Tuesday, July 02, 2013

`Men Know that Something Is Good'

Capt. Francis Adams Donaldson was born in Philadelphia in 1840, and worked as a clerk for a shipping company. He enlisted two months after Fort Sumter in the 1st California Regiment, later called the 71st Pennsylvania Infantry. He was captured at Bull’s Bluff and remained a prisoner in Richmond until his exchange in February 1862, when he was promoted to second lieutenant. He served in the Peninsula campaign and was wounded in the arm at Fair Oaks. Later that year he was commissioned as captain of Company M, 118th Pennsylvania Infantry. He served at Antietam, Shepherdstown, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and in the Bristoe and Mine Run campaigns. 

Donaldson seems to have been a strong-willed and perhaps hot-tempered man. He feuded with his commanding officer, a lieutenant colonel, who refused to let him resign from the regiment. In December 1863, Donaldson publicly insulted and threatened the colonel, and was court-martialed and dismissed from the army. After Donaldson made a personal appeal to President Lincoln, his sentence was changed in March 1864 to dismissal without “disability.” He returned to Philadelphia, founded his own insurance company in 1866, and remained its head until 1917. He died in Philadelphia in 1928, age eighty-seven. 

Inside the Army of the Potomac: The Civil War Experience of Captain Francis Adams Donaldson was edited by J. Gregory Acken and published by Stackpole Books in 1998. Included is a lengthy letter Donaldson wrote on July 21, 1863, to his aunt, Eliza Ann Nice, who had raised him since childhood after the death of his parents. In it, Donaldson recounts the events at Gettysburg on July 2 and 3. On the morning of the 2nd, he writes: 

“It took some time to satisfactorily arrange us, but finally the order came to move forward, and with a firm tread and muskets at the right shoulder, the movement commenced. Over fields and fences went the silent moving mass, while nothing was heard save an occasional caution from our Colonel as to the guide, and the singular noise made by the tramping of so many thousands of feet thro’ the crushing leaves and grass, while the atmosphere was heavy with the pennyroyal smell so peculiar to all battlefields.” 

The final phrase is puzzling. Pennyroyal is a notably fragrant member of the mint family, with a scent similar to spearmint. What is the plant’s link with battlefields? The Greeks and Romans used it as a cooking herb. Its oils can be toxic and have been used to kill pests and repel insects. In folk medicine, pennyroyal has been used to treat colds, influenza and abdominal cramps, as well as smallpox and tuberculosis, and in stimulating menstruation. It is an abortifacient. A medicine that kills – a ready-made metaphor for war. Thoreau writes in A Week in the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849): 

“But we were most interested to hear of the pennyroyal; it is soothing to be reminded that wild nature produces anything ready for the use of man. Men know that something is good. One says that it is yellow-dock, another that it is bitter-sweet, another that it is slippery-elm bark, burdock, catnip, calamint, elecampane, thoroughwort, or pennyroyal. A man may esteem himself happy when that which is his food is also his medicine.”

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