A soldier’s life is a queer life to be sure. In no other place will a man find such intense bitterness mixed with such exquisite sweetness as here. See for instance the poor, tired footsore soldier, forgetting all his pains of the great day, and even a smile of gladness on his countenance, as he studies out the lines by the flickering fire light, penned by his wife. That, for a time, fills his heart.”
— from “No Freedom Shrieker”
The ongoing observance of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War is also the 50th anniversary of the war’s centennial. That commemoration with its publications, re-enactments and learning opportunities was a valuable but often tense time. It coincided with the rise of the civil rights movement — indeed, it was a motivating force, as in “after a hundred years black citizens still suffer the effects of slavery and discrimination.” Issues remained unresolved and feelings could still flare, which served to bring the conflict of the 1860s closer. Fifty years later we still grapple with questions of racism, states’ rights and inequality, but the Civil War seems a little more settled in our history, partly due to continuing scholarship and, of course, to shared events like Ken Burns’ monumental PBS documentary series.
Our understanding of the Civil War and its enduring effect on the nation is also strengthened with the discovery of new primary sources, including a box of letters found in an old barn at Katherine Aldridge’s farm in the town of Alpine, NY. His military service long completed and he himself lost to living memory, Charlie Biddlecom is now contributing his experiences and insights through the efforts of Katie Aldridge and the book “No Freedom Shrieker: the Civil War Letters of Union Soldier Charles Biddlecom”.
Charles Freeman Biddlecom (1832-1912) was a farmer from Monroe County, near Rochester. He enlisted in the Union army in 1861 and left a wife and three small children to join the 147th Regiment, New York State Volunteer Infantry. He was soon in Rebel territory, encamped in Virginia and facing danger, discomfort and tedium. He regularly found time to write, especially to his wife, Esther.
¨Well, we have moved again, and it rained, of course, back through the Gap and through Haymarket and Gainesville to Bristoe Station and one mile beyond, making a march of twenty or some miles in a heavy rain storm and in mud ankle deep. I was completely saturated. We built a good fire after we pitched our tents and by twisting and turning like a piece of meat on a turnspit, we managed to dry ourselves so as to sleep tolerably comfortable. If I had my breakfast I should feel pretty well, but I have not had a bit to eat since yesterday morning and as a consequence I feel like an empty corncrib.”
The American Civil War was the first war ever fought by combatants who were, for the most part, literate. In later conflicts letters would regularly be censored and diaries were discouraged. But the events of 1861-1865 are documented so thoroughly that collections of letters like Charlie Biddlecom’s are not unusual. There are even websites where volunteers can offer to help historians transcribe Civil War letters.
In many ways, however, the Biddlecom letters are exceptional in their immediacy and literary quality. They describe the sentiments of a man well-educated for his time but considered the “black sheep” of his family (the extended family included suffragist leader Susan B. Anthony, a nephew would become dean of the Harvard Law School). Charlie expected the war to be over quickly, believed that allowing the Confederacy to go it alone might be in the national interest and at least initially did not support President Lincoln, who he suspected was prolonging the war for political reasons. He was also skeptical of the moral and religious dimensions of the Civil War, reflecting a belief that “Miss Lucy and Master Sambo” were incapable of appreciating freedom. “I fight because I am too proud to be called a coward, not that I think my fighting will do any good to the human family. I am not a freedom shrieker…” (a derogatory term for vocal opponents of slavery).
The book “No Freedom Shrieker” has a history of its own, and Katie Aldridge spends the first couple of chapters telling of her discovery of the papers and how she carefully read and transcribed the letters before beginning additional research on the Civil War. Footnotes following each chapter detail the war’s progress and, when necessary, clarify the 19th century terminology. She also “lightly edited” the letters, which she described as “a 60,000-word run-on sentence.” Ms. Aldridge initially had trouble finding a publisher and turned to Paramount Market Publishing, an Ithaca-based company that specializes in business books but recognized an opportunity to reach out to a general public. Proceeds from the sale of “No Freedom Shrieker” will support the Warrior Writers Writing Workshop in Ithaca, aiding veterans of recent conflicts who want to tell their stories.
Katherine Aldridge and publisher Jim Madden join Bill Jaker to speak about Charlie Biddlecom and the experiences he brought to light. Andy Pioch reads Charlie’s words, the music is by Hope Greitzer and Jim MacWilliams of Happy Hollow Music.