By & By (Morphius Records, 2011) is an album of 11 songs taken from the poetry of my Civil War Veteran great-great grandfather, Isaac P. Anderson. Presentations of this material have been made at The Smithsonian Museum of American Art (February, 2013), The Humanities Center at the University of Pittsburgh (January, 2014), and throughout the Northeast in community centers and schools.
Collaborating with the Dead
Isaac P. Anderson, born 1836 near Philadelphia, fought for the Union between Augusts from 1861 to 1862. He was accused of desertion and detained here in Washington from November, 1863, until June, 1864, considered to be an enemy of the state. He tells us in a letter he wrote from one of the hospitals on Meridian Hill that he is “a Painter by trade, and have had the so called Painter's Cholic, and since that have never been hearty.”
A soldier with the 88th PA Volunteers, cousin of the one-day governor of Pennsylvania, Samuel Pennypacker, as well as being the grandson of a member of Jefferson’s congress, Anderson came from an honored family whose history was entrenched in American politics and culture. He was given what he called a “descriptive” to leave the army at Warrenton, VA, due to illness—a combination of typhoid, rheumatism, and lead poisoning—on August 26, 1862. A month later, back in Philadelphia, he paid a man named Dewitt forty-five dollars to process his claim. Dewitt, it turned out, was an imposter; Anderson’s discharge was never put through.
The army eventually tracked him down. Anderson was taken from his home in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, to Forrest Hall Military Prison in Georgetown and later to Stone General Hospital, a locale Walt Whitman often visited to nurse the sick in those latter years of the war. “I thread my way through the hospitals;/The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,” scroll Whitman’s words round the granite entrance of the Dupont Circle Metro Station, “I sit by the restless all dark night – some are so young;/Some suffer so much – I recall the experience sweet and sad...”
My music and lecture series bases its material on Anderson’s obituary, his copybooks, some personal effects, and his own words: we have the handwritten letter (mentioned above) addressed to his court-appointed lawyer on April 1, 1864. His imprisonment lasted eight months. Anderson was also a poet who filled his copybooks with original verse and songs. These books were passed down in my family—he is my great-great grandfather— until they fell into my hands some ten years ago, igniting my interest in his life. With each new turn in my research, from the charge of desertion to my discovery of his letters, bed cards, surgeons’ reports, and the testimonies from others in his company, his story grew more contradictory and, in that sense, more human. One might say we collaborated to reconstruct his life. In late 2011 I set his poetry to music on this album, By & By (Morphius Records).
While this project marks my strange friendship with a man now dead 130 years, Anderson’s story of one who fell through the gap is universal and touches upon the lives of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, the issue of American violations of human rights at Abu Ghraib, and the overflowing American prison system in which, at this writing, some two and a half million are incarcerated. Isaac was a man who returned to his life, exonerated, but who never full recovered. He died at 47 of a confluence of diseases he first contracted during the war.
Isaac P. Anderson, Company F, 88th PA Volunteers, autumn, 1861