Story posted November 17, 2010
"I manage to keep a stiff upper lip in battle though I tell you it is fearful work. I have had a bullet put through my belt and one between my arm and side but thanks to my Saviour I am still alive and well."
So wrote Sergeant Horatio Fox Smith, a member of the Bowdoin College Class of 1865, to his mother in May 1864, about his experiences during the Wilderness Campaign in Virginia.
Smith, a native of Gorham, Maine, and a junior at Bowdoin when he enlisted in the 31st Maine Infantry Regiment, corresponded regularly during that summer of fighting, boredom and fatigue.
His letters and a journal he kept the previous summer, were recently acquired by Bowdoin College's George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives, where they join thousands of other Civil War letters, diaries and photographs documenting both the battlefield and the home front.
Eight months prior to his joining the 31st Maine, Smith had already taken a short-lived absence from his college studies to seek enlistment in a Rhode Island college student artillery unit — an adventure that ultimately came to nothing (the unit failed to pass muster, and he returned to Bowdoin to resume his studies).
Beyond enlisting, Smith had also hoped to assist in recruiting students from various colleges to fill the ranks. His journal entries document those recruiting efforts in detail, but they also describe his travels, including steamship passages between Portland to Boston, dalliances with the fair sex, social encounters with fellow students, relentless military red tape and disorganization, details about life and living in Providence, R.I., such minutiae as what books he was reading at the time, as well as college life at Bowdoin. He described his induction physical, conducted by a besotted Providence physician, this way:
A punch in the chest — "all right".
"Kick out with one foot — the other."
"Strike out with one arm — the other."
"Jump up-put on your clothes."
When he finally did join a Maine regiment after his failed Rhode Island escapade, Smith expressed his motives for enlisting: "If I can strike a blow for my country's honor or shed my blood to defend her life, I shall be far happier than if I were leading a life of indolence in college or pleasure in Portland."
He also welcomed the $600 enlistment bounty and the prospects of quick advancement into the officers' corps. His letters home reveal a boy growing abruptly into manhood — but after months of grueling marches and battles, Smith contracted diphtheria after only a few months in uniform, quickly succumbing to the disease while at home on furlough.
Although Civil War diaries and letters survive in large numbers, both as treasured family heirlooms and in research libraries around the country, finding a combination of journaling and letter writing is more unusual and special. These two sets of documents complement each other, both in the stories that they relate and in defining the personality of their writer.
Smith was exceptionally literate, conversational and witty. He wrote fluidly, candidly and with a clarity that brings his experiences to life as few other documents of the period do. And his views on serving the Union matched the sentiment of many of his classmates and Bowdoin alumni.
Bowdoin offered up proportionately more of its own in service to "the cause" — including such luminaries as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and Oliver Otis Howard — than any other college in the North. Consequently, particularly with the approach of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the Horatio Fox Smith letters and journal are especially welcomed additions to the collection, where they join the personal papers of Generals Howard and Chamberlain and are available to students and the public alike.
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