Monday, November 24, 2014

Antietam Q&A: Walking in his great-grandfather's footsteps

Jean and Harry Kendrick recently visited Crystal Spring Farm in Keedysville, Md. Kendrick's
great-grandfather, Dr. James Oliver, treated wounded soldiers on the farm after the Battle of Antietam.
For nearly three months after the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, 26-year-old James Oliver, an assistant surgeon in the 21st Massachusetts, treated scores of seriously wounded soldiers at a tent hospital on Ephraim Geeting's farm in Keedysville, Md. Oliver wrote that he handled an amputation or surgical procedure nearly every day at the Federal hospital, which became known as Crystal Spring, Big Locust and Locust Spring hospital, among other names. 
Post-war image of Dr. James Oliver

On the night after Antietam, Oliver helped transport a load of soldiers with compound leg fractures on a rough country road to the hospital located about a mile from the battlefield. "...I can hear the awful groans of those poor fellows as the ambulance shook them up, over that stony road," he remembered. "One poor fellow begged to be taken out and put beside the road, left there to die." The Harvard-educated doctor also described writing to loved ones of soldiers who died at Crystal Spring during his time there.

"It was one of the saddest duties of my army life," he wrote after the war, "to notify a mother of the death of her boy. I have letters from mothers and sweethearts that would draw tears from a stone, and yet I have heard men talk of war as if it were an afternoon picnic." (At least 15 soldiers from Connecticut died on the farm. Download my Excel spreadsheet of Connecticut Antietam deaths here.)

Oliver also was no stranger to danger during the war. While treating wounded after the Second Battle of Bull Run on Aug. 30, 1862, he was left stranded when his horse was snatched by the Union army. After briefly being taken prisoner, he escaped, narrowly avoiding fire from a Rebel battery in the process.  After the war, Oliver lived briefly in South Carolina, where he farmed cotton, before he returned to Athol, Mass., to resume his medical practice. Known as "Athol's Grand Old Man," he died on Feb. 8, 1918.  

Recently, a descendant of Oliver's visited Crystal Spring Farm for the first time, guided by the couple who owns the property and greatly appreciates its rich Civil War history. (Read my Q&A with them here.) Harry Kendrick, who lives in Vermont, took time out this week to answer questions about his ancestor. He also supplied a copy of the rare 1920 image of Crystal Spring Farm that is posted below.


The original part of the Crystal Spring farmhouse dates to 1790, according to the current owners.

How was your visit to the farm?


KENDRICK:  My wife and I enjoyed our trip to Antietam and the farm. Through your blog, we were able to contact the current owners,  Troy Cool and Emily Siwarski, and they were wonderful hosts. Troy, who is passionate about the Battle of Antietam, gave us a personal tour of the battlefield and highlighted where Dr. Oliver was during the battle. He was also at Battle of South Mountain [on Sept. 14, 1862, three days before Antietam] and also near the Burnside Bridge, providing care for the wounded. Troy brought the battle to life, giving me an appreciation for all the sacrifices that were made that day. I kept thinking about my great-grandfather and what it must have been like for him. He was only 26 and a new graduate of Harvard Medical School.

Troy then took us to Crystal Springs Farm, where Dr. Oliver treated the wounded for about three months. In his journal, he refers to it as the Locust farm and hospital. The spring on the farm was known as the Locust Spring. We were able to see the spring, walk the grounds and also tour the inside of the farmhouse. It was a wonderful experience walking in the footsteps of my great-grandfather. We left that night full of excitement about what we had seen and experienced that day. Dr. Oliver came to life as we walked in his footsteps and we had some sense of what a difficult job he had treating the soldiers.

                       Click on image for interactive panorama: Crystal Spring Farm in 1920.
                                                         (Courtesy Harry Kendrick)

Left half of the interactive panorama. The outbuildings at right no longer exist.
Right half of interactive panorama. The building at right,  also shown in a present-day image 
below, may have been used as a morgue after the Battle of Antietam.


How would you describe your recent visit to Antietam? Had you been there before?


KENDRICK: I never visited the battlefield before and certainly regret that. It is a wonderfully preserved memorial to that bloodiest of all days. It now has a peaceful feel, and one can only envision the carnage that occurred when someone like Troy describes the events to you. My original perception was that a person could stand in one spot and see everything, but I quickly found the opposite is true. What appears to be a relatively flat field has many variations in its topography that creates gullies and other obstacles to the field of vision. The ebb and flow of the battle is amazing to hear about. One can only imagine how frightening it must have been to the young men in battle that day. Clearly it is an area that needs to be visited many times to understand all that occurred. I hope to return again to explore the battlefield and other areas around Antietam.

Are you an avid history buff?


KENDRICK: I enjoy history but do not consider myself to be an avid history buff. In my retirement, I am becoming more interested in family history, and this is what drew me to visit the Crystal Spring Farm. The house I grew up in had a huge portrait of Dr. Oliver in the living room, so he has always had a presence in my life. My father lived with him from the time he was 5 years old until Dr. Oliver’s death in 1918. I would hear many personal stories about Dr. Oliver and knew that he was an important person in my father’s life. My father possessed the journal of Dr. Oliver, and he entrusted it to me many years before he died. I still have it and feel it is part of my heritage and link to both my father and my great-grandfather.

For several years, I have wanted to visit the farm and battlefield. My son and his family live in Woodbridge, Va., so we decided that one of our trips south would be to try and see the farm. Two years ago, we stopped in Frederick, Md., and visited the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. I was hoping to find some information about the Locust Spring Hospital, but there was none. I mentioned this to Troy, and he is trying to change that. Hopefully, some of the material I shared with him will help with that quest.

You mention that Dr. Oliver had a diary. Have you read it all?


Yes, I have read the diary (also known as a journal), and as I mentioned, I have the original copy. Dr. Oliver had a wonderful way with words, and this is reflected in the diary. You get a sense of his values and moral character, with many insights into the everyday life of a Civil War surgeon. It also includes many comments about several generals and even President Lincoln, whom he had the opportunity to observe during the war. He wrote an autobiography, which you have mentioned in your blog and is available online. It includes many direct quotes from the diary.

Harry Kendrick and his wife, Jean, stand  by a spring near the farmhouse.  Kendrick said his
great-grandfather "came to life as we walked in his footsteps" during their recent visit.

Dr. Oliver died in 1918. What did you learn about him growing up?


KENDRICK: He was a major influence on my father and he and his siblings would often mention Dr. Oliver in conversations around the dinner table and most certainly at holidays. My father’s father (my grandfather, Harry Kendrick) died when my father was 5 years old. At that time, he, his mother and his three siblings moved into Dr. Oliver home. Dr. Oliver was loved and revered by all of them. He was a doctor and leader in the community, even serving two terms as state representative in Boston. However, the stories I would hear were about a somewhat stern but loving and kind man.

Every time we had a birthday cake and the candles were blown out, my father would say, "Snuff them. Snuff them." This meant to wet your fingers with spit and squeeze the wick. Every time he would tell me that this was what his grandfather said. Whenever I see someone blow out candles and it keeps smoking, I think of my father and great-grandfather. I have the urge to snuff them out.

My father was a person who always did for others before taking care of himself. I sensed that attitude came from Dr. Oliver. After reading the diary, one realizes that this is why he was a doctor. He loved and cared for people, and he treated everyone with respect. This is repeated many times in the diary, even when he treated Rebel soldiers.

At the end of the second section of the diary, he finished with the following four lines, saying that they represent his life and religion. I would concur.

When I came into this world I was naked and bare,
As I go through this world I have trouble and care.
When I leave this world I go I know not where,
But if I am all right here I shall be all right there.

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