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…
In typically disjointed manner, he then sends his respects to some friends, and discusses the weather before closing, “from your affection husband alvy kirk.” The final letters in the group, written in 1864, are successively briefer and more terse. On Jan. 16, from Culpeper, Virginia, Kirk tells Mariah he’ll be home by the following winter “if I dont make up my mind to enlist over again. The big bounty looks tempting at a man.” In the next paragraph, he adds: “…I want you to have four bottles of brandy setting on the table for me when I come home…” The letter is signed “from your lawful husband A. Kirk to my wife Mariah Kirk.” Later, he writes that he has decided to forgo re-enlistment and the furlough it would have entitled him: he has had enough of war. And in a curt letter dated April 8, 1864, with no location, he writes: “I would think a little more of you if you would write a little oftener. If you don’t write I will look out for another woman and see if she will think more of me than you do…”
Alvah Kirk’s letters provide an interesting counterpoint to the recent wave of important books, films, and diaries from the Civil War. Though never directly revealing, these awkward, blunt messages — so palpably lacking in joy, humor, warmth, or pride — have much to say about the anguish of their author. They suggest the emotional privation and fear of an ordinary, unlettered American, among the millions caught up in a national cataclysm: a man who, like many of his comrades, was painfully uncomfortable with words, and above all wanted to get home alive. This sad self- portrait left me with many questions: about the personality of the author, and the life and family he left behind; what, if anything, Mariah wrote to Alvah; through whose hands the letters came down to me more than a century and a quarter later; whether any of Alvah’s descendants had kept them, and wondered about him as I did.
In time, I was able to learn a bit more about Alvah Kirk. Local census data and newspaper records offered some sparse details. He was born around 1831. In 1851, at age twenty, he married sixteen-year-old Sarah Louisa Hicks, from a Quaker family, and in 1855 they had a daughter named “Anice.” Sarah died in 1859 at age twnety-four, and Anice died in 1860 at age five. Causes of the deaths are not given. Alvah is listed in the 1860 census as a laborer; he owned no property, but had an estate valued at $100.00.
Shortly after Sarah Hicks’s death, Alvah married Mariah, who was then twenty-eight and also formerly married. Her ancestry is given as Irish, but no maiden name is recorded. The census does not mention Alvah’s origins. Enlistment records indicate that he was a U.S. citizen when he entered the Union Army. Alvah and Mariah had a son, George, in 1860, and a daughter, Ann, in 1861. “Tommy” was born in 1855, and must have been either Alvah and Sarah’s son (perhaps Anice’s twin), or possibly Mariah’s by her previous marriage. They shared a house with another family, headed by one Isaac Benoway, on Davies Street near Mill Street in Poughkeepsie. Thus, it appeared that in the brief period from 1859 to 1861, Alvah had lost both a wife and daughter to causes unknown; remarried, fathered two more children (George and Ann), and gone away to war.
Extensive, if sketchy, records exist of Civil War regiments, most of them official compilations from the late nineteenth century. According to these sources, Alvah joined up with the Ninety-fifth Regiment, New York Volunteers at Carmel, New York, on January 14, 1862. He signed on for the standard hitch of three years, for $13 a month. Bounties of up to $300 for enlisting were not uncommon, especially later in the war, when there was a shortage of recruits; but there is no indication that Alvah got one. The brief official narrative in F.H. Dyer’s Compendium of the War of the Rebellion, a three-volume work compiled at the turn of the century, reveals that the Ninety-fifth New York was right in the thick of the fighting in the Eastern theater. The unit, also known as the “Warren Rifles,” was organized in New York City between November 1861 and March 1862, when it left to participate in the defense of Washington. In the spring of 1862, the regiment joined Abner Doubleday’s brigade of the Army of Virginia; later it was transferred to Gen. John Pope’s Army of the Potomac. The major engagements that summer and fall in which the Ninety-fifth took part included the second battle of Bull Run (August 30), South Mountain, Maryland (September 14), Antietam (September 16-17), and Fredericksburg (December 12-15). During the following spring and summer — the period when Kirk’s letters began — the regiment saw action at Chancellorsville (May 2-4 1863), where Union forces under Gen. Hooker were defeated, and at Gettysburg (July 1-3).In early May 1864, just a few weeks after Kirk’s final letter from Virginia, the Ninety-fifth saw action at the Battle of the Wilderness, and a week later at Spotsylvania — bloody, chaotic battles fought in densely wooded terrain, which failed to position Grant’s armies for a final thrust against Richmond. It was here that Grant, conceding he could only beat Lee by attrition, issued the famous dispatch: “I propose to fight it out on this line, if it takes all summer.” James M. McPherson writes in Battle Cry of Freedom that “From May 5 to 12 the Army of the Potomac lost some 32,000 men killed, wounded, and missing — a total greater than for all Union armies combined in any previous week of the war.” A few weeks later there came another costly and inconclusive battle at Cold Harbor, after which Grant was forced to retreat across the James River. In the spring of 1865, the Ninety-fifth took part in the Siege of Petersburg, and then joined in the pursuit of Lee to Appomattox Court House, Virginia, where he finally surrendered to Grant on April 9. The regiment was mustered out in Washington in July 1865.
Personnel and casualty records for the Ninety-fifth, as for other units, are inexact. A regiment normally consisted of ten companies, with between 86 and 101 men in each. It is unlikely the Ninety-fifth ever had more than a thousand men in uniform at any one time, but considering turnover — losses, transfers, replace- ments — the aggregate was probably closer to 1400. Various official sources agree that the regiment suffered losses of 119 officers and men killed in action and 136 or 137 who died of disease. In addition, one source lists 329 missing in action (captured, deserted, or killed and never found) and 381 wounded but recovered; this last category probably overlaps with others. But if these figures are reasonably accurate, the regiment’s overall casualties must have approached or exceeded 50 percent.
In a musty, 43-volume register prepared at the turn of the century by the New York State Adjutant’s Office in Albany, I found capsule biographies of three or four lines each for most of the New York soldiers. Sitting in the main reading room of the New York Public Library, I felt a surge of excitement as I thumbed the pages. I wasn’t prepared for what lay in store. On page 378 of the thirty-second volume, I was stunned to find the entry; for a few seconds it felt as if I had lost a brother.
KIRK, ALVAH.–Age, 34 years. Enlisted at Carmel, to serve three years, and mustered in as private, Co. K, January 14, 1862; wounded in action, May 6 and 12, 1864, at the Wilderness, Va.; died of wounds, May 30, 1864, at Harewood Hospital, Washington, D.C.; also borne as Alvis Kirk.
Despite the cost, and the lack of refrigeration, bodies of the Union dead were sometimes shipped home; however, Alvah Kirk’s wasn’t among them. As I learned from a telephone call, he is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, along with thousands of comrades whose graves, by the end of the Civil War, spilled over onto the grounds of Robert E. Lee’s estate. (I also learned, from the same volume that announced Alvah’s death, that his younger brother William, wounded at Gettysburg, survived the war. The wound probably wasn’t serious, as he wasn’t discharged until the end of 1864, a full year and a half after that battle.)
From the New York State Archives, I obtained the muster rolls prepared in 1865 for the Bureau of Military Records, which provided a few more details about Kirk. These included one surprise: that he wasn’t originally from Poughkeepsie, but was born in Kent, in nearby Putnam County. The town clerk of Kent put me in touch with several local history buffs and genealogists. All of these local historians were helpful; it struck none of them as odd that someone might want to follow the faint track of an obscure and illiterate soldier. Several, in fact, knew of the Kirk family. One genealogist, Ms. Betty Light Behr, assisted me in obtaining town records such as tax lists, census data, cemetery lists, and unpublished local histories. After reading the Kirk letters she wrote back to me: “I find that you have been touched by [the letters] in such a way that you wish to accord a rarely given recognition to their veiled and eloquent record. These wartime circumstances often enveloped ordinary hard working people, who endured and paid the price, and were forgotten.”
The Kirk family was well-known in the sparse, rugged hills of Putnam County. There is even a Kirk Lake near the town of Mahopac. William S. Pelletreau’s nineteenth century history of the county notes that “this handsome body of water…takes its name from an old man by the name of Kirk, who lived near it; and abounds in excellent fish.” The family is of Scottish ancestry — “Kirk” being the Scottish term for chapel, church plot, or parish — and settled originally in nearby western Connecticut. Tax rolls list a Thomas Kirk in neighboring Dutchess County as early as 1753. Putnam was a mining region, known for its native stone and ores, but most of the Kirks appear to have been farmers or carpenters. The census and cemetery records indicate that Alvah P. Kirk (middle name unknown) was born around 1829 to Calvin and Annis Kirk, who lived in Ludingtonville, a hamlet that forms part of the town of Kent in upper Putnam County. Calvin and Alvah were listed as carpenters. According to the 1850 Federal Census for Putnam County, Alvah was the oldest of seven children. In addition to William, he had three other younger brothers: George, John, and Levi; and two younger sisters, Hannah M., and Mary E. Alvah married Sarah L. Hicks, his first wife, at the Presbyterian church in Pleasant Valley, N.Y. Jackson Hicks, whom Alvah refers to several times in the letters, and who served with him in the Ninety-fifth, is his brother-in-law, Sarah’s brother. I also learned that Company K of the Ninety-fifth New York Volunteers had been consolidated from companies in Westchester, Putnam, and Rockland counties, under the command of Capt. William F. Bailey. The thirty-six members of the company from Putnam County, including Alvah and William Kirk, are listed in Pelletreau’s History of Putnam County. A cousin, Horace Kirk, also served in the Ninety-fifth; Warren Kirk, from another branch of the family, served in the Seventeenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry; a Thomas Kirk served in the Fifty-ninth New York Volunteers. Alvah’s parents, Calvin and Annis, both lived into their seventies, dying a few months apart in 1880.
In the card catalogues of the New York Public Library, I was able to locate two obscure references to the Ninety-fifth New York Regiment. One of these, which I eventually tracked down at the Library of Congress, turned out to be a bizarre blind alley: it led to an inept, melodramatic novella, written in 1901 by a Union veteran. The plot involved daring wartime escapades, hidden treasure, a secret code, and pulp romance. The regiment in the story was called the Ninety-fifth New York, and the reference was duly catalogued.
The other reference was more interesting: a lengthy article about the actual Ninety-fifth written by one of its officers, E.L. Barnes, which appeared in 1886 in the National Tribune, a precursor to the Army newspaper Stars and Stripes. It is a literate and informed account (if not lacking in regimental pride) of the unit’s service in 1862 under Brigadier Gen. Abner Doubleday, in the Army of the Potomac.
According to Barnes, the Ninety-fifth was initially deployed in April to Acquia Creek, Virginia, where for several months it worked on reconstructing a railroad destroyed by the enemy. Its initiation into combat came later that summer, in artillery barrages along the Rapahannock River. At one point, the Confederates began firing iron railroad rails cut in twelve-to- sixteen inch lengths; but as Barnes explains, “We were well protected by the sloping side of the hills from any missiles except shells, so that the railroad track thus sent us in sections was not utilized as a medium of travel to the other world.” Much of the Barnes article is devoted to the Virginia campaign during the late summer of 1862. The regiment’s first big battle was at Thoroughfare Gap, followed by Second Manassas (August 30), where Barnes puts the best face on the defeat of the Union forces: “…the whole line fell back, pressed by the enemy. Several regimental formations were broken, but no rout occurred, as the men were not panicstricken, but fell back fighting, although in some confusion.” Lee invaded Maryland in September, and there followed a series of engagements, including South Mountain and Antietam, where, in the single bloodiest day of the war, the Confederates were turned back. Barnes himself received a severe hip wound at South Mountain that ended his fighting career, as well as his chronicle of the Ninety-fifth. But the article concludes with a fierce volley: Had there been as much unity of feeling and action and as ready obedience rendered among the higher officers as were given and existed in the ranks…a far different result would have been reached in [the campaign of 1862]… Not one jot or tittle of credit would I abate [the armies of the West] for their glorious work. The Army of the Potomac, however, is deserving of greater credit. It suffered defeats and achieved barren victories for several years, and through it all remained hopeful and sanguine, never losing heart or faith in the cause it had patriotically espoused, but willing again and again to be led and hurled against its brave and active opponent — the Army of Northern Virginia.
Local newspapers, available on microfilm at libraries in Poughkeepsie and Carmel, failed to turn up an obituary for Alvah Kirk, or any information about the Ninety-fifth. The Poughkeepsie Eagle, a four-page daily, seemed more devoted to offering escape from the war than news of it. The front page was largely given over to windy speeches by New York’s senators, advertisements for products such as “Dr. Duponco’s Golden Pills for Females,” and odd swatches of poetry. No casualty lists were published, even in the heat of military campaigns. Broad accounts of the fighting appeared inside; but the only front-page evidence that men from Poughkeepsie were dying in a war just a few hundred miles away was the advertisements for mourning attire.
Like the Poughkeepsie Eagle, the Putnam County Courier, which appeared monthly and at times weekly, seemed almost to mock my historical curiosity. The Courier was a Democratic paper, and virulently anti-Lincoln; it referred to the draft as “Father Abraham’s lottery of life,” and editorialized continuously on behalf of the presidential campaign of General George B. McClellan. Like not a few other journals, the Courier vilified Lincoln as an imbecile and a virtual freak, but mourned his death with sudden eloquence. On its front page, the Courier ran diverting stories and travel notes from Europe, but virtually no news of local men in the war. Most of the death notices were for local people who died of natural causes.
A query to the National Archives in Washington produced a series of documents, received in several installments over a six-month period, and some further tantalizing scraps of information about Kirk. A month after the call, I received photocopies of two carded medical records, each occupying a half-page, and a bureaucratic promise of more records to follow. The first card lists the name as “Alva/bie Kirk,” and states that he was admitted to Harewood Hospital on May 26, 1864, and died on May 31, with the additional commentary:
DIAGNOSIS: “G.S.W. [gunshot wound] L Leg Ampt L Leg on Field.” REMARKS: “Wounds.”
The second card, a surgical record, lists the patient as “Alvil Kirk” and the injury as “G.S.W. left leg.” It indicates that he was wounded at “Spottsylvania” [sic] on May 12, and operated on the same day: “Amputation left leg middle third circular.” It then states: RESULT: “Died May 31, 1864. Exhaustion.”
A month later, a second batch of records from the National Archives arrived in the mail. It contained nine legal-size photocopies of War Department documents, including regimental and company muster rolls similar to the medical cards. It’s a grim emblem of Alvah Kirk’s obscurity that the government for which he died could never quite get his name right. In these annals, it variously appears as Alvie, Alfred, Alva, Oliver, and Abbah. Some of the more cautious clerks simply listed him as “A. Kirk.” Most of the records merely list him as present in the company or regiment at various times, or record the circumstances of his death. Company and regimental “descriptive books” depict him as having a light complexion, blue eyes, brown hair, and standing 5 feet 7´ inches tall. There was one last item of interest. Sometime between May 21 and 23, 1862 (according to conflicting records), while the regiment was at Acquia Creek, Virginia, Alvah Kirk deserted.
The reason for his absence is unclear. Technically, desertion merely means he was not with the company when the roll was called. He may have been ill, gone home for the summer, or both. But if nothing else, Alvah’s timing was impeccable. He was returned to duty on September 20, after an absence of four months, having missed all of the battles Barnes described: Thoroughfare Gap, Second Bull Run, South Mountain, and (by three days) Antietam. An 1878 War Department “Notation” states: “Records furnish no evidence of trial or order restoring him to duty…”
Another document in this second batch of files is a “Record of Death and Interment,” giving the usual data: name, regiment and company; residence (Poughkeepsie), and “conjugal condition” (married); cause of death (“amputation of left leg”); date of burial (June 1). At the bottom, under the heading “memoranda,” the clerk entered:
1 Pocket-Book 1 comb one army medal with name & rank Cash .05 cents
Several months later, I received a third and final group of documents from the National Archives, described as the complete file on Kirk, and dating from 1864 to 1872. This batch included Mariah’s application for a widow’s pension in 1864, some related depositions, and guardianship papers enabling her to collect additional allowances for the children. (She was granted a pension of $8 per month, plus $2 per month for each child until they reached age sixteen.) From these documents I gleaned a few further details. Mariah was herself illiterate, having signed the papers with “her mark.” Most of them were witnessed by Messrs. William Hewlett and David Halsted. Halsted had been mentioned in several of Alvah’s letters; on June 10, 1863, he had written: “I want you to see David S. Halsted and tell him to sell the double barrel gun and the stone hammers and give the money to you…” Later in the same letter he added: “You must tell Mr. and Mrs. Halsted for me that I send my best respect to both of them…” From this I surmised that the Halsteds were Alvah’s employers.
To qualify for her full pension as legal guardian of the children, Mariah had asked Hewlett and Halsted to attest to her marriage to Alvah, “by evidence of cohabitation.” According to the depositions, she had no record of the marriage, no recollection of the name or address of the officiating minister, and no records of the births of George and Annie. Her deposition of October, 1864, claims that she and Alvah were married in February 1858 — the year before the death of his first wife, Sarah Hicks, according to the census records. It further maintains that at the time of their wedding, she was an entire stranger in Poughkeepsie, where said marriage was solemnized – that in the company of Alvah Kirk she came from New Hackensack, N.Y. then her residence to Poughkeepsie aforesaid immediately upon her arrival, they enquired for a minister and was directed…[to] a house near where such enquiry was made, that they immediately called at said house and requested said minister to marry them, that in pursuance of said request said minister duly solemnized the marriage…that immediately thereafter [they] left Poughkeepsie and deposed was not at Poughkeepsie again until about the time of the enlistment of said Alvah Kirk; that deponent did not hear the name of said minister mentioned…
Mariah also affirmed that there were no other witnesses to the wedding; that her children had not been baptized; and that she had checked the marriage registers of every church in Poughkeepsie and found no record of hers. Two women, Ann Smith and Rosetta Beneway (of the Beneway or Benoway family with whom the Kirks shared their house) made their marks to affirm that they had been present at the births of George and Annie, and that Alvah had no other children by any previous marriage.
A few other odd details emerge from these documents. In one of them, Alvah is listed erroneously as having died at “Coal Harbor”; the battle, Cold Harbor, actually took place several days after his burial. Mariah’s last name is listed on one pension claim as Kelly, and then changed to Fitzpatrick; she was probably born Mariah Kelly in 1829, perhaps the same year as Alvah, and married to someone named Fitzpatrick in the 1850s. In 1872 she was married a third time, to Robert Siren of Poughkeepsie. His age was given as twenty-four, and hers as thirty-four, which is obviously incorrect.
In the records vault of the Dutchess County Surrogate’s Court in Poughkeepsie, I located an affidavit signed by Mariah’s children, Annie Axtmann, George Kirk, and Thomas Fitzpatrick. It indicates that Mariah died in Poughkeepsie in August 1909; Annie Axtmann administered her estate. Thomas now lived in Rensselaer, New York, and George in Paterson, New Jersey. Annie remained near her mother in Poughkeepsie. At the time of her death, Mariah’s real property was valued at $2,000.00. Various debts were paid off by the estate: for doctors, an undertaker, St. Peter’s Church for funeral services, and $200 to her son-in-law, Adolf Axtmann, “for board, care and maintenance of the deceased.”
I visited Arlington National Cemetery on a crisp November morning. It is an impressive and beautiful place, but remarkably impersonal. As the supreme American shrine, evoking the most painful part of our national experience, Arlington strikes a visitor as a somber abstraction: a place to mourn or respect the dead, but not to find them. More than 200,000 graves blanket the meadows sloping down to the Potomac from the stately Custis-Lee mansion. It took me nearly forty-five minutes to find the one I was looking for, on a knoll at the outer perimeter of the cemetery near the Ord-Weitzel Gate. It lay in a row of Union soldiers killed in the Wilderness Campaign of May-June 1864. The stark headstone reads:
Alvah Kirk Co K 95 Regt NY INFMay 30 1864
Apart from a certain sense of relief and completion, I felt little emotion at Alvah Kirk’s graveside. There was no mystic link to the spot or to the mortal remains beneath it. In fact, I felt a surprising and almost embarrassing emptiness. My feelings about Kirk were not those of love or loss that a grave might elicit. Despite the name on it, the simple granite slab seemed anonymous, blending in with the thousands of nearly identical others to form a huge reminder of America’s war dead. I scratched away some mud and twigs clinging to the lettering, pulled up a few tufts of grass that were covering the bottom line, and took some pictures. I didn’t stay long.
In 1991, on the recommendation of Herb Saltford, the Poughkeepsie City Historian, I showed Alvah Kirk’s letters to Larry Hughes, a columnist at the Poughkeepsie Journal and host of a local radio talk show. Hughes wrote two columns about the letters. On the very day the first column appeared, he called to tell me that he had been contacted by a seventy-seven-year-old widow named Vivian Doerr, who claimed to be a descendant of Alvah Kirk. Moreover, Mrs. Doerr had said that she too had letters from Kirk. I spoke with her by phone for half an hour that afternoon, and we agreed to meet three days later. Larry Hughes was so surprised by the development that at first he questioned whether Mrs. Doerr was “legitimate.” But any doubts were dispelled when she mentioned a reference by Kirk to having a bottle of brandy ready when he came home from the war. I remembered a similar reference; a computer search for the word ‘brandy’ quickly located it in my file of Kirk letters.
Mrs. Doerr lived in Poughkeepsie with her cousin, Naomi Leggett, who was seventy-eight, in a house that Naomi had been born in, and which had once belonged to their grandmother, Annie Kirk Axtmann. (Naomi Leggett’s mother had been Mabel Axtmann Leggett; Vivian Doerr’s father had been Adolf Axtmann, Jr.) They had in their possession about a half-dozen letters and some fragments, which had been kept by Mabel Leggett and then by Naomi Leggett. Mrs. Doerr said she hadn’t even been aware of these letters until “about twenty years ago.”
I spent a long, rainy afternoon with Vivian Doerr and Naomi Leggett in their modest home near downtown Poughkeepsie. They were friendly, vivacious women; both painted and wrote light verse. (“We call ourselves ‘Arsenic and Old Lace,'” Mrs. Doerr joked.) She showed me some of her paintings, which were better than amateur; we then spent an hour going over the family tree. Vivian and Naomi knew of no other Kirk heirs, but several lines of descent were unclear, and it was possible there were other descendants. Vivian’s son Christopher, a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the Army, lived in Georgia with his German-born wife and had no children.
The cousins knew little about Alvah Kirk themselves, and had had difficulty deciphering his letters, but they were genuinely interested in him. They had warm memories of their grandmother, Annie Axtmann, and indirectly of Mariah Kirk, whom they described according to family lore as a warm, spirited woman, full of stories and Irish charm. Annie, they said, had been very close to her mother, who they thought had been born in Ireland. In her later years, when living with Annie, Mariah had suffered from what the cousins described as Alzheimer’s Disease, and tended to wander away from home. When I described the uncertain circumstances of her marriage to Alvah, and her curious inability to recall or document the place of the wedding, Vivian Doerr exclaimed sardonically: “She was married before, so she must have known what marriage is!” (In a note to me the following week, Vivian added an afterthought: “Naomi and I decided Mariah must have been a bit of a bitch in her treatment of Alvah. He seems a very tragic figure, not much happiness in his life.”)
I gave Mss. Doerr and Leggett drafts of this essay, photographs of Kirk’s grave, and transcripts of the letters in my possession. They hadn’t known that he was buried at Arlington, that he had deserted, or that Mariah had later married Robert Siren. They offered a few details in return: Mariah’s maiden name was probably Fitzpatrick, and she had married someone named Kelley before Alvah (not vice versa); George Kirk, Alvah’s other child, had remained close to Annie. The cousins remembered him as having been a very big man, “full of fun,” who enjoyed dancing, drinking, and women. (It wasn’t exactly the profile I would have imagined for Alvah Kirk’s son.) They weren’t aware that Alvah had been born in Ludingtonville; but Naomi remembered trips to Ludingtonville as a child to visit relatives, and trips to Rensselaerville to visit the Fitzpatricks — Mariah’s and Tommy’s family.
Vivian Doerr and Naomi Leggett seemed to sense that there was something special about our meeting. For my part, I felt a trace of awe to be in the presence of direct descendants of Alvah Kirk. But beyond that, I felt as if something had been reaffirmed: a belief in the power of memory; a sense of history, and especially of family history — that fundamental sequence of human ordeals and events that parallels, and in many ways underlies, the great events we read about in history books. It was a small testament to the durability and power of the written word in the harshest of circumstances: those of a troubled, impoverished, illiterate Union soldier, who was otherwise no more than a faded family memory, a stone slab at Arlington, and a statistic of American history.
In addition, a long and fragile circle had been closed with the reuniting of the two sets of letters. My intent had been to eventually donate my sixteen letters to an historical society. When I learned of Vivian Doerr and Naomi Leggett’s batch, I felt obliged to offer mine to them. They insisted instead on entrusting their letters to me — professing, in fact, to have little use for them. It was agreed that I would find a proper home for all of the Kirk letters. I took the envelope in which the family’s letters had been kept for all those years in Mabel Leggett’s sideboard, and drove home in the pounding rain.
A few months later, Vivien Doerr told me that she and Naomi had also discovered another heirloom: a portrait of Alvah Kirk, which I would be welcome to keep with the letters. It was a fine, large pastel drawing, probably done over an early photograph — an early form of “colorizing.” (On the back of it is scribbled in pencil: “Mother’s father, Alvin Kirk.”) Because it is a rendering of Kirk, I regard it with some awe. Yet, as confounding as everything else about him, the picture somehow doesn’t fit the words. The man it depicts, with strong, smooth features and a neat goatee, looks more vital, distinguished, and self-possessed than the author of the letters to Mariah.
The envelope given to me by Naomi Leggett and Vivian Doerr contained an envelope addressed to Mariah from the U.S. Army pension office in August 1864; a note from Wells Fargo & Co., regarding a box that had been shipped to Alvah and gone astray; five complete letters from Kirk; and six fragments. The fragments, with writing on both sides, contained portions of letters from Alvah, and a letter from Mariah to the military authorities, soon after Gettysburg, inquiring about his safety and whereabouts, which Alvah returned with a letter of his own on the back. The newly discovered letters matched in style and appearance the batch I had purchased a few years earlier. They were in similar condition, and consistent in content and tone, with the same leaden greetings, the same stultifying remarks and formal salutations.
I had known from casual observation that several people had written the letters for Kirk; now, a careful scan confirmed that the letters were written in at least five distinct scripts. There are between two and seven letters in each of the five hands, ranging from fairly elegant to crude, and several that I was unable to group, and which are probably isolated cases of other amanuenses. They are not sequential, though most of the 1864 letters are in one hand.
The frequency of Kirk’s letters raises further questions. The twenty-two letters I acquired were written over more than two years, but almost a year elapses between the earliest-dated one and the next one. Kirk’s four-month desertion in that period, almost certainly to return home, accounts for part of the hiatus. Yet there are five letters from April 1863 alone — written as little as three days apart — and references to others written in the same month. Again, at least three letters were written in July 1863, but only two survive from the subsequent six months. It is certainly possible that Kirk wrote erratically, and his distaste for letter-writing (whether due to awkwardness with words, the inhibiting effect of dictation, or his relationship to Mariah) is obvious. Nevertheless, it seems likely that he wrote many, perhaps dozens, of other letters that are lost.
The new letters from Vivian Doerr and Naomi Leggett did bring a few odd facts to light. An early one (1862), addressed not to Mariah but to David Halsted, seemed to confirm my hypothesis that Kirk was employed by Halsted in some menial capacity. The same letter states: “I had left Sing Sing before your letter arrived and it was forwarded on to me.” It occurred to me that Kirk might have been an inmate at the state prison known as Sing Sing. But it is almost certain that he was just stationed there temporarily, as Company K was partly recruited there, as well as in Carmel, Peekskill, and White Plains, before going to New York City to become part of the Ninety-fifth.
In another letter, Alvah writes to Mariah: “Let me know when you have seen my daughter Josephine whether she is in Poughkeepsie or not…” So the mysterious Josephine of an earlier letter, whose “likeness” Alvah had requested from Mariah, was his daughter — perhaps by Sarah Hicks. Yet in all his letters he only mentions her twice, and her very existence seems to contradict Mariah’s later depositions.
The Doerr/Leggett letters, then, did nothing to lift the shroud of mystery and puzzlement surrounding my encounter with Alvah Kirk. Why was Josephine living apart, and with whom? Why did Alvah not know of her whereabouts? Why did he not even know for certain where Mariah was living in Poughkeepsie? (One phrase continues to haunt me more than any: “Let me know if you live in the same place as you did when I come away.”) Why did he desert in 1862? Why do the census records show him marrying Mariah a year before the death of Sarah? What was the true nature of their relationship? Alvah Kirk seemed determined to leave me confounded and tantalized.
Finally, there is the question of Kirk’s fierce hold on my imagination. He seems, in the end, a metaphor for the extravagant claims that history makes upon us: for the paradoxical futility and urgency of reaching into the past, grasping for something tangible that we can hold, know, or see — for the need not just to remember, but also to connect. Kirk’s letters are one such fragile bridge across time; the ragged record of an ordinary man caught up in America’s greatest cataclysm. They remind us of what small particles make up history’s dust. Why Alvah Kirk? Because I stumbled across his unintended legacy of words in a Connecticut meadow, not far from where he and his ancestors lived. Why the Civil War? Because it remains the salient event of our history, the crucible of our Constitutional system and our very culture; because that bloody struggle over rights, race, and the nature of the Union doesn’t simply haunt the nation’s conscience. It is our conscience. ■
The author would like to thank Sarah Light of Austerlitz, N.Y., Betty M. Light Behr of Carmel, Richard Muscarella of Kent, Herbert Saltford of Poughkeepsie, Lance W. Ingmire of Pittsford, Stephan McKeown and Ilene Sterns of Minot, Massachusetts, Irving Howe and Michael Massing of New York City, and Robert Mulligan, Associate Curator at the New York State Museum in Albany, for their assistance.