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LaForge Civil War Diaries and Correspondence: September 1864 - Part 1

Wednesday, January 18, 2017 - 08:21

"We do not war on women and children." It was not, of course, entirely true when Abiel wrote and underscored that line on September 12, 1864. If it had been true, then the Southern woman he wrote about would not have been so pitifully grateful that the soldiers invading her home allowed her to buy supplies from them so that her children wouldn't starve. (After all, one presumes that one of the reasons she was out of food was the depredations of those same soldiers.) But Abiel wants so very badly to believe that he's still an essentially good and civilized man, despite circumstances, and the treatment of women and children is a central part of the worldview that allows him to retain that belief.

Abiel's long, detailed (and somewhat gruesome) description of the battle on the 19th at Opequan Creek has some interesting narrative structure. Rather obviously, he's writing all this down after the battle is over and he begins as usual with past tense narration. "Moved from our camp at 2 A.M. and took the Winchester road." Even so, as the battle continues, he begins introducing dramatized elements, not simply relating quoted speech from others, but offering sound effects: "Whiz, whiz, whiz, went the bullets in rapid succession." And then, in the final decisive manoever of the battle, he shifts to present tense--one could almost imagine him as a play-by-play announcer, "A moving cloud is seen on our right and extending partly behind the Rebs. It is our cavalry under Averill and they are charging." Only when the victory is complete does he shift back into past tense. "I have lost 1/2 my company, either killed or wounded. My friend Powell is badly wounded and 1/2 the officers of the regiment. Very tired."

Outside of the battle descriptions, the diary entries are getting more succinct. It may simply be that there is less to comment on between the overly exciting bits, or it may be that Abiel simply has less spare energy for writing. Given how faithfully he writes home, enclosing his "memorandums", one can feel for him when he laments the lack of return correspondence (especially when there are actual deliveries of mail, as opposed to the likelihood that mail was simply piling up somewhere upstream).

Certain editorial details are starting to feel redundant to me--like annotating each use of "M." (meridian) as meaning "noon", but although the use has almost gotten to the point of being comfortably familiar to me, I keep noting it, remembering how badly I'd stumble across each use at the beginning. I'm also starting to feel odd about "correcting" certain systematic spelling differences, such as Abiel's use of "acrost" where modern usage requires "across". I keep reminding myself that this version is meant to be easily readable by modern eyes, and that those who are interested in the details of 19th century usage can check out the original transcription.

Content Warning: graphic and gruesome descriptions of death in battle.


The Diary and Letters of Abiel Teple LaForge 1842-1878

Transcribed, edited, and annotated by Phyllis G. Jones (his great-granddaughter)

Copyright © 1993, Phyllis G. Jones, All rights reserved

September 1-19, 1864

[PUNCTUATION AND SPELLING ARE COPIED FROM THE ORIGINALS. EDITORIAL COMMENTS ARE IN BOLD TYPE.]


DIARY Thursday September 1st 1864

The first day in command of my new company; all well so far. Day very pleasant. I have been very busy settling my accounts with Company I. Days are comfortable but nights decidedly cold. A very heavy dew falls so that everything is as wet as if it had rained, in the morning. Last month was generaly dry and warm, but we feel autumn now. The men will soon be drawing woolen blankets to sleep on or under, for they need them. The men are having a gay time this evening, throwing pieces of corn cob at each other. They divide up into armies, have their officers, throw out skirmishers, and make regular charges.


LETTER

Head Quarters "F" Company 106th New Yprl Volunteers 1st Brigade 3rd Division 6th Corps.

September 1st 1864

My Sweet Sister and Dear Friends,

Amid the turmoil of war and excitement of the battle field, I still find time to keep open "my communication" with dear ones far away, toward the star which I often find nodding and winking at me and saying, "You belong farther this way." When I wake from dreams of home, some of these cold nights, I am still in the land of the living, in seeming spite of those ugly fellows whose camp fires I see over yonder, and who seem so very anxious to furnish me with a free passage from this sublinary sphere to the one which many have traveled, but I don't remember of anybody's returning to tell what they saw there, which makes me anxious not to go until I know more about it.

The Rebs are trying to play us some Yankee trick. They fell back from the Ferry, where they had been in our front for nearly a week, thinking when we found them gone we would rush for Strausburg as we did before. Well, they turned off and concealed their army near Bunker Hill (not Mass) intending, as soon as we had passed, to fall on our rear and take us by surprise. In this they were foiled by the persistant inquisitiveness of our cavalry, which foiled their intentions in good earnest. While they stay there, we must stay here; when they move, we move. And so we go it first forward then backward, both parties refusing to take the offensive until they have some very decided advantage.

Good generalship is displayed on both sides. Earley hates to leave the Valley until he gains some important advantage, such as striking us such a blow that we dare not follow them out of the valley. This is what they dread, so fearful of another Lynchburg raid.

Our general has information that Longstreet has gone back to Richmond. If this is so, our forces are nearly as strong as those of the enemy left here. We cannot learn the truth of the report yet, and I have some doubts of our force being large enough to attack Earley if General Longstreet's troops have left.

Now sister, how about that Round-about? It is just what I want in the field, if it is not too dirty. I don't remember, but if it has no holes in it, I wish you would clean it up a little and take about half an inch off the end of the sleeve, down next the hands, cutting it so that it is the same shape it is now. I think there is an inside pocket on each side. If there is not, will you put them in? Or if those in there now have holes in them, put others in. Then do it up in as small a parcel as possible and direct it to Sergeant La Forge, Company "F" 106th N.Y. Volunteers, 1st Brigade, 3rd Division, 6th Corps. The reason I want you to direct [it] to Sergeant La Forge is because the post office laws will not allow you send clothing to a commissioned officer. If you have made any other disposition of the garment dont bother yourself about sending it. The Post Master will tell you how many stamps to put on it. The best way is to do it up as small as you can, then tie it well with a string, then put a paper arround it, leaving the ends open, upon which you put the address and stamps. [Note: A "roundabout" is a plain, short, long-sleeved jacket that was in common use by soldiers of both sides and many ranks. Here's an example from a Civil War reproduction clothing site, although as it's a commercial site, I can't guarantee tha the link will endure.]

How is young Potter? Bright as ever, I suppose. He will be cutting teeth soon, then you you will have a gay time. I remember how cross you were when you cut yours. About my own, I havent as good a memory. I have nearly $500.°° due me now. I dont know when I shall get any of it. My love to all, Mammy & the boy in particular this time. Yours,

Abiel

Lt. Co. "F" 106" N.Y.V.

My going to Company "F" makes my boys of "I" feel bad, but the Commanding officer of the Regiment says it is necessary, as the business of Company "F" has got to be straightened up, and he wants me to do it. Quite a compliment.

A.


DIARY

Friday September 2nd 1864

Laid in camp near Smithville until near sundown when we moved back to the North of Charleston and came into a nice grove where the Rebs were camped last week, and put up our camp for the night.

Saturday 3rd

Marched shortly after sunrise. Our regiment detailed to act as flankers to the wagon train, i.e., to march in Indian file, deployed about five paces apart and two or three hundred yards from the road on the side towards the enemy. Came as far as Clifton (three miles from Berryville) when we ran on the Rebs, strongly entrenched. We had to skirmish a considerable [time] before we could establish our picket line. Cool pleasant marching today. Rained some at noon. We may soon expect the fall rain to set in. Bivouacked for the night. We are the extreme right.

Sunday 4th

Laid in camp all day. An hour before sundown, orders came to build breastworks. We had very few tools, but went to work felling trees and digging. Building works here and doing the same at Petersburg is very different. There, a pick was not necessary; here, all the digging has to be done with them. We did not get our work done until ten o'clock P.M.

Monday 5th

A cold heavy disagreeable rain commenced last night, most decidedly Autumn-like. We got a little damp before morning. A lot of troops that were moved to the right of us yesterday went back again today. I find they threw up about 3/4 of a mile of breastworks connecting with ours on the right. They can be occupied at any moment. The cavalry are now out in that direction, looking out for the flank. There has been but little skirmishing lately. Moseby is active. Continual rain.

Tuesday 6th

Rain still continues. The cold wind soughs through the trees, laden with its unwelcome drizzle. The army is but poorly prepared for this change in the weather. A division of the 19th Corps was passing us this P.M. They are going out to support a Cavalry reconnaisance toward Bunker Hill, the object of which is to find where Averill is with his cavalry. The last we heard of him, he was coming up from Martinsburg to join us. By some cannonading we heard in that direction he had engaged.

Wednesday 7th

Sun rose clear. How good it made us feel to see his unclouded face again! How different from last month. Then we would have given almost anything for a rain like this. The ground is now so soaked that we shall have to be very carefull about moving artillery and wagons across the fields. I wrote to O. L. Barney, giving him all the information in my power. Our Cavalry have been very active. The enemy appear to have left our immediate front.

[Note on first page of Psalms in his Bible says:] While bivoucked three miles west of Harpers Ferry and waiting for orders. Expecting to march on the enemy

Thursday 8th

Policed and laid out our camp today, so it looks very nice. Averill is all right. He has whipped the Reb Cavalry again. Moseby is particularly active on our rear. He captured an ambulance train between us and the Ferry. They were all but one recaptured, however, by our men sent in pursuit. I wrote S, Annie W___, and father. Some cannonading off to the right. Quiet here.

Friday 9th

Everything is as quiet as if there was not an enemy in 40 miles of here. Indeed, more so, for if there was an enemy at that distance, orders would not be so stringent in regard to casual firing, as they are now. A man is punished severely who is caught firing his gun, for it lets the enemy know where we are. Rained again. We may expect this fluctuating weather now: a warm day now and then to let us know summer has not entirely abandoned us yet, and a rainy day twice in a while to bid us prepare for the still colder days of Autumn. Our new chaplain Reverand Dilly came this P.M.

Saturday 10th

Warm and pleasant. Wrote to Sherman Crandall today. Turned over my Ordnance of Company "I" to Lieutenant Brunson who succeeds me in the command of that company. I have also assumed command and responsibility in "F" Company. I am getting along with my new command first rate. There are some things in the discipline of the company which need correction, but I think I shall have no difficulty in getting along with that. Lieutenant Hepburn came to the regiment today. He has been on duty at Rendezvous of Distribution for some months. He says Colonel McKelvy has returned from his leave of absence and is quite well.

Sunday 11th

Was expecting to write to Sister today but was detailed about noon and so could not do it. The Adjutant came arround and said I was to take charge of a picket of one hundred men from the regiment to go on duty for three days. What they want us to go on so long for is more than I know, unless we are going to stay where we are for a long time and they adopt the old method of doing picket duty. Our line was advanced a little after we got on it, so as to straighten it. We have a cavalry videt in front of this line. [Note: a brief google suggests a "videt" is a type of entry, but I haven't looked up more technical details at this time.] If the Rebs came out, they would first have to drive back the videt which would give us abundant time to get ready for them. Then they would attack our line, which we could hold until our camps (that we came from) were struck and we got orders to fall back on them, or they advanced to our support.

This afternoon I wrote a letter to Susan in the house of an old Secesh who ran about fifteen minutes before we got here and left his family and goods to our kind care. He is what we call a bushwhacker. We have a man in our charge whose house is not half a mile from here, still we cannot allow him to cross our lines and go to it.


LETTER

Picket Line Near Clifton. Sunday 11th September 1864

Dear Sister,

I am on duty in charge of one hundred men from our Regiment as picket near Peckham Creek. The Rebs are on the other side. I am now writing in the house of an old Secesh Gentleman who skedaddled about fifteen minutes before our troops came to this place--of course, leaving his family to our tender mercies, which he did not seem to fear. Two ladies and three children comprise the family. The first are feminines of that type of beauty so peculiarly Southern, that is, with a nose that possesses the property of being able to turn up to a great elevation at the will of the owner. They both smoke, chew snuff, and are decidedly bitter aganst the Union and Uncle Abe. Perhaps made so by their losses in property and husbands, although the loss of the latter I don't give them much credit for feeling. We must give them the credit to say they could not be expected to feel very good towards those who are continually robbing them.

The Rebs have been very quiet lately, and they seem to feel as contented about laying still until after the Presidential Election takes place as we do. General Sherridan has not force enough to risk an engagement with them behind fortifications, and they dare not attack us while we have the protection of our breastworks, so we are idle by mutual consent and are enjoying ourselves as best we can in our present position.

Very unexpectedly last Saturday night, a most decidedly Autumn storm burst upon us. We were but poorly prepared for such an evidence of the fact that summer had departed. Fires were at a premium, and every one built was soon closely invested by an anxious comfort-seeking croud. I do not apprehend that we are not going warm weather enough yet, for this is but the commencement of fall. I shall soon need that jacket, so if it is on the way, all right.

You told me of the marriage of Miss Livermore. So also did Sherman and Orville, so I am pretty well informed of the fact. I felt very sorry to hear of the death of Albert Heseltine. I should so much liked to have seen him and again thanked him for his kind treatment of myself when I was burning with the fever, and no kind sister or sister-in-law to nurse me. Poor fellow, he deserved the death of a soldier and not the lingering, living death of consumption. A fine looking young lieutenant is setting by my side and says "give her my respects", so I suppose I shall have to. Please accept the Respects of Lieutenant Cox.

I rather believe I and him could enjoy ourselves much more to our satisfaction if we were only sitting by your hospitable hearth this cold day, instead of writing on this Southern White Pine table. What do you and Janey think about it? I guess there must be something in that cupboard we could enjoy. We are imagining how we could live if we were only home. When, if we were there in reality, we should have no appetite at all for joy.

Tell mother I shall be old enough to keep her company, when I get home again. I grow old so fast now. One of my teeth also is beginning to bother me. What an accumulation of misery!

Tell Janey she must learn some dances so that she may teach me when I get home. Love to Mrs. and Mr. Perry Potter and children, especially Matie. Don't forget our little Josey. Does he cry any yet? Your Loving Brother,

Address Lieutenant A.T. LaForge

Commanding "F" Company 106th New York Volunteers


DIARY

Monday 12th

Have not sent my letter yet. Shall send it in tonight when my servant comes out with my supper. It is still very cold and we (two second Lieutenants who are on duty with me and myself) slept on the floor of the parlor of the house of which I spoke yesterday, and which is about the centre of my line. It is now past noon and every evidence of a rain again this eve.

[Beginning of new page; probably the previous page was sent home with the letter]

Monday 12th September 1864

This afternoon I sent the lady of the house on which one of my picket posts is stationed over with a guard to General Rickets. They were out of provisions and desired to get permission of him to buy of our commissary. I could not see them hungry, even if her husband is a rebel (12th Virginia Cavalry) We do not war on women and children. The General gave her 30 pounds of flour, ten lbs of sugar and a bottle of wine. She was bitter against the Union Soldiers before she went. She returned crying. the General's kindness had touched her. It is pretty cold tonight and good woolen under-clothes would be a luxury.

Tuesday 13th

Our Cavalry and the 2nd Division 6th Corps made an advance this morning to surprise the Reb pickets, which they did, capturing quite a number. They fought quite a while and did not return until dark tonight. Some of the prisoners were brought in by here. They looked rather glum. I have just been around with strict orders concerning us tonight. We expect the enemy will be trying to make themselves even by making a dash on our lines and capturing some of our pickets. It is a fine moonlight night, however, and they would find it hard surprising us. It still continues cold. I forgot to mention that we had a severe hail storm Sunday afternoon. I told the Sergeant who has charge this post to wake me at the first shot he heard.

Wednesday 14th

About ten o'clock the Sergeant woke me up, saying some firing was heard on the right. I went out, heard one shot, then five or six others, just like the beginning of an attack, then all was silent. I went round and found the videts were on the alert, then came back. As there was no more firing, I went to bed, leaving directions to be awakened at an hour before daylight, another favorable time for attack.

I got up at that time and went out on the line. Everything was quiet. A little before sunrise went and laid down sleeping until my servant came from camp with my breakfast. Commenced raining at 8 O.C. A.M. We were relieved by a detail from the Brigade at M [i.e., noon]. When I got to camp I found that our (Lieutenant's Brunsson, Cox, and my own) servants had built us pretty good quarters. The roof was made of four tent cloths. These were raised the height of a barrel from the ground and the sides are formed of barrel staves. A bunk is built in one end for the three of us to sleep, so we are pretty comfortable.

Thursday 15th

Battalion drill from 9 to 11 A.M., the first time I ever commanded a company on drill. This P.M. there was company drill for one hour. I was unwell from a cold I caught on the picket line and did not go out. Weather pleasant, but rained a little just at the right time to prevent Dress Parade. A large mail came tonight and I did not get a letter, and as over a dozen is due me It is somewhat strange. It makes a fellow feel particularly pleased after so long waiting to get one, however so I will not complain.

Captain Parker was our drill officer. He would do well enough if he only had confidence in himself. He is afraid. While we were on picket, I had the pleasure of hearing a Rebel girl sing the Southern patriotic songs of "The Bonny Blue Flag", "The Homespun Dress", and several others. She was a sweet singer, but bitter Rebel. I begin to look for an advance soon now. We have lain long enough now to be in good trim for active service. Look out Johnnies.

Friday 16th

Battalion drill. Wrote to Miss Annie S. Porter. Rained a little. The men seem to be in excellent spirits. I believe they would make a pretty good fight. I think the Johnnies would have to bring more than man for man.

Sat 17th

The Regiment had just gone out for drill when an order came to move camp. We went back and packed up. We only moved about half a mile. We are in rather [a] better place than we were before. Nice sunshiny side hill. The men are fixed up pretty nice, but I am of the impression they will not enjoy their quarters long, for Lieutenant General Grant was up here this afternoon. There are all sorts of rumors concerning the meaning of his visit here. I think that our inactivity does not please him, so he wants to see for himself if it is necessary. I should think that now as Sherman is free to use his army somewhere else there should be a combined movement on Lynchburg by him and our army. He could make his base somewhere near Knoxville, Tennessee, and we advance by the way of Staunton Virginia. Some such determined measure should be adopted to threaten Richmond from the West.

The men are having sport tonight fighting mimic battles with firebrands. The 87 Pennsylvania and our Regiment are opponents: they arm themselves from the fires and make regular charges and flank movements and all sorts of manoeuvres. The best of good feeling prevails. The sight is really beautiful to see: the brands moving about and flying through the air. (It is too dark to see the men.) They don't often hit what they are aimed at, but when they do there is no ill feeling. There is a man on our breastworks and one away off in the distance, each with a large firebrand making signals to each other, just like the Signal Corps. They are just going to their respective quarters now, bidding each other good night, one side says "good night yanks" and the other "good night Johnnies". They are gone.

Sunday 18th

We had Brigade inspection today. Did not intend to have it till Monday, but General Grant (he went back to Washington today) has got up some kind of a move and it must be done sooner. Just after M. [noon] an order came to pack up, which we did. Had everything ready to move and stacked arms on the "Color-line". Just then an aide came arround countermanding the order. My, what a shout the men sent up! One would have thought we had won a great victory. Our tents were soon up again and we are now in as good quarters as ever. Our new chaplain preached to us this P.M. Threatened rain, but did not. Should have written to sister, but the move spoiled it so I could not. Got a letter from her.

Monday 19th

Moved from our camp at 2 A.M. and took the Winchester road. The whole army moved with us. Sunrise found our advance crossing the Opequan creek. The advance of the enemy were just the other side, and were driven back about two miles by our cavalry.

The enemy had their lines formed in a strong position two miles from Winchester. We formed our lines by 9 OC but had to wait until near M. [noon] for the 19th Army Corps to come up. When they did arrive, they were placed on our right. Our lines were then formed by the 19th Corps on the right then our 2nd Division and 3rd Division. The extreme left was formed by the 1st Division of our corps. The 8th Corps was held in reserve.

During all this manoeuvering, the batteries on both sides had kept up an almost constant fire, with but small results in anything but noise. Everything was ready and the charge ordered about M [noon]. It was obeyed by the advance of the entire line under a most murderous artillery fire. Our Division had to advance across an open rolling field where their shells would have full effect. The slaughter was dreadful.

Three hundred yards, which were made at a double quick, brought us into the first ravine. As soon as the men got there they laid down. Colonel Emerson commanding the Brigade rode along behind us saying, "Come now, men! Get up and advance!"

We jumped up and started across the next hill with some reluctance, for a perfect storm of shells were sweeping across it. I got before the men and told them to advance and they came up well. We advanced across the top, our men falling fearfully fast. A Major, a little to my right, had his head blown clear from his shoulders. He was on a horse and the body maintained its seat for a moment after, the blood spouting up and making a hideous spectacle.

On we went, and soon began with the infantry. Their fire was not as fearful as the artillery, although more distructive. The part of the line I was on charged everything from before it, without a halt, and crossed the next ravine. A little to our right, the enemy had breastworks and held the part of the line in their front. We just swung past them and, coming on their flank, drove them and captured many prisoners.

We did not stop, but went on. As we raised the third hill, I saw a battery off to our right which was doing terrible damage. I remember drawing my revolver and calling for men to take that battery. I saw some coming after me, two of whom I knew were brave men: Sergeant Wilder and Private Temple. Waiting for no more, I started on the run.

Whiz, whiz, whiz, went the bullets in rapid succession. I looked back; the men were falling fast. I looked the other way; the men were falling back with the guns. I yelled and started again. Run 100 yards, when I heard someone behind shouting, "Look out!" I did look out, and saw a line of Johnnies, across the Pike in front of me, bring their guns up for a volley. I threw myself behind a stump, just as the ground around me was all cut up with bullets. How they made the dirt fly!

As I had nothing particular to occupy my attention while laying there, I looked back along the line. 200 yards behind was the squad, or five of them, who had started to take the guns. They were behind trees. 100 yards behind them, our Division line had halted. On the right of our Division, and in their rear, were the Rebs. That part of their line had forced back the charge of the 19th corps. Our officers saw the necessity of taking our line back a short distance to prevent our being flanked, but I did not and obeyed the order to "fall back" with some swearing, the boys say. I dont swear much, however. How mad it made me to see the Rebs rally and follow us over that hardly contested ground.

As the distance charged had to be left, some brave fellows followed us too closely, for by a sudden turn our men captured a squad of them. They were more careful then. Our new line was established and held, until the 19th corps had driven the Rebs line step by step from their front and advanced up to our line, which did not take place until about 4 P.M.

Meanwhile I went over some of the ground, helped some of the wounded enemy into a shed and gave them water. (Our wounded were carried from the field.) It was an awful sight to go over the ground, literally soaked with human gore. I then took a gun from a dead man and, putting a lot of cartridges in my pocket, laid down in the first line and commenced firing.

I was hardly down when whiz! came a bullet striking the ground two feet before me and, glancing, struck the man laying by my right side in the forehead. He looked around, got up, and walked three or four paces to the rear, turned around and fell dead. I made several shots when I had a good mark, then the Rebs laid so close I could not see them, and I went to a part of our line in a ravine and sat down.

While there, my servant brought up my dinner--the first I had ate since 2 A.M. It was then 3 P.M. I also saw one of the officers with which I went to the front last June. At 4, the 19th Corps was up with us and a general charge of the whole army ordered, before which General Sheridan rode along the line, attended by two orderlies, and saying "Men, our cavalry are on their flank, we have won a victory." The men took off their hats and cheered him.

Shortly after, we went forward. What a scene of horror the field presented, where our artillery had played on them. Four hundred yards brought us in full view of their cannon, then our line was subject [to] the most murderous artillery fire I ever heard, Oh! how we were cut up. One gun as we advanced opened on our left, in exact range of the line lengthwise. It fired three shots before it was captured, bringing twenty men down. At one of its shots, the shell went through six men of one company in the Iron Brigade.

Then we got out where we could see the whole line to the right, coming out on the plain before us. To see them advance in such splendid order under that fire was a tribute to their bravery not to be forgotten. A moving cloud is seen on our right and extending partly behind the Rebs. It is our cavalry under Averill and they are charging. How grandly they advance on those guns which are sending death through their ranks! On they come. See the artillerists run. The cavalry charge past them, cutting some down as they go. Now they have stopped behind them, and the guns, artillerymen, and the infantry supports are in our hands. Glorious! That was the first Cavalry charge I ever saw. It ended the fight. The Rebs were siezed with a panic and fled in the utmost confusion. Our spoils are prisoners by thousands, five guns, and nine battle flags.

There seems to be some doubt in the minds of our General whether they have occupied the heights above the town or not. There are strong earth works there. Our Division is detailed to advance and, if they are occupied, carry them by storm. A half mile's march across the plain brings us to the hills. Up we go and find the forts unoccupied. Away beyond the town we could see them running, and their cavalry thrown out to cover their retreat. Looking back, we beheld our victorious army marching into position on the plain below. We soon joined them and, it being now dark, went into camp for the night.

I have lost 1/2 my company, either killed or wounded. My friend Powell is badly wounded and 1/2 the officers of the regiment. Very tired.

Major category: 
historical