Sunday, April 28, 2013

Front-page story

In the fall of 1863, Private William S. Marston of the 3rd New Hampshire Volunteers sat down to write a letter home to Exeter. “Mother,” he began, “I think you will be as well pleased to have me send you a New South and write on the margin that I am well, as you would be to have me write a long letter.”

Scribbled in pencil, Marston’s letter in the margins of the newspaper's front page hangs today in a frame on the wall of a gallery at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. It is part of an exhibit called “Blood and Ink: Front Pages from the Civil War.”

The New South, the optimistically named newspaper on which Marston wrote, was a pro-Union weekly published from 1862 until the war’s end out of the post office at Port Royal, S.C. Union troops had captured and occupied the port in late 1861. It became the headquarters of the Army of the South. The army’s postmaster, the Bostonian Joseph H. Sears, edited and published the paper.

After the white residents of Beaufort and the surrounding area fled, former slaves and northern cotton speculators took their land. Abolitionists, including Milton and Esther Hawks, both doctors from Manchester, N.H., came down to help the liberated slaves. The New South reported on these developments as well as battles, skirmishes and military movements in the area.

Marston wrote his letter on the paper’s Oct. 24, 1863, edition, which you can read here. Union troops, including Marston’s regiment and the 4th and 7th New Hampshire Volunteers, had taken Forts Wagner and Gregg on Morris Island after a summer of bloody fighting and siege. Marston’s mother no doubt enjoyed The New South’s report on how quiet things were now.

Like most newspapers of that time and well into the 20th century, The New South used jokes and anecdotes, known as fillers, to even out its columns. Here’s one from the Oct. 24 paper: “Two sailors were sitting on the gunwale of their shop drinking grog. ‘This is meat and drink,’ said Jack and fell overboard as he was speaking. ‘And now you have got washing and lodging,’ cooly remarked Tom.”

In a postwar memoir called Anecdotes of the Civil War in the United States, Edward D. Townsend, an assistant adjutant general working under Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, wrote about the triumphant moment to which Sears and his printing operation contributed.

Henry Ward Beecher
On April 14, 1865, exactly four years after Union soldiers had abandoned Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, Townsend directed the ceremony reclaiming of the fort. The speaker was the country’s most prominent clergyman, Henry Ward Beecher.

Sears, who was still the publisher of The New South, used his printing operation to produce programs for the grandees invited to the event and copies of Beecher’s speech for the press covering it. Sears apologized to Townsend for the quality of the printing. “I regret that our type and presses can do no better work,” he said. “My excuse is that the sand, which frequently rises in clouds here and penetrates even to the sacred precincts of our sanctus sanctorum, pays no regard to types and presses, and they soon wear out.”

When Townsend asked Sears for the printing bill, Sears replied: “Allow me to present this job to the United States.”

The flag-raising at Fort Sumter, where the war had begun, played second fiddle to a much bigger story in the papers that weekend. Just hours after Beecher spoke, John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre. The president died the next morning.

As for Private Marston, who wrote to his mother in the margins of the newspaper, he had been wounded at Secessionville, S.C., on June 16, 1862. At about the time he wrote his mother, he transferred to the Signal Corps. He was discharged at Hilton Head, S.C., on Aug. 17, 1864. He lived till 1910 and is buried in Exeter.

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