BLUE GHOST The Civil War Letters of Alvah Kirk
Reprinted from New York History 1992
By Jeffrey Scheuer
The chance discovery of a soldier’s letters reveals, in time, that the quest is no less significant than the quarry.
A few summers ago, while browsing at an outdoor antique fair in the Connecticut countryside, I came upon a table containing a yellowing plastic packet labeled “Civil War letters.” Though long fascinated by the Civil War, I never fancied myself a collector; but this time curiosity and impulse swayed me, and I bought the packet, contents unseen. It turned out to contain sixteen letters from a Union soldier named Alvah Kirk to his wife in Poughkeepsie, New York.
This random discovery propelled me on a series of parallel journeys. At face value, the letters offered a dark, narrow pathway into American history. They prompted a search of official and genealogical records to satisfy my growing curiosity about their obscure and enigmatic author. The experience also occasioned some reflection; for while the letters themselves were of no obvious documentary value, I found I had stumbled into a peculiar and novel relationship. I was the sole custodian of a small but deeply compelling personal legacy — all that remained of Alvah Kirk, a private in Company K of the Ninety-fifth Regiment, New York State Volunteers, U.S.A. In addition, Kirk’s letters renewed my curiosity about the central and enduring role of the Civil War in American culture.
The letters proved to be cryptic, frustrating, and darkly intriguing. Reading them, and transcribing them for further examination, was an arduous process. Only a page or two each, most of the letters were written in pencil, a few in faded brown ink. The words were often hard to decipher, the spelling and grammar highly erratic, punctuation nonexistent. Two things became clear immediately. First, the letters were dictated — they are written in several different hands — and their author therefore probably illiterate. Second, their tone and content were almost eerily pedestrian. Yet their reticence only fueled my determination to find out more about their author.
The sixteen letters are dated between February 1863 and April 1864, from various camps in Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. One has a surviving envelope, brittle and torn at the end, addressed to “Mrs. Mariah Kirk/ Port. Kipsey/ Dutches. County. N.Y.” The tone is consistently formal, remote, and formulaic: whole phrases are repeated, over the year and a half that the letters span, as Alvah Kirk marches across Virginia with the Army of the Potomac. Even the expressions of affection seem oddly ritual. Several topics recur throughout: money and pay, the weather, requests for news from home, and for postage stamps. About all I could gather from reading them was that Alvah and Mariah Kirk were married, and had at least two children (including a boy named Tommy, mentioned once); that they lived in or near Poughkeepsie; and that Alvah had a brother, William, who served with him in the Ninety-fifth N.Y. and was eventually wounded. The second letter is typical:
April the 5 1863 Camp near [Belle] Plain Virginia My Dear wife I received your letter and was very glad to hear that you was all well I am well at present and hope these few lines will find you all the same. Dear wife when you write to me you must write all the particulars in Poughkeepsie… Tell Charley that I should like to have my razor and ask him if he might put it in a newspaper and send it to me. Put it right inside of the newspaper and direct it to me just the same as you would a letter and it will come through. Dear wife I have been mustered in for my pay but haven’t received any…It has been very nice weather down here but now we have had a very big snow storm and it isn’t over yet — the other day we have a review by old fightin’ Joe and he said that we would soon be fit to go to the slaughterhouse again bill is here with me in the same company with me I thought a good deal of you last night I laid so hard on the cedar brush that I could not sleep I miss my bed very much…
The subsequent letters are remarkably similar; the macabre note about the Hooker review is one of Kirk’s infrequent allusions to army life. A few weeks later (May 13, 1863) he gives a crude account of the Battle of Chancellorsville, in which the inept General Hooker was routed by Robert E. Lee:
We started from old Camp on the 28th day of last month And we have seen Some pretty hard times and have had another very Big Battle but thank the Lord I am Alive yet. It was the biggest Battle that has ever been Fought Yet. We lost a great many men on our Side. The Rebels [drove] us from Across the river and we Are now encamped again on this Side of the River…
Two weeks later, Kirk writes:
I was on picket the other day and we talk with the rebs and our men goes across the river and trades coffee and sugar for tobacco. They won’t offer to shoot us. If they shoot first [at] us they are shot right down dead where they are.
Apart from these few anecdotes, the sheer stiffness and banality of Kirk’s letters evoke a sense of monotony and strain — a kind of spiritual bleakness (not to be confused with lack of feeling) that seems abnormal even in view of the hardships of wartime. While the letters suggest that the dictated writing is a chore, there is something darker, or at least more complex, underneath. Despite Kirk’s occasional expressions of longing — which sometimes seem merely perfunctory — there are intimations of marital discord. In the first letter, for instance, he reminds Mariah harshly: “I expect that you have it hard but I have it harder [down] here.” As the months go by, his persistent pleas for letters from her seem marked less by affection than mounting annoyance. In the fifth letter, dated April 24th, 1863, Kirk writes almost offhandedly: “Let me know if you live in the same place as you did when I come away.” This struck me as perhaps the most revealing statement in all the letters. Even under the circumstances — wartime separation, illiteracy, the awkwardness of dictation, financial hardship (and even if not taken literally to imply that they were living apart when he left for the war) the question suggests a certain instability in the family. Kirk often refers to “the children,” but only once in passing does he mention “Tommy” by name. Nothing is learned of other children — not even their names or sexes. Yet amid these signs of estrangement, he is able to write poignantly: “I think some times so that I can’t sleep by thinking about you…” Indeed, in their very opacity, Kirk’s letters convey enormous pathos; at times it is palpable, as when he writes to Mariah:
…you must be a father and a mother to the little children and you must fix them up and take them to church. You must keep up good courage for I am in hopes that I can see you face one more and if I couldn’t see your face again I am in hopes to meet you in heaven…