Tuesday, December 17, 2013

History echoes in an old New Hampshire church

The Congregational Church is on Amherst's town green.
New England is rich in buildings that have witnessed history. Once you learn some of that history, you cannot stand in them without hearing its echoes.

I sensed this again last week as I gave a Civil War talk at the Congregational Church of Amherst, N.H.  Winter came to New Hampshire a little early this year, and snow and ice crunched under my feet as I entered the church hall. 
Although I had to check to make sure, I believed the funeral of a Civil War soldier whose epitaph is one of my favorites had been held in the sanctuary upstairs from where I was to speak. And I knew of another much-admired young Amherst man who had studied to be a Congregational minister before going off to his death during the war.

My friend Dave Morin had sent me a clip about the second soldiers funeral. It came from The Farmers’ Cabinet, the town’s weekly newspaper and main source of information from the front during the Civil War. The article, signed only “Signa,” was published on Oct. 29, 1863. The dead man was Lyman Beecher Sawtelle, named after the Calvinistic preacher who fathered Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher.

Lyman Beecher Sawtelle
Sawtelle began his working life in his early teens as an apprentice printer at the Cabinet office in town. He later moved to Boston, where he decided to become a Congregationalist pastor. He entered Kimball Union Academy in Meriden in 1858 and Dartmouth in 1861.

His Kimball Union principal, Cyrus Richards, wrote of Sawtelle’s three years there: “His religious character during all the time he was with us was consistent with his early consecration. His place was always filled in the religious meeting, public and private. . . . As a scholar, he soon showed, that he would take and maintain a high rank in a most excellent and talented class of forty or fifty. . . . At the time of his graduating, his class voluntarily chose him to pronounce the Valedictory address. He had a terse, manly, bold style of composition, and a truly eloquent and impressive manner of speaking, with one of the best modulated and most powerful voices that I ever heard in so young a man.”

After his freshman year at Dartmouth, Sawtelle joined the 10th New Hampshire Volunteers at the age of 22. He did not flourish as a soldier. His religious and scholarly ways and his physical slightness isolated him. Yet he saw value in what army service taught him.

Sawtelle's gravestone
“The Sophomore year of my class has passed by, and I am no wiser for it, in one sense,” he said after returning home during the summer of 1863. “My Freshman year in the U.S. service will soon be over, and this so far as experience and discipline for life’s work is concerned, will perhaps prove no bad equivalent.”

When Sawtelle fell ill in Virginia, he was sent to the hospital in Hampton, where he found a place to read and write. “Take away my books, papers, &c, and you take away a part of my existence,” he had written home. The assistant surgeon wrote later that Sawtelle had been a patient, a nurse and a ward master at the hospital and that “he stood among the first in my regard, and that of all my officers.”

Sawtelle came home to Amherst and died on Sept. 23, 1863.

For his funeral, Signa wrote, the Congregational meetinghouse in Amherst was “well-nigh filled with mourners.” The young man “who lay before us robed for the grave [was] so changed that those who saw him a year since, buoyant, hopeful, cheerful, full of vigor, failed to recognize their associate and friend. . . . It was not the first gathering in that sacred place, to bury the youthful, noble, patriotic soldier, whose previous life had been offered as a sacrifice upon our country's altar.”

Charles Phelps
Signa was referring, among others, to Charles Phelps, who had recently been sent to the grave from the same church.

Phelps, a 5th New Hampshire sergeant and one of the first volunteers from Amherst, was a good soldier and had risen quickly in the ranks. At Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, he killed the rebel marksman who had shot Col. Edward E. Cross. The 5th’s monument on the battlefield marks the spot where Cross fell mortally wounded. If you look out from the face of it, you can easily see the boulder behind which the marksman fired. Lt. Col. Charles Hapgood, an Amherst merchant before the war, was talking with Cross when he was hit. He ordered Phelps to shoot the marksman, and Phelps complied. Later that day Phelps was himself shot and killed.

I first visited Phelps’s grave years ago at Amherst’s Meadow View Cemetery, where Sawtelle also lies. Phelps died at 21. His gravestone is tall and white and carries this epitaph: “A young man, but an old soldier.”

As I had hoped, my friend Bob Korkuc arrived early for my talk at Amherst. Bob is the resident expert on Phelps, and he confirmed for me that Phelps’s funeral had been held in this very church a century and a half ago.

During my talk I was able to pause, point upstairs and say that the words on Phelps’s tombstone had come from the eulogy given by the pastor at his funeral. I have found a few earlier uses of the phrase, but I first saw it on Phelps’s grave. It struck me then – and strikes me now – as a particularly apt way of describing the soldier’s experience in Phelps’s war or any other.

Phelps's gravestone at Meadow View Cemetery

No comments:

Post a Comment