Camp Convalescent, Virginia February 15th 1863

Dear Sister,

You don't know how good I feel! Why what do you think has happened? This morning I went down to the Express office and--strange to say--found there a box marked Abel. J. [sic] LaForge. And what do you think I did? You can't guess, so I will tell you. I claimed it! The express man asked me if I had an order or bill of freight and I told him no. "You can't have it," says he. That's tough, thinks I.

I must not give it up so. But I was saved the trouble of devising some plan to get it by a gentleman's coming in and, finding what I wanted, he asked me if I was not with Colonel McKelvy? I told him I was, and he gave me the the box without further ado. Bully for me!

I took the treasure home and opened it before the wondering eyes of our boys. Well, my friends, you would be abundantly paid if you could have heard their pleased remarks as the contents were revealed. That Jelly cake received enough praise to last Janey a year, when we tasted it. Maple sugar was pronounced superior to anything of the kind ever tasted of. And the honey, who shall undertake to describe the delights of home-made biscuit with butter and honey? A certain man, by name Joseph Potter, was voted the best honey raiser in these United States (or rather, Disunited States).

But the wonder is still to be spoken of. Those chickens--they made us all show the whites of our eyes in a remarkably edifying manner. I must tell you of them. They were chickens whose heads had been cut off, their feathers had been picked off, they had been boiled untill they were the most tender dainty I ever ate. They had been packed in a tight box. Yet so firmly were they convinced that it was their duty (under any circumstances) to carry out the principles of their existance, that they had laid one dozen hard boiled eggs in their transit from Andover to camp Convalescent!

What a model of unflinching determination--to perform duty under any circumstances--is this? And set us by a chicken too! Well is it said, "Our best examples are from the lowly."

The handkerchief just suits, and indeed I dont think it were possible to get up a box the contents of which would give more universal satisfaction than the one you sent me, and I must say, My Dear friends, I sincerely thank you.

Having disposed of the box, I will now proceed to to the news. We (meaning Head Quarters) have moved into a fine new building, where there is plenty of light and room. This building is divided into four rooms. One is used as buisness office, one as Discharge office, the third as Colonel's private office occupied by him (Colonel) and me, and the fourth is a sleeping apartment used for that purpose by a Lieutenant acting as Adjutant and your humble servant. My duty is to answer unofficial matters sent to the Colonel Commanding, and to keep myself "posted," so that when any information is needed, I can give it and act as [a] sort [of] confidante, to issue orders etc.

There is a railroad running within a half mile of here, from which we are building a branch road to come right up to the barracks, which are now completed and contain nearly five thousand men. Six thousand two hundred men are in this camp now. We discharge from two hundred to two-fifty daily from the service, and send a good many back to their regiments, yet fresh ones keep coming, so the number does not decrease.

We have been having some very muddy weather lately, but for the last two days there has been an evident inclination, to which I am sure I hope it will. [Note: I can't quite decipher that last sentence, unless there is some meaning implicit in "an evident inclination" that indicates a let-up in the rain.] Frank Davis started for Camp Distribution on the way back to his company last week. I have not heard from father yet. I hope he will write soon. Desiring the same thing of yourself. I remain as ever Your Loving brother,

Abiel T. LaForge, Chief Orderly


Head Quarters, Convalescent Camp, Virginia March 2nd 1863

Dear Sister,

I received your kind letter of February 22nd the day before yesterday. I had been expecting it for many days, and began to think you had not received my last. It is said that "hope defered makes the heart grow sick." If this is so, I know of an instantaneous cure, at least in my case, which is this: the final consumation of our hopes. For when I have waited for a letter from you untill I began to despair, its arrival would effect a cure in less than "no time".

Well, if this is not the funniest I ever saw! Two or three changes every day. It is impossible to say what weather we shall have the next hour, unless you say it will be bad, which is quite safe. However warm weather is at hand, and then it will be all right. Bad weather has no effect on the inmates of this camp, farther than to make them ill-natured, for they are all in good warm clean barracks.

We are surrounded on all sides by a fine grove of evergreens, nicely trimed up to about seven feet from the ground. What a splended place this will be in summer for the men to wander through! It is perfectly free from underbrush, the ground covered with the dried pine tassels, making a nice soft carpet for reclining upon.

You wanted to know the camp Frank Davis was sent to from here. It is Camp of Distribution, near Alexandria Virginia. He was sent there about the middle of February. Whether he has been sent from there to the regiment, I do not know. Colonel Belknap came here when he returned from his furlough expecting to have command, doubtless. And as he could not get it, concluded to return to his own command, for which he started last week. Before going, he came into the office and very kindly bid us all goodbye. He is well liked by all who knew him in the camp. [Note: At some point, I believe late in the 1864 entries, I comment on the sudden appearance of Abiel using "concluded" to mean "decided". Now that I'm watching for it, I've noticed this earlier example as well.]

I am glad you have heard from father. I wish he would write to me. What a good thing it is [that] he has such a strong constitution. I am always expecting to hear that he is sick or badly hurt some way. He is changing about from place to place so much. How I should like to be with him and you for a short time, but that may not be.

I suppose you have commenced making maple sugar by this time, have you not? Tomorrow I must go to work at Nelson Crandall's. He has just commenced making sugar. [Note: Not sure what this last comment is, since Abiel obviously isn't going anywhere to work at the sugarbush.]

Tell Janey her Morning Dew came through safe and I still carry it in my pocket. It is a most delicate odor. [Note: "Morning Dew" sounds from context to be some sort of perfume. A brief search turns up a patent medicine by that name, but I have no idea if there's a direct connection or if this is simply a generic name for a perfume.]

Did you intend that little wreath you drew at the end of your letter for me to kiss? That is the way I interpreted, and acted accordingly.

Give my love to Janey and Mother and kiss Joseph for me, for I know you can do that with a relish.

[Note: Sometimes the little everyday social differences are the most striking. Usually "kiss so-and-so for me" suggests a context where the speaker would expect to kiss the person, if present. So I'm trying to guess whether a man kissing his brother-in-law in greeting would be unexceptionable, or whether that sort of transitivity isn't implied.]

Your Loving Brother

Abiel T LaForge

Chief Orderly


HeadQuarters, Camp Convalescent, March 20th 1863

Dear Sister,

Yours of the 12th Inst[ant] arrived in what we think must be the Equinoctial storm, and a disagreable one it is. And as it is a very disagreable one, and I dont like to speak of disagreable subjects, I will not say any more about it. So such about the equinox.

You have got through your spring tour of visits have you? I have no doubt you had a pleasant time. I should like to have been there to supprise you when you came home. Suppose you had come in and found me in the "cubbord" at the pies and pickles? My, what a time there would have been! I guess my ears would have been pulled some, don't you think so? You state that father wrote that he had not received a letter from me since he had been there. I did not get one from him untill last week, and consequently did not know where to direct. His letters must have miscarried, for last week was the first I got from him, and that I answered immediately.

Last month I had the misfortune to lose my memorandum book, commened the time I enlisted October 3rd. I felt very sorry, as I was just going to send it to you to be preserved for me. However I have commenced another and "better luck next time" is my motto, so here goes.

A melancholy event happened last Sunday (15th). A man belonging to the New York troops, and who had been pronounced a case of "harmless insanity," and application had been made at the Adujtant General's for his admission into the Insane Asylum for the U.S. Soldiers at Washington, was found to have commited suicide by hanging himself in one of the barracks not ocupied at the time by any of the soldiers. This created considerable excitement at first, but Colonel McKelvy soon quelled it and sent the men to their quarters, ordering a proper disposition to be made of the body. And soon everything was going along as before. And in a few minutes you would not have suspected that one of our number had commited the sin of suicide in our midst. How wise, things are ordered.

Give my love to all my friends up there, if there is enough to go round. If not, those in the Old Homestead I want to have it all.

And remember me ever,

As your loving brother,

Abiel T LaForge

Chief Orderly

To Mrs Joseph Potter

Andover Allegany County New York

P.S. Sister, I have been so careless as to lose that letter you sent me giving Joseph's account with me. Will you please send me another, giving the same, if you please? The enclosed (20) dollars are for Perry [Potter]. Will you get his note, payable on demand, with seven per cent interest from date?

Yours etc.

Abiel T La Forge


Major category: 
LaForge Civil War Diaries
Tuesday, March 7, 2017 - 08:15
Alpennia logo

I'm not forgetting my promise to talk more about the geography of Alpennia, but in order to come up with even the sketchiest of maps, I need to organize and review the data. In the mean time, I thought I'd tell you how Floodtide is coming along.

The original outline for Floodtide--the one I set up when I needed to do the combined, overlapping outline for both Mother of Souls and Floodtide--has 18 chapter-like-units for the story. These aren't meant to correspond to final chapters. They're more like temporal units that fit conveniently between the MoS chapters, because at that point the chronology was the important thing. At the moment, I'm drafting material for the 8th unit. You might think, on that basis, that I'm almost halfway done. You'd be wrong.

Most of the serious action of the story is only just about to start. (We've gotten up to the end of December 1824. To situate it in the context of Mother of Souls, we're in the middle of the first year of Margerit's school, the middle of the season when Iulien is visiting in Rotenek, right around when Luzie has a first polished draft of her opera.) Although there are several exciting events covered so far, an awful lot of the existing text is Rozild being introduced to other key characters and getting to know them. A lot of that is going to be ruthlessly trimmed and condensed, but it's something I need to work though to get to know the characters myself.

So as a start, let's introduce you to Rozild. I haven't actually come up with a surname for her yet. There are lots of placeholders in the text at this point. Roz comes from a rural area somewhere north of Rotenek, the oldest in a large and economically marginal family. Although she received some basic schooling from one of the Orisule grammar schools, at a relatively early age she went to live with her aunt (to remove one of the mouths her parents had to feed) who had a business doing laundry and mending. When she got to an age to "work out," Roz's aunt arranged for her to go to Rotenek and go into service in an upper middle class household, via contacts at an agency there. Hard work, and a bit lonely away from home, but Roz was able to send her quarterly wages back to help out her parents and younger siblings, as well as (in theory) saving up a nest egg for herself. The loneliness was eased significantly when Roz discovered some very enjoyable common interests with Nan, the girl she shared a bed with. (Keep in mind that in this era "sharing a bed" was the norm, not something that automatically raised suspicion.) But secrets can be hard to keep, and jealousies can run rampant in the downstairs of a Great House. And as our story opens, someone has accused Roz of unnatural affections and Nan concluded her own survival would require throwing her lover under the bus...

Here's the opening paragraph as it currently stands (which already needs some revising, but I'm not doing revising yet):


You know the scent of lavender on the fresh sheets when you get them from the linen press for the housemaids to take up? You breathe it in, remembering the long rows of purple spikes in the summer sun. Then you imagine the smile on the maisetra’s face when she settles in for the night on a new-made bed with that scent still lingering. That’s what I always imagined love would be like. But loving Nan was like the hours spent stripping the lavender spikes for the stillroom back in Sain-Pol. The sharp resin climbed up your nose, making your head throb and ache, and the memory of it clung to your hands and your clothes for weeks so that you’d think you’d never be free of it. I think that was how they found us out: because I was never free of thinking of her. I‘d watch her from the laundry room door as she went up and down the stairs to the family rooms, and find excuses to call her over to ask about some mending she’d brought down. Then at night, even when we were so tired we could barely talk, we’d kiss and cuddle in the narrow bed we shared. My head was so full of her and it was never enough. We had to keep quiet so Mari would think we were only whispering about the day’s work. I didn’t think she’d rat on us anyway; lots of girls in service have their bit of fun. I don’t think Mari told, but someone did. Old Mazzik the housekeeper took Nan back into her parlor and closed the door for a long time and when Nan came out she’d been crying and wouldn’t look at me. Then Mazzik took me by the arm without a word and dragged me across the yard and out the back gate and threw me down onto the cobbles.

Major category: 
Monday, March 6, 2017 - 09:00
LHMP logo

This concludes the series of "tag essays" which were something of a byproduct of the process of adding brief descriptions to all the tags, plus an audit to identify and deal with duplicates, errors, and unused tags. The poetic categories show an interesting dichotomy. Among those poems and poets identified as writing about romantic love and desire, 75% are women. Among the poems and poets treating sexual activity more explicitly, only about 10% are women, though about 25% are anonymous. And many of the male authors in this group are writing either sensational and decadent pornography, or are writing pointed satires that use the accusation of lesbianism to smear contemporaries.

Next week, I'll be returning to covering new publications. I have a really exciting one in preparation about depictions of deviant gender and sexuality in medieaval manuscripts. I only regret that I won't be able to include all the pictures!

Major category: 

The purpose of tags is to make information relatively easy to find. The topics covered under “people/event tags” are historical persons, authors, written works, and other specific events, organizations, or works that are the subject of the research and publications covered by the Project. This essay is intended to explain briefly how the “people/event” tags are being used.

The second purpose is to provide a tag list that the visitor can use to explore the site. The number of tags used in the project, and the organization into four different categories, doesn’t lend itself to a traditional tag-cloud. The Place and Time Period tags each have a single essay. The Event/Person and Misc. Tags will be covered in thematic groups in multiple essays due to the larger number. I’m planning six essays for the People/Event Tags, each covering a general category with several subcategories.

  • Non-Fiction Sources and General Authors
  • Historic Crossdressing and Passing/Transgender People
  • Historic People Relevant for Emotional, Affectionate, or Sexual Relationships
  • Literary Examples of Crossdressing or Gender Disguise
  • Literary Examples of Emotional, Affectionate, or Sexual Relationships
  • Poetry Expressing Romantic or Sexual Relationships

This present essay covers the sixth category and includes the following:

  • Poetry describing love between women, or poets commonly using this theme
  • Poetry describing sex between women, or poets commonly using this theme

Obviously these categories are quite fuzzy at the edges, and I've classified individual people according to what seems the most noteworthy aspect of their lives. Every story is far more complex than a single classification. These are only for the purposes of exploring general themes.

Poetry: Love Between Women

Poetry: Sex Between Women

Friday, March 3, 2017 - 07:00
Book cover: Serpentine by Cindy Pon

Serpentine is a young adult fantasy novel with a historically-inspired Chinese setting that revolves around two major themes. The first is the domestic story of the protagonist Skybright, a foundling who is handmaiden and companion to the well-born Zhen Ni, as both of them stand at the edge of womanhood. The external peril is an invasion of supernatural creatures who have found an opening into the mortal world and are being fought off by a martial order of monks. A major theme of the several braided plot lines is the consequences of concealing your inner nature from those closest to you. Zhen Ni's secret is her romantic love for other girls, first turned toward Skybright and then toward a visiting friend who returns the interest more enthusiastically. But Zehn Ni's fate is to marry well and produce children, and she can only conceal her desires for so long. Skybright's secret is more drastic: she is a serpent demon, with a tendency to shift between human and demon form at unexpected times. And the young man she's feeling a growing attraction to is currently fighting demons with the monks...

I enjoyed the book, particularly in how it incorporated issues of sexuality within a historic culture, and realistically portrayed the various social power differentials between the characters: Skybright's anomalous relationship to Zhen Ni as both "like a sister" yet with no future except to be her servant; the conflicted relationship between Zhen Ni and her mother (who it is hinted may have had a "special friend" in her own past that she had to give up); and the relationship between Zhen Ni and her lover Lan. Zhen Ni is frustratingly self-centered in all of these, but realistically so, given her status and upbringing, though I felt that her actions in the latter part of the book felt more plot-driven than character-driven. But this is Skybright's story, so the major conflict is in her growing understanding and acceptance of her demon heritage and her decisions about how to use that to fight for and protect the people she loves.

I don't think it's fair to note that I was a little put off by some aspects of the prose, because I'm not the target audience from that point of view. The language was a bit simple and did a bit too much explaining, but the setting was well rendered and vividly imagined. If the girls spend a lot of time agonizing over situations that could be resolved with some clear communication and a willingness to compromise...well, that's something in the nature of being a teenager, I suppose.

The story concludes with no happy endings for any of the various romances (no tragedy, but no happiness) and with a large handful of pending plot threads that are presumably taken up in Sacrifice, the sequel.

Major category: 
Thursday, March 2, 2017 - 06:00
Book cover: Flowers of Luna by Jennifer Linsky

Jennifer Linsky is a Twitter friend who graciously agreed to write a guest blog for me.

Hello! My name is Jenny, and I’ve been invited by Heather to do a guest post this week. Since much of Heather’s blog content is about her great-great-grandfather’s civil war diary, I thought I would write a bit about my Ojii-kun, my grandfather, and an entirely different war: the war in the Pacific.  

I was born on a Thursday morning in September, on a day which also happened to be the anniversary of my maternal grandfather’s birth. Despite having arrived in the world only twenty-eight hundred kilometers away from my grandparents’ home in Hakodate, I did not meet the rest of my family for several years; instead, I was flown to America where I mastered the complexities of walking, eating solid food, and speaking English.

The summer before I turned five, however, my mother put me on another airplane with a stuffed bear almost as large as I was. Colonel Bear and I flew across the Pacific, accompanied only by a stewardess, a flight crew, and a couple of dozen strangers. In Tokyo, the stewardess spoke to an old man who looked like the pictures my mother had shown me, and then, she handed me off to him.

“Hello, Jeni,” he said. “I am your grandfather.”  I made the bow my mother had practiced with me, and my grandfather chuckled, returned the bow, and offered his hand to shake.  I shook it. Then I held his hand as we went to reclaim my bags, as we left the airport, as we took a train.

During that trip, I learned things about my grandfather: he spoke very good English, in a measured, precise way, with a cowboy accent layered over his Japanese accent.  I learned that he liked literature, both English and Japanese. And when we visited a shrine together, I learned that he had once had a little brother whose name meant “Shining light.” I learned that my grandfather’s name meant “Studious first-born,” and my mother’s original name meant “Clarity girl.”  My grandfather did not know what my name meant, because it was not Japanese. He would find out, and later call me his fair one, though I suspect that in his mind, fair related to justice, not hair color.

That first trip, I also gave him the label by which I called him for the rest of my life: Ojii-kun.  My cousins all referred to him as Ojii-chan, which mystified me.  When I asked my grandfather for an explanation, he just spread his hands.  “They call me Ojii-chan because I am their Ojii-san, and they like me,” he said.  “What do you think I should be called?”

Rules are comforting when you’re four and learning a new language. -chan, I explained, was for girls.  Jeni-chan, Umeko-chan, Skura-chan. Boys all had -kun names. Hikaru-kun, the lost little brother. Tatsu-kun, the cousin who didn’t like me. So my grandfather should be Ojii-kun.  He nodded, and agreed that he could be my Ojii-kun. Later, I found out that in general Japanese usage, an Ojii-kun is an exceptionally youthful looking grandfather; perhaps this stroked my Ojii-kun’s ego.

(My Ojii-chan was also called “Castro-sama” by my cousins.  When he retired, he decided to grow his beard, with the result you likely expect; a whispy white tangle.  He would tell me with a twinkle in his eye that he thought he looked like Santa-sama).

Over time, as I got older and my understanding increased, I learned more. I learned that my grandfather spoke English as he did because he had studied Civil Engineering at a University in Texas. He had gone to learn about railroads, and when he came back, he did what many young men from good families, who had the right social connections, did…he joined the Army.

The Army put him to work building railroads.  He built local lines in Osaka; he built a major line in Hokkaido.  He fell in love with a woman from the wrong background, and full of the egalitarian spirit he had picked up in Texas, he married her anyway.  Then my Ojii-kun was sent to build railroads in Manchuria.

(My grandmother, my Obaa-sama, remained in Japan and worked hard to have her husband’s affluent, socially-connected family accept her despite her farming roots. Instead, I think she absorbed their disdain for anything which was not “good enough.”  And a half-barbarian child who barely spoke Japanese? Not good enough).

Many Japanese believe that you can not know who a person is, until you’ve been drunk with them.  There are too many layers of pretense, of politeness, of carefully crafted veneer between you and their true self, and only alcohol can tear away those layers and show you the soul. Though I was not old enough to drink, I saw my grandfather drunk.  I know that, even thirty years later, the Manchurian incident tore at him.  “They blew it up,” he would rail, deep in his cups. “They blew up my pretty roadway!”

Memory is the most unreliable narrator of all, and when it is the memory of a man grown old, filtered through the memory of a child who didn’t understand all of it at the time, what remains is likely to be as much wishful fiction as history. Should I take his drunken ramblings literally? Should I believe that he designed, or surveyed, or supervised the building of the railway line bombed on a chill September morning in 1931? It would have been early in his career, but possible.  Or did he simply mean that the rail was his in the way that all rail was his?

My grandfather loved railroads. We would leave the house early, some days, Ojii-kun and I. Ojii-kun said that we were getting out of Obaa-sama’s hair, but really, he just wanted to go and ride the rails with me.  Some days, we would just ride around Hakodate, and he would tell me little stories about the neighborhoods.  Some days, we would ride out into the Hokkaido countryside, and eat our lunch at a railway station someplace, having whatever ekiben (train-station lunchbox) was on offer at that station, in that season.

Sometimes, when we took longer trips, Ojii-kun would pick up a manga volume, and we would read together -- which is to say, I would look at the pictures and he would read to me, translating on the fly as he turned the pages.

(Decades later, I would incorporate that common scene into Flowers of Luna, the girl and her grandfather changed to young lovers, but the train and the reading aloud still symbolizing love).

Sometimes, when I could not sleep, my grandfather would read to me from a big, pre-war book of Japanese fairy tales. Obaa-sama would scold him for coddling me, but Ojii-kun would just smile and go on reading.  He didn’t translate when he read from that book, and the sound of half-understood words and phrases tumbling by in the deep voice of my Ojii-kun would make me feel safe, and I would fall asleep.

I do not know where my grandfather was in December of 1937, but I do know that he was still in China. He may have been present for the approach, siege, and massacre of Nanking. If so, he never spoke directly of it.  More than once, however, when he was in his cups, he looked at me with sorrow deep in his eyes, and he asked, “Jeni, who is the better samurai? The one who serves the just master, or the one who serves the wicked master?”

And, though I knew his answer after the first time, I would always answer that it was the one who served the just master.  But Ojii-kun would shake his head, and say, “anyone can serve a just master. It takes a truly exceptional samurai to serve a wicked master faithfully and well, despite the cries of his soul.”

If he were alive today, I would ask him many things.  Whether he truly built the railroad in Manchuria that wasn’t destroyed by the seditious bomb. Whether he was there in the days around the dreadful activities in Nanking. Why he hadn’t opposed the Army’s plans. But he is not alive.

He died the winter following my twelfth birthday. The previous summer, as we stood in Tokyo at the shrine for the Imperial War Dead, we looked at the sky. “It was the weather,” he said, “that made them choose Nagasaki.” I nodded. He looked around the shrine once more, and then said, in a confidential tone, “I have always believed it fate that Hikaru-kun became light at the end of his life.”

That afternoon, at the airport, we engaged in our ritual of leavetaking. I shook his hand solemnly, and bowed.  “Be well, Jeni-chan,” he said.  “I do not believe we will meet again in this life.”  When I picture him now, he too has become light, and he laughs, the unfashionable deep belly laugh of my childhood.

Jennifer Linsky is a second-generation Japanese American who could join the DAR. She is the author of Flowers of Luna, a Japanese-influenced F|F romance in a SciFi setting, independently published through Amazon ( ) and available on Kindle Unlimited. She tweets as @Walkyrjenny and uses the same handle for Wattpad, where more of her writing can be read for free.

Major category: 
Guest Posts
Wednesday, March 1, 2017 - 07:00

Not much time to write an introduction this time. This covers the rest of 1862 and explains how Abiel became separated from his original regiment (dysentery).

The Diary and Letters of Abiel Teple LaForge 1842-1878

Transcribed, edited, and annotated by Phyllis G. Jones (his great-granddaughter)

Copyright © 1993, Phyllis G. Jones, All rights reserved

April 186-December1862


1861-2 Contents

  • December 23, 1861
  • January ?, 1862 - Camp Conditions and Comfort
  • February 5, 1862
  • February 27, 1862
  • March 2, 1862
  • April 2, 1862 - The First Real Action
  • May 4, 1862
  • May 25, 1862
  • June 10, 1862 - The Up Side of Dysentery
  • September 13, 1862
  • September 26, 1862
  • October 1, 1862
  • November 9, 1862
  • December 22, 1862


Camp Winfield Scott, April 2, Company C, 85th New York Volunteers, 3rd

Brigade Casey's Divison

Dear Friends,

It is with much pleasure that I now seat myself to answer your kind letter of the 21st, which came to hand yesterday, just as our company had fell into line to go out on picket. You can judge that the two miles we had to go before we got to our picket lines did not seem short, for I was so impatient to read your letter. You cannot imagine what a bright spot in my life it is to receive a letter from home. All others are but tame in comparison. I waited untill I arived at my post before I opened it, then expecting to divide my attention between the rebels and your letter. But I found it impossible. Not untill I had read and reread the letter did the rebs have a thought.

Our picket line runs on one side of a field about forty rods wide, and the rebel lines are on the other side, almost in speaking distance of each other. However we are in no danger of being shot by the other, for there is an order strictly forbidding picket shooting. So you see, we stand and look in each others face without without the least show of animosity, when we are only waiting for an opportunity of meeting each other with the worst passions of which human nature are capable.

This morning we gave them an opportunity to have a shot at us without breaking the rule of picket shooting. There was some rebel cattle on neutral ground, i.e., the strip of land between the picket lines, which we thought we could drive in. Accordingly, some of us went out around the cattle and the rest of us were to head them off and drive them through the gap into our lines. This program we thought good, but it did not met the approbation of our friends across the field. No sooner had we started for the cattle, than they brought a gun from their fort to bear upon us and sent a shot at us, which flew high over our heads, so we kept on after the cattle. They fired two more shots at us from the cannon. By this time we had got down near their picket lines, and they began to fire at us, which made it highly improper for us to go any farther. So we thought it best to retreat, while we could do so in good order. None of us were hurt.

We had a very cold wel [sic? or perhaps an error for "wet"] disagreeable time on duty. I often thought of the warm, comfortable place at home that I have often filled. It was not with regret that I thought of the joys of home. The memory of them but makes dearer to me the free institutions of my country.

We had a smack of actual service the 27th. Our regiment was called upon to assist the Maine 7th in making a reconnaissance in force. We were marched out to our picket line and placed in ambush, to cover the retreat of the 7th, in case they were forced to retreat. When we were loading, our Colonel said, "Now boys, if you are called upon to fire, I don't want a bullet to fly over an enemy's head now mind." We had to remain in our position an hour. You would have been amused to see our occupation, expecting an attack every moment. Some of them were playing pin, some were playing "mumble de peg", others telling stories making ludicrous remarks about our position, and so on.

The seventh were successful. They drove back the enemy's pickets and penetrated to within a hundred and ten yards of their battery, and then retreated without losing a man. When this news came to our regiment, there was more downcast, disappointed-looking faces than there was before, when we were expecting to be engaged in a bloody strife in a few moments. However it could not be helped, so we were marched back to camp without seeing an enemy.

I wish I could write you some news about the proceedings of the army, but I cannot because I have no means of knowing any of the movements except those made by our own brigade. I have not had a paper in two weeks, don't have anything to read. No news reaches us that we can depend on. There is no papers brought up here to sell, so you can judge of the disagreeably ignorant state, in regard to the news, we are in. I wish you would be so kind as to send me a paper of some kind occasionally. A tribune, an Allegheny paper, an illustrated or literary paper, in fact, anything in the shape of a newspaper.

I thank you for your kind offer to send me more money, if I wanted it, but I shall not avail myself of it. I have a number of postage stamps and some twenty cents in money, I guess. I shall do very well till pay day, as there is no way to spend money here, and pay day will come before long, whether we get any pay or not.

Lester Eaton is at Newport News, sick of the camp dysentery, dangerously sick. The hospital nurse who was up here the other day said he did not think he could live. I have not seen him since we left there, and what is worse, none of us can get a pass to go down and see him. Do not tell his people of this, I beg of you.

Father, I am glad you did not enlist. I fear the old men are those who are sick most, while us young bucks are as tough and hardy as grizzly bears.

Susan, I don't want you to dream about me so much, for you always dream bad dreams and they make you unhappy. I know, and I do not like to have you worrying about me, when I was never in better health in my life.

Dear sister, you wanted to know if we kept up the practice of reading in the Bible every night. I can answer only for myself. I do nearly every night. We no longer have family prayer, for our family is scattered, but I hope that we all engage in silent prayer, which the Lord can hear just as well. I hope that I may be prepared to die, so that if I am to die on the battlefield, that it may not be without hope of meeting you all in heaven.

With this as my desire,

I remain yours as ever A. T. La Forge

[written around the edges of several pages of the previous letter]

We have advanced nearer the enemy's lines, since I wrote to you before. We're now about half way between the York and James rivers, four miles from Yorktown. We are daily expecting a battle at Yorktown. When the guns open on that place, I suppose there will be an advance all along the line between the rivers the[?]. [possibly "there"?] It seems that the rebs will fight here if any where, for they are fighting for their capitol. This may be said to be the door to Richmond.

Besides all this, they have also the advantage in position. Nature has fortified the place for them. If you will look in my atlas at the map of Virginia, you will find our position near the lower right hand part of the state. You will see Yorktown Warwick C[ourt] H[ouse]. We were camped at Warwick courthouse.

Please turn to Page 2 now. [In the atlas, presumably.] We have moved up nearer Yorktown and near Warwick creek. This creek is mostly in the hands of the rebels. In some places, their pickets are on one side and ours are on the other. Imagine a line of fortifications extending from Yorktown to the mouth of the creek and you can tell something of what we have to contend with. Sister, I hate to ask you to do such a thing, but I must I wish you would send me a row or two of pins in a newspaper. I would not ask you to if I could buy them, but I cannot, and I know it will give you pleasure. So goodbye. ATLF.


Camp Winfield Scott, Saturday, May 4, Company C, 85th Regiment New York Volunteers; Third Brigade, Casey's Division

Dear Friends,

It is with much pleasure that I seat myself to write to you. Since my last letter I have had some experience in fighting, and I can say that it is not funny. I will tell you particulars. April the 29th our Division was called out to make a reconnaissance in force, that is an examination of the enemy's lines and fortifications. Our Regiment was in the advance. We were formed in line of battle and advanced beyond our pickets, and then began to look out for the rebs. But never a rebel did we see until all at once we herd a volley of rifles. And the balls went whizzing by our heads, cutting off the twigs and thugging into them in such a manner as to one very uncomfortable. We kept advancing toward the enemy without a waver, when suddenly we were brought to a standstill by coming upon a slough which it would be very improper for us to cross. The rebs still continued to fire at us, so our Colonel gave us the order to conceal ourselves behind trees and return the enemy's fire whenever we could see them. The trees were so thick that we could not see them, and judging from the poor shots they made after the first volley, they could not see us very plain.

I looked in vain for a rebel, but could not see one. I think if I had, I could have taken as good aim at one as I could at a target, for though excited, my aim was as steady as ever. After remaining here half an hour, our skirmishers were deployed to protect our retreat, and we came back to camp having nobody hurt in our regiment. One in the 56th New York Volunteers, the regiment Richard belongs in, was mortally wounded.

I have sorrowful news to tell you: Lester Eaton is dead. He died in the hospital at Newport the 26th of April. His disease was fever and dysentery. There has [been] three letters came for him from his folks since he died. Oh, how his father and mother and brothers and sister must feel! But I will say no more on this painful subject. Leander is quite sick, and I have been a little. You can see by this writing that I am somewhat nervous. We have just received two of the four months pay due us. I send you twenty three [and] one half dollars. Joseph: does not that note against Nelson Crandall become due this spring? The new ten cent piece enclosed is for little Mattie. Please give it to her. I believe I have nothing more to write at present. Only please burn this after you have read it, if you can do that. And oblig[?]. A T La Forge

[Note: Obviously the letter was not burned as requested, but it's curious why that request would be made. Abiel's first brush with actual combat would be his last for an extended period for reasons made clear in the next letter.]


U. S. Army General Hospital, Adams House, Baltimore, Maryland

Sunday May 25th 1862

Dear Friends,

It is with pleasure that I seat myself to inform you of my whereabouts, at which you will doubtless be surprised. I am sure that I am.

When the 85th moved toward Williamsburg, when the rebs fell back, I could not go with them. I was just coming down with the Virginia fever. I also had the dysentery. Both of these ailments took hold of me pretty strongly after the regiment moved. I grew light rapidly under their close attention. In the course of three weeks I lost twenty pounds. I was taken to the hospital at Yorktown, and from there was brought North on the Vanderbilt, where were first taken to Washington, but the hospitals there were all full so we were brought around here in the boat.

[Recall that in the last letter, just after Abiel noted the death of a friend from dysentery, he noted that he had been "a little sick" and we can imagine that it was the beginning of this illness. My initial searching hasn't turned up an obvious candidate for "Virginia fever".]

As soon as we were moored to the wharf here, the good people begun to bring on board and give to us all kinds of delicacies, such as we had not tasted since leaving home. Arrangements were soon made, and a hundred and eighty of us were taken to the Adams house hospital, where we receive the best of treatment.

We arrived here the 17th. Visitors are coming in every day, bringing all sorts of nice things for us.

I am quite well now. Entirely well of my fever, but quite weak.

My love to all,

From your son and Brother A T La Forge


U. S. Army General Hospital, Mc Kims House, Baltimore, Maryland

June 10th 1862

Dear Friends,

It is with much pleasure that I seat myself for the purpose of again communicating with you by the pen. I received your kind letter of April 31st, which gave me much pleasure, for I had been waiting what seemed a long time for a letter from you. Yours did not arrive until we had changed from the Adams House to the McKims Mansion hospital, where you must now direct your letters.

I have entirely recovered from my sickness and am detailed on duty here in the hospital as orderly for the Surgeon in charge, so my cake is dough for going back to the Regiment, for which I am very sorry.

[Note: Given the number of invalids mentioned above, it's curious (and unexplained) why Abiel was not sent back immediately to his regiment if he was truly "entirely recovered" as he repeatedly insists. One wonders whether he may have remained in more fragile health than he was willing to admit in letters. It would be about two entire years before he again saw combat, though at least a little of that toward the end was due to bureaucracy. As will become apparent in the next year, he was given increasing clerical and supervisory responsibilities in the various camps he moved through. And given his later performance, it's possible that someone recognized his competence and decided he'd be more use off the battlefield. I don't remember if he remarks on this explicitly in the 1863 letters.] 

Our Regiment has been in a severe battle lately. George Green and I believe Orvill Barney have been wounded and sent North to New York City. I suppose they have written home by this time. If they have, I wish you in your next letter would let me know the extent of their misfortune. I am anxious to hear. Also tell me if any [of] the rest of our boys are wounded or killed.

Crandal is a prisoner in the hands of the rebs, our Major dangerously wounded, and our Lieutenant Colonel slightly wounded, and a good many of the men killed, so they must have fought well.

Strawberries are ripe and have been for a week or two. The ladies bring them in nearly every day. They are exceedingly [kind?] to us, and I am sure I shall never forget them. Still I should much prefer the nursing of my sister's, but I can't expect to have as good nurses as as you are.

We have had pleasant weather most of the time we have been have been here, but for several days in succession we have had rain nearly all of the time. However it was needed, for the ground was very dry.

There are a number of the boys from our regiment at this hospital. I like this place much better than the Adams house, for then we were on one of the principal streets of the [city?] and the rattle of the carts and wagons over the pavements was almost incessant night and day. I found it very difficult to sleep at all. While here we are out of the town and away from noise, with a pleasant rural prospect and much more healthy. My business is very pleasant but rather confining. I have to be here from seven in the morning until six at night every day, yet I have plenty of time to read and study while I am here.

There are two hundred and seventy three patients in this hospital. It is situated on an eminence overlooking the most of town. There are three buildings, two story barracks forming three sides of a square, and the McKims Mansion where the Doctors and lady nurses live, then the laundry, cooking house, and officers' dining room, where the Doctors, Stewards, Ward masters, Clerk, and myself eat. And we live well, I tell you. I can write no [more?] at present. Oh yes, I can too. I wish you would send me a five dolor bill, if you can raise it. I have been sick and spent all my money and I want a pair of boots. You did not write whether you received that twenty three dollars fifty cents which I sent you. We only got two months pay, and I sent you the above amount of that. So fare well at present.

God bless you all, Your Brother, A. T. La Forge


U. S. Army General Hospital, McKim's Mansion, Baltimore

Sept 13 1862

Dear Friends

It is with much pleasure that I embrace this opportunity of answering your kind letter of Aug 27, which I have the pleasure of saying found me in good health, for which I am very thankful.

Baltimore is very much excited now, owing to the recent successes of the rebels. The rich rebels who, but a week since were wishing for Jackson, now that there is a prospect of his coming, are trembling for fear of the destruction of their property by the Union soldiers. For it is a pretty sure thing, if the rebels take the city, our troops will shell it from the forts which command it, and which can be held against any force that the rebs can bring to bear on them.

It is very plain to be seen that the destruction of their property would give them more pain than the occupation of the city by the rebs would give them pleasure.

But the poorer classes of rebs are jubilant, for they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Whenever they can get a soldier out in some unfrequented place, they are sure to pitch into him and almost always sure to get flogged and put into the station house for their pains. Many are the fisticuff fights we have to engage in to uphold the honor of the Union.

You would be surprised, and justly too, at the ignorance we are in [as] regards the number and purposes of the rebels in Maryland. That they are commanded by able generals is very evident, but what there intentions are--whether to march on Pennsylvania or Baltimore or Washington, or to await attack--is more than we are able to conjecture with any feeling of safety.

Father, have you and Susan given up going East this fall? If you go, give my best respects to friends at the dear old place. [Note: "East" in this case is presumably the New Windsor area on the Hudson.] Tell little Josiah he must enlist when he's old enough, but not before. Tell uncle Josiah [Fuller] I wish I was down there to eat grapes with him. Say to Aunt Sophy that I am coming down to see her and the rest of them after a while. Of course that means after the war.

I am glad the crops are good up there. In my opinion, the crops will be better than the prices. I remember the last work I helped Joseph do was to turn over some beans which were damp. Now if you had some more to turn over, and I could be up there and spend one night with you, I should be content to turnover beans all next day to pay for it, and think it a cheap bargain at that. For I judge I should get a pumpkin pie by the operation, and perhaps one or two kisses from very dear friends. What do you think?

How very truly can I say,

Where e'er on earth I am doomed to roam,

My heart is still with friends at home.

[Note: Now here's an interesting puzzle. These two lines definitely sound like Abiel is quoting something. And a Google search on various tweaked versions turns up a set of lyrics entitled "Good News From Home" attributed to one Ethel Holm. The problem is, this source says of the author, "Ethel Holm was born on Saba at Windwardside September 4th, 1901. Daughter of George William Christian Holm and Eldarena Hassell. She was a sister of Captains. Irvin and Ralph Holm." Further investigation indicates that attribution is mistaken and turns up a set of uncredited lyrics published in 1860 (much more reasonable!) in The Red, White, and Blue Monster Song Book (vol 3), edited by J. Diprose.]

Oh, I forgot to say I have reserved a very small share of a very fine, fresh, little girl here, very handsome and of strong union proclivities. She is rather shy and bashful, but she likes me pretty well, but won't let me kiss her unless I steal it. [Note: This flirtation seems to have had no lasting effects.]

Now don't go to to forming any rash ideas, but give my love to all just the same as if I had not told you what I have, and remember me as yours affectionately, A.T. La Forge, Orderly.

To Mr Joseph Potter, Andover, Allegany. Co. NY.


U.S. Army General Hospital, McKim's Mansion, Baltimore, September 26th, 1862

Dear Sisters,

Your kind letter of the 13th has been received. I was very glad to hear from you so good a report of yourselves.

Now Jane, you see that much of my letter is addressed to you and Susan both. Now as Suse is gone, the rest is to you entirely, providing you will give a few messages to the rest. [Note: Evidently Susan is absent for some reason? There seems to be a reference in the next letter to her "going east". This absence isn't explained, but the jokes to Joseph about being "a single man again" also indicate some sort of extended absence.]

The danger to Baltimore has passed. We have no farther apprehension of the rebels taking the city. Mac, has driven them from "My Maryland" and I hope he will follow up his success and drive them down to their capitol, and take that, and thus virtually ending the war before the rainy season commences. How I wish he could.

Joseph, how is your crops this year? Do they turn out well as you expect? I wish you would let me know what grain, cattle, butter, cheese and such like are selling for there. Clothes are very high here. Of course they are the same there.

How do you like sleeping alone, Joseph? You are a single man again. How do you like it? We have confounded work getting our pay. I wish you would send me five dollars as soon as you can. I have lent all the money of last payday which I have not used, and can't get it till we are paid, and I want some money before that.

Well mother, how do you enjoy life now? I hope you are well, for without health nobody can enjoy life, is not that so? Doesn't it do your heart good to see so many patriotic young men coming to their country's call, as there has, from the country about there? I should not think any would have to be drafted from Andover or Independence. Do you think there will be any?

[Three-inch section of the letter has been cut out.]

I am expecting a letter from Susan and father. I have received one [from] O L Barney,

My love to all, Yours truly Abiel T La Forge, Orderly McKims

Company C 85th New York Volunteers, Sick Division McKims

Joseph Potter, Independence


U. S. Army General Hospital, McKim's Mansion, Baltimore,

October 1st, 1862

Dear Sister,

Your kind letter of Sept 27 was received last night and I haste to reply.

I was quite surprised to hear from you so quick. I even doubted your going East at all, but your letter sets me at rest on the subject. Is there any place you have been yet that you recognized? I am sure I did not remember any of the old places around there when I went back, but you were older than I and probably remember more than I did.

I am sorry Uncle William [LaForge?] is in such a bad condition. How I wish I had a weeks furlough to come up there, go around with you, and Father.

You write that you do not know where father is. I suppose he has turned up, since I'll warrant you father enjoys himself hugely. He will try to keep you down there all winter, see if he don't. He knows the country so well about there that he will not see half he wants in a good while.

You have been up on Solomans Baarrack [?] before this time. What a beautiful view there is from there: New Burgh, Poughkeepsie, Mateawan, New Windsor, and all those places we used to know so well. And there is little Pancake and Four corners, where used to live and go to school. How dear the associations of childhood seem when we contemplate them in after life. Do not think by my writing that I begin to feel like an old man. Nothing of that, I assure you. But to think of the old places sometimes makes me feel lonely.

Uncle Josiah is as hale and hearty as ever, I suppose--still drawing two loads of water a day, just as he used to when I was there. God bless him. He has a kind heart. Give him my best love.

I judge, by what you write, age begins to tell on aunt Sophy. How kind she used to be to me! I know I used to think her love was more like a mother's than an aunt's. Therefore give her for me the love of a son.

Ask cousin Sal how she likes married life by this time. I believe she had a baby when I was there. How does the little thing do now? I forget whether it was a girl or boy.

Give my love to all our kind friends, both great and small. I wish I could be there to express it myself. But that I am unable to do so, I must be contented with the pen's dumb eloquence.

Has cousin John Gordon (I believe this is the name of Susan's husband) gone out West as he expected to when I was down there? He had a promise of a position in a copper mine out near lake Superior.

Tell little Jo I shall write to him soon. He is a good writer for a boy of his age, I tell you.

Tell Father, if he visits his old friend in New Burgh, to give my best respects to them.

From your loving Brother, Abiel T La Forge, Orderly


U. S. Army General Hospital, McKim's Mansion, Baltimore,

November 9th 1862

Dear Sister,

Your kind letter of October 3rd I just this hour received, and enclosed found the $5.00 you was so kind as to send me. The letter was miscarried. It went first to Washington, then to Newport News, and then to Suffolk where our regiment now is. My first lieutenant kindly opened it and, seeing it was of importance to me, forwarded it.

We were paid some time ago. Thirty dollars of my pay I sent to my old friend John Clemence to be invested for me. He wrote he would invest it in the best manner possible at this time.

Cousin Geo[rge] Hall was over to see me week before last. He knew me as soon as he saw me, but I did not have as good a memory. I knew I had seen before, but where I could not tell. We had a good visit. He took dinner with me and then returned. I promised to repay the visit and was going over last Sunday, but I heard the regiment had left, so I did not go.

Well Susey dear, I am about to return to my regiment. I asked Dr. Quick yesterday if he would not send me back and he said he would. I am ashamed to stay here any longer, an enlisted soldier and doing nothing, never seeing an enemy unless a prisoner. I shall probably go back between this and the 20th. I hope you will write soon and send it here as before. If I am not here, they will know where to send it.

I did not know how well I was liked untill I told them I was going back. Everybody now seems trying to make me believe that I am a capital fellow and all that. A young clerk--that I came near fighting a duel with when I first came here--swears, if he could get his pay, he would desert from his regiment and go with me to mine, if he could get his pay. Of course, you will think by my writing this I am very vain, and I guess you will be more than half right.

[Note: As we see later, Abiel seems to inspire this sort of response in people, though it isn't clear at this early date quite why. But presumably the charisma we see later in battle came out in more peaceful interactions as well.]

Give my love to all, and tell me next time if you enjoyed your visit as well as you expected before you went.

Your loving brother, A T La Forge


Post Hospital, Near Alexandria Virginia, December 22nd 1862

Dear Sister,

Why I do not get a letter from you, I do not know. Have you received none from me since I have been here? I wrote you a letter the first week I was here, but the pleasure of an answer from my dear sister I have not had. I believe you must have written to me and the letter has [been] sent astray.

"Wall", I am not back to to the 85th yet and I cannot tell when I shall be. No men have been sent to their regiments from here for some time. The camp is gradually being broken up, and moved to a place about three miles above here, where it will be more sheltered from the wind and therefore warmer. The position of this camp is very beautiful for sumner, but far too bleak for winter.

[Note: I've left Abiel's "Wall" ("well", presumably) as intended to depict a dialect pronunciation, given the scare-quotes. The comment that no one from the hospital is being sent back to their regiments may go some ways to explaining why Abiel still lingers. But his comments in the next paragraphs suggest why he continued to be kept there well into the next year. It may be that competent and responsible clerks were valuable enough to be held on to.]

We have already had some very cold weather, colder than it was any time last winter. The Potomac was nearer frozen over, at two different times, than it was at any time last winter. Still, we are having very agreable weather most of the time.

I am now acting as sergeant of the squad to which I belong. I have to make out the requisitions for rations, give them passes, and am held responsible for their good order, and so on. When I first came here, we had to bring all the wood we had over two [and] 1/2 miles, but now we have all the wood we want to burn issued to us, which is a great deal more pleasant. I can go into town at any time, for I have a general pass from Colonel Belknap, who comands this post.

Last night I was sitting by the fire and wishing that I was either with my regiment or up at Josey's, and I do believe if I could have my "druther," I would be with you in Independence till after New Year, which is now so close at hand, and then back to the army again. In that letter you sent me while at McKim's, father wrote he was going out West again. Has he gone yet? If he has, don't you suppose he will be back again next spring? If he would settle down some place, he might get along quite well. If he is still there, give him my love. And mother: how does she stand the cold weather this winter?

It is getting dark, so I must close, wishing you all a Merry Christmas and a happy New Year

Your loving brother, Abiel T La Forge

Acting Sergeant in charge of squad

[written along edge]

I have not the mony to put postage on this letter.

To Mrs Joseph Potter Independence N. Y.

Address Post Hospital Near Alexandria, Va. Co. C. 85th Regt.NYSV

Major category: 
LaForge Civil War Diaries


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