Read for your Life!
by John Burgeson, www.burgy.50megs.com
"The person who does not read good books has no advantage over the illiterate." Mark Twain.
KEEP UP GOOD COURAGE, A Yankee family and the Civil War, by Frazer Houston. ISBN 1-931807-49-3.
Our summer friend and neighbor, Frazer Houston (he owns the square brick building just north of the church) has delved deep into his family history, has meticulously sifted and refined it, and has produced for us a gem of a book. "Keep up good curige" was the maxim written in nearly every letter between Corporal Lewis Quimby Smith (Houston's great grandfather) and his beloved wife, Mary, as the New Hampshire couple was parted by war for many years, happily reuniting in late 1865. "Courage" was also spelled "curidge," "corage," "curridge," "curidg," and "curig," for Lewis and his wife, who boasted superb (and ornate) penmanship, wrote phonetically. Much of the book is devoted to these letters; they speak of the pain of separation, loneliness, the boredom of the military life, family affairs, and, above all, longings to be reunited in times of great uncertainty. Five percent of New Hampshire men who served died in battle, another eight percent died of disease. The New Hampshire Battle Flag still exists (see photo). Lewis writes: ". . . we was lucky this time but I do not no how we shall come out the next time we air here to day and that is all I can say we air here to day and whar we shall bee to morrow I cannot tell. . . . we do knot no whar we go nor whar we go untill we git thar but hotter the war sooner the peas ... ." In early 1864, he writes. "I wish you was hear or I was thare but you are thair and I am hear and we will make the best of it." It would be nearly two more years before he returned home.
Most of us live ordinary lives, and these dear souls exemplify such. The life of an ordinary Union soldier is far from the excitement (and importance) of -- say -- Abraham Lincoln, but in telling Smith's story, in large part in his own words, one feels a kinship and an interest in what a life was all about in those dark days. I found it hard to put down; when it ended (with an epilogue describing the death of Lewis and Mary in 1913), I wished for more. These are real people, separated in time from us by almost 150 years; I found myself seeing the world through their eyes, dreaming their dreams, sharing their anxious times.
There is unintentional piece of humor in an early chapter. Lewis's sister writes to him, "Have you got any paper and envelopes if not you write and let us know and you shall have some." I learned the origin of the word "skedaddle." It describes the actions of a man trying to evade the draft! And note the phrase below from Mary Smith's letter of May 30, 1864: "Old Mrs Abbott is dead she died happy as a clam." Almost all of Mary's letters end with "This is from your wife Mary E. Smith" and Lewis generally concludes with "Ciss the little ones for me take a harty one for your self good knight from yours with much love to you all Lewis Q. Smith." The Smith's third child was born after Lewis left for service; a year later he inquired as to what Mary had named him!
This book needs to be read by anyone interested in Civil War history, for it depicts how the war was seen by a common soldier and his family back home. In April, I reviewed TEAM OF RIVALS, Civil War history from the viewpoint of the powers that conducted it. It was a great book, but at no point did I identify with the characters in it. That is not true of this one. I finished the book with a genuine affection for Lewis and Mary, who both survived the war and lived together, raising a family of seven, for another 48 years. The picture accompanying is of the couple in about 1911. Kudos to the author, our fellow Coloradan.
Keep up good courage, Ricoites!
John W. Burgeson, Rico, Colorado, August 6, 2006