Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Exeter's Civil War general

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When I go somewhere in New Hampshire to speak about Our War, I try to include a bit of local Civil War history. While writing the book, I purposely named the hometowns of most of the characters. Especially early in the war, soldiers from one city, town or area tended to volunteer together and to serve in the same company or regiment. This created both cohesion in the ranks and a link between the companies and the people back home.

On Saturday at 11 a.m., I’ll be at Water Street Bookstore in Exeter for a signing. This is a great independent bookseller in a bookish town. The last time I was there, in 2009, it was to sign Abraham Lincoln in New Hampshire, my update of Elwin Page’s classic 1929 history. My most important addition to the story was a recently discovered newspaper story about Lincoln’s speech in Exeter. Page had found no contemporary account of this speech.

As I sat in the store on a lovely autumn day, I watched how the light of the afternoon sun played on the red brick of the building across the street. About halfway through the session, I realized this was the Exeter town hall – the building where Lincoln had spoken.

In Our War, the most prominent soldier from Exeter is Gilman Marston. He had been a lawyer in town for 20 years and was a sitting congressman when the war began. He and another congressman, Mason Tappan of Bradford, commanded the first two regiments from the state, Tappan the First, Marston the Second. The First fought no battles, came home and disbanded after three months. The Second became one of the hardest-fighting regiments in the Union army.

Marston figured prominently in the regiment’s first battle, at Bull Run. For my chapter on this, I drew mainly on what the men wrote about it at the time. There was a lot to choose from. A day or two before the battle, Marston told a visitor to the Second’s camp that he had only one complaint about his men: “They are too intelligent. They are constantly writing home.”

The Second changed positions often during the battle before joining the ignominious stampede back to Washington. Mainly the men found themselves targets of an enemy they could not see to fire on. It was frustrating, not to mention dangerous. Marston was shot just below the right shoulder during the battle and fell on his face. Despite the pain of this wound he surprised his men by returning to battle after it was bandaged.

Nevertheless, many officers blamed Marston for the Second’s miserable experience that day. “Our commanding officers didn’t seem to know what to do,” wrote Ai B. Thompson, a lieutenant from Concord. “Marston is plucky and rash but he was not born to command.” Doubting that Marston knew a single thing about military tactics, Capt. Simon G. Griffin, a native of Nelson, joined the other company commanders in signing a petition calling for Marston’s ouster.

Griffin later regretted the petition, calling it “an outrageous act of insubordination.” And Marston proved himself to be a capable leader, rising to brigadier general and leading men in many major battles before the war’s end.

After the war he returned to the U.S. House, served as a state representative and filled out a U.S. Senate term for 3½ months. He died in 1890 at the age of 78 and is buried in Exeter.

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