Friday, January 24, 2014

Elias Nason's diary (1862): Deeper into war

The year 1862 pulled Exeter, N.H., deeper into the war. The one bright spot from the front was the Union victory at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, but even that came at high cost. Defeat and retreat on the Virginia Peninsula in June, a second thumping at Bull Run in late August and the slaughter at Fredericksburg in December all brought a collective gloom to town. Personal grief visited the households of many local men who were maimed or killed or died of disease in the South.

Through all this, in his diary the Rev. Elias Nason remained an obedient observer and a fairly cheerful one. When Lincoln called for 300,000 more troops in the summer, Nason spoke at a recruiting meeting and was proud when Exeter easily filled its quota. He continued to record bird sightings, ice-skating parties and lectures at the Town Hall.  

More Maine regiments stopped in town on their way south, and Nason kept close track of the New Hampshire regiments with large contingents of boys from Exeter. At year’s end, he ticked off 10 such regiments in the field. He omitted the regiments that ha few or no local boys – the 7th, 13th and 14th, all three-year-regiments by then gone south, and the nine-month 15th and 16th, recently arrived in Louisiana.

Nason back-filled his accounts of battles. He could not have known on Sept. 17, 1862, for example, which men from Exeter had been killed or wounded at Antietam.

Nason’s 1862 diary was published in 1863. He opened the published version with a few facts about Exeter: 49 miles north of Boston on the B&M Railroad line, situated at the head of tidal water and navigation on the Squamscott River, eight or nine churches, a courthouse, two hotels, “a well-endowed academy,” several factories, population 3,269.

I’ve abridged the diary, but it can be read in its entirety here.

Jan. 1 – Cold and windy. Dr. Wm. G. Perry prepares his annual bill for the mortality of Exeter, from which it appears that the whole number of deaths in town in 1861 was 58; of which 29 were males and 29 females.

Jan. 3 – Mr. Oliver Lane kills four hogs – weighing in all 2150 lbs. – fattened in one pen. Mrs. Sarah Ann, wife of Thomas McNary, fifer in the 3d N.H. regt., dies, aged 22 years.

Jan. 6 – The pupils of the 2d District Grammar School, with their very excellent teacher, Mr. Aura L. Gerrish, enjoy a sleigh ride to Portsmouth and the Navy Yard.

Jan. 7 – Col. G. Marston, nearly recovered from his wound, is now in command of the gallant N.H. 2d reg’t.

Jan. 8 – Very fine sleighing. Many people skating on the river and Miss A.M. is said to lead the van. Four lads expelled from the academy. Cause; – best known to themselves.

Jan. 9 – Box of quilts, pillow cases, etc. sent to Capt. H.H. Pearson, Co. C. sixth N.H. reg’t. at Washington, D.C., by the ladies of Exeter.

Jan. 10 – Thursday opens mildly and the sun shines out very pleasantly at 9 a.m. Many of our mechanics are employed in the Portsmouth Navy Yard. Ther. 42 at 2 p. m.

Jan. 18 – The 6th N.H. regt., which contains about 40 Exeter men, has arrived at Hatteras Island.

Jan. 21 – Mr. Eldridge lectures on the social and religious condition of Georgia. S.J. [Supreme Judicial] Court sits – Judge S. D. Bell, presiding. Charles Smith aged 14 years skates from “Beach Hill” to the village – 4 miles in 30 minutes.

Jan. 31 – A clear and beautiful day. Fine sleighing. Albert F. Marsh, Co. C, N.H. 6th regt., dies at Camp Winfield, Hatteras Island, N.C., aged 18 years.

Feb. 5 – Dr. Gleason commences a course of very popular lectures at the town hall. Truth and error are amusingly interblended.

Neal Dow, colonel of the 13th
Maine regiment. A former rnayor
of Portland, he favored prohibition
and abolition.
Feb. 18 – Bells are rung at noon and at 5 p. m., and 24 guns are fired in commemoration of the capture of Fort Donelson by Gen. U. S. Grant. The Me. 13th regt. Col. Neal Dow, passes through town. Anniversary of the “Mission School,” at the Town Hall in the evening. Mr. Wm. R. Leavitt, Co B, 3d N. H. regt., dies at Hilton Head, S. C. aged 51.

Feb. 22 – Washington’s birth day is commemorated by a meeting of the citizens at the Town Hall, the reading of Washington’s Farewell Address, etc.

Feb. 28 – It snows all day. Snow is now between three and four feet deep in the forest. The children of the primary School District No. 2, make a quilt of 61 squares, each having the name of a contributor for the N.H. 2d regt.

March 9 – The Rev. Mr. Nason lectures before the “Christian Fraternity.” James H. Gasand, 14th Mass. regt., dies about this time at Fort Albany, near Washington, D. C. Battle between the “Monitor” and “Merrimack.” Asa Beals, formerly of this town, aged 32, is killed on board the “Cumberland.” [The Merrimack (a/k/a the CSS Virginia) rammed and sank the Cumberland, a 20-year-old 50-gun sailing frigate, on March 8 at Newport News, Va.]

March 12 – Mrs. Lizzie B. (Holbrook), wife of Mr. Aura L. Gerrish, Teacher, dies, aged 20.

March 18 – The academical term closes and students gladly start for “Home, sweet home!” Friends of the Rev. Mr. Hooper assemble at his house and present him about $100 in cash; together with wood, flour, etc.

Lincoln liked the humorist Artemus Ward, but
apparently he drew a small crowd in Exeter. 
March 24 – Mr. Chas. F. Browne, alias “Artemus Ward,” lectures at the Town Hall on the “Children in the Wood,” to a small audience. [Ward, Abraham Lincoln’s favorite humorist, had been a printer in Lancaster, N.H., early in life.]  

March 31 – The ladies send a box of clothing, etc. to Co. B, Capt. Stanyon, 8th N.H. regt., at Ship Island, Miss. The News Letter [Exeter’s weekly newspaper] commences its 32d volume.

April 1 – The Maine 3d Battery passes through town.

April 5 – Snow in a.m. Travelling execrable. It has snowed 35 times during the winter, and we have had about 120 days of sleighing. Freese Dearborn, Esq. dies, aged 84 years and ten days. Ther. 23. at 9 p.m

April 10 – Annual Fast. Sermon before the united churches, by Rev. E. Nason.

April 12 – Dea. Francis Grant crosses the river below the lower falls upon the ice at noon. Day superb.

April 13 – A very charming day. Hear the welcome song of the Phebe (musicapa aira).

April 16 – River clear of ice. Day warm and birds singing sweetly.

April 19 – River full and flowing down over the upper dam like the long, golden, curling tresses of a young girl. Battle of South Mills, N C. in which Capt. H. H. Pearson’s Co. participates heroically without loss.

April 20 – Dr. S.B. Swett is severely injured by being thrown from his gig. Mr. James Conden and Miss Jane Shimmick are married. Eggs are selling at 12 cts. per dozen; ham at 10 cts. per lb.

April 24 – Mr. Eben Folsom and Miss Hannah S. Bagley are married. S.S. Leavitt in town. Daniel McNary, aged 16 years, killed on board the “Brooklyn,” in the bombardment of Forts Phillips and Jackson.

April 26 – Anemone nemorosa in bloom. Also, Prunus Americana.  Mrs. Henry Manjoy dies, aged 68. S. D. Lane, Esq. kills an ox which weighs 1600 lbs. when dressed.

May 1 – Bar. 30.25 at 2 p.m. The ground is free from frost. Cold and chilly morning; a great many people out in quest of “May flowers.” The Unitarian Society hold a very pleasant May Day Festival at the Town Hall. Tableaux and music in the evening very fine. The Sabbath School of the 1st Church make an excursion to the “Elysian Fields” in the afternoon.

May 5 – Thunder storm at noon, and five elm trees on the Hampton road struck by lightning – also a white ash about 50 feet high, near Mr. Gilman Barker’s, on the Brentwood road. Battle of Williamsburg, Va., in which the N. H. 2d regt. bravely participate, and in which, of this town, William H. Morrill is killed, Lieut. Albert M. Perkins, J F. Haines, W. Floyd and G. H. Thing, wounded. Com. Long raises the “Stars and Stripes.” [Perkins was wounded again at Gettysburg the following year; Charles W. Floyd deserted on Dec. 26, 1862; George H. Thyng served out his three years but died of disease in Exeter in 1864.]

The Baltimore oriole
May 9 – The Baltimore oriole – (Ieterus Baltimore) appears.

May 11 – Blossoms of the red maple fall. Barn Swallows build their nests. The foam below the falls assumes peculiar geometrical figures. Butterflies appear. Houstonia cerulea in bloom. John S. Rock, Esq., (colored) lectures at the Town Hall. [Rock was a teacher, lawyer, doctor and abolitionist.]

May 28 – Vast numbers of chimney swallows assemble at night-fall; wheel for half an hour or so with merry song around a chimney near and take up lodgings for the night. Front street now is beautiful as the grove of Academus.

June 6 – The Academy now has 105 students; our High School 77. Mr. John F. Smith from Culpepper C. House, Va., arrives in town. Also, Mr. Colbath who was taken prisoner at Bull Run. The “Bell Ringers” give a concert at the Town Hall. [Levi W. Colbath was a 22-year-old 2nd New Hampshire  private from nearby Stratham.]

The Exeter B&M depot, from 1915 postcard.
June 10 – The depot of the B. and M. R.R. broken open last night, and robbed of about $10, in cents.  Mr. John Gilman’s store also broken open. The thief caught. Locust-tree (Robinia pseudacacia) in bloom. Parties enjoying boat excursions up the river.

June 14 – A slight frost occurred last night, by which some vines were injured. Several academy boys recruiting soldiers for the army.

June 16 – Mr. Jacob Stone returns from Port Royal, S.C. – sick. Battle at James Island, S.C. – N.H. 3d regt. engaged and the following Exeter men wounded : Wm. Caban, in the breast, mortally ; Samuel Caban, in the leg; Jacob Smith, in the breast ; Wm. Marston, in the leg, and Daniel W. Elliott, in the arm. [Stone survived his illness; William Caban did not die of his wounds until June 30; Samuel Caban’s wounds led to his discharge; Daniel Elliott returned to the 3rd and was wounded again at Drewry’s Bluff, Va., in 1864.]

June 26 – Green peas, brought from E. Kingston, are selling at 8 shillings per bushel. Rainy day. Mr. C.C. Stevens is recruiting for the 9th regt.

June 27 – Mr. S.G. Pillsbury, student, leaves for Manchester with 25 recruits (5 students) for the 9th reg’t. Farmers commence haying. Some use the mowing machine. Mr. J. B. Robinson, Co. C, 6th regt. dies at Roanoake Island, aged 40 years. Sweet brier in bloom.

June 30 – Great excitement occasioned by reports of battles in front of Richmond, Va., in which our men engage.

July 1 – A gloomy uncertainty in the minds of the people resp’g the fate of our army at Richmond.  [In the battles known as the Seven Days, Maj. Gen. George B. McClelland was actually withdrawing his army from the gates of Richmond.]

July 5 – Mr. Oliver Pray, of the Mass, 26th regt., and formerly of this town, dies at Ft. Jackson, Miss, aged about 50 years.

Exeter Town Hall
July 10 – Levee at the Town Hall for raising money for the sick and wounded soldiers; large attendance.

July 14 – A war meeting is held at the Town Hall. Hon. Amos Tuck, chairman. Mr. W. Sanderson and Miss Carrie E. Piper are married.

July 15 – A dull rainy day. War news discouraging.

July 20 – Silver change has almost entirely disappeared and glutinized postage stamps take the place of it. [The stamps were placed in round cases with clear plastic over their faces, often with an advertisement on the metal reverse. Called encased postage, this emergency money proved to be unpopular.]

July 23 – The Cashier of the Granite State Bank receives two counterfeit one hundred dollar bills on the Merrimack Co. Bank, Concord. The Portsmouth and Newmarket Banks were also deceived.

July 28 – Ladies still toiling energetically on behalf of the soldiers.

Aug. 1 – The town vote to pay a bounty of $100 to each recruit in a new, and $125 to each recruit in an old regiment.

Aug. 2 – Miss Elizabeth, eldest daughter of Mr. Thomas and Mary Wainwright, dies, in her 17th year. Mr. Henry Wood, Co. D, 4th N.H. regt., and Miss Caroline F. Weeks are married. G. James M. Levering, Esq. is appointed Collector of Internal Revenue for N.H. District No 1. A party of Exeter young men establish Camp “Cobb” at Hampton Beach, where many of our citizens are now recreating.

Aug. 11 – The President’s call for 300,000 additional men is warmly approved and many are enlisting. Remarkably fine sunset.

Aug. 13 – A grand war meeting at the Town Hall. Addresses by Messrs. Kidder, Wood, Nason, etc.

Aug. 21 – The Maine 17th regt. passes through town in 17 cars.

Aug. 26 – Ladies forward a box of Hospital stores to the “Sanitary Commission.” [The commission was an early version of the Red Cross.]

Aug. 28 – Blueberries selling at 3 cts. per quart. Hay crop very good. Golden rod (solidago Canadensis) in bloom. Catharine Halion dies, aged 33. 23 volunteers leave for the war.

Detail from a Currier & Ives lithograph of the second battle at Bull. Run. 
Aug. 29 – Battle of Bull Run, in which the 6th N.H. regt. is sharply engaged. Albert Bowley is wounded in the shoulder; S.S. Hodgdon in the hand; Morris Redding loses a thumb; Wm. and Jno. Doody, Wm. Ryan, A.J. Davis and Frank Corcoran are missing. The N.H. 2d regt. lose in all 132 men in this engagement. [Bowley, Hodgdon and Redding all left the 6th because of their wounds; the Doody brothers were regained from the missing but soon discharged; Ryan was also regained but deserted a few months later; Davis returned to the 6th and was wounded at the Battle of the Crater in 1864; Corcoran left the regiment but later rejoined it and was again captured at Poplar Springs Church in 1864.]

Sept. 1 – Ladies send a box of hospital stores to the Sanitary Commission. From Sept. 1861 to Sept. 1862, Mrs. W. has knit 50 pairs of stockings for the soldiers.

Sept. 4 – Splendid weather. The quota of soldiers from Exeter is already made up. The friends of Maj. M.N. Collins, N.H. regt. present him a sword, belt, sash, etc., on his departure for the war. Many of our people attend the Camp Meeting at Newmarket Junction. [Major Moses N. Collins, 42, of Exeter and the 11th New Hampshire Volunteers rose to lieutenant colonel before he was killed at the Wilderness on May 6, 1864.]

Sept. 7 – An eagle is seen perched for some time on the hand of the statue of Justice, surmounting the dome of the Court House.

Sept. 9 – Charming day. Great anxiety for the safety of Washington.

Sept 14 – N.H. 11th regt, containing several Exeter men, arrives at Washington, D. C.

Sept. 17 – The great battle of Antietam, in which the N.H. 5th, 6th, and 9th regts. are engaged. B. Wadleigh, M.D. French, and Samuel Page are wounded. [Sgt. Joseph B. Wadleigh of the 9th later died of disease while stationed in Kentucky; Moses D. French was actually wounded at South Mountain shortly before Antietam and left the 9th the following month; Samuel Page was discharged for disability in December.]

Sept. 19 – John Marshall, son of Mrs. E. Cobb, 1st mate of the “Sea King,” is lost, with that vessel, 10 days out from San Francisco to Liverpool.

Sept. 25 – An officer recruiting for the navy hangs his flag out at the Squamscott. Beautiful Aurora Borialis at 9 p.m. – radiant.

Oct. 1 -- Dr. Wm. Perry is appointed to examine such enrolled men as claim exemption from military duty.

Franklin Pierce
Oct. 6 – Prof. Henry B. Nason in town – also, Ex-president Franklin Pierce, who has been spending some time at Little Boar’s Head. [Three years later, Pierce, who lived in Concord, bought property at Little Boar’s Head in North Hampton, N.H., with the idea of building a summer resort there. He built a two-story cottage with a long view to the Isles of Shoals and spent the few remaining summers of his life there. He died in 1869.]   

Oct. 11 – Five dogs are poisoned by strychnine, in Franklin street.

Oct. 16 – The 25th Maine regt. Col. F. Fessenden, passes through town. Messrs. G. C. Lyford, & Co. issue “Scrip,” redeemable at the Granite State Bank.

Oct. 20 – Exeter soldiers in the Washington hospitals; W. Ryan shot in the side; P. W. Sullivan; Jno. Doody wounded in the hip; Stephen White. Mr. Chas. Wm. Young leaves for Concord, with 17 recruits. The foliage of the forest less beautifully tinted than in October last.

Oct. 24 – Ther. 24. Water froze last night.

Oct. 29 – James M. Tappan, Student, Co. A, 9th regt., dies at Pleasant Valley, Md., aged 29 years and 8 mos. [Tappan, a 9th New Hampshire sergeant, had been wounded at Antietam.]

Oct. 30 – Mr. Samuel Tilton, formerly of this town, is erecting an elegant mansion on Beacon St., Boston.

Oct. 31 – Mr. Augustus Weeks’ family came near being suffocated by kerosene oil left burning in the night.

Nov. 7 – First snow storm of the season commences at 11 a.m. – severe.

Nov. 13 – Our ladies – zealous in every good work – send a “box,” containing 399 articles to the S. Commission.

Nov. 20 – Rain storm continues. Kerosene oil selling at $1.00 per gall. Hard wood $6.00 per cord.

Nov. 28 – John T. Perry, Esq., Editor of the Cincinnati Gazette, and Miss Sarah N. Chandler of Concord, are married.

Dec. 13 – Rain and Snow. Great Battle at Fredericksburg, Va. Many N.H. regts. engaged. James M. Sleeper killed ; Richard Neally, Newton Cram, Freeman Conner, and Leonard II. Caldwell [of the academy,] wounded – the latter mortally.

Dec. 14 – News of the defeat of Burnside’s army at Fredericksburg, saddens every heart.

Dec. 26 – Rainy and warm. A valuable “box,” forwarded to the S. Commission, containing – inter alia – eight one gallon jars of jelly. About $450 in cash have been expended in filling the boxes for the soldiers this year. Our 2, 5, 6, 9, 10, 11 & 12 Regiments are at Falmonth, Va. – Our 3 & 4 are at Hilton Head – and our 8th is at New Orleans.

Dec. 31 – Dull cold day.

So ends a year of rebellion, trial, toil and bloodshed. – of exalted patriotism and loyalty, as of national agony; but HOPE leaning on the arm of Him who defends the right and controls the destinies of the nations, sends her brightening eye into the year now opening, and beholds the Rainbow of peace serenely smiling on the bosom of the storm.


  1. Hi, Mike--I encountered your blog in doing some research and have really enjoyed it, particularly your entries on Elias Nason. I thought you'd be interested to know that I've just listed a book on eBay once owned and signed by Nason. It predates the Civil War but is especially interesting for its varied subject matter, as well as Nason's signature, marginalia, and bookplates. You can find it at or search under seller ancientandmodern. (The book is from 1833 and is titled Cottage Economy.) Best wishes, Michael (also from New Hampshire!)

  2. Thank you for posting (publishing?) this 1862 diary. I believe some of my ancestors lived in Exeter at this time. How can I get a printed copy?
    B. Dalelio

    1. Sometimes the printed diaries show up on eBay. American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass., has the originals. These include many volumes after 1863. These were written in shorthand; the collection includes a book on the shorthand method Nathan used. Collection notes are here: 1861-63 diaries in full are online. I out a link to them in this blog post: -- Good luck!