Wednesday, January 09, 2013

`And in My Meditations Speak Their Names'

Judging by the single photograph I’ve seen of Capt. Henry Lord Page King, a studio shot taken in New York City in 1860, he resembled a more sober Edgar Allan Poe or less zealous John Wilkes Booth, both fellow Southerners. His hair is neatly combed on top and worn longer behind and over the ears, and his mustache droops at the ends. He wears a frock coat and a high collar. Behind him and to his left is a wooden chair with brocade upholstery, and King rests his arm on the Doric column to his right – the conventional props of a photography studio in his day. He’s a man of modest height, with a high forehead and exophthalmic eyes that stare at something to his right. His appearance is not formidable. He might be a clerk, and in fact was a lawyer. 

Helen Pinkerton sent me a copy of Civil War Regiments: A Journal of the American Civil War from 1998 which includes an article she wrote about King and a portion of the journal he kept during the Maryland Campaign, which Helen edited. King, like tens of thousands of others, was an anonymous, almost forgotten figure in the war, serving as aide-de-camp to Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws. Nicknamed “Lordy,” King was born on his family’s plantation, “Retreat,” on St. Simons Island, Ga., in 1831. He graduated from Yale in 1852 and received his LL.B. from Harvard Law School in 1855. He read law in the firm of a family friend in New York City, starting in 1860. Helen quotes a diary entry from that time in which King says he is for “immediate secession & separate state action & a Southern Confederacy after.” 

Less than a month before Fort Sumter, King was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the 1oth Georgia Infantry, on March 16, 1861. By September, King was an aide to McLaws. “Most interesting,” Helen writes, “he reveals a penchant for scouting.” On Aug. 18, for instance, he rides 45 miles on a hot day in Virginia to Evelington Heights, where he notes the abandoned Union fortifications are “Beautiful.” Most of the diary is business-like. Helen notes it is “not written in an intimate tone—as Civil War diaries seldom were,” but King proves himself a close observer, attentive to details. At Sharpsburg, Md., during the Battle of Antietam, King writes on Sept. 17 (the bloodiest single-day battle in American history, with some 23,000 killed, wounded or missing): 

“Orders came to move to front & left to [Gen. Thomas “Stonewall”] Jackson! Marched nearly a mile. Met Gen. Jackson & he & Gen McLaws had a conference. Shell fell at our feet, wounding one of Gen’s couriers—did not explode or it would have killed both Gens.”
The final entry in the diary is dated Sept. 21. Helen fills in the next three months. King arrived at Fredericksburg on Nov. 21. McLaws kept him busy with “minute and careful preparation.” He witnessed the house-to-house fighting in Frederickburg on Dec. 11, and the following day served as a scout along the Rappahonnock River, observing Union troops waiting to cross. McLaws later wrote of King’s initiative: “This was a daring reconnaissance as, at the time, none of our troops were within a mile of him.” 

The following day, Dec. 13, during the disastrous Union assault on Marye’s Hill, King was dispatched by McLaws to deliver a message to Brig. Gen. Thomas R.R. Cobb. A division commander reported King “was killed on the front slope of the hill near Marye’s house.” He may have been hit by Union sharpshooters. Cobb, too, was fatally wounded. Helen writes: 

“King’s body was discovered on the field by his servant, Neptune Small, while the battle was still raging across the landscape. King had grown up with Small, who had accompanied him throughout his wartime service. Small dutifully carried the remains home to Georgia, probably to `Refuge’ in Ware County, where the family traveled to get away from the Federal-occupied coast. Even though he was offered the chance to remain home, Small preferred to travel back to the front and join Maj. Cuyler King [Lordy’s youngest brother], with whom he served to the end of the war. When `Retreat’ was reoccupied by the King family after Reconstruction, Small returned there with them. When he died, he was buried on St. Simons.” 

King and Small were born in 1831, five months apart, and Small lived until 1907. Like any good scholar and writer, Helen is performing an act of historical reclamation and reanimation, salvaging King and Small from oblivion. She writes further about King in Crimson Confederates: Harvard Men Who Fought for the South (University of Tennessee Press, 2010). King’s grave-marker reads: 

“Capt. Henry Lord Page King, C.S.A., third son of Thos. B. and Anna M. King, Died at Fredericksburg, Dec. 13, 1862. Advancing gallantly in the storm of battle on Marye’s Hill, he fell pierced by five balls. Aged 31 years. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” 

In one of her Civil War-related dramatic monologues, “Melville’s Letter to William Clark Russell” (Taken in Faith: Poems, 2002) Helen writes of “The heights at Fredericksburg, where Cobb’s men saw / Our blue ranks melt like snow, and the living piled / The frozen dead as breastworks.” In 1888, Melville recalls his poem “Lee in the Capitol” and concludes his verse-letter to Russell:
“If I,
Remembering, honoring, suffering as I do,
See only a worldly end as their intention,
Share our time’s judgment on the Right made Law,
And its opinion that the Wrong put down
Validated all the blood, and fire, and hate,
Justified too, the wrong we did our brothers,
Then I could not be true to those who lost,
To whose faith, I without faith, must return,
And in my meditations speak their names.”

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