As has become custom, while in NYC for Thanksgiving, I took in the show playing at the theater where Lauri is house manager. This time it was "The Encounter" created, directed, and solo-performed by Simon McBurney. This work clearly falls in the general category of "experimental theater" so I'm going to come at this review from several different angles. The synopsis from Playbill gives the most basic background of the work: "In 1969, Loren McIntyre, a National Geographic photographer, found himself lost among the people of the remote Javari Valley in Brazil. It was an encounter that was to change his life: bringing the limits of human consciousness into startling focus. Conceived as a theatrically aural experience, the audience is drawn directly into the middle of the action."
Starting with the technical angle: the aural environment is a major element of the performance--one might say the most important element aside from the script. Each audience member is given a set of headphones and--after a brief introduction--all sound, both live and recorded, is channeled through the sound system. The 360-degree stereo aspect is regularly played with, not merely to position sound effects behind the listener and provide the illusion of movement and location from imagined characters, but sometimes to deliberately contradict McBurney's physical position to reinforce the subjectivity of perception that is a major theme of the play. The physical staging is spare: a desk, a mannequin head on a post that stands in for the viewer/listener (as part of the sound pick-up system) and also stands in for various characters being interacted with. A handful of other props, such as water bottles and a mass of video tape, that are repurposed at various times.
The story itself is told in constantly shifting layers: McBurney the playwright interacting with the bedtime rituals of his daughter, McBurney the playwright collecting anecdotes others tell him about the photographer McIntyre, McBurney the narrator telling McIntyre's framing story, and McBurney the actor as McIntyre in the midst of his adventure. Shifts between the layers not only serve to comment on the act of storytelling and the ways in which narrative is bent to differing purposes, but also serve to break up some of the more intense scenes and "reset" the audience's emotional baseline.
All this fictionalization and subjectivity created (for me) a cloud of confusion over what messages the performance was meaning to communicate. For me the deepest story--that of the photographer McIntyre--kept feeling like it boiled down to, "white dude disrupts the lives of indigenous tribe and makes the whole thing about his own personal spiritual transformation, including attributing Mystical Powers and Spiritual Wisdom to the Magical Natives." But at the same time, the version of the story being presented on stage had gone through several transmissions and interpretations, so it was difficult to tell what aspects reflected McIntyre's view on his experience, versus how he presented that experience to others, versus how those others interpreted that story, versus what McBurney felt would make a compelling stage performance.
The various layers of narrative framing kept bringing my attention back to the play's commentary on the act of storytelling. From one angle, McIntyre's experience is set up almost as a portal fantasy or hallucinatory vision. The portal framing begins when he is dropped by plane in the middle of the Amazon jungle, encounters two members of the Mayoruna tribe, and follows them through the trackless vegetation until he loses his way and has no choice but to keep following them. The portal is exited later, after a climactic ecstatic ritual, when a sudden violent storm and flood leaves McIntyre floating downriver, separated from his Mayoruna companions and returning to western civilization.
But conversely, these distancing techniques that move the events of the story farther and farther into fictional territory are contradicted by the play's conclusion, which presents the playwright as having traveled to meet with the Mayoruna and discuss the performance with them. The problem is: by the time we get to this part of the performance, I've settled into an assumption that no specific element of the script can be taken as factual. So even this purported touch-back to the real people being depicted on stage (well, for a value of "depicted" that doesn't involve actors or physical presence) feels just as fictional as everything else.
So. What did I think? The work is technically impressive and memorable, but it feels exploitative. I keep coming back to "white dude makes encounter with indigenous people all about his own subjective spiritual transformation in which they are primarily stage props." In this light, the staging as a one-man show that seems designed to center McBurney's stage-chewing abilities is a perfect mirror.
When you read Stephanie Burgis's guest-post below, I think my regular readers will understand immediately why I'm delighted to have her as a guest, and why I think anyone who enjoys my writing will probably love hers as well. I haven't read her newest book Congress of Secrets yet, but I thoroughly enjoyed her previous work Masks and Shadows (see review) and gave it one of my highest accolades: passing the "treadmill test" with flying colors! (Since I read fiction mostly at the gym, the "treadmill test" is, "Did I blow right past my workout target because I was so engrossed in the book?") Although the new book has similar themes and setting to Masks and Shadows, they are independent of each other.
The best thing I ever did for my writing career was to go to grad school. I didn’t get an MFA in Creative Writing, though. Instead, I studied opera history and politics, and the way those two things intertwined.
There are lots of obvious reasons why it’s good for any fiction writer to study history. You get to see the way the world really works (sometimes over and over and over again, in distressing repetition). You get to see the (sometimes unimaginable) ways real people have schemed and fought for power, as well as breathtaking acts of real heroism, generosity and self-sacrifice, too.
But sometimes, you get another bonus, as a fantasy writer. Sometimes, you get magical ideas handed to you.
As I got ready to write this guest blog, I kept thinking back to the first line in the Acknowledgements of Lois McMaster Bujold’s wonderful book The Curse of Chalion (which is set in a fantasy world based on Renaissance Spain): “The author would like to thank Professor William D. Phillips, Jr., for History 3714, the most useful four hundred dollars and ten weeks I ever spent in school.”
In Bujold’s case (if I’m remembering this story right, from an interview I read many years ago!) she took a course on Spanish history just for fun, in mid life, and it sparked a whole new setting for her next few books and also a basic historical setup that she could turn into something astonishingly unique and powerful. (I am a huge Bujold fan in general, but I love her Chalion books best of all!)
Her kingdom of Chalion bears a number of resemblances to Renaissance Spain, just as her fiery young heroine has a lot of overlap with Spain’s own historical Queen Isabella – but Bujold made that world her own with the addition of an all-new, original and convincing religious system that includes five gods taking an active part in history and directly affecting all the characters and their struggles.
…So it started with history, and became something new. That’s a fabulous way of doing it!
But sometimes, it’s just a matter of finding what was already there.
In my own case, I spent my years as a PhD student studying opera and politics in late eighteenth-century Vienna and Eszterháza…which meant, inevitably, that I read a lot about the many different secret societies that were rife in Vienna in that time period. Most famously, Mozart’s The Magic Flute is full of Masonic symbolism – and the provocative chapter title of one academic book I read, when studying Mozart’s operas, was: “Why did the Freemasons Visit Hell?”
Of course, that visit never literally happened. The author of that book was only discussing a rite in which they symbolically visited the underworld.
But as a fantasy reader and writer, of course I immediately thought: What if it wasn’t just symbolic? What would that have been like?
Vienna also happened to have a number of active alchemists working in the late eighteenth century. Some of them, of course, were proto-scientists…but others were fabulously successful showmen who held audiences rapt with their astonishing “supernatural” summonings.
As a lifelong fantasy reader, it didn’t take long for me to wonder: what if those weren’t just fraudulent performances? What if that kind of mysterious, supernatural alchemy actually worked?
And I was at an academic conference at Oxford University (run by the Society for Eighteenth Century Studies) when, just for fun, I attended a talk about Sir Isaac Newton, who had nothing whatsoever to do with my own work. I had attended a lot of talks that day, and I’d listened with more or less interest to lectures on dozens of different aspects of the eighteenth-century world, trying to pick out any details that might be relevant to my PhD thesis, and also daydreaming a little about where I might head out for dinner afterward, until…
…Halfway through that particular talk, I suddenly perked up, stopped daydreaming, and started frantically scribbling notes on my program book, as the speaker discussed Newton’s theories of the aether, the material and the immaterial worlds, and the ethereal medium that (according to that model) hovered in-between the two worlds, just beyond the limits of our vision.
Those theories went on to become the direct basis for the work done by one of my alchemists in Masks and Shadows, when he summons very real and dangerous elementals from the immaterial world into the luxuriant palace of Eszterháza, with bloody results.
My latest novel, Congress of Secrets, is set 35 years later, at the Congress of Vienna in 1814, and it’s a standalone novel without any recurring characters– but the same kinds of alchemy have been going on behind the scenes in Vienna ever since the events of Masks and Shadows. Unfortunately, the head of secret police has figured out his own methods...as my powerful, driven heroine knows only too well.
But she’ll risk anything to get her father back – even resorting to the same dark alchemy that devoured her childhood.
...The same kind that came to me from that one Oxford conference.
It wasn’t what I’d expected to get out of that academic gathering – but when you start studying history, you never know what you’ll find!
In my case, I found two novels full of dark, alchemical magic – and it all came out of looking at dry historical facts and wondering… What if???
Stephanie Burgis grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, spent 2 years in Vienna, and now lives in Wales, surrounded by castles and coffee shops. She is the author of two historical fantasy novels for adults (Masks and Shadows and Congress of Secrets), a trilogy of MG Regency fantasy novels (the Kat, Incorrigible trilogy), and over 30 short stories in various magazines and anthologies. You can find out more and read excerpts of all of her books at: www.stephanieburgis.com
Bella Books has authorized me to do a few e-book give-aways to celebrate the release of Mother of Souls--and entice, new readers, of course! I'll be spreading them out around various online venues, so keep your eyes peeled for chances. In fact, let's do a giveaway right here and now! Comment on this post (must be on the alpennia.com website, not any place this is reposted or RSS-fed) and I'll select a random winner on Saturday. (Note: winner must set up a Bella Books account to redeem, but this only involves giving them an e-mail address, no financial information.) And if you already have a copy, you can transfer your win to someone else as a gift! (As long as they're willing to follow the redemption requirement.)
Comments are still going through manual moderation, so don't worry if it doesn't appear immediately. Check back on Saturday for the winner!
* * *
Margerit Sovitre knew that setting up a women's college would be a complex, intense, and difficult project. But she didn't expect the opening of the first term to be accompanied by an avalanche of other disasters.
Chapter Twenty-One: Margerit
On returning home to Tiporsel House, there was barely a moment for Margerit to sense something was amiss. It was in the way the footman at the door glanced sideways with an ostentatious air of not telling her something important. But there, just beyond him, was Barbara, pacing the floor with a scowl and clearly waiting for her arrival.
Barbara jerked her head in the direction of the corridor to the back of the house and led the way, saying, “I’ve already sent a messenger to your aunt and uncle.”
Margerit’s stomach clenched. “To Aunt Bertrut?”
“To Chalanz, to the Fulpis. Best to reassure them with no delay. I took the liberty of suggesting that if the matter hasn’t gone beyond all hope of repair, it might make sense to put it about that the visit was planned.” Barbara paused at the closed door to the office. “I’ve left the scolding for you.”
The confusion resolved itself. Margerit slipped through the door and shut it behind her.
The figure that stood nervously before the small hearth might have been taken for a boy except that the cap that had hidden her tumbling riot of chestnut curls was now clutched and twisted in her hands. Margerit could guess the rest of the story from the ill-fitting brown wool coat and trousers—respectable enough not to provoke questions about a young man traveling alone on a public coach—and the small valise at her feet, barely large enough for the most basic necessities. Knowing her cousin, the first of those necessities were her journals. The stricken look on the girl’s face suggested either that Barbara had not been honest about the scolding or that her cousin had grown mindful of the enormity of her situation.
“Iulien Fulpi, what are you doing here?” Margerit demanded, seizing her cousin by the shoulders and shaking her violently. She wanted desperately to embrace her instead, relieved at safe passage through hazards only imagined now that they were past. “You’re too old to be running wild! What were you thinking?”
Iuli’s mouth quivered. “You promised.”
I'm swapping around the Tuesday and Wednesday blogs this week due to the disruptions of vacation travel. In March 1864, Abiel is spending much of his time escorting troops and prisoners from place to place. Arrangements for his promotion continue as well as plans to rejoin his original regiment. (As we will see next month, those plans fell through for reasons beyond his control.) And in this midst of all this, there is time to enjoy and comment on some more theatrical performances in Washington. Abiel's army career won't be all plays and fine dining by any means, but it's an interesting window on the contradictions. One of the more intriguing escort excursions is noted on the 15th, involving a prisoner whose behavior Abiel is so confident of that he not only removes the man's leg-irons, but allows him a "visit to his cousin," which appears to be a euphemism for a visit to a house of ill repute.
* * *
[PUNCTUATION AND SPELLING ARE COPIED FROM THE ORIGINALS. EDITORIAL COMMENTS ARE IN BOLD TYPE.]
Day cold, snowed.
Day clear & warm, snow nearly all gone. Very mudy. Answered Uncle John's letter tonight.
Day clear & warm. There is 12 men in camp to go to North Carolina or Virginia as soon as there is enough to make a good squad. I shall be sent with them to Fortress Monroe.
Day clear & warm. Dr Hunt wrote to George O. Jones Esq of Albany, New York for me, recommending a promotion to Lieutenant or Captain. He wrote a splendid letter. I took a copy to retain, so if it should come to nothing, I can retain it for a reccommendation of another kind.
Sunday March 6th 1864
Day cold & cloudy. Dr Hunt left for Columbus, Ohio last evening. He is a very fine officer and I hated to see him go. Looks like snowing to night.
Rained nearly all day.
I wrote a letter to Miss A. M. Porter. Colonel started last night for home on leave.
Clear and warm.
This evening a note came up from Major Woods, saying that a boat would leave the Coal Wharf at 7 A.M. tomorrow and would take any men we had for Fort Monroe. Captain Crawford was in town and I could not find Major Johnson, Invalid Corps who is commanding during the Colonel's absence. So I ordered the men to be got ready with four days rations and to be reported at the office at 5 A.M. [on] the 10th. There is 65 duty men and 25 deserters. I then went over to the Captain's quarters and wrote on Major Woods' note what I had done, and that if he wanted to see me about getting them off in the morning to send his orderly to wake me up when he returned, which he will about midnight.
Thursday March 10th
Commenced to rain about 9 A.M. and has continued to do so all day. Henry Kulp came into the barrack this morning about 2 A.M. Said the Captain was back and wanted to see me. I went over and he made out an order for me to take charge of them [i.e., the men to be sent] to Fortress Monroe and then return. I came over to the office, built a fire, washed, and when I got warm made a copy of the order for the clerk to copy in the book. I opened the "Special Order Book" so as to put [the] order where it would have to be copied and what should I see but an order by Major Johnson for Lieutenant Burrill to do the same thing, viz take charge of the men. Oh how glad I felt! I did not want to go. It appears after I got through looking for the Major he came into the office and made arrangements to send the Lieutenant. When I came back to the office, he was gone, so I did not see him at all. General U.S. Grant has been appointed Lieutenant General and is now at Washington. We heard a great deal of firing arround & sent to Department Head Quarters to see what it was about. It was to celebrate the passage of the Emancipation Act by the Virginia legislature.
March 11th 1864
Rained nearly all day. I received a letter from Samuel [i.e., Abiel's father]. He is well but his wife is very sick. He says he will buy a yoke of cattle this spring and go to work on his farm. He wants to get money enough to buy a plough. Warns me against lending money to John. Says he is a snake in the grass.
Day clear and warm. I expect the Colonel back tomorrow. Had the office all scrubed out. It looks as neat as can be. Nothing of importance occured.
March 13th Sunday
Clear and warm A.M. Showery P.M.
I went out to Munson's Hill, Bailey's Crossroad & Ball's Farm of which we used to read so much in the papers when the Army of the Potomac was laying here. From Munson's Hill--which is nearly ten miles from the capitol but still it can be plainly seen (so can about a half of the city and the country for miles arround)--the view is beautiful. In future years a monument will probably be erected on this hill and our children will visit it and, while gazing on the surrounding landscape, remember how their fathers collected on these hills to protect Liberty and sweep slavery from the country. [This may refer to when Union troops were routed at Ball's Bluff 1861.] On our return, we passed Clouds Mills, quite a romantic spot in a deep glen surrounded by woods and rocks. I had no idea there was so romantic a spot any where near here. Had a regular system of April showers this afternoon. Since dark, it has grown quite cold. Wind N.W.
Day clear and cool. I have my orders made out to take charge of a prisoner and conduct him to Ft Monroe then return.
Day clear and cold. I received my man and started for Washington with ironed. [sic - "with leg irons?"] I got my transportation and when I went to the depot to procure a ticket found that it only called for one man. I had to go way back and go through the whole business again. I saw Orville Clark at the office. On our return, my prisoner wanted to stop and see his cousin at North 28 Street. [Note: "see his cousin" appears to be a euphemism for "visit a whorehouse."] It is a very clean neat place and the girls belonging to it look finely. He kissed them all around and seemed very sorry to part with them, which I have no doubt he was. Some of then commenced to pull me arround a little--set on my lap etc. I just quietly resisted them and as soon as my man was through his adieus, started. At Baltimore, found I was too late for the Old Point boat [and] would have to wait until tomorrow at 5 P.M. So went to Gilmours, got our supper, then went to Holliday Street Theatre. Saw Mrs D. P. Bowers play “Leah the forsaken" or "The Jewish maiden" played splendidly. Miss Lucille Western is playing the same thing at Front Street, so giving the public a chance to judge which is the best. I then came here (Fountain Hotel), took a room and shall stay all night.
[Note: It isn't clear what Abiel is doing with his prisoner during all this, although "our supper" suggests they were together at that point. Did the prisoner accompany him to the theater and in "walking through the town" the next day? He notes later that he didn't require the man to wear leg irons after leaving Washington, so there was some level of trust.]
Day clear and cold. Froze last night. Got up this morning about 8, had breakfast at Gilmours, and spent the rest of the day in walking through the town. At the appointed hour, took the Adelade for the Forts, towards which we are now steering as fast as possible.
Clear & cold. Got to Old Point at 7 A.M. Took my prisoner up and turned him over to the Provost Marshall. Made him put the irons on before I took him in the office. I did not require him to wear them after leaving Washington; he was such a good fellow. Went to a saloon to get my breakfast, saw a tipsy citizen who refused to let me pay for it but did it himself. Want[ed] me to drink with him, but I would not, but gave him my hand. Bored myself to death waiting for the boat to return to Baltimore, which it did at 5 P.M. Got aboard and am now seated in her saloon feeling very comfortable, which is more than many of the rest of the passengers can say, for the bay is very rough and they have some accounts with Neptune to settle.
March 18th At Camp
Not so cold as yesterday. Clear. Got to Baltimore at 6 A.M. Went to the [Soldier's] Rest [and] got breakfast. Visited the Quarter Master to get transportation to Washington. Started on the 8.40 train. When I arrived there, went to see if the camp had been paid. Found it had not. Walked out. Boys glad to see me back. Captain Crawford home on leave. A billiard table up in camp. Had a game this noon and this evening. Played again. Feel very tired. Found a letter from John. People all well. Also one from my sister. All sick but her. She does not want me to go back to the regiment.
Cold. The above notice (newspaper clipping) came out in the papers today. Corporal Fraynor and three others were captured by guerillas, taken into the woods, and two guards placed over them. The boys watched their chance and sprung on their guards. Took their arms from them and shot them and also wounded a Lieutenant and brought him in with two other prisoners. This was certainly brave, for men without arms and outnumbered to kill two of their guards, capture two and a Lieutenant. This took place last Monday. The next day after, the Sergeant and myself were out on Munson's Hill. We came back through a thick wood and very gloomy kind of place. I had no idea guerillas were laying arround loose so near to us or I should not have felt so comfortable. It was so cold I did not go walking to day.
Cold. Received a letter from Miss Porter. She writes very pleasantly.
March 22th Parole Camp
Day very cold. I got orders to take charge of 11 men and bring them to this place. It commenced snowing at sundown and is now the worst night of the season. One of the men was so drunk when I got here he could not stir. I took him by the collar and draged him through the aisle and threw him off into a snowbank, just as they were starting. I turned my men over to the Officer of the day and got a receipt for them. The officer then took me down to the sutlers and we had an oyster supper and then went up to his quarters. We have had two or three games of seven up and a smoke. He has just showed me where to go to bed. He has gone out to see the lights are all out.
Day cold A.M. Warm P.M. The officer of the guard woke me up, according to promise, in time to take the 6.30 A.M. train. Still snowing and blowing and very cold. A Negro regiment was camped near Parole Camp and, cold as it was last night, they only had sheter tents without stoves or fire. [Note: not sure if "sheter" should be "shelter" or "sheeter"?] I bet there was more than one frozen limb this morning. I came on the Washington. Washed myself and took breakfast at the "Rest," then walked out to camp. The Colonel told me that Colonel North, the New York state agent, was over here and wanted to see me. He says he will give me a letter to him tomorrow and let me go over to town. Wrote to my sister tonight.
When I headed this letter, I expected to send it to father but have changed my mind and also the destination of this letter. I received yours of the 12th inst[ant] just as I was starting for Fort Monroe with some men. Just as I received one last summer from you when I was starting on the same trip.
I had a very strong notion of going to the regiment when I started, but Colonel McKelvy did not want me to go yet, so I came back. I went and returned by the way of Baltimore. While there, went to the Holiday Street theatre to see Mrs D.P. Bowers play "The Jewish maiden" or "Leah the forsaken." She is a splendid actress and acquitted herself admirably. Still I like Miss Lucille Western much better in that play, for her voice is so much more pleasant. Mrs. Bowers has been on the stage so long that her voice is rather too harsh. Sounds almost like that of a man. Both of these ladies are playing in Baltimore now, Miss W. at Front Street and Mrs B. at Holiday. They are both playing the same piece ("Leah the forsaken") and are to play it every night for a week so as to give the Theatre-going public a chance to judge which of them is the best, by going to see first one then the other. I have seen Miss Western in "East Lyme" and one or two other pieces. [Note: This is a transcription error for "East Lynne".] I believe her the best actress in America. Edwin Forrest, the great tragedian, has an engagement at one of Washington theatres for six weeks for which he is to receive ($9000.00) nine thousand dollars. I must see him once or perhaps more than once while he is here. I can get a pass and the countersign whenever I want to stay all night.
I came from Annapolis today. I was down there yesterday with some papers and men. I did not get there until dark. Oh! how bitter cold it was. We have had some very cold weather this winter but I have not felt so chilled since I have been in the service. The wind was blowing from the north and it was snowing very fast. One of my men got some whiskey on the cars and was so drunk he would not obey my orders. while I was taking [talking?] to him, the cars started from the station where my men were getting off. I caught the bell rope and gave it a pull for them to stop, which they did. The conducter came running to the rear to see what was the matter, saying he would give five dollars to know who pulled the rope. One of the men told him it was me. He started for me, but my men closed up behind me and he backed out. I took the fellow who was drunk by the shoulders, gently laid him on his back in the aisle. Then took him by the collar and drew him from one end of the car to the other and threw him off into a snow bank. Then jumped off myself and let the cars go on. The fellow began to think I was not a person to be fooled with a great deal, so he allowed himself to be led up to Parole Camp, which was only a few rods from where we left the cars. When we got there, I ordered him to be put in the Guard House.
I turned the rest of the men over to the proper officer, and the accepted the invitation of the Officer of the day to go down with him and some officers of the 94th New York Volunteers to an oyster supper. We had a good time. Then I went with the Officer of the day to his quarters and slept with him. I wanted to come away on the first train in the morning, so the Officer of the Guard who has to set up all night said he would wake me in time to take it. I was afraid he would forget it, but he did not. When I got up, I found the snow six inches deep on the level and the wind still blowing great guns. Some of the guard were almost frozen. I got to camp about 10 a.m. Since noon it has been very warm. The snow finds the sun rather too much for it, so it is turning into water as fast as possible.
I had not heard the news which your letter brought me, but was expecting to. You need not fear about losing your first place in my affections by the recent addition to our circle of relations, but of this matter the least said the better. Whose name did you send for the little stranger?
Father must live on his land, or have some of his family on it, or his claim to the ownership is forfeited. He could live on it and work some other land on shares if he so pleased, but I cant see what object he would have in that, unless it was that he, by this means, gets a team and tools furnished to work it with. These, you know, would cost him deal of money, which he probably has not got to spare this season.
Tell Janey that Oscar says he does not feel his loss very much, but he thinks McClara will not say the same. I am sorry you are all so unfortunate about colds when I am so lucky. I dont know why it is, but I have not had but one cold this winter and that did not last long. Usualy I have one all winter. It must come hard on mother she is so old and feeble. I hope she is better now.
My kind regards to all. Your loving brother,
(written along edge of first page)
Dear sister, I have just read my letter over and find that in my desire to get a good deal on one sheet I have made it sound cold, which I do not like. It needs warmth, so I will put it in. I love you all a big heap: mother, Josey, Janey all, and you. Maybe - I will have a good kiss all arround when I get home - even to the little lap dog. Yours ever,
(written along edge of last page)
Have you got so you can read my running hand yet? Please tell me in your next if you know how old mother was when she died.
Day clear and cold. I went over to see Colonel North today. He took my name, company, regiment, and place of residence. He is somewhat acquainted at Andover with the Bundeys, and Crusen spoke to me very kindly and said he would tend to my case. Frank Basset I rather think is trying to get a commish, for the colonel spoke to me of him. The 39th Veteran Volunteers of Illinois came to our camp today and are going to camp near us.
Rained all day. The 25th Ohio Veteran Volunteers came today and have temporary quarters with us. Several regiments are to be sent here shortly.
Cold and rainy. The 24th Massachussetts Veteran Volunteers came in and were quartered in the barracks temporarily.
Day warm and clear. I took an idea into my head that I could sketch of the forts and hills beyond the camp. I never had tried such a thing before, but I took my book pencil and piece of paper and went up near for Barnard. And looking off across the plain to the hills beyond, took the picture. Sergeant says, "bully for the first time."
[There is a reproduction of the drawing. I don't have an electronic file at the moment and need to go back to the paper copy and see how good an image I can pull.]
Warm and clear, consequently pleasant. I wrote to father. The Divisions are now at work making out new rolls, for the old ones are wrong and we cannot get our pay on them. We have to make a lot of rolls for every regiment mustered. It will take about seven hundred. There is only three hundred men mustered for pay, but in that some 200 regiments are represented, and for each regiment we have to make triplicate rolls.
Cloudy A.M. Rained P.M. I am at work recording the receipts of Parole Prisoners that were here last summer. I find in comparing the book kept at the Receiving Office with the books of the Camp that a good many men were received that are not accounted for by the latter. I am now trying to get some account of them. It is raining tonight. Wind east.
Rained and snowed all day. The latter melted as fast as it fell. The Pay Rolls of the 2nd Division are done. Over three hundred and sixty separate rolls. It was a big job. I received a letter from O.L. Barney today. He will attend college next winter again. Say[s] Joseph Potter is dangerously sick. It makes me feel very anxious, so I have written to my sister to inform me of his present health at once. I also have a letter from Barton, the prisoner I took to Fort Monroe a short time ago. He says he is all right with the regiment. I hope he is, for he appeared to be a bully fellow. I have been very busy all day. The Colonel reposes a great deal of confidence in me, and so I find plenty to do.
Rainly all day. Colonel went over to Washington and when he came back this evening he was prety tight. He knows enough not to transact any business while in that state. He came in the office and signed one paper, but when he went out he told me not to send it out. But as it was important that it should be tended to tonight, I did send it.
The remained category of tags is the largest one: people, publications, and events. This will include specific historic or literary figures, including both women associated with lesbian-like motifs and authors (of any gender) who wrote on relevant topics. It includes specific publications of relevance, and also more rarely institutions or specific historic events that are of interest to the Project. Many of the tags in this last group are used rarely (some only once) and new items are added regularly. So once I set up the person/publication/event tag essays according to broad themes, I’ll probably update them silently in the future.
[Note: Spelling follows the original in all direct quotations from the correspondence.]
It’s rare to have access to the internal emotional lives of women in history. Personal correspondence can give us a glimpse of the complex and often contradictory thoughts of women whose lives diverged from expected paths. But it’s not uncommon for such correspondence to be lost after their deaths. Letters may simply be discarded as trash. Or family members may destroy them in order to protect the reputations of the dead. In American history, there is a similar difficulty in finding the self-told stories of the African-American community in its early years. So the correspondence of Addie Brown and Rebecca Primus is doubly valuable for the story it tells.
Addie and Rebecca were black women, both born in the mid 19th century as free women in Connecticut. Their correspondence comes from a time shortly after the end of the Civil War when Rebecca often spent time away. It was Rebecca’s family who preserved the letters, so the collection includes Addie’s letters to her and Rebecca’s letters to her family, but the content of what Rebecca wrote back to Addie needs to be interpolated.
Rebecca's family was solidly middle class and had lived in Connecticut for several generations. She trained as a schoolteacher. And because of that and her missionary enthusiasm, she traveled to the South after the Civil War was over to help establish a school for ex-slaves. She experienced (and wrote home about) serious racial hostility, both because of her vocation and in response to her personal behavior because she saw no reason to automatically defer to white people if they didn’t respect her back.
Addie was an orphan without Rebecca's extensive network of family ties and support. Her correspondence is less literate but full of enthusiasm, passion, and sensuality. She was an avid reader, had a forceful personality, and tended to be judgmental of others. She, too, lived in Connecticut, which was probably where the two met. She made a living in a number of different jobs: as a seamstress, as a domestic worker, in various factory jobs. Shortly before her early death at age 29, she worked as a teamster driving wagons. She was intolerant of racism and segregation and was unafraid to speak her mind to her white employers. This might possibly have something to do with the number of times she changed jobs during the course of the correspondence.
The romantic relationship between Addie and Rebecca appears in their letters in a number of ways. There were regular protestations of love and devotion, but they also spoke of passionate kisses and caressing each other’s breasts. The letters also give clear indications that their relationship was felt to be in competition with potential heterosexual relationships.
The mid 19th century is typically thought of as a time of “romantic friendships” and Boston Marriages. And much of the language that Addie and Rebecca use is similar in flavor. In fact, they discuss the white literary depiction of romantic friendship in their letters, comparing their devotion to that described in Grace Aguilar’s novel Women’s Friendships. Some historians such as Lillian Faderman take the position that these relationships were romantic but not physically erotic. Women might kiss, they might embrace, they might even share a bed without it being considered sexually improper or incompatible with heterosexuality.
Addie and Rebecca give us a closer look--one that may have been a more silent part of other romantic friendships. After all, if we didn’t have these letters, we wouldn’t know it was a part of theirs. In one letter, when Addie mentions that she shares a bed with another woman, she reassures Rebecca, “If you think that is my bosom that captivated the girl that made her want to sleep with me, she got sadly disapointed injoying it, for I had my back towards all night and my night dress was butten up so she could not get to my bosom." And she continues with a protestation that her bosom is reserved for Rebecca.
Rebecca must have regularly expressed jealousy of women that Addie shared living space with. Addie writes that she has no desire to be kissed by anyone else, saying, "No kisses is like youres." She also says, "I imprint several kisses upon your lips and give you a fond imbrace." And later: "I wish that I was going to sleep in your fond arms to night."
Interestingly, Rebecca’s family and their community appear to have recognized and supported the special nature of their relationship, although sometimes with ambivalence. On one occasion, when Addie visited Rebecca’s family while Rebecca was away in the south, she reports that Rebecca’s mother told another visitor that “if either one of us was a gent, we would marry.” Addie was quite happy to hear that. Addie felt comfortable talking about her physical longing for Rebecca to friends and family and that she wished for her embrace and her return.
Both women were also courted by men, and that provides a chance to see how they thought of the parallels with their own relationship. Addie writes, "O Rebecca, it seems I can see you now, casting those loving eyes at me. If you was a man, what would things come to? They would after come to something very quick." and later "What a pleasure it would be to me to address you My Husband." When Addie mentions a male suitor, she notes that although she loves him, it’s not passionately. On other occasions, when she mentions attractions to men, she always compares her feelings to those she has for Rebecca. At times, these mentions seem intended to provoke jealousy. Addie seems to have had fewer occasions to experience jealousy of Rebecca’s other connections, though she once writes, that she dreamed of seeing Rebecca caress another woman, and spoke of how bad it made her feel not to be the object of those caresses.
When Addie wrote more seriously about contemplating marriage to a man, it was in the context of economic security. On one occasion when asking Rebecca how she would feel about marriage for that reasons, she says, "Rebecca, if I could live with you or even be with you some parts of the day, I would never marry." But this was at a time when Rebecca was living elsewhere and the two were unlikely to be able to set up a household together.
Over the course of their correspondence, the language gradually shifted to calling themselves sisters, but even this is ambiguous. Addie sometimes signed her name using Rebecca’s surname. Addie did marry a man eventually, after flip-flopping several times, but died of tuberculoses two years later at the age of 29. At some point after that, Rebecca married. She married one of her co-workers at the school where she was teaching in Maryland. She survived to the age of 95.
The correspondece of Addie Brown and Rebecca Primus reveals love between women in the African American community in post Civil War America.
Lauri asked me to save this movie to see with her in NYC, which wasn't hard given the distractions of the last couple weeks. (My book release. Of course I'm talking about my book release.)
Arrival tells the story of twelve vast and mysterious UFOs arriving in scattered locations across the earth, the beginnings of attempts to communicate with the inhabitants, and the impending political disaster as those communications go semantically awry in entirely predictable ways. The central character is linguist Dr. Louise Banks, with hard-science colleage Ian Donnelly as her foil. The central characters are completed by an army colonel who is overseeing the U.S. contact mission...and, I suppose, by the two aliens that Banks interacts with.
There are a lot of pluses in this movie. As a linguist myself, I have to say that they did a good portayal of the nature and process of linguistic acquisition unmediated by a common third language. At least in the flavor, though of course the timeline was vastly sped up from even what a computer-assisted process could manage. There was also a certain glossing over of the extreme luck that human and alien communication both operated on aural and visual channels rather than any of the less filmable possibilities.
The aliens were satisfyingly alien, both in concept and execution. Banks's frustration in trying to explain to the military the difficulting in what they expected her to produce in a single session was quite realistic both in its flavor and particulars. ("What is your purpose here on Earth?" Do you have any idea how freaking complicated and subjective an utterance that is?) I was a bit surprised, given that visual communication was a major tool, that more wasn't done with pictorial representation in order to build vocabulary. (This is where the unrealistic time-compression comes in. Very hard to develop a grasp of abstract concepts without building on concrete ones.) Anyway, enough about the linguistics.
The climax relies on an interesting (and very SFF-nal) twist on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. One might say the strongest of strong S-W interpretations. To say more would be a spoiler. That twist ties in the running subplot involving Banks's memories of her daughter who dies young of some unspecified condition (the visuals suggest cancer) and of the related break-up of her marriage.
And here comes my one philosophical gripe with the movie (because the linguistic gripes are more logistical than philosophical). Even though we get a very central female protagonist, her story is framed in terms of family, motherhood, and emotional relationships. And we get the classic gendered contrast between the female humanities expert and the male hard-science expert. Furthermore, although there's a good gender balance in the tertiary characters (random crowd scenes, people on tv screens) and although the scenes between Banks and her daughter are key to the movie (though perhaps the sole basis for passing the Bechdel-Wallace test), there's a noticable lack of women among the crowd of secondary figures involved in the contact encampment. One can no longer use the military nature of that context as an excuse for the omission of women. Skimming through the imdb.com cast listings, of the twelve roles listed with personal names (rather than occupations or functions), only Banks and her daughter are female. So: good job on having a female protagonist in an only-tangentially-relationship-centered movie. But Arrival is still rather marginal in terms of supporting and normalizing women's roles in movies and in expanding beyond what are still highly gendered dramatic functions.
Beyond that gripe, I really enjoyed the movie and will be mulling over the plot implications of the conclusion. It's unfortunate that I can't talk about those implications without entirely spoiling it for those who haven't seen it yet. So go see it, and then we can talk.
This continues transcripts of my great-great-grandfather Abiel Teple LaForge's Civil War diaries and correspondence. See here for earlier material and background. The site there contains the original transcripts. The versions I'm posting here have been lightly edited for spelling, but especially for punctuation and paragraphis to add readability.
When you think about “care packages” sent to servicemen in war time, you probably think about the WWII program, or Red Cross deliveries in a similar era. But the longing of a soldier for the comforts of home has existed as long as there have been soldiers serving in the field. (I believe one of the surviving wax tablet letters from the northern frontier of Roman Britain includes a request for more warm socks.) Abiel wasn’t serving in a battle zone at the time of today’s entries, and the folks back home on the farm were close enough that they could send perishable foods by “Express wagon”, though as you’ll read, the handling wasn’t always optimal. For an even more impressive package, check out this letter from February the year before (1863) when the shipment included boiled chickens!
Serving at “convalescent camp” on the outskirts of Washington DC, and duties that regularly included escorting people into the city, meant that Abiel was able to enjoy a number of cultural entertainments: plays, fine dining, attending congressional debates. Not exactly your image of a typical Civil War soldier! But things are moving in the background to get him back to more active duty. His temporary commanding officer has recommended him for promotion in anticipation of this, but the wheels of bureaucracy will grind slowly.
There's one extremely uncharacteristic episode of impulsive stupidity recorded this month, which stands out from what is otherwise a record of very steady character. Interesting, that there never seems to have been any question that Abiel or the friend who witnessed it would report his part in causing it--something that might well have ruined his career!
One of the other interesting incidents this month, from a personal point of view, is Abiel's encounter with a woman who disguised herself as a male soldier in order to accompany her husband in the army. His diary doesn't note how the disguise was discovered, but the consideration and sympathy with which the woman is viewed and treated is interesting.
* * *
[PUNCTUATION AND SPELLING ARE COPIED FROM THE ORIGINALS. EDITORIAL COMMENTS ARE IN BOLD TYPE.]
February 1, Monday
Rained all day, getting very muddy.
I received a letter from my sister. She says she has sent a box of good things for Oscar Remington and me. They started January 28th so they will soon be here. We were anxiously looking for the Paymaster all day but he did not come, probably on account of the weather. Susan wrote that Joseph's straight finger did not trouble him as much as I might suppose, for he took good care of it. The people were generaly well. All in good spirits.
Tuesday February 2, 1864
Day pleasant over head until evening. Since sundown it has clouded up and is now looking very black. Low muttering thunder is heard, like artillery at a great distance, which I should think it was but for the lightnings which accompany it. This is the first thunder this year.
The Paymaster came out today and paid us off. About half of the Head Quarters boys have gone off on a spree. Thank the lord I have no desire to do any such thing.
Friday 5, 1864
Day warm & clear, as also was yesterday. I received a box from home yesterday with lots of good things in it. Among the rest was a lot of honey, which had got all pressed out of the comb and run all through the box, spoiling some of the things in it. But nevertheless, Oscar and myself enjoyed it very much. Delos Remington was over her to day. He belongs to the company of I.C. doing duty at the Aqueduct Bridge. We had a dinner of good things in the kitchen. Frank Basset was also with us. Lots of visitors were with us today. Our band discoursed their best music for their benefit.
Head Quarters Rendezvous of Distribution February 5th 1864
It is now 9 O.C. P.M., but I concluded to write you a short note acknowledging the reception of your box of good things, and also your letter of the 1st which preceeded it only two days, and to return my thanks to you for both.
I received your letter the 1st inst[ance?] and I assure you from that time till the box arrived I was fairly nervous with anticipation. Every time the Express wagon went to town (which it does once a day) I would caution the Agent to be sure and not overlook it at the office in Alexandria, and I would importune him untill I made him promise to be very careful.
The expected good things arrived yesterday, no the day before. Oscar and me went down to get it and were very sorry to find unmistakeable evidence that there was honey amongst its contents, for it was oozing out through the cracks. This we considered a great waste of material, but concluded not to "cry for spilt" honey, for if it was loose in the rest of the things it would only sweeten them the more. We took the box to Oscar's Barrack and opened it, he was saved the trouble of saying it "opened rich" for that was a self evident fact, as was shown by the honey on the outside of the package. The things were considerably smeared with the sweet stuff but we managed to make it prety much all count in some way. The butter and cheese were not hurt, for both had something arround them.
The jell cake too was splendid. "Oh! how I lubie(?)" as Matie says. It was the best thing in the whole package. How is this? There is that fruit cake, but the jell was best after all, though it is rather hard to decide, when there were so many good things. The butter and cheese will out-last the rest for they are the most needed after all. After we opened the thing I ate untill I could eat no longer and if you have any doubts of whether I liked it or not, just ask Oscar, who was a witness of the whole proceedings.
Frank Basset also came in for a share. And today at dinner we had Debs, who came over from Georgetown to pay us a visit. Us four made a rather gay dinner party. We had biscuits with butter and honey, jell and fruit cake, cheese and coffee. These with the jokes that were cracked during our repast made our meal fit for a King, and I dare say we enjoyed it more than most monarchs do. After dining we had a cigar and walk. The latter was very much enlivened by the anecdotes of Charley Bossard which were related by Debs. We tried to get him to stay all night with us but his pass was to go back tonight, so back he sent just like a good soldier as he is would.
We were sorry for we were going to have fun with him tonight. Tell Mr Joseph Potter [note: this is his sister Susan's husband] that I should be mighty glad to accept his invitation to come up and get better things at home, notwithstanding the good things you sent. You must charge the cost of the things on the "Contra" side of our account--$3.34 cents besides the cost of the Express--and consider me your debtor for all your kindness.
Did I tell you the name of our camp had been changed to Rendezvous of Distribution? If I did not I will now. Hereafter none but men fit for duty in the field are to be sent to the command, which will make our duties much lighter and we can also dismiss some of our surgeons, which will in some cases be a benefit to the men. The way the camp will be arranged now will enable us to send all of the men of an Army corps, whenever they are called for, without having them examined by the Doctor before they go, as they have been heretofore, to see if they were fit for duty or not.
We have lots of distinguished visitors out to see us every day now: Congressmen with their wives and daughters, the former homely and the latter mostly pretty. [Note: Although "homely" can mean "comfortable, home-like", a later similar contrasting use indicates that Abiel is using it in the more modern sense of "plain-looking".] I suppose when they go back they entertain their friends with an account of the peculiarities of the animal called "Soldier." It makes no difference to us what they say after they go away as long as they will only enliven us with their cheerful faces once in a while it is all we care about. To crown the rest of our present blessings we are blessed with the most pleasant weather imaginable. The air feels as balmy as spring time. In fact we have had but little bad weather this winter. Last winter we considered that we enjoyed as fine weather as ever this country was blessed with during that season, but even that is beaten by the present season, for which we cannot feel too thankful. I believe if Mother was down here she would grow yong even faster than she did from the time I enlisted till last May.
I have less than eight months to serve now. It dont seem possible that I have been in the service two years and four months, but such is the fact. Yes, two years of the best time of my life and a third is still to be given to my country, and yet this long as it may seem is a small price to be paid for liberty. For perfect Liberty we shall have befor the war is over. Once gained that great boon for the nation, then my struggle to gain a place in the world will commence. I hope it will not wear on the spirits as does the struggle for Freedom.
With much love many thanks and good wishes I must bring my letter to a close. Hoping you will excuse brevity.
I remain as ever
Your loving Brother
(written along edge)
That jell cake is perfectly grand. Very bad pen.
LETTER OF RECOMMENDATION FOR LaFORGE
Rendezvous of Distribution, late Convalescent Camp Virginia
February 5th 1864
“To whom it may Concern”
This is to certify that Sergeant A.T. LaForge, 85th Regiment New York Volunteers has been attached to the Head Quarters of this Command for over one Year.
Being Chief Clerk of camp the greater part of the time above mentioned, I had every opportunity of becoming fully acquinted with Sergeant LaForge’s character both as a soldier and a gentleman.
It is with pleasure, at my departure from the Command, that I bear testimony to his upright character, his ever obliging manner & the faithful performance of his duties as a soldier. Being a good clerk I am fully satisfied he would perform any duties assigned to him, either in military or civil life in a manner highly creditable to himself and to the satisfaction of those whom he may have doings with.
H. J. Winters
late Chief Clerk
Convalescent Camp Virginia
Tuesday 9 February 1864
Day clear and cold. I was very busy. We sent all the men not fit for duty to the General Hospitals at Washington D.C.. The rest of the men in camp were arranged in corps preparatory to moving Distribution camp into the barracks camp. Deserters were moved over yesterday. They occupy from 20 to 25 [barracks numbers?] inclusive. 26 to 50 is for the Army of the Potomac, and from 1 to 20 is for men who do not belong to the Army of the Potomac. Part of Distribution Camp was moved over to day. Mrs Thayer, the Assistant State Agent of New York was here to day. The Governer of New York writes that as soon as there is a vacancy he will give me a commission. Yesterday Mrs. Vice President Hamlin, Mrs Colonel Green, Mr George F Train (the great bombast speaker), with about 20 more ladies and the same number of gentlemen, were out here from Washington. They had a ball in the Commisary Depot. The band played for them. Colonel McKelvy did not know they were coming until this morning, as it was an arrangement of Captain Elison A.Q.M. [Assistant Quarter Master?] Colonel was rather angry at first, as he was not consulted, and worked against them all day so that they did not enjoy themselves as well as they might.
Thursday February 11, 1864
Day cold and clear, as also was ysterday.
I was very busy yesterday A.M. examining the Commissary Papers for January 1864. P.M. went with Frank Basset 1st New York Dragoons to Washington. We were to meet Oscar Remington at the corner of Willards Hotel. We did not see him however. Went to the Washington Theater. Saw Laura Keene and her celebrated company play the "Sea of Ice." It was the perfection of the scenic art. When they were froze up in the polar sea, the house was filled with some kind of fog that looked just like a sea fog. I thought Miss Keene rather overdid the part of the Indian Girl "Oberita". Basset seemed to enjoy himself immensely. [Note: I can find references to a play called "The Sea of Ice" that appear to be the correct one, but don't have a good link for it.] We came back about midnight. We had a pretty good time. Could not got anything to drink. Basset was dreadful dry but it was of no use, no whiskey was to be had. Cold as the mischief walking back. All Camp Distribution is moved over now, the tents all taken down and the ground is being cleared up. It is very hard to tell where a man is now, for things are rather mixed up. Division commanders swearing.
Received a letter from Uncle John. Beautiful sentiments in it. All well.
Friday February 12 1864
Day clear and warm.
Wrote a letter to Miss Annie Porter, a young lady I never saw. She lives at Swampscott Massachussetts. I sent Edmonds, or rather started him, for Point Lookout with 19 men of the 2nd, 5th & 12th New Hampshire Regiments. He got to Alexandria too late for the boat, so had to bring the men back. He will try it again Sunday.
Sunday February 14
Day clear & warm.
I went out to see the review of the 1st Com[mand?] Heavy Artillery. They are garrisoning several of the forts along our Defenses of Washington. They are splendidly drilled and make a fine show on parade. On my return, I did what I consider the most foolish thing of my life of the kind, and it has taught me a lesson I shall never forget.
As we were walking down through the bushes beyond the New Barracks, built for the Invalid Corps who do our guard duty, I was struck with the idea that the long dry grass that was growing up among the bushes by the edge of a little brook would burn finely. So I took out a match, and in spite of the Sergeant's (Beaugureau) remonstrances, set fire to it. A gale was blowing from the north, and in a second it sprung into a bright blaze and spread so rapidly as to defy my efforts to put it out.
Then the folly of the deed, and danger too, was apparent, for the wind was blowing directly towards the new buildings. The brushwood ran within a rod of them, and the ground arround them was covered with shavings and old timber scraps of boards etc., as dry as tinder. I knew if it was not subdued before it got there, all the buildings were goners. So I went down to the I.C. Head Quarters. The chaplain was performing divine service. I told one of the officers that somebody had set fire to the bushes and it was running rapidly towards them. He went in and reported to the Major who at once came out on the stoop and intimated the danger to the chaplain, who at once closed the services by singing the Doxology. Never was hymn so long as that. Before I thought the words were a minute long. My heart was fairly bursting. It was finaly done, and the Major told the men the danger, which was now mde plainly visible by the dark clouds of smoke sweeping by, and they at once started for the scene of danger.
It was at once plainly to be seen that no effort could stop it, where it was then burning. The only hope was to let it burn until it came where burning material was less thick, made so by the wise forethought of Lieutenant Colonel Samuel McKelvy, who had this part of the ground burned over before the building were begun. To this part of the ground it soon came, then the work began. The Invalids went at it with a will, and I also. An hour of anxious fighting--more interesting to me than leading a regiment into battle--it was subdued, and I began to breathe easy. The Sergeant says I turned very pale when the danger of my folly burst on me, but that I was perfectly cool as far as actions and orders were concerned.
Mrs Thayer was out here today. She says the A. A. General of New York told her that my commission was to be along in a few days, just as soon as a vacancy occured to which I could be appointed with less rank than that of captain. I wrote a letter to O. L. Barney tonight. I have not written to him before, since he refused to give me half the worth of the revolver he lost for me on the Peninsula. Commenced reading Scott's poems. Have been studying Wilson's Tactics. [Note: A later reference clarifies that the poet is Sir Walter Scott. If anyone has a good idea what "Wilson's Tactics" may have been, I'd love to know.]
A little colder this P.M.
Monday February 15, 1864
Day cloudy and cold. Commenced snowing about an hour before sundown. Is still snowing a little. Sergeant B[eaugureau] and I went over to see the result of yesterday's fire. It had worked back aganst the strong wind, crossed the creek, and burned on this side of the road clear up to opposite "Fort Barnard," where it had been put out by getting to the top of the hill where the [wind] blew so fiercely it could not burn. It had crossed a little branch of Four Mile Run and the road burned two or three acres on the other side, as far as it had any thing to burn. It makes me tremble when I think of what might have been.
Day very cold. P.M. Snowed about an inch A.M. Edmonds returned from Point Lookout tonight.
Day very cold. Sent the men who belonged to the Department of the South (Charleston) to Washington to be sent to Hilton Head on the Steamer D. Webster. They were sent back tonight. A guard of 20 men are to be organized from them and they are to be sent tomorrow to report to Captain Allen A.Q.M. 6th Street Wharf, Washington D C.
Thursday February 18th 1864
Day very cold & clear. I sent the men belonging to the Department of the South again this A.M. I guess they got off, for they have not came back yet. I took some of our boys up to be examined for the Invalid Corps. They are to be put into the 10th Co[mpany] I.C. [Note: the context makes me thinkg "I.C." elsewhere is "Invalid Corps."] Soldiers begin to canvass a little for the next president. I think Lincoln is sure to be reelected. Soldiers take much less interest in politics than could be expected, say very little in regard to elections. This is not the effect of regulations, but they are not stirred up by firey speech makers and, although they keep better posted than if at home, they say little.
Day clear & cold.
Crosby, our former Chief Clerk, is going on duty in the Provost Marshal General's office. Sergeant Beaugureau takes his place. I received a letter from Sherman Crandall. He is at Alfred Centre College. I rather think he is a little in love. I also got a letter from Bill LaForge. According to his report. he is the most happy mortal alive. Takes solid comfort [and] advises me to get married.
Saturday February 20th 1864
Day warmer than yesterday but still very cold.
Day still warmer. Bery pleasant walking without an overcoat. Sergeant Beaugureau and I went nearly out to Balls Cross Roads. I finished reading the 1st Volume of Sir Walter Scott's poetry. "The Lay of the Last Minstrel" is very good, but I do not like him as well as Byron which [I] have just got and am now reading.
Day warm and pleasant. I received a letter from Miss Anne S. Porter of Swampscott Massachusetts, an unknown correspondent. She writes a very pretty letter indeed.
This P.M. Sergeant Beaugureau and myself got an ambulance & went over to Washington. While on the bridge, a train of cars came along and frightened a couple of four horse government teams. One of them got turned halfway round on the bridge and commenced backing aganst the railing which was rotten and gave way, and over they went into the river. That is: wagon and pole horses. The leaders broke loose just as the others went over the side. The driver found they were sure to go and jumped out on the bridge but got tangled in the lines and was pulled off on top of all the rest. He was rescued pretty badly hurt, but not dangerously. The horses drowned, of course.
We went and got our pass countersigned by the Pro[vost] Mar[shall] then came down to Willard's Hotel and told the driver to come back to camp. We went up to the "Sanitary Faire" at the "Patent office." It was closed, so we went down to a saloon, had a game of billiards, then secured seats in the Orchestra at "Grovers Theatre” and got our suppers. Had a good talk on politics and went up to the play, which was "Ruy Blas" written by Victor Hugo. Young Boothe was Ruy, "C. Barrow" was Don Salustio. The only part badly played was the Princess Maria of Neubourge, Queen elect of Spain. Miss A. Placide took the charactor and I must say did not aquit herself with much honor. I concluded with the farce of "The Irish Tutor” (T.I. Donnelly). It was impossible to resist the desire to laugh at him. I laughed till my sides ached. We walked home. A very pleasant night, but that does not prevent my being tired and sleepy notwithstanding enjoying myself so well.
[Note: As best I can determine based on some superficial research, "Young Booth" here is Edwin Booth. "Young" to distinguish from his father, for his brother John WIlkes Booth was younger than Edwin. And purely in the "small world" department, my girlfriend Lauri had a long stint as house manager of the Booth Theater, which was named in Edwin Booth's honor. At some point I may put together an index of all the theatrical and literary references in Abiel's records.]
Wednesday February 24th 1864
Day warm and pleasant. I feel rather tired tonight somehow. Today a woman dressed up in soldiers clothes, who had been in camp two days, attempted to follow her husband to the front. She came with him from the hospital and wanted to follow him wherever he went. When they got down to Alexandria, Major Wood Assistant Pro[vost] Mar[shall], Army of the Potomac would not let her go any farther but sent her back to camp. Colonel McKelvy pitied her. She was such an interesting little thing, so he took her down to Mrs McDonnald's, who keeps a boarding house in camp, and put her to work there until she wishes to change her garb and go home. Her husband's name is Philips and hers [blank space]. A very good looking girl. I received a letter from my sister today. All well. Very cold weather for a couple of weeks back, getting warmer.
[enclosed letter about above case]
Office Assistant Provost Marshal General
Army Potomac, Alexandria
February 24th 1864
Lieutenat Cololel Samuel McKelvy
Comding Rendezvous Distribution
I send back to your camp, by the bearer, a woman who came in with the detachment of convalescents this morning, dressed in soldiers clothes. She claims to be the wife of Private V?. B. Phillips 140th Penna. Vols.
Your Obedient Servant
Major 17th ......
Assistant Provost Marshal General
February 26th 1864
Day clear and warm.
Received a letter from father. Mary is somewhat sick. [Samuel’s third wife was expecting a child] Prices high. Wends [probably an editorial typo: sends] me a list and requests me to send him a list of prices here. Weather rather milder than it was, but once this winter it was intensely cold.
Saturday February 27th 1864
Day warm and pleasant.
An order came from the War Department today for me to be returned to duty with the regiment. Col McKelvy wanted to know if I belonged to the Invalid Corps. I told him I was not nor did not want to be. He said I had better see Mrs Thayer and hurry up my commission. I told him I thought my best plan was to go to the regiment and wait for it. Well, said he, if you think that is the best plan, you had better go. I saw I had slightly offended him in thinking different from him, but I had only given expression to my honest feelings. So at my request the paper was endorsed that I would be sent at the first opportunity.
I received a letter from O.L. Barney. He has returned from New York city and is now at home. He had a fine time attending lectures. I should judge he is a pretty good doctor by this time. He is as great a lover of the female sex as ever I should judge. I know I should have objections to employing him for my female friends if I had any until he is a fiew years older.
Head Quarters Rendezvous of Distribution VA February 28th 1864
I have just finished a letter to father, and as my hand is in I think this is my best oppertunaty to answer your short but kind letter of February 13th & 18th 1864. Now I tell you I don't approve of your writing on such small paper. You should use a sheet like this and put in all the local news, and then you may devote about half of a page to scolding me, but not without. You see if you write on such small paper and devote a little of it to a little well-merited scolding, why by the time you are done you have no room to write any more. And that makes me feel bad without doing one any good. Whereas if you used a large sheet it would make me feel so good reading the rest of the letter that I would swallow the advice like a bait, and the first thing you would know, I would fetch myself up with a hook in my nose and give myself a regular going over about my bad habits, and all on account of the long letter.
Seriously, however sister, I thank you for your caution for although there is no great danger of my becoming a drunkard or great smoker, still your kind advice shows me that my sister loves me more than any other earthly being "except Josey" and you may be sure your advice and warning falls not on closed ears or obstinate heart. I have not smoked since the 2nd inst[ance]. I made a compact in a joke with one of the boys that I would not smoke again this month and although made in jest my word is sacredly kept.
I was over to Washington a few days ago and stayed till after midnight. I went to "Grovers Theater" and saw Victor Hugo's celebrated play of "Ruy Blas". The star actor young Edwin Boothe plays "Ruy" and played it well. I saw him play "Richard III" (Shakespeare's) while I was in Boston, but the house was so crowded in Boston that I could not enjoy it much. But at "Grovers" I secured a splendid seat in the "Orchestra" where I could be at my ease and at the same time see and hear everything going on on the stage.
After the first play, we had a finishing tuch[?} called "The Screaming farce" or "Irish assurance and Yankee modesty." This was such an intensely amusing play that I fairly made myself sick laughing so much my sides have been sore ever since with the effects of it. But the finest part of the whole thing was we had to walk back after the whole thing to camp. The ambulance which took Sergeant Beaugureau (Chief Clerk of Camp) and myself over to Washington could not stay, as we had forgotten to get a pass for it to stay all the evening, and it had to return to camp before the countersign was out. The walk was most delightful, however. The moon shone brightly. The air was as balmy as spring, the road dry and hard, and we are the best friends in the world. So you see we had every thing to make our walk agreable and so it was.
It is very dusty indeed now, over in Washington. When the wind blows, it raises such clouds of dust that a person can hardly see. And here too it comes sweeping down across our parade ground sometimes, so it look like the picture of a storm of sand we see in some geography. We are willing to put up with the dust, however, when in exchange for it we have such beautiful weather. The air is warm and has that hazy appearence peculiar to the skies of "Indian Summer." The hills two or three miles off look so blue and soft that it makes me wish to go and roll down their sleepy looking sides. The river flows by in the distance and its glassy surface reflects only the still bluer sky. All nature seems at peace and only men in discord. Why is it we cannot remain at peace also? An answer is too ready. Traitors have attcked our free institutions. Our mother is in danger and her sons fly to her rescue. God cannot be angry with us when we [are] fighting in such a sacred cause, though shame it seems to desecrate his beautiful earth with the foul scenes of carnage which are the necessary concomitants of War.
The colonel of the 85th has sent for me to come back to the regiment, as I will have to go or go into the Invalid Corps, which I hate to do. I have some notion of going, but I will think of it for two or three weeks first.
What do you think of our little paper "The Soldiers Journey" of which I have sent you a couple of copies? It is all done at camp from composing the articles to working the press and all done by soldiers too. I feel proud of it, dont you?
Please give lots of love to all for me, for I have a large stock on hand, and believe me ever
Your loving brother
P.S. I received those socks all safe for which receive my thanks I beg pardon for not acknowledging their receipt before. thought I had done it. Yours, LaF
February 29th 1864
Day warm and pleasant, as also was yesterday. I answered father's letter last night and my sister's also. Today we were mustered for pay for January & February. Will not probably until the last of the month. We did not last pay time.