I buy lots of old editions of American Heritage. It’s always interesting, and you often find really terrific stories.
I picked up June 1966 and found the letters home from Barna Upton, a young man from Charlemont who enlisted in the army in 1845 out of a “spirit of adventure and a desire to see the world.” The letters were edited by William F. Goetzmann.
He writes from Governor’s Island in New York and then from Lousiana, and when the Mexican War begins he fights in nearly every battle. His letters are used by military historians to reconstruct the battles.
When he first found himself in battle, he says, “I found it true what Uncle Latham used to say: that they shoot dreadful careless in battle. The balls were constantly hissing over our heads or mowing their way through the tall grass, and it was astonishing how few struck our ranks.”
But I like the descriptions of everyday life in the army and the fondness that is so evident for his family and his home. He thanks them for the socks they send, tells them about his impressive mustaches, and answers his little sisters’ questions about the war. And he’s really one heck of a writer:
“This is a beautiful Sabbath morning: from orange groves I hear the music of “strange bright birds.” The churchbells are chiming the hour of prayer, and the cowled priests, the sober citizens, and the dark-eyed signoras are passing on to confession.
“Everything is new and nature itself seems changed… It is lighter here and the sky is farther off. But after all I like New England the best. There’s no place like home.”
Barna fights bravely, and there’s a moving scene after the first battle where he brings water to the wounded on both sides. But after three or four really bloody battles, he notices himself becoming numb to human suffering:
“I never was intended by nature for a soldier and I am astonished at the calmness and almost indifference which I experience now in walking over the battlefield. It is only when some shocking instance of mutilation meets my eye that I feel that sensation of horror which it is natural for anyone to feel on seeing hundreds of our fellow beings cut down instantly in the bloom of manhood and laying in heaps on every side.”
Then comes the letter to his brother Elias from the City of Monterrey that gave me a tingle right down to my toes:
“I promised to make you a visit — so now in imagination I will leave this bustling canvas city and go at once to your door. I knock! You open the door. You see before you a tall, good-looking chap with a suit of blue clothes on and little eagles stamped on his buttons. You will recognize at once your absent brother.
“Well now, put on your big coat and mittens and take a walk, for by the time this reaches you, it will be cold weather. Let us go into Gould Hollow and talk by the way of other times when we were boys together. A great many questions are asked and answered and we remind each other of a thousand little adventures and incidents that happened long ago…”
This rhapsody continues as they walk from his brother’s house in Shelburne, “over the frozen hills to Rowe,” to their family’s house in Charlemont for a joyful reunion with their mother and father. “Here too I meet our little sisters and sing with them ‘Home Sweet Home.'”
“I suppose the little plum trees in the west garden are big trees now.”
He concludes: “But here I must take my leave of all and commence my journey over the Green Mountains, across the Hudson, over the Allegheny and the vast extent of hill and valley, plain and woodland, to the valley of the Mississippi, across that great river to the Sabine, over the prairies of Texas to the Rio Grande, and far into the interior of Mexico to rest on my little moss bed in the camp at Monterrey. Write to me often, direct to General Taylor’s camp, Mexico.”
Sadly Barna Upton was killed in the last charge of the war. In a letter he wrote shortly before he died, he writes, “I hope that I shall yet live to return to my Father’s house, but if not, I hope to meet you all in Heaven. I am yours in haste, Barna Upton.”