Private, 95th New York Volunteer Infantry
United States Army
A SOLDIER'S STORY ... LETTERS DEPICT PAIN OF CIVIL WAR THROUGH EYES OF ORDINARY INFANTRYMAN By Jeffrey Scheuer
I can't think about war, veterans or the American past without recalling an obscure Union soldier from the Hudson River town of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who died 128 years ago this week in a Washington hospital.
His name was Alvah Kirk, and he was 34 years old, a husband and father. He left behind some letters, which I stumbled upon a few years ago at an antique show in a Connecticut meadow. They tell a story tinged with pathos, mystery, tragedy - and a bottle of brandy.
The faded plastic packet labeled ''Civil War letters'' that I purchased on impulse contained 16 letters from Kirk to his wife, Mariah, during the Virginia campaigns of 1863 and '64. The letters are strange and enigmatic: banal on the surface, yet intriguing in their reticence, and often mystifying. They reveal little except that their author was poor, troubled and probably illiterate, since the letters are in several hands.
Stock phrases recur throughout; even the expressions of tenderness seem ritual. There are signs of marital discord, homesickness and the strain of battle. ''You must keep up good courage,'' he tells Mariah repeatedly. ''You must be father and mother to the children'' - a boy and a girl, whom he never names. And should he never return, he says, ''I'm in hopes I shall see you in heaven.''
Kirk had reason to harbor morbid thoughts. He was a private in Company K of the 95th Regiment, New York Volunteer Infantry. Made up of men from the Lower Hudson Valley, the 95th was in the thick of the fighting in the East: Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor. Alvah Kirk's life, when he dictated these letters, must have been a nightmare of hardship, confusion and fear.
Through archival and genealogical sources, I was able to piece together a few facts about that life. During the brief span from 1859 to 1862, Kirk lost his first wife and a small daughter to causes unknown; married Mariah Fitzpatrick under hasty and undocumented circumstances; fathered two children by her, George and Annie; and went away to war. A younger brother, William, also in the 95th, was wounded at Gettysburg. For a few months in 1862, Alvah deserted - probably to go home for the summer. Like many soldiers who returned voluntarily, he wasn't disciplined.
In early May 1864, the 95th New York was engaged at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania fierce battles a week apart that initiated the final phase of the war, in which Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, unable to outmaneuver Gen. Robert E. Lee, elected to beat him by attrition.
Kirk was wounded twice that week. Military records indicate he was shot in both legs, and one was amputated. A few weeks later he died; the Army listed the cause of death as ''exhaustion.''
The government he died for could never quite get his name right; it is variously listed as Alva, Alfred, Alvin, Abbah and Oliver. But the military files at the National Archives did record his personal effects: dog tags, one pocket book, one comb and ''cash .05 cents.''
He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, the supreme national shrine which by 1865 was so swollen with dead that it spilled over onto the grounds of Lee's estate.
Last year, as the research well began to run dry, I showed Kirk's letters to Larry Hughes, a journalist in Poughkeepsie. He wrote a column about them, and on the same day got a call from a woman claiming to be Kirk's descendant. Not only that: She and her cousin, with whom she lived, also had some of Kirk's letters.
One circle, at least, is completed: Alvah Kirk's known surviving letters are reunited, and will go to an institution. They will be joined by another heirloom, which the cousins suddenly produced, to my further astonishment, a few months after our first meeting: a fine pastel portrait of Kirk, evidently based on a period photograph.
As confounding as everything else, it seems to depict a more distinguished and self-possessed man than the author of the letters.
Americans have re-examined the Civil War recently through various fine lenses: the PBS series and the film ''Glory''; James McPherson's seminal study, ''Battle Cry of Freedom''; Allan Gurganus' comic novel, ''Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All''; and various eloquent diaries.
Kirk's sad, crude letters provide a counterpoint. They attest to the war's impact on one ordinary soldier, and millions like him; the importance of family history in America; and the singular power of the written word, in the unlikeliest of circumstances. His unpolished words, a fragile bridge across time, speak for all our unremembered dead.
Why Alvah Kirk? Because I was commissioned by fate to be the custodian of his small legacy, and to resurrect what little I could of him. Why the Civil War? Perhaps because that bloody struggle over race, rights and the nature of the Union - the defining event of our past - doesn't just haunt the nation's conscience each Memorial Day. It is our conscience.
Jeffrey Scheuer is a writer in West Taghkanic, N.Y.
Updated: 3 December 2000
Updated: 5 February 2001
Updated: 15 February 2003