Friday, May 30, 2008

Footnote on Fairchild

A little more on my Civil War hero: it occurred to me that I hadn't mentioned, in the caption of my Fairchild photo in my last post, the obvious fact of his "empty sleeve". It's a very good story and I wanted to share it (we tell it to the Museum groups if we have time).

It was in the Battle at Gettysburg that Fairchild led his men into battle, where - unrelenting in spite of great losses, they carried on, earning them the name "Iron Brigade". Also on that occasion, Fairchild took a shot in his left arm which shattered the elbow. The medics were called, and he reputedly ordered bandaging that would permit him to continue on with his men. (I cannot imagine the scene without a catch in my throat: the smoke, the pain and shock of the wound, the shouts of the men around him...it's the "overactive imagination of the reenactor".)

But his men, whose devotion is referred to in countless letters, insisted that he be borne off the field where he would have access to laudanum to dull the pain of the inevitable amputation.

He was in fact taken to the home of a minister in the town of Gettysburg who was a friend of the Fairchild family. There, his vest was cut from shoulder to arm opening and removed, and (we are told) sufficient laudanum was administered and the arm was removed above the shattered elbow. We can only assume some form of cauterization (I'm not taking my above-mentioned imagination there, if you don't mind) and the wound was bound up. There is, in the file, a letter written the next day; the text is thick and black and huge, indicating either the effects of the laudanum ... or the pain as it had worn off, I will assume the former, thank you.

We also read that the morning following his surgery he insisted on stepping out on the front porch of the home to salute his men as they marched past. His dismembered arm had been discreetly buried in the back garden of the minister's home.

Lucius returned to Madison and his family. He was feted as the returning hero he was and, as previously mentioned, in time served three terms as the 10th Governor of the State of Wisconsin. Later in his life, he went into Government Service and served as diplomatic Ambassador in Spain and England; I haven't here at hand details and years, but I do have John Singer Sargent's rendering of Diplomat Lucius Fairchild , which painting shows what a splendid figure of man he was in his later years.

But there is (as you might suspect, what with me telling it and all) more than that to the story. Upon his return to Madison he and Frank took up residence in the old Fairchild home, and the reputation for the very best hospitality continued. But he was troubled...badly troubled...by "ghost pains". He concluded that they must be caused because surely, when the arm was buried in Gettysburg, it must have been put in a box causing it to be in a cramped position. So he wrote to his family friend and asked that the arm be disinterred and sent to him at home, here in Madison.

The story goes, the arm was returned, and he repositioned it and buried it in his own yard of the house on Lake Monona. The treatment was successful, and he was bothered no more.

Now - when Mr Dearling tells the story at the Museum, he sometimes makes some reference to going to visit the State Office Building now on the former site of the Fairchild home after a heavy rain and looking to see if there are fingers poking up in the flower beds around that building.........the 4th graders absolutely RELISH stories like that! He does, however, continue by saying that, in fact, when the old Governor died his wishes were followed: the arm was disinterred again and buried with him, so that he was "returned to dust" as a whole and complete man.

During the Civil War, as we all know, amputations were the only way to deal with wounded limbs; there was no treatment guaranteed to forestall infection followed certainly by death. It is also known that, in the 19th century, men who lost limbs were considered disfigured, incomplete, indeed "only a part of a man", and records indicate a very high rate of suicide among men who were sure they no longer had their virility and usefulness.

Lucius Fairchild is credited to changing that image, by wearing his empty sleeve pinned not underneath as was the custom, but rather to the front of his coat , as you see in my previous illustration and his Sargent portrait above. He wore it as a point of pride and convinced other veterans to feel the same. There is one biography of Fairchild appropriately called "The Empty Sleeve" by S. Ross. I do not concur with everything he says, but it is a fairly complete biography paying, of course, the greatest attention to the Civil War years.

Lucius and Frank had three beautiful daughters and the Historical Society has a picture of a merry group in the back yard of the Fairchild home, an elderly Lucius and his daughters and some of their young friends. The letters indicate that all of the girls' friends loved spending time during the summer "up at Madison among the Fairchilds".

In conclusion, a note about Frances Bull Fairchild , the beautiful young orphan girl Lucius met in Washington DC and eventually married. She was some years younger than her husband, was Frank Fairchild, and a girl uncharacteristically forthright for the 19th century. My favorite story about her, which I think reveals not only her character but what a fine wife and First Lady she was, is as follows:

It is a little-known fact (I daresay unknown , outside of the state) that, on the day of the Chicago fire, a desperately serious fire obliterated the town of Peshtigo in northern Wisconsin, destroying 2,400 square miles and taking over between 1,200 and 2.400 lives (there was no way to accurately account for lumberjacks, trappers, homesteaders and native people were in the area.

News of the Chicago fire was wired all over the country, and upon receiving the news Lucius was given funds, got on a train and travelled to Chicago to offer whatever aid he could and to see if there might be ways the people of Wisconsin could help. However, he no sooner stepped off the train than he was handed a telegram from his wife saying, in essence, "Peshtigo in flames, all is lost!" He immediately returned to the train and came straight back to Madison. Here is where Frances Fairchild, the lady-like much-touted hostess of the Governor's home, showed her true colors....

By the time Lucius Fairchild returned to Madison, Frances had gathered together as many wagons as she could, seen them provisioned with food and clothing, drafted every available physician in the city of Madison and rounded up a large corps of volunteers -- and sent them on their way north to Peshtigo! She did not wait for her husband's directive or instruction but acted on her own, guaranteeing that assistance was on its way immediately.

By the way - in her portrait Frances is wearing a court gown designed by Charles Frederick Worth of Paris, France, which she wore when they were presented at the Spanish court of King Alfonso XII and Queen Teresa, Madrid, Spain, 1880.

I imagine you can tell now why I'm so enamored and fascinated by this wonderful First Family of Madison and of Wisconsin!

NOTE: If you'd like more information on the Peshtigo Fire in northern Wisoonsin (October 8, 1871 same as Chicago, don't ya know), there are at least three excellent books about it which can no doubt be found in the local libraries.

I will now resume normal programming.

3 comments:

yarndork said...

I love it when you give a history lesson. I wish someone like you had been my teacher in high school. It wasn't until after I got out of school that I thought history was interesting.

MollyBeees said...

Two wonderful, WONDERUL posts! Thanks Dale! Will we see you tomorrow at Last Sat. Knitting?

kmkat said...

Excellent and fascinating posts -- thanks for the history lesson!