Some thoughts about following a dead man.

Historians are supposed to be objective. We are supposed to let the sources speak for themselves and not manipulate them to our purposes. We are supposed to remain removed from our subjects of study.

All of this is good. And it makes for great history.

But there are times you meet someone long dead about whom it is hard to stay completely objective. Because, you see, historians can and do fall in love with the past. Not a romantic love, mind you. But a kinship. Maybe more like family. I mean – you insinuate your way into their lives like a family member, and in many cases, you know more about them than their current family does. Their words, their lives, their illnesses – all become available to the historian who pursues them.

And I pursue Eben Stoddard.

So it is that today I found myself walking through Portsmouth, New Hampshire trying to find the essence of a young sailor who cast his lot with the Union and found a berth as volunteer Acting Master on the USS Kearsarge. He lived here for a time as the ship was readied for service. And he found love here – though it was a love fraught with difficulty and frequent separation. It was a love that did not survive his post-war occupation which found him away from his wife and family more than he was with them.

He moved his young wife from Portsmouth to Portsmouth. New Hampshire to Virginia. He spent days, weeks, months away in his job as a wrecker – traveling as far as South America, the Caribbean, Bermuda, and Africa to do his work. They had a child – a girl – in 1870, and a boy in 1880. But by then I guess his wife had had enough and went back to her Portsmouth with the children.

I visited her home today. I’m as fascinated with her as I am with him. I don’t pretend to know what motivated either of them in their personal lives. I can’t know how difficult the marriage may have been. I don’t know who was at fault, though I suspect it was a shared fault. They divorced – which was not common. But then they remarried. Each other. The pension files tell a terse story – it was for the insurance.

Her claim was denied.

He died alone at Sailor’s Snug Harbor on Staten Island – no longer able to work in his adopted home of Norfolk, Virginia. His company had been bought out by Merritt & Chapman, but in any event he could barely walk and barely hear – the notation said ‘deaf and worn out’; his occupation had destroyed so much.

On that intake page at Snug Harbor she was an afterthought – added as next of kin after almost anyone else. I doubt that they saw each other much – if at all – after he arrived there in 1898. He lingered on until 1902 – active at first, being allowed ‘leave’ for days or weeks at a time. Then the times grew less frequent. Shorter. Until he no longer left at all.

I don’t know yet if he saw his children during those years. The daughter went on to marry and have a nice life as far as I can tell.

The son – not so much. Institutionalized for years – he died alone, just like his father. But he was in a mental institution with no next of kin known. Father and mother both long dead. Sister moved on. I had hoped to find the son today as well – to stand there and say ‘I know who you are. I know from whence you came, and I am here to honor you’ – but perhaps that is for another time.

And she died alone – in a hotel in Philadelphia. The death certificate reveals diabetes, and pancreatic cancer. She was presumably sent home on that final journey – to her Portsmouth. She is elusive, though. I have found her mortal remains nowhere.

But for today – I honored their young selves – Eben and Ellen. Full of hope, hopelessly optimistic and looking into a future that neither one of them could ken. I walked through the streets of Portsmouth as much a ghost as they were. I was half-bemused, letting them lead me to the places I needed to see. My GPS was turned off. Instinct was turned on. And I found them there. And I will find them elsewhere. Until they tell me that I have followed them enough.

He was a hero by any accounts. He commanded the aft pivot of the Kearsarge in the battle against the Alabama. But that was a few short hours in his life. The rest of his life was spent rescuing ships, cargo, and human life from the clutches of the sea and shore.

But he couldn’t rescue what had been with his wife and family. Because all heroes have their faults.

As do historians. But I’m going to try to tell their story as best I can.

It’s what I do.

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It’s a time of goodbyes. But for today, we say goodby to our old Bucko mate….

So Long – C. Fox Smith (1924)

All coiled down, an’ it’s time for us to go;
Every sail’s furled in a neat harbour stow;
Another ship for me, an’ for her another crew –
An’ so long, sailorman … good luck to you!

Fun an’ friends I wish you till the pay’s all gone –
Pleasure when you spend it an’ content when it’s done –
An’ a chest that’s not empty when you go back to sea,
An’ a better ship than she’s been, an’ a truer pal than me.

A good berth I wish you, in a ship that’s well found,
With a decent crowd forrard, an’ her gear all sound,
Spars a man can trust to when it’s comin’ on to blow,
An’ no bosun bawlin’ when it’s your watch below.

A good Trade I wish you, an’ a fair landfall,
Neither fog, nor iceberg, nor long calm, nor squall,
A pleasant port to come to, when the work’s all through –
An’ so long, sailorman … good luck to you.

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Such a very long time.

This place used to be my solace. My happy place. My escape. My mental workout room. But like any home – if you don’t practice constant maintenance, it can fall into disrepair.

I think I found a family of voles living in my tag cloud. And don’t get me started on the cobwebs in the archives.

But in the past three years I have written and defended my dissertation, lost my father-in-law, father, and mother. And I found I could write about none of it.

But old habits die hard. I find myself within these virtual walls again – running my fingers over the posts and considering a new interior design.

Who knows what might happen?

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Unknown

via My Collections – National Maritime Museum.

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A little something for the new exhibit…..

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….And it’s still snowing….

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Actually – I am homeward bound at the moment – somewhere just south of Alexandria on the last stretch through to Richmond. Train this time – and really, my preferred way to travel. There’s something relaxing about rail travel (though not so relaxing in the rail stations – but no matter, they are only in-between places – a means to an end). We’ve had several lovely days in New York – days that seemed to stretch well past the five we had allotted into a timelessness that is the hallmark of any really good escape.

We have begun making New York City in January something of a tradition now – in the past 3 years. It began by happenstance, in the final frantic days of the Monitor Center preparations with some filming at Martha Stewart’s studio of all places – as well as a transcendent show at the Bowery Ballroom with friends new and old. By the time we found ourselves here again the second year – it really had become a tradition, I suppose.

And so we continue it.

Many people do not understand our kind of vacation with its aimless, organic pace. We try not to travel with much of an agenda – no more than one or two set goals, and even then they are almost always malleable. We do not go with the express notion of checking off one more tourist destination or event off on our to-do list, though there are times when we accidentally log one or two. (Case in point – cold rainy day translated to random warm theatre and a lovely surprise afternoon with Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly that we never would have actually planned to do.)

We go to escape, whether it is into the warmth of a well-loved place or into the static electricity of the always awake. We go to wander through streets both familiar and unfamiliar, with the freedom to stop anywhere – for any length of time, and for any reason. To watch the people and the skies and to hear the sounds both lyrical and cacophonic. To drink in the surroundings and talk or not talk for as long as we want to.

We just go.

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