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Keep Up Good Courage

INTERVIEW with Author Alan Fraser Houston

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alan Fraser Houston graduated from Amherst College and Boston University School of Medicine. He served in the United States Navy as a flight surgeon from 1970 to 1972. Houston is the author of historical articles that have appeared in California History, the Pioneer (Journal of the Society of California Pioneers), Montana, the Magazine of Western History, and the "Excursions" of the Sandwich Historical Society.

A CHAT WITH ALAN FRASER HOUSTON

Civil War author Dr. Alan Fraser Houston in Sandwich, NHAs an author, you’ve written several historical articles before. What is it about history that intrigues you? 

It’s basically the fun of discovery -- things that are obscure, perhaps unknown; stuff that nobody knows about.

Was it difficult to decipher the diary of Lewis Quimby Smith and the family correspondence?

The handwriting was pretty good. The idiosyncratic spellings were a challenge. I used phonetics to some extent. A few I highlighted and would go back and try to decipher. The quality of the writers varied from people who were educated and well spoken to those who weren’t…There are about five or six different writers from Smith’s family alone. The letters are the stimulus for the context.

What did you learn from your access to these letters from the Sandwich Historical Society?

In almost every letter someone says, "Keep up good courage". That’s pretty neat. Basically as long as things are going well at home, and health is okay, you can keep up good courage…the flow goes both ways.

Can you tell us a little about New Hampshire in the Civil War?

New Hampshire as a state was agricultural. It was subsistence farming. In 1860 Manchester was about 8,000 people. Industrialization was starting and taking place, and people went from farms to cities for jobs. There’s no agriculture left in New Hampshire to speak of now. Just to go to the other side of town back then, you had to own a horse. They were hard-working people. Their letters describe a life subject to epidemics and disease. In almost every letter someone has died. Except for getting shot at, the people at home had it every bit as tough.

What other changes did the Civil War bring?

The introduction of the "greenback" happened during the Civil War. The Federal Government was broke and had to pay debts in silver and gold. They didn’t have the reserves, so they passed the legal tender act, and greenback became standard currency. Also, the postal money order came from the Civil War. And the Civil War draft was the first draft in this country, and the model for the selective service system in World War I & II.

You talk a lot about the illnesses that were common back then and are a doctor yourself. tor yourself. What is included in the book?

There are diseases that are forgotten. One soldier describes a fellow soldier’s death from diphtheria. There are methods of treating diphtheria and smallpox, and vaccination is discussed. There’s also talk of medical care that has been forgotten — contemporary medicine of the Civil War, including herbal and home remedies.

How did you conduct the extensive research?

I spent four years on the book. Fifty percent of the word count is the letters themselves, and the rest are my words. I followed the path of the soldier. It’s amazing to stand on the bank of the Mississippi River and know that the federal government had the power and the means to send men from New England that far.

How did your experience in the US Navy as a flight surgeon shape your historical interests?

I was familiar with how the military works -- or doesn’t work. They own you for your period of enlistment. You’re their property. It gave me an appreciation of how it works and for the people that are committed. This is different from the Fourteenth Regiment. Those guys became committed.

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