Ann Chandonnet, pictured above at the "Old Mint" in New Orleans, is co-editor of “Write Quick": War and a Woman’s Life in Letters, 1836-1867.
In Write Quick, the book my cousin, Roberta Pevear, of Bethel and I created, dozens of the letters written by Henry Foster to his wife Eliza were penned in the cramped attic of the New Orleans Mint. Henry wrote about his uncomfortable bed on the rafters, and of once using a drum head as a desk. The Mint had been under construction for many years, but remained unfinished. Henry was able to get up onto the roof and view the wharves along the Mississippi and the business of cotton and other goods going on there. He waited for ships arriving from New England, hoping they would bring mail from Eliza in Massachusetts or from other members of his extended family. Soldiers away from home "lived on mail," as his brother-in-law once wrote.
For nearly two years, Henry was stationed in New Orleans with the 26th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. His duties were chiefly to guard Confederate prisoners. Occasionally, his unit was sent to other places in Louisiana, and he wrote to Eliza from those camps. But he kept returning to the Mint.
In the early 1860s, the Mint not only minted money but also served as the Post Office for the city. The Post Office closed at 5:00 p.m., a fact that Henry mentioned several times in his correspondence.
Today there is a new Mint several blocks away. The Old Mint, located near the popular French Market on the waterfront, lost its copper roof during Hurricane Katrina (2006); sheets of it flew far and wide. It took until November 12 of 2011 to refurbish the building. I had heard that the Old Mint opened for business during the summer, so when I showed up on its doorstep on November 13, I didn't realize how lucky I was. The Park Service historian was very kind, listening to my story of Henry and his letters. I wanted to see the view Henry had from the roof, but that was not accessible. I also wanted to see the attic, but it wasn't available to the public. However, the historian and her fellows quickly realized how important it was for me to get a glimpse of this area. They scouted up two sets of original cast iron steps—closely resembling some of the famous iron balconies of the city, and then allowed me a peek into the attic. It had been transformed with batts of insulation and air ducts, but I got the general idea of how low and dark it must have been when Henry and his comrades lodged there. I was thrilled!
Descending to the ground floor (now a mint museum) again, I noticed the enormous granite steps of the staircases. I could imagine Henry running down the cast iron steps and then down these granite steps—trying to make the 5:00 p.m. deadline for another of his letters to Eliza. The Old Mint is now equipped with a large performance space on the second floor, and will be a jazz history museum.
A New England native and longtime Alaska resident, Ann Fox Chandonnet is the author of numerous books, including Alaska’s Inside Passage (Fodor’s, 2009). Her food history, Gold Rush Grub (University of Alaska Press, 2005), won an Outstanding Book award from the American Association of School Librarians. She currently resides in the Hickory, North Carolina, area.