Carpetbagger suffered violence of the war and aftermath


December 05, 1990|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

"Carpetbagger from Vermont, the autobiography of Marshall Harvey Twitchell," edited by Ted Tunnell, 216 pages, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, La.

MARSHALL Harvey Twitchell joined the Union Army for about the same reasons any soldier enlists: an uneasy mixture of %o patriotism, idealism and naivete.

And he'd have "the opportunity of visiting New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington and Richmond at the expense of the government."

He was 21 years old, had been valedictorian at his high school in Townshend, Vt., and regularly attended the Congregational Church. He taught school, studied law and took the handsomest girl in town for promenades.

He enlisted in the 4th Vermont Regiment of the Vermont Brigade Aug. 26, 1861, after the Union defeat at the Battle of Bull Run. He saw tears in this father's eyes for the first time and began to "doubt as to whether I was going to have an agreeable picnic."

And at government expenses he spent the next three years of the Civil War fighting, in the Peninsula Campaign, at Antietam -- he was in the charge that recaptured the cornfield, for those who know that battle, among the bloodiest of the war -- Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and the Wilderness.

He almost made it through the war with only minor injuries, but at the Battle of the Wilderness he received a horrendous head wound. All but left for dead, he rose up and started walking toward a hospital when a Vermont Brigade ambulance picked him up.

Tough as New England granite and resilient as an oak, he survived. But he carried with him a scar that made him easily identifiable later when he was a "carpetbagger" in Louisiana and the roaming bands of the terrorist Knights of the White Camellia were trying to kill him.

Twitchell went back to action as a captain and he ended the war in command of a company of black soldiers of the 109th Colored Infantry at Appomattox Courthouse.

"The morning of the surrender," Twitchell writes in his autobiography, "Carpetbagger from Vermont," "we were again formed in line to charge. Just before the order, the white flag was raised and the war was over."

His Civil War years were certainly full of incident and adventure, and fear and danger, but the most interesting and remarkable and fearful were just beginning.

He was assigned to the Freedmen's Bureau and sent to Bienville Parish, Louisiana. He was to spend the rest of the Reconstruction era in this general area, the Red River Valley of Louisiana.

"I now found myself," Twitchell writes, "twenty-five miles from the nearest military post in command of a detachment of United States Colored Infantry, about twenty men with horses for only about fifteen.

"I was surrounded by a community in which there were at least one thousand disbanded Confederate soldiers, all having no love for the government which had just vanquished them and of which I was the representative.

"There was intense bitterness against the colored soldiers, once their slaves but now, under my direction, their masters . . .

"I am free to confess that had I known beforehand what my position was to be, I should have remained with my regiment."

Twitchell's vivid, vigorous candor is typical of his autobiography and what makes it interesting for the common reader and not just specialists in Civil War history. He's a pretty good storyteller, has an eye for the ironic, and is straightforward and unguarded in defending his career.

Ted Tunnell, the editor, thinks perhaps because the autobiography remained unpublished during Twitchell's lifetime its unpolished frankness was preserved. (He died in 1905.) Tunnell also notes that the oral cadence gives Twitchell's prose its distinctive style.

Twitchell presumably dictated his autobiography. Both arms were amputated after he was ambushed by a member of the Louisiana "chivalry," as he put it.

During his stint in the Freedmen's Bureau he married a planter's daughter, overcoming the intense objections of her family. He became business manager of her family's lands and acquired his own plantation. He ran them both quite successfully.

He became active in Republican politics, becoming a Louisiana state senator during Reconstruction, the post-war era in which the Southern states were brought back into the Union.

And at the same time were rising the racist and terrorist night riders of the Knights of the White Camellia, the White League and the Ku Klux Klan.

At Colfax, La., at least 105 blacks and three whites were massacred. At Coushatta, a town Twitchell founded, his brother and two brothers-in-law and three other Republicans were slaughtered. Twitchell was ambushed on a Red River ferry in May 1876, shot four times and left for dead.

He survived. But Reconstruction was dead. He retired from Louisiana to become U.S. consul in Kingston, Canada, where he served somewhat restively until his death. He remained proud of his service in the Civil War and afterward in Louisiana. He had, after all, been one of those men who had saved the United States and who had brought slavery to an end.

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