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Anthropologist turns skills
to Civil War materials
May 3, 1999
What went through the mind of a soldier in the Civil War? In a recently published collection of letters edited by Professor Robert Bee, the horror and confusion of the battles and the monotony of camp life are seen through the eyes of a soldier, Sgt. Benjamin Hirst. The Boys From Rockville is a collection of letters from Hirst to his wife, Sarah.
Although books of Civil War correspondence are plentiful, Bee brings the perspective of an anthropologist to the letters providing an interpretation of the "world view" of Benjamin Hirst. Applying an anthropological approach to historical material represented a special challenge, says Bee. Unlike standard ethnography, he could not rely on his own observations or on interviews with his subjects. Instead he had to read between the lines of the written correspondence.
Hirst was a resident of Vernon's Rockville section, who wrote as he journeyed with the 14th Regiment of Connecticut Volunteer Infantry to fight in the Civil War. His letters mirror his military career, from the battles that have come to be known as Antietam, when General Lee first attempted to advance into the North in September 1862, to the battle of Gettysburg, when Hirst's service came to an end.
It was an eventful year for Hirst. He began by fighting in some of the bloodiest battles of the War. While in camp, he was visited by his wife in the field, a rare event for an enlisted man. At Gettysburg, Hirst was wounded in the shoulder by enemy fire and reassigned to the Veterans Reserve Corps., out of combat for the rest of the War.
In his letters, Hirst describes techniques for combating terrible thirst by lacing a canteen with cayenne pepper or carrying an oak leaf in the mouth, and complains about the rations and uniforms, as well as providing details about the fighting.
Bee says, "Benjamin Hirst's consuming concern with his self image in the letters is fascinating." Hirst had a strong drive for what was regarded in the nineteenth century as manly respectability , he says. Hirst knew his letters would be read to others in Rockville and was concerned to appear stoic and brave. "The facts show that he and his wife were close and you want him to break loose and say 'I'm homesick' or 'I want to hold you,' but he never does," says Bee.
Bee begins The Boys from Rockville by tracing the background of the Hirst family, factory workers who left Great Britain in 1852 to come to America. The Hirsts relocated several times, hoping to out-maneuver the fluctuations in the economy. They moved from Delaware to Dedham, Mass., and finally settled in Rockville.
Bee says their experience of factory work prepared Benjamin and his two brothers to be good soldiers. There were similarities between military and industrial life at the time, and between the duties of a factory overseer and an army sergeant, he says.
Bee, a member of Vernon's Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, has been interested in the Civil War and military history since he was a teenager in Lawrence, Kans., in the 1950s. He began transcribing the Hirst letters, which were in the Vernon's Sons archives, in the 1980s "as sort of a lark." He found the project compelling, however, and upon a friend's suggestion expanded it into a book.
Bee is leading a tour of Civil War battlefields as part of the travel opportunities sponsored by the Alumni Association, September 21-27. Sites included are the Antietam, Gettysburg National Military Park and Chancellorsville.
For more information, contact Debra Crary at the Alumni Association (860) 486-2849 or toll free at (888) 822-5861.