Works in Progress

Mysterious Civil War Giants

In the farmhouse where I spent my childhood, a large oil portrait of a mutton-chopped man hung over the dining table, my maternal great-grandfather. He looked down at my sister and me as we ate our meals, not, it seemed to me, to see if we would finish our spinach, but merely in contemplation of his descendants. He looked tired, with voluminous and sagging eye pouches, hands clasped on his lap in a resigned sort of way. In the portrait, his eyes are watery.

My mother told me he was a Civil War hero and that his name was Thomas Wentworth Higginson. While he looked imposing to my young eyes, he did not meet my idea then of what a soldier was supposed to look like. Over subsequent years, I learned much more about him, familiar to scholars of the abolitionist movement, of the Civil War, of Emily Dickinson, of women’s rights, of 19th century nature writing, although the wide scope of his output ranged from children’s novels to treatises on Shelley. On my book shelves I have 20-plus volumes of his work, the best known being Army Life in a Black Regiment, an account of his Civil War years as a colonel of the First South Carolina Volunteers, a regiment of former slaves whom he extolled for service and dedication. He was badly wounded at Fort Sumter.

My mother seemed not to have a feel for this distinguished person, despite the different generations,  as do some descendants the history of their progenitors. Stories about him–the inner man–had evidently not been passed down around the dining room table. There were no hair raising tales or jokes, nothing about him being severely wounded at Fort Sumter. Aside from his relationship with Emily Dickinson and his Army Life in a Black Regiment, he seemed a stranger in my family.

Yet, it was not just his books and Civil War service that he was known for. He was a Unitarian minister so outraged by slavery, so fervent in his abolitionist sermons that he was kicked out of his church in Newburyport, Massachusetts; stormed the Boston police headquarters to free a captured slave; was one of the secret six who raised funds for John Brown to blow up the arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia; wrote a manifesto for women’s voting rights in 1853 that became a model for gender equality. I knew none of that until I did the research much later.

There was another picture I grew up with in the old farmhouse. This was of my paternal great grandfather, Norwood Penrose Hallowell–this one a photograph of a jolly-looking old man with an elfin goatee. He held a young boy on his lap. That was my father, age about 6, looking like the happiest child alive, a head full of curly hair and eyes sparkling.

These two great grandfathers of mine are my family’s heroes. In my child’s eye, they lived side by side–both Boston offspring, both noted figures at Harvard–their alma mater, both fervent abolitionists, and both Civil War colonels who led Black regiments, both wounded, both the patriarchs of arguably dysfunctional families.

How we come to be who we are–that is the great fascination. My maternal great grandfather married in 1847 a woman named Mary Channing. He had just graduated from the Harvard Divinity School. She died 30 year later, and bore no children. In 1879, he remarried. His second wife’s name was Marry Potter Thacher and they had two daughters. One died as a child. The other was my mother’s mother. She had terrible asthma, my mother told me, was severely depressed, and spent most of her life in bed. My mother never uttered a word of affection for her to me.

My father’s side of the family has always seemed more effervescent, if less literary. Like Thomas Wentworth Higginson, my paternal great grandfather, Norwood Penrose Hallowell, was wounded in the Civil War, a bullet to the shoulder during the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. In hair-raising detail he wrote about his escape across the Potomac River from Confederate forces. Near death, he was full of life. A giant of a man, he later became the president of a bank in Boston and signed all his bank correspondence as “The Giant.” Family stories about him, his siblings, and his children abound.

It is a cold January night with the wind howling over Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay. I am in my aunt’s house with two of my cousins. The living room is a sprawling mess of yellowed letters, folders, turn-of-the-20th-century postcards—beautiful lithographs of European sights. My aunt, Jane Hallowell, discovered a big wooden chest in the attic of the house she was moving out of, a simple chest untouched in the shadows under the eaves. She pulled it out, creaked open its top upon rusting hinges and beheld piles of correspondence accumulated by my grandmother from the time she married in 1887.

We are nestled among them, silently reading, crinkling pages, uttering occasional exclamations at the discovery of an ancient relative’s affections or foibles, particularly the constant stream of love letters between my grandfather and grandmother. My cousin Sarah Hallowell lies on a couch. She has been there for hours searching out letters written by Sarah Haydock, her great grandmother. The other cousin, Marian Cross, chortles at the common-sense wisdom and warmth of our Aunt Esther, my great grandfather’s sister.

I am on the hunt for letters from my father. My heart surges when I come across a batch that he sent to his parents from France when he was 16 in 1925, the same person who at six looked so happy as he  bounced upon his grandfather’s lap in the photograph hanging on my wall. The letters are exuberant—afternoons at the Louvre, attending concerts, strolling along grand avenues. I am amazed at his outbursts of excitement at the sights.

This is not the way I knew him, part of the mystery of my family and perhaps all families. During my childhood in that old farmhouse, my father was a silent, angry man. Something happened to him when he was 16 or 17. When he returned from Europe, his exuberance had been replaced with something else that caused him to drop out of school and run away from home. He signed on as a crew member of a four masted schooner plying the east coast carrying lumber between southern ports and New York. But then he sent a pencil-scrawled letter to his parents from Georgia saying he was digging ditches and to not try to find him. He died in the old farmhouse on a cold January night, depressed and alone with my mother showing signs of dementia.

Who are these two families from which I have sprung, both led by gigantic men of such different personality and being, one so closed yet with with energy that poured out of him from the pulpit and from pages of fiction, poetry, advice and memoir; the other a soldier, a banker, a family man, a club man, who so appeared to share his life with others? And then there was my father….