Wednesday, May 18, 2016

A KLAMATH RIVER RESTORATION CAMPAIGN ...IN 1926



For those who lauded the recent historic signing of agreements that would by 2020 bring down four hydroelectric dams blocking salmon and steelhead migration and depleting thousands of acres of wetlands on the Klamath River in Oregon and California, it is worth noting that in early 1926 – ninety years ago, to be exact –children’s author and naturalist Thornton Burgess called on his Radio Nature League listeners to protest drainage of the Lower Klamath and the environmental devastation it caused.


 A Cape Cod native who settled in western Massachusetts, Thornton Burgess is best known as the prolific 20h century author of 70 children’s books and 15,000 newspaper columns. In fact, the writer was a deeply committed conservationist who used his animal stories and a pioneering radio program to advocate for game limits, fair hunting practices, steel leg trap restrictions, anti-littering, and wetlands protection, among other issues.

Established in 1925, Burgess’ Radio Nature League on WBZ in Springfield, Massachusetts was instantly successful, gaining nearly 5,000 members within three weeks. Membership required pledging to “do everything possible to preserve and conserve all desirable American Wildlife, including birds, animals, flowers, trees, and other living things; also the natural beauty spots and scenic wonders of all America.”

As a radio host he involved the public in collecting ruffed grouse specimens for parasitic studies, and solicited ornithological data on snowy owls, mocking birds, and other species for scientific research and environmental education.

One of the earliest members of the Radio Nature League was Burgess’ friend William Lovell Finley. A respected nature photographer, biologist, and Oregon’s game commissioner, Finley had written Burgess:  “The Radio Nature League is the child of a big idea. It will encourage greater love and interest in the out-of-doors. Please enroll our family of four.” 

The two men may have met when Burgess attended Finley’s talks in Boston for the Massachusetts Audubon Society, but perhaps Finley’s children had introduced their father to the writer’s popular animal stories. They had much in common for both were professional lecturers, photographers, and contributors to the prestigious Nature magazine. In fact, Burgess and Finley were making plans to collaborate on a children’s book that would utilize Finley’s superb inventory of nature photographs and a Burgess story about a young visitor to the West and the theft of a condor egg. Apparently their literary project did not materialize.

However, on January 27, 1926, Burgess invited William Finley to speak on his half-hour Radio Nature League program about the environmental impact of the federal government’s drainage of Lower Klamath Lake. In order to provide water for agricultural needs, magnificent sprawling wetlands were drained, destroying an essential habitat for resident and migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway and other wildlife. According to the Oregon Historical Society (www.ohs.org, “Birds of a Feather”), by 1915 the waterbody was reduced from 80,000 acres to 53,600, and by 1922 all that remained of the lake was a 365-acre pond.

After Finley’s talk, Burgess told the audience he was sending a petition to protest Klamath Lake conditions to Hubert Work, Secretary of the Interior, and promised to forward any letters or signatures he received. The immediate and overwhelming response shocked him.

 “A week ago Finley was here and I had him tell his Klamath Lake story on the air,” he wrote to his good friend ornithologist Dr. Alfred Gross at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. “I followed it by the statement that I was going to send a petition to the Secretary of the Interior, asking him to turn the water back into Klamath Lake. I invited those who were listening in, who felt this was the thing to do, to send in their names to be added to that petition. They have poured in so fast I have not had a chance to count them. I know that already I have between two and three thousands, if not more.” (Nature’s Ambassador: The Legacy of Thornton W. Burgess, p.177)   

For months after Finley’s Radio Nature League talk on the Klamath, Burgess continued to receive and forward signatures to the Secretary of the Interior. He noted to Austin Clark, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution, that one petition alone contained more than 1,000 names.

The regulatory history of the Klamath River is controversial and evolutionary. State, federal and tribal agencies continue to wrestle with complex rights and conflicting needs for the Klamath’s water. In 2016, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell authorized removal of hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River as a first step in the largest river restoration project in American history.

How interesting to realize that a children’s writer used mass media in the early 20th century to promote environmental protection for this great western waterway and the fish and wildlife that depend on it!  

Furthermore, it is intriguing to speculate that public opinion intentionally generated in 1926 by Thornton Burgess may have provided some degree of momentum for President Calvin Coolidge’s 1928 decision to restore a portion of Klamath Lake and establish the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

 

 

 

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friday, April 8, 2016

THE MIGRATORY BIRD TREATY AND THORNTON W. BURGESS




The 1916 Migratory Bird Treaty has been a powerful piece of American conservation legislation for 100 years, but few know about the important role a children’s author played in its passage. 

 



Journalist and Good Housekeeping editor Thornton W. Burgess never expected to be a children’s author.  But after his first book, Old Mother West Wind, was published by Little Brown in 1910, other titles followed and soon attracted a voracious audience. Combining a strong writing background with his deep love of nature, Burgess poured out children’s books and daily newspaper stories that catapulted him, Jimmy Skunk, Reddy Fox, Grandfather Frog and dozens of other characters into the hearts and homes of readers throughout the country. In less than 10 years Thornton Burgess was credited with reaching “millions of children” with his predominate theme of respect and stewardship for nature.

At that time, one of the most influential men in American conservation was Dr. William Hornaday, director of the New York Zoological Park, now the Bronx Zoo. Hornaday was a fiery, often abrasive wildlife activist, author, and lobbyist widely credited with saving the American buffalo.

Burgess lived in Springfield, Massachusetts, but often traveled to New York on business. One day he decided to visit Hornaday at the zoo in hopes of getting an endorsement for his bird sanctuaries program (see future post). He was swiftly dismissed by the busy administrator. When another opportunity arose, however, Burgess wrote to Hornaday, describing his massive following of readers and nature club members. (A newly-formed Burgess “Bedtime Stories” club sponsored by the Kansas City Star attracted 50,000 members in three weeks.)

Hornaday was impressed. He sent Burgess a warm, complimentary letter with a copy of one of his recent articles and an invitation to meet for lunch at the Zoological Park. The writer’s gift in touching children and parents with his nature stories translated into a resource that Hornaday prized: “Truly you have in your hands tremendous power,” he told Burgess.

That year, 1916, Hornaday and others were working hard to achieve passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty. When Thornton Burgess asked how he could help with the effort, the conservationist had a ready answer:

“I think you can score a good point by describing ‘the Gauntlet of the Guns’ that a wild duck runs when spring shooting is in vogue, all the way from the Gulf to Canada. In the days of spring shooting, I often wonder how a duck could get through alive, and how any duck could find feed and get a little rest on the journey without being killed. The picture of Mrs. Duck running the ‘Gauntlet of the Guns’ rather appeals to my imagination.” (Letter, WH to TB, Feb. 23, 1916)

This suggestion became Burgess’ blueprint. Between March and May 1916 he wrote daily newspaper columns that depicted with pathetic, heart-wrenching detail the plight of migrating birds. Hornaday wrote to Burgess, saying, “I noted with great pleasure your treatment of Mrs. Quack and her troubles; and I rejoice when I reflect upon the amount of good work your stories are accomplishing for the maintenance of the migratory bird law and the treaty” (Nature’s Ambassador, p. 152). The columns were published the next year as a collection titled The Adventures of Poor Mrs. Quack.

The Migratory Bird Treaty passed on August 16, 1916. A few months later, Hornaday wrote Burgess with jubilant thanks and described the effort to pass the treaty.

“…the result [of your work] was overwhelmingly manifested two months ago when we had a show-down in the United States Senate with the enemies of the migratory law. They put up a great fight. They spent a lot of money and a lot of effort in lobbying in Washington and in their public campaigns, but we smote them hip and thigh and gave them the worst licking any bunch of enemies of wildlife ever received. They were beaten in the Senate with their efforts to destroy the migratory bird law appropriations by a vote of 52 to 8…”

“But the crowning triumph was the Senate’s treatment of the international treaty with Canada for the protection of all the migratory birds north of Mexico, clear to the Arctic Ocean. The attitude of the Senate was of course clearly foreshadowed in the vote to sustain the migratory bird law; but even with all that that we were not prepared for the lightning stroke of progress which sent the treaty triumphantly through the Senate in four days! (NA, p. 152)

How important is the 100-year-old Migratory Bird Treaty? “Its success in saving birds and providing a basis for future action is still impressive,” wrote environmental historian Kurkpatrick Dorsey in The Dawn of Conservation Diplomacy. “It is still in force and environmentalists and governmental agencies still use the enabling legislation as the basis for action… Internationally, conservationists used the MBT as the starting point for the 1936 Migratory Bird Treaty with Mexico, the 1940 agreement with Latin American states, a 1971 world convention on wetlands protection, and other treaties with Japan and the USSR (DCD, p. 241).

An interesting facet of the Migratory Bird Treaty, Dorsey says, is that it was “a child of sentiment,” not the product of international dissention: it arose from a desire to save birds. When William Hornaday profusely thanked Thornton Burgess’ for his “valuable service to the migratory birds in the production of this [Mrs. Quack] series for your great multitude of readers,” there is no question that he was acknowledging the role a master story teller played in influencing public opinion to secure passage of a cornerstone of American conservation legislation.




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Author Christie Lowrance is giving a talk on naturalist, children's author, and radio pioneer Thornton Burgess at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston on May 18, 2016 at 7 p.m. (see link). Her biography Nature's Ambassador: The Legacy of Thornton W. Burgess will be available.


https://my.arboretum.harvard.edu/Info.aspx?DayPlanner=1503&DayPlannerDate=5/18/2016

 TO OBTAIN A CALENDAR OF EVENTS AND LEARN MORE ABOUT THE MIGRATORY BIRD TREATY, EMAIL MBTREATY100@FWS.GOV


Thursday, March 31, 2016

PERSPECTIVE


One of the best things about a party, food and drink aside, is the potential to encounter new people, new ideas and information, or new perspectives. Even if you know everyone who comes, you can’t anticipate what recent or past experience might be on their minds, from starting a new job, buying a dog, seeing a marriage counselor, or scheduling bypass surgery.  

Recently I attended a party with well over 100 people, all primed for the 5th annual Easter egg hunt at Rob and Kimberly’s house. Mimosas and Bloody Marys were prudently provided for the adults who would accompany dozens of children in search of 1,015 plastic eggs filled with goodies. I sipped a beverage and chatted in the kitchen with a family friend while waiting for the critical mass of children to coalesce before they were loosed into the sprawling back yard.

Gethin is an interesting guy, mid-40ish, lanky tall with curly hair and the kind of English accent you fleetingly think might be Australian, well-matched with a delightful woman, his wife Megan. They’re the sort of people you enjoy asking “So, how are things?” because the answer will always be something you’d never thought of doing/reading/buying/watching/pursuing.

Thinking he would get a kick out of hearing about a book I recently re-discovered, I launched into a lively description of Fire in the John by Alfred Gingold, a relentlessly funny spoof on the men’s movement of the 1980s, specifically on Iron John: A Book About Men by Robert Bly. I anticipated Gethin joining me in merry ridicule of the attitudes and practices the book described, and even related details I’d heard about one group that spanked a member as he re-enacted the birth process.

I realized I had not heard Gethin laugh and glanced up at him. To my astonishment I saw that not only was he not laughing, he looked serious, even grave. Sensing the possibility that I had inadvertently caused offense, I asked, “Are you familiar with this stuff?” “Yeah, I am,” he said. “Sometimes the rituals are helpful.”

I was completely taken aback. There was no one in this crowded, animated room I would consider less likely to sympathize with the men’s movement as I understood it than Gethin. When I tested him, saying surely there was no justification for spanking a grown and unhappy  man, he said, still not smiling, the group must have been applying the principles wrong.

Clearly it was time for me to listen, not talk.      

I learned that Gethin was working on a documentary on the extraordinary effectiveness of certain sensitivity practices in, of all unlikely places, Folsom Prison. He described life-changing reformation of dedicated murderers and lifers walking out of three years in solitary confinement, of hardened, brutal gang leaders weeping in response to the opportunity to be loved and understood.

 The release of hatred and violence he had witnessed seemed as unimaginable as walking through a solid wall. In fact, he had watched walls being walked through by looking at selfhood and manhood in a different way, a way I had laughed at. 

“You said something earlier that made sense to me,” he said. “You said you felt you were meant to write the book you are working on right now. And I feel I was meant to produce this documentary.” We looked at each other and smiled, in part, I think, at the realization that this was an unusual conversation, a first in a way. Still smiling, we shook hands, not as party guests having a fine chat, but in solidarity as story tellers, in acknowledgment that, in fact, we loved the responsibility of bringing truth and perspective into the wider world. He would tell the story of prison inmates reclaiming their souls and I would tell the story of a nautical archaeologist excavating ancient shipwrecks. We smiled at the appalling amount of work that lay ahead of both of us. 

However, on this chilly pre-Easter morning, we were called to a far more simple task, and we turned to it, walking outside to watch young children racing across a sprawling back yard in search of one thousand and fifteen plastic eggs.

Friday, February 12, 2016

A MAN WHO LOVED DEEPLY



With Valentine's Day approaching, I'm reminded of the privilege I had as a writer to witness a special love story, and would like to share it again... 

 

A few years have passed since I accepted the invitation of my neighbor, author and columnist Jim Coogan, to give a talk to the Sandwich Men’s Club on my book Nature’s Ambassador: The Legacy of Thornton W. Burgess.  Good questions followed the presentation, but one stayed with me: “What kind of man was Thornton Burgess?” 
  
It was not a difficult question to answer. You don’t spend four and a half years researching and writing about one individual without getting to know your subject as well as, if not better than, family. It’s a question I had to wrestle with when organizing Burgess’ biography. Understanding his personal and
 professional relationships, character, and personality had to precede writing about his illustrious career path as a renowned writer and naturalist. 

As I stood before the audience, thinking how to best describe Thornton Burgess, much ran through my mind. I immediately pictured him as mid- to late life photographs showed him: a substantial man, six feet tall, glasses, pleasant, amiable, with a certain lightness about him that suggested a ready sense humor. I thought of the man who understood young children so well and wrote stories for them for more than 50 years, who cared passionately for the welfare of wild animals.

“He was a gentle man,” I began and went on to elaborate on that and other qualities.  Later, however, I realized that I had failed to mention one vitally important trait in Thornton Burgess, a trait easy to miss in a man whose professional output and success had been so visibly his measure.

He was, in fact, a man who loved deeply. My confidence in that comes less from knowing the height of his happiness in love than knowing the bottomless depth of his sorrow in love’s loss.

 Thornton Burgess was married twice. In 1905 he married Nina Osborne, 24, an adorable and popular young woman who shared his love of the outdoors enough to agree to a tent camping honeymoon in the Adirondacks. He called her his “little girl,” and indeed she looked it. Four hundred people attended their wedding and about half that number came to the reception at their home. Ten months later the same minister who had presided over the joyous wedding conducted a funeral service for Nina who had died the day after giving birth to a baby boy. Unbearably anguished and distraught, Burgess was unable to attend. Within a year he had married the woman he adored, witnessed or learned of her death, and become a father.  


https://4.bp.blogspot.com/-pB9Q_PpTc2M/Uvzim--CK7I/AAAAAAAABMM/VwcQNgU7mV0/s1600/Nina+Osborne.jpg

Written about eight months after Nina died, journal excerpts quoted in Nature’s Ambassador depict his loss:

“I have scattered a few flowers on the grave of Her who was the light of my life and who only a year ago so bravely and cheerfully looked forward to her hour of traivel [sic]. I shall try at least to be cheerful. I owe it to my friends. But O I am so lonely…

“It is thirty-three weeks tonight since my little girl entered the larger life and still I cannot reconcile myself. Still I cry “Why? Why? Why? Why is faith so poor a comforter?”

“Thirty-eight weeks ago tonight that my little girl was taken ill. I’ve lived years. I wonder when and where I shall meet her. God help me to guide her boy right.”   

He had no choice but to rally. There were bills to pay and mouths to feed, for his mother Caroline and infant son Thornton W. Burgess III were dependent on him. Five years later he remarried to Fannie Johnson, the widow of Burgess’ colleague at Phelps Publishing and the mother of two teenagers. In the decades that followed, the Burgesses provided a reliable core of financial and emotional support for their three children and 10 grandchildren.

https://1.bp.blogspot.com/-1PX8egiFDf4/Uvzi25YZtHI/AAAAAAAABMU/OFV-EMjCbAs/s1600/Fannie+Burgess+with+needlepoint.jpg

When Fannie died from various health problems in 1950, Burgess, then 74, was completely devastated. “My Lady (his nickname for her), my beloved, passed at 9:15 and my heart is broken,” he wrote. “I am utterly desolate…”

In the effort to hold himself together, he found refuge in three activities: writing, driving out into the western Massachusetts hills, and visiting friends and familiar places on Cape Cod. But beyond these diversions he grieved to the depth of his being.

Reading through his journals I began to notice something unusual in the entries that followed Fannie’s death. Each one started with the same words: “I’m glad I belong to you - my Lady.”  

Surprised by the repetition, I turned to the next week. Every entry began exactly the same way. I continued turning pages and discovered that week after week, month after month, for a full year, Thornton Burgess began his journal with those tender words of Fannie’s that reminded him of their lives together, words he wrapped around his twice-broken heart like a poultice: “I’m glad I belong to you.”

Burgess was remarkably generous to his family members, supporting them as family had supported him and his mother in their poverty in Sandwich. He forgave infuriating (and costly) youthful transgressions. He was a loyal and lifelong friend to many. And his love of nature and wildlife, the heart of his dozens of books and thousands of stories, lectures and radio programs, was sustained from childhood into his final days.

By all accounts, Thornton Burgess was a man who loved deeply.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

"TOO MUCH TO LIVE FOR TO GROW OLD..."


Thornton Burgess, the subject of my 2013 biography Nature’s Ambassador, loved celebrating his January 14 birthday. A modest, low-key man despite his international celebrity, Burgess received the occasional late card or greeting graciously, and I hope readers of this blog will extend the same to me.  Although I had every good intention of a timely posting, life, once again, got in the way. Happy (belated) Birthday, Thornton!

 

Throughout his long life, Thornton Burgess’ birthday remained important to him. He seldom if ever failed to observe it in some way and to comment in his journals on how that day was spent. He relished small, intimate gatherings rather than large, lavish events. In his later years, after the death of his wife Fanny in 1950, he would invite friends out to dinner.  He loved getting presents. They were often listed in his journal, not because he was materialistic, but because he genuinely enjoyed being remembered. His birthday was an occasion to draw near to those he loved most and who most loved him.

 

The following journal entries illustrate his vigorous, optimistic attitude toward life and work, as well as what his birthday meant to him. In light of his wonderful comment on having "too much to live for to grow old," I'll note that Burgess continued writing his syndicated column for nearly 10 more years. In his late 80s, he was working on his final book, The Burgess Book of Nature Lore, which came out in 1965, the year he died at 91.

 

 January 14, 1944

I am 70 this day, an “aged” man as the newspapers would say. Do not feel it. Too much to live for to grow old save in the number of years and they are not a true measure of age. Card from Rosemary. Others from Carl & Elizabeth, Mildred, Thornton W., school in Chester, Pa and Dave Brown up in Ontario. To Chester’s for dinner with Brighams and Vans. Ties, handkerchiefs, china duck, cards, jumbo eggs, a beautiful cake decorated by Florence. A belt, candy and apples from F (undoubtedly his wife Fanny, or “Lady” as he affectionately called her). Altogether a lovely milestone.”

 

January 14, 1949

”Fair and moderately cold. My 75th birthday a most pleasant one. Many cards and letters from 10 states. Robt. and Eliz called up in evening. No one forgot. ½ doz. pairs of socks from Lady  ... To have party at Chester and Ruth’s  home tomorrow…Will have contract with Grosset (and Dunlap, a major publisher of Burgess’ books) Guarantee of $1000 for under 100,000 and 2c copy if over. May have a television contract through Hornby (an agent he dealt with). Altogether a happy birthday.”

 

As a biographer I observe with perhaps more judgment than Burgess did, for he never complained of it, that his wife Fanny seemed inordinately practical and possibly unenthusiastic about birthday gift giving. I also will note with some pleasure that on Thornton Burgess’ January 14 birthday this year the top read on my blog was the post, ”Who Named Peter Rabbit?” (Oct. 8, 2013).  

 

I addressed this thorny topic in my Burgess biography because confusion over which noted author was due credit for Peter’s name - Burgess or Beatrix Potter - was a long-known matter of discussion and disagreement. Several years ago Smithsonian researcher Marcel LaFollette told me that to her knowledge Nature’s Ambassador is the only source of exploration of the issue.

  

Although Nature’s Ambassador is crammed with anecdotes and details of Burgess' long career as a children's author and naturalist, countless good ones were omitted. I know he would be tickled to have the following one remembered, even  belatedly, on the occasion of his 132nd birthday: In 1949 Judge Harold Medina presided over the trial of 11 communist leaders, considered at the time the longest and most picketed trial in US history. According to Medina’s biographer, the widely respected judge relieved legal tensions by reading Burgess’ stories in the New York Herald Tribune every morning during court recess.


Like Thornton Burgess, I also love my birthday. When it come later this year, I will remember and hold to my heart his marvelous advice to himself: "Too much to live for to grow old."   


 

Monday, December 14, 2015

REDEMPTION


Redemption, the act of being saved from error, sin or evil, is not always a great, substantial event. Sometimes it occurs as just a tiny burst of illumination, come and gone as unexpectedly and fleeting as a butterfly alighting for a second on your knee. If you're looking in the wrong direction, you miss it.

 

Recently I experienced just such a moment of redemption at a Christmas Yankee Swap party, the kind at which everyone brings a wrapped present to be opened one by one. The only rule is that as you pick your present, you can swap it for any other gift already opened.

 

Very good or very bad swap presents create the most fun because you can give or get either. Some years ago I was invited to a Yankee Swap and ended up, amid much snickering, with a jigsaw puzzle of a massively overweight, naked man holding a strategically placed wash cloth as he climbed out of a claw-footed bathtub. When I divulged the next year that I had thrown it away in disgust, everyone was horrified. Apparently the puzzle was a beloved tradition that had been passed around for years.

 

So this week, I arrived late at a Christmas party with artist and writer friends as the Yankee Swap began, and I just had time for a quick sip of wine before my name was called to pick a present. Opening it I discovered a charming, bright 4”X6” pastel original signed by a friend. I loved it and immediately began thinking where to place it.

 

Several gifts later someone opened a picture frame for a 25th wedding anniversary. “I’m divorced,” she declared. “This is definitely getting passed on." She walked around the room looking over the opened gifts, then stopped in front of me to examine the little pastel.

 

"Sorry," she said, grinning as she claimed it and handed me the wedding anniversary picture frame. I smiled as I gave it up, mildly disappointed, however, in the spirit of things I liked knowing the new owner would enjoy it and decided to ask the artist for another one of her prints.

 

Then it hit me. I was replaying an old sad tape but I finally got the ending right. This was a moment of redemption.

 

Years ago, the first Christmas after my husband and I ended a 20-year marriage I was at a party for new singles. I hated my unwelcome new identity and every Christmasy reminder of the changes in my life. At the event’s Yankee Swap I drew a set of Christmas candleholders, colorful little wooden baby blocks that spelled out "Merry Christmas." I was delighted and began thinking where I could place them. The game was nearly over when a swapper came up to me, holding out her gift to me.

 

But I couldn’t hand mine over. I felt close to crying at relinquishing the one good thing at this miserable occasion. She was an older woman. She looked into my face and immediately saw my distress. "You want to keep it, don't you?" I nodded, mortified but helpless to deny it. "I'll pick something else," she said to me quietly, and moved on. I felt ashamed, acting like a child who refused to share, but, still, relieved to keep the blocks and grateful that more had not been asked of me.

 

So, this week, decades later, I am again at a Christmas Yankee Swap and the gift I was so pleased to receive was again being taken. But this time I laughed as I handed it over, my vulnerability and fragility long gone. It felt good to respond as I wished I had years ago. I had been given another chance to get it right.

Today as I took out the little wooden blocks I’ve always associated with a Christmas kindness and my own frailty, I felt somehow cleansed, unburdened. I thought of the deep wisdom of the Shaker song’s lyrics that say “by turning, turning, we come round right.” So I had and so it has.

 

Redemption, like other fine gifts, can arrive in very small packages.  

Monday, May 25, 2015

MEMORIAL DAY


Memorial Day is an occasion to remember those who gave their lives in military service. Maybe it can also be a time to reflect on lives that were spared. The following post relates the circumstances and research for my biography Nature’s Ambassador: The Legacy of Thornton W. Burgess that linked together a 19th century Civil War naval officer, a 20th century American children’s author, and a  21st century biographer.  

When children’s author and naturalist Thornton Burgess was born in 1874, the scars in his Cape Cod birthplace had barely begun to heal from Civil War tragedies. If hundreds of thousands of lives were lost by the war’s end in April, 1865, millions more were devastated as families and communities struggled to adjust to missing, dead and maimed sons, husbands, fathers, friends, local leaders, tradesmen, and workers. There were fifty-six deaths in Burgess’ small hometown of Sandwich, Massachusetts alone.

One Civil War veteran who returned home to Sandwich, perhaps miraculously, was Captain Charles I. Gibbs. As a naval officer he had survived fierce battles at Fort Jackson, New Orleans, Port Hudson, Vicksburg, Mobile Bay, and at the Union blockage of the Mississippi. He described the details of one engagement to a family member:

This morning we have passed Vicksburg, through one of the heaviest fires from rifled and shell guns that you can imagine… A man was knocked down and had his head split open so near me that we were touching each other. My old friend and messmate master’s mate Howard Moffatt, lost his left arm. I have also to report the death of Thomas Flaherty, formerly an operative in the Boston and Sandwich Glass Works. He had both legs and part of one hand shot off, and died in about an hour. He was knocked down by a shell while bravely fighting at his gun, and died a hero; without a murmur. I am safe and ready for another fight. 

 

 (Yarmouth Register, July 18, 1862, courtesy of Sandwich Archives)

 

The same year Gibbs was fighting at Vicksburg, his father-in-law, Henry Hunt, Esq. sold or gave a large, two-story house on School Street to his daughter, Louisa Antoinette Hunt, who was Gibb’s wife. In the early 1870s the Gibbses rented at least part of the house to a young couple, Caroline and Thornton Burgess. Both Charles and Thornton undoubtedly knew each other and it is not unlikely that they were distantly related.

During a January snowstorm in 1874, Caroline, pregnant with her first child, gave birth at home to Thornton W. Burgess, Jr. Three weeks later, her landlady Louisa, who was pregnant with her last child, one of six, gave birth to Rufus Marmaduke in Hyannis. Within a year, both Caroline’s husband and Louisa’s baby would be dead.

Lives change and people must revise dreams and expectations. A new widow, Caroline Burgess and her baby moved in with her uncle who lived nearby in the village. The Gibbses sold 6 School Street in 1875, however, they left behind something wonderful that was accidentally discovered 106 years later.

In 1981 my husband David and I bought the old house at 6 School Street which badly needed repair and refurbishing. One day we stopped to check on the progress of electrician Dave Gove who was working on wiring in the attic. He had gone home for the day, but left for us something on the hallway stairs. A note said he had found it under wooden floorboards in the attic.

It was a packet of letters, no envelopes, tied together with a slim, blue silk ribbon.

Flowing handwriting made by an ink-dipped pen suggested the letters’ antiquity, but the heading on the first page confirmed it: “U.S.S. Sloop of War Richmond, off Pas al Centro Mississippi, Sunday Nov. 10 A.D. 1861.” My excitement mounted as I struggled to decipher the writer’s words. I realized I was reading a first-person account of the Civil War.

                     Dear Lou,

  Yesterday I received your letters dated Sept. 8 Oct. per the gunboat Ethan Allen which were the first letters which I have received from anyone. Last mail I sent you a very long letter and have nothing of interest to write this time as far as news goes.  We have taken one little schooner since but she was of no account. She had on board eight or ten Mexicans who were trying to make their escape from New Orleans. We let them go on their way rejoicing. There is an enormous steamer now in sight up river but I do not think there is any hope of our having a chance to get a shot at her. We have certain news that there is a floating battery of 18 guns already for attacking us also one of 22 guns which is nearly ready and one of 15 guns on the stocks. We are now the only Ship at Pas al Centro and their batteries assisted by Steamers and battering Ram will be apt to give us all we can stand if they should attack us. We hear by those Mexicans which were in the schooner that our shell stove the Battering Ram aft so badly that two steamers were required to tow her up river, one on each side to keep her afloat. Capt. Pope has left the Richmond and gone home on sick leave, he was very feeble. I fear that he will not last long. I liked him much while he was here…

The author of the letters written in 1861 and 1862 was Captain Charles I. Gibbs. Within ten years he would become the landlord of young parents and a newborn baby, Thornton W. Burgess, whose biography I finished writing and saw published in 2013.

Capt. Gibbs’ natural, candid style of writing, keen observations, and obvious affection for his wife and friends in Sandwich added to the extraordinary first-hand description of the life of a Union officer aboard a 225-foot-long steamship engaged in major Civil War naval battles.

I felt like I was walking into a history book.

And I thought of my father, Lt. Commander Howard “Bud” Palmer, who was similarly a naval officer, less than a century later, on a troop landing ship (LST) engaged in another brutal and bloody war at Normandy in 1944, as well as at Anzio and Salerno. He too came home, safe if not sound, for his back was broken when a torpedo hit the ship. (Read my post “War, Honor, and My Cousin Phil”)

Today, Memorial Day 2015, I honor those countless numbers who died in the service of their country, but I especially remember and am thankful for two who lived: Captain Charles I. Gibbs and Lieutenant Commander Bud Palmer who returned from terrible wars to those who dearly loved them.