Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Straight out of Dickens

Several years ago I had the privilege of interviewing the late Donald Murray, the University of New Hampshire writing guru. Don sent me a laminated, bumper-sticker-size card with his motto: “Nulla dies sine linea” – “Never a day without a line.” If it was good enough for Don Murray, it’s good enough for me.

Thus, as much as I enjoy blogging, giving talks and engaging readers about my new book, the question of what to write next is already nipping at my heels.

Sgt. (later Capt.) James H. Marshall
Recently I started scouting for a new topic at the New Hampshire Historical Society. The first thing I looked at was a collection the society recently acquired – the papers of James H. Marshall, a soldier of the 8th New Hampshire Volunteers.

It’s a big collection, more than I could read in a single morning, but I began with the journal Marshall kept as a teenager before the war. Reading it reminded me of one of the many things I love about research: the way old paper transcends time. Marshall’s journals and letters were saved because he and his descendants hoped he had something to say to the future. When a researcher picks up these papers, he or she represents that future, and the human connection is deeply satisfying.

Marshall was born in Nashua in 1840. The clear writing and thinking in his journal suggest a bright young mind. One entry is a richly detailed autobiographical essay written during the late 1850s. To the modern eye, the essay is a reminder of the hardships common to Marshall’s time: mortal illness, the loss of parents at a young age and the consequences of such conditions. Marshall could be a character out of Dickens.

His mother, Fanny, died when he was a boy, and he and his father John went to live with his grandmother, “the tenderest and most indulgent of guardians.” While working as a mill boss, John Marshall began to suffer chronic breathing problems. He and one of James’s uncles set sail for Key West and Havana looking for a healthy climate. James met his father at the train station when he returned. Six years old at the time, James had grown so much his father did not recognize him. John Marshall died of consumption a few months later.

For James's care, his father managed to leave $3,000, an enormous sum, but James’s guardian squandered both the boy’s money and his own. This may explain why James went to Milwaukee at age 14 to work for an uncle. His Grandmother Hopkins – “the only parent that I ever knew” – died the following year, and he returned to Nashua High School and started a literary society that attracted nine members. When the time came, there was no money for college. He went to Boston to learn the crockery business from another uncle.

The last pages of the journal tell of James’s adventures before the Civil War, including a long report on a fishing trip. His companion on that trip was Charlie Copp, a young Nashua bookseller who went on to win the Congressional Medal of Honor with the 9th New Hampshire regiment. Charlie plays a cameo role in an Our War chapter about his brother Elbridge of the 3rd New Hampshire.

When James Marshall answered President Lincoln’s first call for troops by enlisting in the 1st New Hampshire Volunteers on April 30, 1861, he was 21 years old, 5-foot, 4½ inches tall and had blue eyes and brown hair. After the 1st served out its three months, he joined the 8th, mustered in as a sergeant and rose through the ranks to captain.

He survived the war and took up his late father’s profession, working in a mill as a supervisor. Also like his father, he died of consumption, and young – at the age of 37.

I plan to return to the New Hampshire Historical Society to read the wartime letters of James H. Marshall. The 8th New Hampshire spent much of the war in Louisiana, and I expect him to be an observant witness to its experiences.

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