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This is the archive for October 2006

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Donald's note: This is not a Halloween story, but it’s appropos on a day or night when we celebrate ghosts, ghoblins, and superheroes. All the details of this story are true and related without exaggeration or embellishment.


But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen
around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the garish day and
in the darkest night -- amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours
-- always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be
my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit
passing by.
Sullivan Ballou


The picture of Samuel Harris Jordan, my second great-grandfather, has been around for as long as I can remember and I grew up with story of how his left arm was amputated after he suffered a gunshot wound at Bethesda Church, VA on June 1, 1864. No matter how many times the story was told I never tired of hearing it. According to that story a minie ball struck Samuel in the fleshy web of the hand, between the thumb and index finger, and traveled upward, shattering the arm up to the elbow. What I found out through researching the 18th Massachusetts was that William Holbrook, former Surgeon for the Regiment, and then Chief Operating Surgeon for the 1st Brigade, 1st Division of the Fifth Corps, was the man who cut off the arm. Coincidentally, a newspaper columnist recently chose to write about Samuel and that column was posted on our Blog.

I was equally familiar with the story of my third great-grandfather Sgt. George Washington Thompson, who had been born in Sumner, Maine, where his ancestors had settled after receiving a land grant for their participation in the Revolutionary War. Three of George’s brothers had moved to Minnesota in 1861, while he and another brother, Leander, had earlier headed south to Massachusetts. My father, an amateur historian and genealogist, always pointed out the place where George’s home had once stood in Wrentham and, invariably, he’d always tell the story of discovering a body in Eagle Creek as a child.

My wife and I had talked about the idea of a trip to Virginia for years. Her interest was in visiting towns generations of her ancestors had been born and died in, while my desire was to visit battlefields where the 18th Massachusetts had fought. Her mother, who had not visited those towns since she was a young girl, would later join us.

The drive south in 1990 took us to Washington, DC, where we played the role of typical tourists by visiting the Capitol building, White House, Smithsonian, Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Viet Nam Memorial, and Arlington National Cemetery. It was oppressively hot and humid and my wife, who was usually tolerant of my frequent stops to shoot video, became increasingly less patient and less humored by this activity over a two-day period.

Our temporary home base was a campground very close to Aquia Creek. The site had been chosen because it was a midway point between Washington, Fredericksburg, and Richmond. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but the name Aquia Creek was instantly recognizable and familiar to me. Later I learned it had served as a water route for transporting Union troops and supplies to the Fredericksburg area and, at the time of our visit, had been turned into a marina and gated housing community.

We made a trip into Tappahannock, Virginia prior to my mother-in-law’s arrival. The town, which pre-dates more famous settlements such as Williamsburg and Fredericksburg, has about 2,100 residents and a nicely preserved historic downtown. Six men from the town served during the war and a Confederate monument is prominently situated on Prince Street. It’s a nice, sleepy little community with wide tree lined streets and well maintained homes. We walked around for a while, then visited the town hall, where we spent a couple of hours pouring through records, searching for information about my wife’s family, and engaged Elvira, who was up for re-election as Town Clerk, in conversation, even accepting campaign literature from her.

Our next stop was Walkerton, a town of about 900 residents situated in King and Queen County. Walkerton, where my wife’s maternal grandfather was born, was the proverbial one traffic light town, with a small number of buildings clustered around the intersections of Rt. 629 and Walkerton Road, including a one room library, church, post office, and gas station. There wasn’t much to see, but I pulled out the video camera to take footage. My attention was drawn to the “Car and Boat Wash,” where a group of men were congregated. They seemed interested in what I was doing, so recognizing this was one of those Charles Karault “On the Road” moments I walked over and asked if anyone wanted to tell the camera what life was like in Walkerton. One volunteered and said the best part of living in the town was that he could go down to the water and tell his troubles to the Mattaponi River. I thought the statement was remarkable for its representation of small town life and his personal bond with the land and river.

My wife joined me and we asked if any of the men knew families named Hill or Beale. The names were not familiar to them, but they directed us to a man pumping gas. That person also didn’t know the names, but offered to take us to the home of one of Walkerton’s oldest residents, relating that she would probably be familiar with the families. This example of Southern hospitality really threw us and, as Yankees, we politely declined and headed back to our campsite.

I should not forget to add that Walkerton does have a claim to fame with regard to Civil War history. It was here that Ulric Dahlgren and his Union cavalry raiders were ambushed, which, in turn, led to the purported discovery of the documents signed by Abraham Lincoln ordering the assassination of Jefferson Davis. The latest issue of North & South magazine (Vol. 9, number 5) has an extensive article by David E. Long, who argues the papers were the genuine article.

I remember my reaction to seeing Marye’s Heights in Fredericksburg for the first time; something foreboding and something inside whispering to me to stay away from the place. I listened to that premonition as we drove past and on to the Spottsylvania, Chancellorsville, and Wilderness battlefields.

We later packed up the tent and relocated to a motel in Richmond, spending two days touring the city and visiting the Virginia State Archives. We were now joined by Linda’s mother Gloria, who had taken the train from Providence, R.I. and emerged from the first class coach triumphant and radiant from the personalized attention she had received during her journey.

Childhood memories soften over time and Gloria had difficulty recalling the details of her last visit to Tappahannock some sixty years earlier. We did find what is now a vacant lot, but where the birthplace of her mother once stood. I became separated from the two, preoccupied with my video camera, and caught up to them on another street where they were engaged in conversation with two women. Linda and Gloria had started the conversation by asking if the women knew the Monroe family.

Strange and unexplained events that had already been set in motion were now becoming reality. One of the women turned out to be a cousin of Gloria’s. She immediately got on the phone and called another cousin, who drove over, took us back to his home, introducing us to his wife, who, as it turned out had attended Virginia State College at the same time as Gloria, though their graduating classes were a year apart. We received a guided tour of Tappahannock and wound up at Beale Memorial Baptist Church, where church members were preparing for their annual Homecoming. I was not involved in the decision and was admittedly somewhat disappointed Gloria and Linda begged off the invitation.

Rather than take the most direct route from Tappahannock to Walkerton, I decided we should take back roads, which would allow us a better opportunity to see the countryside. It was a good plan until the road we were on came to an end and we were faced with the decision of turning left or right onto another road. A man was mowing his lawn across from the intersection and rather than asking directions we decided right was the right direction. About half a mile down the road it hit us that right may not have been right afterall, so I turned the car around and pulled over when we saw the man with the lawnmower. His mailbox read “Hill,” and being that we were fairly close to Walkerton we not only asked for directions, but also if he was related to the Hill or Beale families we were seeking. He had an absolutely stunned reaction and asked if we were from out of state. When we answered yes, he told us that he was descended from the families Gloria and LInda were seeking and that he had run into the guy who had been pumping gas in Walkerton at the time of our first visit and that he had driven to Tappahannock in an effort to find us, including driving through motel parking lots in search of a Massachusetts license plate.

In yet another display of Southern hospitality, we were invited into the home of yet another previously unknown cousin, introduced to his family, shown pictures from a photo album, and then bundled into his car. He drove us to the home of Walkerton’s oldest resident, who turned out to be the same woman the guy at the gas station had wanted us to visit days before. I felt the woman, who was in her nineties, was going to crush every bone in my right hand when she shook it with hers. Though her irises were somewhat cloudy, her mind was sharp and clear. She recounted stories about the Hill and Monroe families, including one about a member of the Hill family who had been killed while driving across the bridge that spanned the Mattaponi River. The red light on my video camera never extinguished during her talk and we left her home to find cemeteries she directed us to where Beales and Hills were buried.

There’s a great lesson to be learned when visiting Civil War battlefields. If the site is preserved there will be markers that will give an overview of the battle and in some cases you can learn where a Corp or Division was positioned. The visits made during this trip left me yearning to know where the 18th Massachusetts had actually been situated and what their role had been in a particular battle. This lesson was driven home most dramatically during a later visit to the Antietam battlefield, where I learned, much to my surprise and perhaps disappointment, the 18th, along with the entire Fifth Corps, had sat on the sidelines. This information was contrary to what I had always been led to believe by my father.

The single most important place for me to visit during the trip was Bethesda Church. It was to be the holiest of all shrines, the place where Samuel Jordan was wounded and lost his arm. But life and development goes on and where once flags unfurled and men shrouded in gun smoke fired their muskets at one another there was nothing left to commemorate their actions. As I later found out at the Richmond National Battlefield, the historical sign marking the battle had been removed in the 1970’s when the local high school was built.

With nothing to guide us I decided to reconnoiter the area, directing my wife, who was driving at the time, to take this road and then take that road, all of which were seemingly roads to nowhere. Then it began to happen. A tingling sensation started in my left hand and, as we passed by an open field on our left, a sudden pain shot up the entire length of my arm to the shoulder. I told my wife to stop the car, explained what had just happened, and declared without hesitation that we were at the spot where Samuel was wounded. I had no maps, no information, no proof whatsoever of what I was saying, only that I knew for dead certain that we were at the place.

One of the side projects I’ve been involved in, as part of our research on the 18th Massachusetts, has been taking pictures of the graves of men who served with the Regiment. I wrote of this in Chasing the Dead in New Hampshire and the experience of sensing auras emanating from the graves. I’ve attempted to take pictures of Samuel Jordan’s grave at Union Street Cemetery in Franklin, MA on two different occasions. The first time was with a film camera that worked beautifully before and after I tried to snap off pictures of his grave, but stopped working when I tried to take a picture of his. The second time was with a digital camera. In that picture the left side appears to be over exposed and there’s a white transparency to it. I showed the picture to a friend who’s a very skilled photographer and he had no explanation for the resulting image.

I keep telling myself that I do not believe in ghosts or that the dead can somehow communicate with the living. But then I come back to Sullivan Ballou’s letter and it makes me wonder.
Unretouched digital photo of Samuel H. Jordan's grave

Sunday, October 29, 2006

So I know that my one little book doesn’t make me a some big wig author but last night I had a funny run in at Books-a-million (BAM) that made me feel much less of an author than I already do.

My wife wanted to pick up a book that had been referred to her by one of our Church Deacons. We drove out to North Charleston where on one side of the road is BAM and on the other is Barnes and Noble (B&N). Now since the time I emailed the corporate offices of both and only got a response from BAM, I try to do most of my book shopping at BAM.

In we went and as I headed to the Civil War section (still has two bays compared to B&N’s one) my wife went to find the recommended book. I found a copy of “The Civil War Research Guide” and it was not signed, which means someone bought the last copy and they now have a new one. I went about and looked in the magazine rack in case they had the newest issue of North and South Magazine (they didn’t) and then made my way through the clearance books.

Although normally I steer away from the Civil War books found in this section, mainly due to the almost complete lack of true history since they seem to be coffee table books aimed at the masses, I did find a wonderful gem, Eye of the Storm< by Robert Knox Sneden. This book, which I’ll post on more later (and since I paid for it, hopefully no one will think I like it because I got it for free), had been marked down from 37.50 to 12.97 – plus there would be a 10% discount at the register thanks to the magic of member cards.

My wife finally pulled me away from the book racks to head for the register. As we walked, she picked up a Napoleon Dynamite Calendar (if you have not seen this movie, watch it twice. The first time tends to be weird but the second is when you pick up all the jokes) while I picked up the copy of my book.

At the register, I did what I have done countless times in the past, here is a transcript of what then went down.

Me – (holding the book up) “Hi, this is my book you guys are selling. If you would like, I can autograph it.”

Cashier – “Wow, sure, that is cool. That would be great.”

Me – “Can I borrow a pen?”

Cashier – “Sure, which one would you like?” Giving me the choice of a Sharpee or regular black pen.

As I grab the regular black pen, and start to sign, the cashier calls the manager up. Normally I get a thank you, so I have no problem with it.

Cashier (talking to the manager) – “This guy is the author of that book”

Manager (talking to me) – “Can I help you sir?”

Me – “No, I am just signing my book that you guys are selling”

Manager – “Is it available out of our warehouse?”

Me – “I don’t know, I just picked it up off the shelf and brought it here. I do it every time you get a new copy of it.”

Manager – “Well, it has our sticker, let me check.”

Me – “Um, ok”

Manager – “Yup, it is. I just like to check, especially on Regionally Specialties.”

Me – “This is a national book”

Manager – “Oh, I know but you know, when authors bring their own books in, I just like to see if they are selling.”

Me – “You mean when they bring Print on Demand books in?”

Manager – “Yes”

Me – “This is not a POD book, Stackpole is a real publishing company out of Pennsylvania.”

Manager - (staring at me like I am lying) “Sure they are.”

Me – “You realize I didn’t bring this book in, it came from your warehouse, bought from Stackpole?”

Manager – “Well, I was just checking.”

Me – “How about I just put it up for you?”

Like I said, normally the manager says thank you and puts a sticker on it saying “Autographed Copy” and off I go. Occasionally I even get in a discussion about the book, how it came about and how Steve was really the driving force behind it and I am just thankful for him putting my name on it.

Instead, tonight the manager acted like I was trying to sell her junk and I was nothing more than a garbage man trying to pass off another smelly waste of her time. This while I am spending $40 and just trying to help her store out. At least the cashier was impressed.

Too be honest, I have more respect for the POD authors now. If this is what they have to go through at every store and they don’t give up, my hat is off to them.

Right now, I just want to curl up and think of how I can rebuild my damaged ego – maybe I’ll go to Fort Moultrie and sign a couple copies there. At least the Park Rangers are always nice to me. Better yet, maybe I’ll just watch Napoleon Dynamite for the umpteenth time – a laugh will do me good - especially as Napoleon tells his class about a group out to save Nessie.

Teacher: Your current event, Napoleon.
Napoleon Dynamite: Last week, Japanese scientists explaced... placed explosive detonators at the bottom of Lake Loch Ness to blow Nessie out of the water. Sir Godfrey of the Nessie Alliance summoned the help of Scotland's local wizards to cast a protective spell over the lake and its local residents and all those who seek for the peaceful existence of our underwater ally.


Saturday, October 21, 2006

It’s a lazy Saturday morning and my kids are watching one of the many “Halloween” shows that are targeted to kids this time of year. Much like Christmas time, I am reminded of shows that I had hoped to forget and never to see again. But my kids sure do like them and I guess that is all that counts. I am absolutely positive that I did not put my parents through this torture, even though they insist I did.

The worst part, the new toy ads are starting for the Christmas buying season. My daughter informed me she didn’t want her play kitchen anymore, she wanted a Dora one. Thankfully I sidestepped that one by telling her to ask Santa.

Poor Santa.

So while they are watching the horror known as Disney’s Halloweentown (whose plot centers around a young witch, who doesn’t know she is a witch, coming of age and saving an interdimensional town of witches she didn’t know existed but her ancestors had founded – go here if you really interested in finding out more) - I poured a cup of coffee in one of my 18th Massachusetts mugs (see Donald’s post for a picture) and caught up with some work email and while doing so thought of writing this post.

Last week my wife and I went to a church benefit which just happened to have a silent auction. Now, unfortunately for us, the benefit also had adult beverages. The parishioners who put the benefit on are pretty smart – instead of buying things with money, you buy tickets on the way in. Then you used tickets to buy stuff. It is amazing how much easier it is to part with money when it is just a ticket. Needless to say, I may have parted with too many tickets and fell in love with a print by one of the premier Charleston artists, Jim Booth.

As we walked through the tables holding the different items up for auction, we saw a few restaurant passes we wanted, gift certificates to some local stores and a couple of pieces of art. The one that caught my eye was Mr. Booth’s “Running with the Wind” which was done in honor of the inaugural "Charleston to Bermuda Race" May 11, 1997.

My wife, seeing that I liked it, put our name down and put a bid down $1 more than the current bid. We then went and sat down, enjoying other parts of the benefit – along with spending some more tickets. Did I mention how easy it was to part with tickets?

An announcement came over the PA that there was only 10 more minutes before the end of the silent auction and we walked over to take a look at where we stood. Well the person we bid over didn’t like our bid and put an extra $10 on, then she got in a bidding war with another guy and all of a sudden the sheet was half full with three names, most of the entries were not ours. So we decided to snipe.

Snipe? You have never heard of it? Well, it’s a technical term used in winning eBay auctions and either people love it or hate it, there is no in-between.

The process of sniping is easy.
    1. Decide the absolute most you are willing to pay. You only get one shot so be prepared to open the wallet
    2. Watch the auction to see if the bidding goes above what you are willing to pay
    3. About 30 seconds before the auction ends, put your bid in. This is normally too late for anyone to counter offer

There are some pitfalls to this philosophy.
    1. You may not have bid enough and end up losing
    2. Sometimes there are counter snipers out there, waiting for your offer to show and have just enough time to outbid you
    3. You might forget about when the auction ends (this has happened to me several times – luckily not for any thing I really wanted)
    4. Your computer/Internet access goes down and there is no way for you to win

But one thing outweighs all of the pitfalls, it prevents a bidding war. When we first met Steve, he and Donald were bidding on the same CDV. The picture really should have gone for no more than $50 – it went way over that because every time one person bid the other countered it. For someone on a budget (me) there is no better way to keep the price down than by snipping.

There is also the feeling of wining which just can’t be beat. Recently Donald won a couple of CDVs and told us, “I was on a complete adrenaline rush after winning the photo.” Steve replied back that, “It is quite a rush as time ticks down.” At one point I remember someone remarking that it must be the same feeling the big time gamblers get when they hit the jackpot of a lifetime.

So with this in mind, my wife pretended to bid on an alligator. I don’t know how, but she made it seem like she was interested in it. It was rather ugly and for a bit, I really thought she wanted it. I am glad she didn’t - we already have enough ugly stuff in the house that I picked up over the years!

And as the announcer got to the PA to say that the auction was over and put down the pens, she slid into the spot where the Booth print was and put the final bid down. Unlike the internet auctions, we could see the anger in the face of the two losers as she put the last bid in. For a brief moment, I felt bad – then the rush hit - either that or the effects of the adult beverages.

Will I snipe again knowing how it could make people feel? Yes, but not for the rush – for the history. EBay has truly revolutionized the way historians can gather history. We would never have been able to collect as many artifacts, letters and pictures without this wonderful site.

The three of us have taken an almost sacred vow – to chronicle the history of the 18th Massachusetts. Winning these pieces of history help us form a better overall view of the unit – losing takes us away from the goal.

Any auction we have lost due to price, we generally contact the winner to see if they have a connection to the 18th. Only one person has, Steve. The rest have bought things about the 18th for different reasons – good reasons, just not as good as ours. Thankfully, almost all will have helped us in the end. On several occasions, winners of letters have transcribed and sent us copies to add to our database.

Unfortunately there is one large group of letters, diaries and photos out there that we can not touch – the Edmund Churchill lot. Hopefully one day we will get our hands on it. Until then, we continue to snipe.



As for the print, even sober, I still like it. So I guess it’s not all that bad that we won it – now I have to find a place for it.




Friday, October 20, 2006

Note from Donald: this represents the final installment of my trip to New Hampshire from Sept. 29 to Oct. 2nd. In case you missed the first two postings and would like to read them, Part One appeared on October 10th and Part Two was added on October 11th.

On the drive to Milford. N.H. a Randy Newman song floated around in my head, as if in answer to a question I was asking myself. Amherst is a neighboring town and where William H. Holmes died. If Holmes, a destitute, tuberculosis ridden alcoholic had knocked on his door in Milford, would Captain William W. Hemenway have offered help? I want to believe he would have. But then again, maybe not. For the full story on Holmes, read Part One of Chasing the Dead in New Hampshire.

Tin can at my feet,
Think I’ll kick it down the street.
Yeah, that’s the way you treat a friend.

Right before me
Signs implore me
Help the needy,
And show them the way,
Human kindness is overflowin’
And I think it’s going to rain today.

Randy Newman

Regardless of whether he would have lent a helping hand or not, Hemenway must have sympathized with the fact that I had spent hours tromping around cemeteries in Amherst and Franklin, NH. Or maybe he just appreciated the fact that I had purchased a large basket of white mums to place on his grave.

Start with this fact. Milford, N.H. has five cemeteries and I had no idea which one he was buried in. I stopped at Riverside Cemetery simply because it was the first one I passed when I drove into the town. As luck would have it there were cemetery workers on duty and my luck got even better when they informed me the town had a computerized database of internments for all five cemeteries. A quick phone call confirmed Hemenway was buried at Riverside and, after obtaining the lot and grave number, they escorted me to the site. Finding his grave otherwise would have been a daunting task, Riverside being the largest cemetery by far of those I had visited over a three-day period.

I walked back to the car in order to park closer to the grave, as I didn’t favor lugging a fairly heavy plant a couple of hundred yards on foot. During that walk I stopped to take pictures of some unique monuments before winding up at the cemetery gates. After snapping off two pictures of the gates I was back at the car when a green Jeep Wrangler pulled up in front of me. In one of those weird coincidences of timing, my nephew Ian explained he was on his way to work and saw me in front of the gates.
Photo by Donald Thompson

William Hemenway was born in Lexington, MA, the son of Daniel and Sophia. He was twenty when he married Mary Octavia Clapp in 1857 at Boston and the father of two when a mortar shell streaked across the darkness enveloping Charleston Harbor. Six weeks after the surrender of Ft. Sumter he was enlisted as a Sergeant in Co. I of the 18th Massachusetts Infantry.

If nothing else, Hemenway was tough and a natural born leader. By July 1862 he had survived the rigors and hardships of the Peninsular campaign and been promoted to 2nd Lieutenant. By virtue of command decisions emanating from Army headquarters, the 18th Massachusetts did not see action during any of the Seven Days Battles. That was all to change on August 30th at a place that became known as Second Manassas, or Second Bull Run. When the smoke cleared the Union army was in tatters and in organized retreat toward Centreville, VA, led by a humiliated and disoriented John Pope. Of 325 men from the 18th Massachusetts who entered the battle under the command of Capt. Stephen Thomas, 42 officers and men were dead, another 99 were wounded, and 25 reported as missing in action. Hemenway was among the wounded, but not seriously enough that he was away from the Regiment. He, in fact, witnessed the slaughter at Antietam from a hill where the Fifth Corps was held in reserve and saw his second action at the Battle of Shepherdstown, West Virginia. After recrossing the Potomac River into Maryland he, along with the rest of First Brigade of the First Division of the Fifth Corps, surely would have seen the drown bodies of the 118th Pennsylvania floating downstream in the swift current.

Hemenway was not so fortunate with his second wound, incurred when struck by a shell fragment in the right leg at Fredericksburg on December 13th. He was gone from the Regiment for nearly two months while undergoing treatment at Georgetown Seminary Hospital and recuperating at home. During his furlough home he laid eyes on his daughter Mary Grace, who been born in September 1862, for the first time. While his recovery was seemingly complete, Hemenway was plagued by pain from the wound for the rest of his life and unable to stand or sit for extended periods of time.

His promotion to 1st Lieutenant on February 25, 1863 had nothing to do with merit, but rather death harvesting lieutenants in the Eighteenth. As such, he took up the march again in 1863, seeing combat at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, and, after being placed in command of Company F, during the Mine Run Campaign, and Rappahannock Station.

I can attest first hand to the debilitating effects of sunstroke. When I was a kid playing baseball on a scorching hot day, the world suddenly grew black. I don’t remember this, but was told I dropped my glove, started walking off the field, and fell flat on my face after going about five feet. At the Wilderness on May 5, 1864 men fell in droves from sunstroke, Hemenway being one of them. He wouldn’t return to the Regiment until a month later. Capt. William H. Winsor, also struck by sunstroke at the Wilderness, complained of wildly blinding headaches throughout the duration of his life.

Hemenway was promoted to the rank of Captain and placed in command of Company K on June 4, 1864, following the death of Capt. Charles F. Pray. Pray had been killed at Bethesda Church the previous day, when a gunshot tore off his leg. Hemenway, however, was never mustered as a Captain and was instead discharged from military service on September 2, 1864 at the expiration of his three-year enlistment as a First Lieutenant.

Home was Wrentham, MA for the next three years, until he moved his family to Natick, MA. Employed as a bookkeeper and perhaps undergoing a midlife crisis, Hemenway changed locations and jobs, taking up as the printer and publisher of the Milford Enterprise and Wilton, N.H. Journal newspapers in 1875. Two of his children, Ralph and Carrie would follow in his footsteps, later taking positions with the Boston Globe. Hemenway invested himself in the Milford community, joining the O.W. Lull G.A.R. Post No. 11 and served as Post Commander in 1884, while his wife Mary was a charter member of the Women’s Relief Corps. Hemenway may have very well advised the 18th Massachusetts Veterans Association of the circumstances of William Holmes’ death in Amherst at the 1901 reunion. His days probably passed quietly and peacefully until his death at age 81 on March 9, 1918.

There are always things you think of after the fact. For example I wished I had checked the Census records before I left, because I then could have taken a picture of the house the Hemenway family resided in. As with the towns of Amherst and Franklin, Hemenway, if brought back to life, probably wouldn’t have noticed much change in Milford. Certainly he would have recognized the town hall built in 1869 and the Odd Fellows Hall located two buildings away. He would have been equally familiar with the First Congregational Church, which has stood since 1833, the John Shepard House of 1741 construction, the Milford Cotton and Woolen Manufacturing Company buildings erected in 1810 and converted to Senior Citizen housing in 1983, as well as Centenial High School, which opened in 1894 and is now known as Bales Elementary, and the Civil War monument standing on a park like rotary in the town center. However, he probably would have been stumped by the existence of a 7-11 located about a quarter of a mile from the downtown area.

Hemenway would not have known Harriet Wilson, who left Milford probably ten years before he took up residence. She was a black servant who, in 1859, published an autobiography, the first book by a black female ever published in the United States. Hers was not a happy tale, but one of mistreatment by her employers. The book, Our Nig, or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, faded into obscurity until rediscovered by Dr. Henry L. Gates, Jr. of Harvard University in 1983. That discovery led to an effort to establish a memorial to Harriet Wilson in the town. From what I’ve learned fund raising efforts are still ongoing and thus far stand at close to half of the $112,000 needed to pay for the memorial. Her story, which is available in paperback, would certainly provide insight into the isolated existence of a free black woman and the apparent racist attitudes found in Pre-Civil War New Hampshire.

Photo by Donald Thompson


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

It was raining, it was pouring, but this was one old man who was not snoring. After falling asleep around 2:30 a.m., I was wide-awake at 5:00 a.m., with an hour to kill on a Sunday morning before either Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks opened. They say the longest hours in Nashua, N.H. are just before the dawn. You get no argument from me on that one.

After attending a brunch with my family, during which time I silently debated whether to sponsor my nephew Ian in the 2007 Nathan’s hot dog eating contest, I dropped people off at the Manchester airport, hooked up with the highway again and headed north with a certain degree of uncertainty. My destination was Franklin Falls. The map listed a town by that name, minus the word Falls. Not to fear, as it turned out they were one in the same.

I received quite a welcome as I entered the town, ah hem, city of Franklin. Just as I crossed into the downtown area a huge flash of white light filled the car’s back window followed by a loud bang. When I saw the flash my immediate thought was that I had run a stop light and the town, ah hem, city, possessed the world’s most powerful traffic camera. I was convinced, too, the bang I’d heard was some device that had latched onto the vehicle’s rear axle and at any second would be jerked to a sudden stop and the car, minus back wheels, would be tilted upward at a fifteen-degree angle. Imagine my relief when I was able to keep driving and later learned an electrical box on a light pole had exploded.

Now that I’m thinking about it, the timing of the explosion and my arrival at the town’s, ah hem, city’s police station may have been responsible for the seemingly chilly reception I received. In these days of post 9-11 terrorism threats it can be quite comforting for some to speak to an officer who’s standing behind bullet proof glass, his right hand mere inches from his holster. I politely asked for directions to the town’s, ah hem, city’s cemetery, cautioning myself not to make any sudden or indiscreet movements. I was motivated out of concern for the officer, believing a ricocheting bullet would strike him if he made a sudden decision to fire his weapon at me. I repeated the directions he gave me, he nodded, and I jumped back in the car and promptly headed, as it turned out, in the opposite direction of where I needed to go. I certainly can’t accuse the officer of not having a sense of humor.

All right already, I’ll explain the repeated use of “ah hem.” Franklin, which is officially designated a city, has a population, according to the 2004 U.S. Census, of 8,683 people and it’s downtown area covers four or five very short blocks. Maybe it was the weather, but it had the feel of being a worn down and dreary little place to live in. I’m not convinced a bright shinning sun would have altered that perception. We should give the City’s Web page developers credit for at least trying, even though everything but the home page has been under construction since 2005. If you were a fire fighter in Franklin driving a 1938 model truck, you’d probably be just a wee bit envious of the fleet of late model cars the police cruise around in.

I know I shouldn’t be so rough on Franklin. There are dozens upon dozens of mill towns scattered throughout New England that went into steep economic decline when the textile and paper mills abandoned them for the sunny South. Universally their motto has become “live by the mills, die by the mills.” I’m descended from men and women who toiled in mills stretching from Lawrence, MA to Pawtucket, RI, and take more pride in that than I do with other family lines that can be traced to the royal houses of Europe. I empathize with the incredibly long hours spent in terrible working conditions, all for a mere pittance of a pay. They were good people, who laughed, danced, and sang, but whose labors led them to age before their time and to early deaths. In fact, death and a grave were what had brought me to Franklin.

Charles Tilton Cunningham was born Nov. 10, 1840 at Dobbs Ferry, Westchester County, N.Y., the son of James H. and Lucy Marilla (Robinson) Cunningham. By 1861 he was residing in Wrentham, MA and working as a paper maker, when he enlisted as a Private in Co. I of the 18th Massachusetts Infantry. He was engaged with the Regiment during the Peninsula Campaign in the spring of 1862, including the siege at Yorktown. On August 19, 1862, after being evacuated by hospital transport at Harrison’s Landing, he was admitted to Hampton General Hospital at Ft. Monroe, diagnosed with Chronic Diarrhea and Typhoid Fever. Cunningham was to spend the next five months recuperating until discharged due to disability on January 27, 1863.

Cunningham may have actually been fortunate in his illness. At the time of his admission to the hospital the 18th Mass. had been reduced to 899 officers and men and the Regiment would suffer a combined 33 per cent causality rate in terms of killed and wounded in two battles, Second Bull fought on August 30th and at Fredericksburg on December 13th. The actual rates at Fredericksburg were even higher, with 40 per cent of the 350 officers and men killed or wounded

Returning to Wrentham following his discharge, he married a woman named Sophia in 1863. Six months later they were in Lawrence, MA, where Charles continued work as a paper maker, and the couple’s three children, Charles, Nellie, and Myrtielana, were born. Perhaps in search of better wages, the family migrated north to Franklin in 1875, where Sophia died three years later. With children then ranging in age from 6 to 14, Cunningham quickly remarried to Minerva G. Bean at Franklin. They would later have a daughter, Edith, born Oct. 14, 1881. It’s unknown how long Charles continued to work in the mills, but he lived out the rest of his days in Franklin and died at his home on Russell St. on April 4, 1914.

As with my visit to Amherst cemeteries, I had no idea where Cunningham’s grave was located. I ruled out the Catholic Cemetery and parked on a lane in the town cemetery (directions complements of the Fire Department), where sheltered by an oversized umbrella took the first steps of what would prove to be a three-hour search. I have a method when searching for graves. I immediately rule out the newer sections of cemeteries, which can be judged by the size, shape, and type of stone used, and walk the cemetery by sections, trying to read names in as many as two or three rows at a time, but invariably you can’t ever maintain a straight line in an older cemetery. And then there are the times when you pause, because a grave compels you to read the inscription. Children always have the most heart rendering epitaphs. Losing one child at any early age is a difficult burden for any parent to bear, but losing three within a year would crumble anyone’s spirit and faith in God.

At the two-hour mark I began to have doubts and half an hour later had totally abandoned hope of discovering Cunningham’s grave, although I did discover my Timberland boots were not necessarily waterproof. I’m stubborn though and to prove to myself that I had given the effort my best shot I slogged on. The very last section to cover held thirty or forty gravestones. By this time my mind was wandering and pre-occupied with thoughts of a 20-ounce Dunkin Donuts coffee. Then, suddenly, I did a double take! Literally. C-u-n-n-i-n-g-h-a-m. I know this is going to sound strange, but I was laughing and beside myself as I approached the grave.

If you seek the dead, they will let you find them.
Cunningham grave - Photo by Donald Thompson

I know this is going to sound even stranger, but I have a ritual whenever I visit the dead of the 18th Massachusetts. I introduce myself outloud, informing them that I’m the third great-grandson of Sgt. George Washington Thompson and the second great-grandson of Pvt. Samuel Harris Jordan, both of Co. I. I do not, repeat, do not, believe in this stuff. I only wonder if the mind is so powerful that it allows one to imagine an aura emanating from a grave. I’ve sensed unique qualities of sadness, laughter, curiosity, kindness, well being, silence, and a leave me alone attitude at markers from Maine to Georgia. After my introduction I then read the information I have on the deceased aloud, speaking as if I were speaking to someone still alive. Again, not believing in this stuff, I had a sense of warmth emanating from Cunningham’s grave, which seemed to increase when I laid my hand on his marker in a gesture of parting.

My visit to Franklin was not quite over, however. I had to see the house where the Cunningham family had resided. I don’t know where Cunningham’s first wife Sophie is buried, but I did learn from the cemetery his daughter Myrtielana married a gentleman named Robert T. Wallace and died in 1954. I did some further digging after my return home. The 1930 Census lists the home being owned by Robert and Myrtielana, with Edith, the youngest of the Cunninghams, a boarder. The 1932 Franklin City Directory documented Edith was a Superintendent with the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company. It’s possible she may have inherited the house as her brother-in-law and sister were childless, and possible, too, she lived there until the mid or late 1960’s, as she died in 1969.

I can’t imagine the green, two-story house sitting at the bottom of Russell Street has changed much since it was built. I was standing in the middle of the street preparing to take a second picture when I heard a voice call out, “Excuse me, but what are you doing?” I looked up and saw a woman staring at me, arms folded, gripped by suspicion. It was an uncomfortable situation for both of us. I offered an apology, followed by a quick explanation. She became less vigilant and even extended an invitation for me to come inside the house, which I politely declined. Rather I held my ground, rattling off facts about Charles Cunningham and his family. You could see the look of astonishment register on her face as she realized I was telling her more about the house’s history than she had ever known before.

Upstairs from a second floor window a young child was peeking at me from behind a curtain. It struck me then and there that maybe, just maybe, Edith Cunningham had peered down at a stranger from that very same window when she was a child.

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We're captive on the carousel of time
We can't return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game
Joni Mitchell

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

I guess I should thank my nephew Ryan and his new bride Tracey. Two significant events in their lives have led to my taking vacation days from work and I suppose if they hadn’t gotten married September 30th the section of my pay stub where the number of vacation hours used to date are recorded would have continued to read “0.” In the very near future the number 16 will replace the zero. I certainly don’t lack for vacation time, because at last look I had accrued nine weeks of paid leave. But, hey, what can I say except I’m a very dedicated employee.

Like last September, when I attended their engagement party, I took advantage of the opportunity and chased the dead of the 18th Massachusetts. The last trip took me to the Springfield, Mass. graves of Gen.James Barnes and Sgt. William Alderman and then on to Boston to continue research at the public library. This time I set off on a quest to find graves located in Amherst, Milford, and Franklin, New Hampshire.

Take away the telephone poles and cars and cover the asphalt with dirt and what I saw when I drove into the center of Amherst, N.H. is what William H. Holmes saw when he walked into that town on July 1, 1901. The sense of a time warp is not imaginary, but governed by strict town ordinances which mandate what home and business owners can do with their properties. They’re limited to a pre-approved list of historic paint colors for buildings and one choice for outside Christmas lights, white. If you believe in the rights of property owners to do what they will then Amherst is not the town you want to live in. It is the type of town you want to live in if you appreciate an idyllic, bucolic New England village with a large town common bordered by a steepled Congregational Church, brick town hall, and houses dating to the early 1800’s.

William H. Holmes was a 22 year-old Jeweler from Mansfield, MA at the time of his enlistment at Dedham on August 21, 1861 and was mustered into service as a Private in Co. H of the 18th Massachusetts Infantry three days later. During his three year stint Holmes was a cook for the Regiment’s Field Staff and also assigned to assist Horace Sherman, the Hospital Steward, acting in this capacity whenever Sherman was absent. Holmes was evidently skilled at scrounging up food for the Field Staff’s mess, as Asst. Surgeon Joshua Wilbur attested to in a letter to his wife in July 1863. “Our cook went off yesterday and got 4 pounds of cheese, 1 dozen eggs, 1 loaf of bread and 2 dozen biscuits, also a gallon of milk.”

Returned to civilian life on September 2, 1864, Holmes stayed close to home, joining the Charles W. Carroll G.A.R. Post No. 144 in Dedham in 1871. In what might have been a harbinger of things to come, his membership was suspended two years later.

Holmes was reportedly a widower when he married Lizzie R. Emmons at Rochester, N.H. on June 8, 1887. While this is purely speculation, it’s possible she may have been a widow, as there’s a Lizzie R. Emmons listed as the wife of B. Frank Emmons in the 1880 Census for Lowell, MA. That particular Lissie Emmons was 27, born in New Hampshire, the mother of a son Walter, and worked in a cotton mill. What is less open to speculation is that she was pregnant at the time she married Holmes, based on the birth of a daughter E.H. in the same year she married Holmes.

As would be attested to in later affidavits, Lizzie Holmes ran a boarding house during part of their marriage. Her husband would leave for extended periods whenever he had money, returning, and perhaps begging forgiveness, only when he was broke. In 1890, Holmes, then 57, was issued an Invalid Pension of $12 per month. He didn’t claim his disabilities, a hernia, eczema, and rheumatism, were incurred during his military service, simply that they prevented him from working.

In 1896 Holmes left for good and in 1898 was a resident of the Southern branch of the National Soldiers Home in Hampton, Virginia. Lizzie, by then in dire financial straits and poor health, made an appeal to the Pension Bureau for one-half of her husband’s benefits, on the grounds of desertion. She was turned down after three years of trying, unable to prove that Holmes was a widower at the time of their marriage. Mrs. Sarah A.P. Plummer, who worked for a charitable society in Newburyport, MA, had investigated Lizzie’s story and concluded she “was the long suffering wife of an alcoholic.” Plummer’s sworn written statement related that Lizzie had received financial assistance from her society for a few months before she and E.H. removed to Mansfield, MA. Once there, Lizzie was forced to give up care of her daughter to an acquaintance, while she herself became a ward of the town.

On the day he wandered into Amherst, Holmes checked into a boarding house and the following day a doctor was called to examine him. There was a quick, but certain diagnosis that he was in the terminal stages of Tuberculosis. The doctor was wrong in his prediction as to how long Holmes had to live, but not by much, as Holmes clung to life until July 26th.

Holmes’ entire inventory, taken after his death, consisted of a suit of clothing, an old overcoat, a rucksack containing a few “rotten” clothing items and some handkerchiefs, and 37 cents. His effects also included the receipt for his June 1901 pension and voucher for September.

The Charles H. Phelps G.A.R. Post No. 43 did not turn their backs on a fellow veteran, providing for his burial in the town cemetery. The town itself did try to find relatives and was successful in locating one, but that individual was unable to assist due to a battle with cancer. There is no response from the Pension Bureau in Holmes’ file to indicate whether they reimbursed the town for medical and housing costs.

While the local G.A.R. and town of Amherst didn’t turn their backs on Holmes, the 18th Massachusetts Veteran’s Association did. In 1902 at the 41st Anniversary dinner, the Secretary of the association read the facts pertaining to Holmes’ death to the membership. “It was the sense of the association that it was not expedient to establish any precedent in the case and that it remain as it was for the present. It was voted to extend a vote of thanks to the Post and Corps of New Hampshire for the services rendered in behalf of Comrade Holmes.”

With no information to guide me, I walked through three different cemeteries, including approximately fifty acres of the town cemetery in search of Holmes’ grave. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a marker and theorized the town and G.A.R. had done all they were going to do for a stranger. One marker in the Town Cemetery, however, caught my eye. It read as follows:

Capt. Frederick A. Nourse
1840 –1904
Co. A, 14th Regt. N.C. Heavy Artillery
Hattie S. Nourse
1844-1921
Fred L. Nourse
1874-1907
Rest Darling Rest

My immediate thought was that this was the gravesite of a former Confederate officer and naturally my curiosity was peaked as to how he wound up buried in a New Hampshire cemetery. Cautionary note: sometimes the imagination can run wild when reality, in fact, tells a very different story.

Frederick Nourse was born in Marblehead, MA and saw service with three regiments during the Civil War, including the 8th Mass. Infantry, the 17th Mass. Infantry, and as a 2nd Lieutenant and Captain with U.S. Colored Troops 14th Heavy Artillery. The latter unit was garrisoned at New Berne, N.C. until January 1865 and then at Beaufort until December 1865, when they mustered out of service.

Now the question becomes where he’s really buried and his connection to Amherst. The American Civil War Research Database states he resided in Marion County, Oregon after the war and is buried at City View Cemetery in Salem. The 1850 Census confirms he was a 10 year old residing with his parents, Rea and Mary, in Marblehead, with his brother and three sisters. There are a number of Frederick A. Nourse’s recorded in City Directories for Massachusetts post Civil War, but no directories are listed for Oregon. Still, and even though he’s not connected to the 18th Massachusetts, I’m going to try to continue the chase. I sent an Email to the Marion County, Oregon Historical Society to see if they have any biographical information.

On the drive back to Nashua I spotted a rare and used bookstore. It’s always painful for me to venture into stores like this, because there are always more books on hand than my wallet can suffer. The same situation developed here. So rather than spending the hundreds and hundreds I could have, if I had had hundreds to spend, I “settled” for a very good condition first edition set of Grant’s Memoirs. The owner told me something that I didn’t know, which is a rumor that Mark Twain ghostwrote large sections of the autobiography. Whether there is a factual basis to this rumor, it is true that Twain’s publishing company, Charles L. Webster and Company, secured the rights to publish the memoirs.

With all this in mind, i.e. walking through cemeteries searching for graves of men who served with the 18th Massachusetts, posting obituaries on Find a Grave, and being the only one of four children in my family who actually wants their body planted in the ground, I still can’t believe my own brother called me “morbid.”

Amherst, NH - Photo by Donald Thompson

Amherst, NH - Photo by Donald Thompson

Amherst, NH - Photo by Donald Thompson

Amherst, NH - Photo by Donald Thompson

Grave of Capt. Frederick A. Nourse - Photo by Donald Thompson