Wartime tweets take soldier’s followers 150 years into the past

Posted Oct. 29, 2013, at 1:07 p.m.
Seated at Vice President Hannibal Hamlin's desk inside the Bangor Museum and History Center, Mark Nicklawske of Bangor displays two diaries written by Pvt. Joseph French, 4th Maine Battery, in 1862 and 1864. A University of Maine adjunct professor, Nicklawske is transcribing all four of French's diaries. He is uploading the daily entries to Twitter just as if French were tweeting from the battlefield.
Brian Swartz
Seated at Vice President Hannibal Hamlin's desk inside the Bangor Museum and History Center, Mark Nicklawske of Bangor displays two diaries written by Pvt. Joseph French, 4th Maine Battery, in 1862 and 1864. A University of Maine adjunct professor, Nicklawske is transcribing all four of French's diaries. He is uploading the daily entries to Twitter just as if French were tweeting from the battlefield.

By Brian Swartz

Weekly Staff Editor

 

Joseph French likes to tweet.

He tweets the weather: “Fair and pleasant.”

He tweets his official duty for this Sunday: “”We were inspected this morning by our inspecting officer at nine o’clock both camp and person.”

And he tweets what he did next: “Then we went to church.”

Routine tweets from French, who has mastered the 21st-century technology very well — especially since he’s been dead for approximately 100 years.

Private Joseph French is tweeting his way through the Civil War right now, thanks to a Bangor Museum and History Center volunteer who discovered that the young man from rural Chesterville in Franklin County could have been a mid-19th century tweeter.

Mark Nicklawske, a journalist for 25 years in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, moved to Bangor when his wife, Jennifer Moore, accepted a University of Maine professorship. An adjunct professor at UMaine, Nicklawske teaches sports in journalism.

“I’ve always been kind of a history buff” interested “in the Civil War a little bit,” he said. “I was looking for some volunteer things to do.” When visiting the Bangor Museum and History Center at 159 Union St., he chatted with Curator Dana Lippitt.

“They were doing a Civil War exhibit” titled “Bullets and Bandages,” and Lippitt told him about the four diaries that Joseph French had kept, Nicklawske said.

“His materials were collected through the GAR (Grand Army of the Republic),” said BMHC Executive Director Jennifer Pictou. “We have their very fine Civil War collection.”

Lippitt asked Nicklawske if he could transcribe the diaries. He agreed to do so, then started visiting the museum weekly to translate the writing and word-and-sentence usage that soon led to an interesting surprise.

“I take a magnifying glass and try not to cross my eyes,” Nicklawske described how he carefully and patiently transcribes the “small writing, all in pencil. So many times his writing is so small you can’t read it; once you figure out a word, you realize what he’s saying.

“I’m learning that my perception of the Civil War foot soldiers, I never really knew what they did,” he said. “I’m learning how boring it [army life] was, really, for long periods of time. [Then] all of a sudden, there’s a lot of activity and life-threatening incidents going off around him.

“It sounds so much like life now. They’re playing baseball, they’re playing dominos, they’re cooking blueberries and things we serve today, they’re taking the train,” Nicklawske said. He has transcribed the diary entries covering French’s enlistment in the 4th Maine Battery and his initial training at Augusta.

When the artillerists finally went to war, they boarded a train in Augusta and “arrived in Washington three days later,” Nicklawske said. “They were able to get around quickly and move quickly.”

Although French “wasn’t directly involved in any huge battle, at least not yet,” he “had a lot of things to say about Antietam” in September 1862, Nicklawske said.

He has “been playing with Twitter on my own. I write a blog and then tweet what I write” so friends in Minnesota can learn about his blog’s latest posting.

Sometime earlier this year, Nicklawske realized that “what he [French] is really doing is tweeting. His writing is only one or two sentences, every day, usually limited to about 140 characters, right around that threshold.

“It occurred to me that I could put this on Twitter,” Nicklawske said.

“One day he said to me, ‘Jennifer, do you realize he [French] is tweeting?’” Pictou recalled.

Using the TweetDeck app, Nicklawske recently started “setting up a whole bunch of tweets to go off at different times. I can sit down for a couple of hours and put in 25 to 30 tweets; they will go off automatically in the next few weeks.

“My plan is to [have French] tweet two or three times a day right now and catch up to the point where I can tweet on the same day as 150 years ago,” Nicklawske said. “Right now I need to catch up. I’m banging them up right now; hopefully we’ll catch up early next year.”

Joseph French’s first tweet occurred on “1-1-62 [Jan. 1, 1862],” when “I am @Augusta and now taken down w/ the #measles. I was carried to the hospital at night, DM wasn’t with me. GF came to c (see) me.”

Nicklawske cannot confirm the identities of “DM” and “GF.”

A day later, according to French’s next tweet, “The measles were all over me and I felt a little better. Oliver and Sophie were in to see me. It is very cold.”

And he tweeted about the harsh reality of war on “1-3-62,” when “I feel about the same. One fellow died here today with diptheria (sic). The boys had stood guard down @camp tonight but were released.”

Through January and February 1862 French tweets about the unusually heavy snowfall and the bitter cold. He tweets about his trip home to Chesterville in February, then tweets about an interesting Feb. 26, when “I got a pass & went up to the state house.” Afterwards he tweets that “From there I went down onto the Cavalry grounds to see the boys. Then I went down the street and got my picture taken.”

Nicklawske has been “intrigued” with his transcription project, which he indicated has “been a challenge.”

He “just started trying to get [Twitter] followers” in early October; by Oct. 17 the French tweets had 18 followers, and that number could rise as Civil War buffs in Maine and elsewhere learn about French’s high-tech communications from 150 years ago.

“There isn’t a lot of Civil War history on Twitter,” said Nicklawske. “I didn’t find anybody who’s directly tweeting a diary [written] out there in the trenches every day.”

To follow French’s wartime adventures on Twitter, use the hash tag @PvtJosephFrench. To follow those same adventures on a computer, log onto twitter.com/PvtJosephFrench.

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