Sunday, January 26, 2014

Elias Nason's diary (1863): Bloody fields of conflict

From the fate of local men at Port Hudson, Gettysburg and Fort Wagner to the fate of the newborn Rooney triplets, Rev Elias Nason had much to chronicle in 1863. He also kept an eye on nature, followed a vital gubernatorial election campaign and enjoyed the entertainments at Exeter Town Hall.

But here, let us allow him to introduce this, the last of his three published diaries from the war years. (Nason continued to keep a diary for the rest of his life, by the way, but he kept it in shorthand. The diary is at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass.)

“In presenting to my fellow citizens a brief transcription from my ‘Private Journal’ of Current Events for the year 1863, I would express the fond hope that while it serves to recall to memory the names of loved ones, gone before us, and scenes in which we have mingled for the support of our country and for the glory of our common God, it may also tend, in some degree, to make us cherish a deeper regard for the prosperity of our beautiful town; and strive more earnestly that the ‘Golden Rule’ of Christ may pervade and twine around and beautify the whole structure of our social life.

“Should this little register of times in ‘old Exeter’ reach our brave soldiers at the seat of war, let me tell them that we have been proud of the valor of the sons of this town on the stern and bloody field of conflict, whether at Williamsburg,  James Island, Fredericksburg, Port Hudson, or Gettysburg; or when the old flag has been torn and flying piece-meal over the slippery deck of the battle ship at sea.

“We honor you, we thank you, we love you; for by such prowess our country rises glorious and strong above the shock of this abominable rebellion; and we pray that the richest benedictions of the God of the loyal, the brave and the true-hearted may ever rest upon your head.”

On Exeter in 1863: “. . . one of the oldest and most beautiful towns in New Hampshire. Its richly endowed and ably conducted academy, founded in 1781, has had a marked influence upon the literary and social condition of the people; and few towns in the country appreciate more highly the value of learning, or send forth more men out of an equal population, to occupy public positions of trust and honor.

“Though in reality a literary and a farming town, it has, nevertheless, the following mills and manufactories: 1 Cotton mill; 1 Paper mill; 1 Hub manufactory; 5 Carriage manufactories; 1 Tin manufactory; 1 Pottery; 5 Wool shops; 3 Grist mills; 2 Saw mills; 2 Shingle mills; 1 Planing mill, and 3 Printing offices. It has, also, 1 Court and Town House; 1 Jail; 1 Bank for discount, capital $100,000; 1 Bank for savings; 2 Academies; 1 High School and 9 Churches.”

I have abridged the diary, but you can read it whole here.

Jan. 1 – The New Year opens splendidly. The earth is free from snow and the robin is still seen in warm and sunny places in the wood lands. The 1st Congregational Society hold a Festival at the Towu Hall, and presents are freely distributed to the children. “The Monitor,” a new monthly by L. M. Lane, makes its debut.

Jan. 2 – Mr. Geo. O. Dearborn has been appointed Mail Agent on the Boston and Maine Railroad. Dr. Win. G. Perry publishes a “Bill of Mortality for 1862,” by which it appears the whole number of deaths was 36, average age 45 years.

Jan. 11 – Sergeant R. Nealey, 11th reg’t, Co. I, mortally wounded at the battle of Fredericksburg, Dec. 13, is buried under arms. Funeral discourse at the Town Hall, by the Rev. Mr. Nason. [Pvt. Richard Nealey was 44 years old when he joined the 11th in September 1862. Wounded at Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, he died in a Washington, D.C., hospital on Jan. 5.]

Jan. 12 – The Peak Family – “bell-ringers” – give an acceptable concert at the Town Hall. [The Peaks, of Medford, Mass., were known as Swiss bell-ringers. They performed around New England for decades.]

Wemdell Phillips
Jan. 15 – The ladies send a large box of clothing, etc. to the U.S. Sanitary Commission.

Jan. 16 – The rain continues and the river is swollen. Wendell Phillips addresses our citizens at the Town Hall. [Phillips was a well-known Boston abolitionist. The 1863 New Hampshire gubernatorial election was in March. The Republicans had decided that, in light of the Emancipation Proclamation, their best strategy was to flood the state with abolitionist speakers. The speakers’ task was to get out the Republican votes.]

Jan. 18 – The wool dressing establishment of Mr. Wm. Lane, Spring St., partially destroyed by fire. Insured. The wool trade of this town amounts to nearly half a million dollars per ann.

Jan. 20 – About one-third of the Exeter cotton mill in operation. Cotton 75 cents per lb.

Jan. 24 –  A butterfly (papilio rhamni) is caught by Miss Eva Rowe. The snow bunting (Emberiza nivalis) very common.

The snow bunting
Jan. 25 – Rev. Elias Nason addresses the “Fraternity.” Theme – “Temperance.”

Jan. 30 – An impostor, representing himself from Bellows Falls, Vt., is in town collecting moneys for a church in that place.

Feb. 3 – Knitting needles flying busily for the soldiers.

Feb. 4 – Coldest day of the year. Ther. -4 at 7 a.m.; -3 at 2 p.m.; -10 at 9 p.m. Average for the day -9 deg. [Nason continued to make thrice-daily weather observations for the Smithsonian Institution.]

Feb. 6 РA rainy day. Hon. T.D. Weld, of New Jersey, and S.M. Wheeler Esq., of Dover, give addresses at the Town Hall upon the war. [Theodore D. Weld was the husband of the noted abolitionist Angelina Grimké. Wheeler was a lawyer.]

Feb. 7 – The Post Office robbed last night of some 200 letters – the thief entering through a window.

Feb. 9 – Col. F. Conner (wounded at Fredericksburg) and Lt. Col. H.H. Pearson in town. [Born in Exeter in 1836, Freeman Conner was colonel of the 44th New York Volunteers, known as the “Ellsworth Avengers”; Pearson was with the 6th New Hampshire.]

Feb. 15 – Adj. Geo. W. Dewhurst and Miss Hattie A. Somerby married at Hilton Head, S.C. [Dewhurst was adjutant of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, a regiment of former slaves under Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson.]

Feb. 16 – Sig. Andrea Creghino of Italy in town.

Feb. 18 – Examination of Miss A.C. Morris’ Female Academy. Good. Mrs. Angeline F., wife of William Senior, Co. B, N.H. 3d reg’t, dies, aged 31 years, 8 months. [Senior, an Englishman by birth, served out his three-year enlistment with the 3rd.]

Feb. 24 – Ice in the river about 8 inches thick – men cutting it for summer use.

Feb. 26 – But very little snow on the ground. Leo Miller Esq. lectures on the “Philosophy of the War,” at the Town Hall. [Miller, a New Englander well known for arguing the pro side in the Spiritualism debate, cast the war as a battle between slavery and freedom.]

March 2 –  W.L. Garrison lectures at the Town Hall. [William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the Liberator, was the most widely known abolitionist in the country.]
March 3 – The gallant N.H. 2d reg’t arrives in Boston. [A furlough had been arranged for this reliably Republican regiment to vote in the March 10 election.]

Maine Gov. Israel Washburn
March 4 – Gov. Israel Washburn of Me. speaks at the Town Hall. [Washburn was a staunch pro-Lincoln Republican.]

March 10 – State and town election. Votes for Governor, Gillmore, 396; Eastman, 175; Harriman, 17. Capt. D. Conner casts his 70th annual vote. Miss Betsey Clifford dies, aged 84 years. She was an early acquaintance of Daniel Webster, who once boarded in her Father’s family. [Ira Eastman, the Democrat, won the popular vote for governor, but the presence of Walter Harriman on the ballot as a third-party pro-war Democrat, cost Eastman the necessary majority. The Republican legislature elected Joseph A. Gilmore governor.]

March 13 – Expenditures of the town for the financial year ending March 2, $40,907.15. For schools, $4,318,84.

March 14 – Mr. Jeremiah Tanner, 2d N. H. reg’t, and Miss Mary Ann Barlow, are married. [Tanner re-enlisted when his three years were up, became ill and was discharged. He died in 1874 at the age of 36.]

March 15 – Sleighing excellent. Warren V.B., son of Jonathan and Hannah Tebbetts, dies, aged 19 years and 7 months. Miss Abbie E. Tebbetts, sister of the above, dies, aged 14 years and one month.

March 17 – St. Patrick’s Day is not forgotten by the sons and daughters of “Green Erin.”

March 23 – Mr. Jeremiah S. Weeks, Co. B, 3d N.H. reg’t, dies at Port Royal, S. C, aged 30 years.

March 25 – 24 persons at the morning union prayer meeting. A pine log, sawed in the mill here, turns out from the butt 1500 feet of boards, the widest of which is 43 inches.

March 28  – The personal property of the late Miss Betsey Clifford is sold at auction by A.P. Blake Esq. A large number of people present.

April 6 – Delightful morning. The pleasant songs of the robin and bluebird are heard announcing the advent of spring.

April 7 – An old fashioned N.E. snow storm continuing through the day.

April 9 – Miss Charlotte, daughter of the late Rev. E. Ellis, dies, aged 55 years. A teacher of 38 years’ standing and much respected. The river is now clear of ice. Apples and potatoes are selling at 50 cents per bushel; oranges at 30 cents per dozen. The young lads hold a levee in the Town Hall, for the benefit of the soldiers. About $80 are realized.

April 10 – The parishioners of the Rev. Noah Hooper assemble at his house an make him a donation of $183 in cash; and also of other valuable articles.

April 16 – Grass appears quite green in sunny spots. Cap’t. Charles W. Rogers and Miss Mary C., daughter of the late Hon. Tristram Shaw, are married at 3 o’clock p.m. [Rogers, a naval officer, served aboard the USS Hydrangea. Built in Buffalo in 1862, the steamer served as a tugboat, a ship’s tender and a gunboat in the Atlantic blockade.]

A stereoscopic view by Alexander Gardner of the burial of the dead at Antietam.
April 17 – “Stereoscopic Views” exhibited at the Town Hall.

April 21 – Rev. John Dudley in town collecting supplies for the “Freedmen.”

April 30 – National Fast. Sermon to the united churches by Rev. O.T. Lanphear. Mr. Simeon S. Leavitt, the able Boston correspondent of the “Ballot,” and Miss Mary E. Rich are married in Boston. [The American Ballot and Rockingham County Intelligencer started as an American Party weekly in Exeter in 1858 and lasted until 1865 as a Republican paper.]

May 2 – The great battle of Chancellorsvillc, Va., in which the N.H. 5th and 12th reg’ts participate, commences. The remains of Mr. Gideon Carter of the 15th regt. buried under arms. [Carter, a 45-year-old private, died of disease in Louisiana on April 16.]

May 8 – Wind East all day, and bad news from Hooker’s army. [Maj. Gen. Joseph B. Hooker’s Army of the Potomac had retreated from Chancellorsville after being defeated there.]

May 11 – People ploughing gardens, planting peas, etc.

May 13 – Brig. Gen. G. Marston arrives in town. The elm sheds its seeds. Sergt. Leonard Caldwell shot in the left side at the battle of Fredericksburg, Dec. 13, 1862, is in town. The ball still remains in his left lung, and yet his health is improving. [Gilman Marston had been promoted to brigadier general in late November. Caldwell, a sergeant in the 9th New Hampshire, had been discharged in Washington, D.C., on April 15.]

May 20 – Frank O. French Esq. appointed Dep’y Col. in Boston Custom House. [French’s father Benjamin was President Lincoln’s commissioner of buildings.]

May 25 – Mr. J.P. Eldridge of New York lectures at the Town Hall on “Eloquence.” The bobolink’s wild rigmarole is heard. The white birch is in leaf and the lilac in bloom.

An eastern whip-poor-will
May 27 – Hear a Whippoorwill (Caprimulgus vociferous) in the evening. Gen. N. P. Banks’ forces make an unsuccessful attack on Port Hudson. [Port Hudson, north of Baton Rouge, was a vital Mississippi River port still held by the rebels.]

May 31 – Mr. Cyrus Osborne narrates his experience at the seat of war.

June 5 – Many of our teachers visit Boston and the Museum of Natural History at Cambridge, Mass.

June 10 – “Wood’s Metropolitan Minstrels” sing at the Town Hall; but the minstrels of the woods make better music. The silvery tones of the American Nightingale (Turdus mustelinus) now ring through the solitary glens.

June 14 – Second attack on Port Hudson. Co. B, 8th regt., suffers greatly in the charge. Sergeant George S. Cobbs, after lying all day upon the ground beneath the shots of the contending forces, is taken prisoner when the firing ceases at night. D.D. Haynes and D. Hartnett are wounded in the action. [Cobbs was released July 9; in May 1864, he was killed at Moreauville, La. Daniel D. Haines of neighboring Stratham, N.H., was also captured. After his release, he returned to the regiment but fell ill and died in 1865. Hartnett remained on active duty till war’s end.]

The common roach
June 17 – Fish abundant in our fresh water streams. The roach (Leuciscus argenteus) and the pickerel (Esox reticulatus) soon fill the basket of the skilful discipulus Waltonii on “Little River.”

June 22 – Dr. L. W. Leonard retires from the editorship of the “News Letter,” now in its 33d year, and may its shadow never be less!

June 24 – Corp’l D. Veazie Durgin dies of wound received in attacking Port Hudson. [Durgin had been wounded on May 27.]

June 25 – Our citizens present a valuable sword to Capt. John Gordon. [Gordon had enlisted in the 24th Massachusetts as an 18-year-old. He had just transferred to the 55th Massachusetts, an African-American regiment, to command a company.]

June 30 – Rain is much needed. Strawberries selling at 25 cts. a box. Mr. Andrew J. Hoyt becomes editor of the News Letter.

July 1 – The great and sanguinary battle of Gettysburg, Pa., begins and continues three days.

July 2 – Adj. A.M. Perkins and Daniel F. M’Neal are wounded at Gettysburg. Also, Adj’t Gen. P.F. Nason, slightly. Notice the remarkable fertilizing effects of phosphate of lime on some rows of Indian corn in a field belonging to Mr. William Robinson. [Perkins had been shot in the left palm at the battle of Williamsburg, Va., in 1862. At Gettysburg, while leading a company in the Peach Orchard, he was shot in the left elbow. McNeal was a private in the 19th Massachusetts, a 2nd Corps regiment that fought south of the Copse of Trees on Cemetery Hill; P.F. Nason was an officer in a 5th Corps artillery battery.]

July 4 – Anniversary of our National Independence. Bells ring and drums beat long and loud in the morning. A pic-nic in the easterly part of the town in the afternoon. Rainy. Several boating parties up the river.

July 5 – Mr. John M’Cann killed upon the Railroad at Newmarket.

July 6 – Mrs. John P. Kelly injured by fall from a carriage. News of the victory of Gettysburg fills the town with gladness. Mr. J.J. Barker, of the 11th regt., dies about this time, of typhoid fever.

July 7 – Annual examination of Phillips Exeter Academy. The trustees partake of an excellent dinner at the “Squamscott.” About 20 boys enter college. By the catalogue the total number of students for the year is 147. Feu de joie in the evening for the capture of Vicksburg.

July 13 – Great riot in New York the topic of conversation. [This was the draft riot.]

July 14 – Adj’t A. M. Perkins, wounded in the left elbow in the fight at Gettysburg, arrives in town. Bell ringing and bonfires for the surrender of Port Hudson.

July 15 –  Dr. N. Bouton of Concord in town. Edward T. Bennett, Co. B, 48 Mass., is killed at Donaldsonville, La., aged 21 yrs. [Nathaniel Bouton, a Congregational pastor and local historian, had been a founder of the New Hampshire Antislavery Society in the early 1830s.]

July 18 – Attack on Morris Island, S.C, in which the N.H. 3d regt. lose 8 killed and 23 wounded. W.S. Dearborn is struck by a shell. Judge Austin from, the Sandwich Islands, in town. [Warren Dearborn, a corporal from Exeter, had been wounded on July 10 during the landing on Morris Island. He was later wounded again at Drewry’s Bluff but survived the war.]

July 19 – Horace J. Hall, Co. B, 3d reg’t, dies at Port Royal, S. C, of typhoid fever.

Albert M. Perkins
July 30 – Dr. William Perry amputates successfully the left arm of Adj’t A. M. Perkins. The town holds a meeting to determine the amount which it will pay its drafted men.

Aug. 3 – A fine bed of oysters discovered in the river near Newmarket bridge.

Aug. 6 – Thanksgiving for national victories – business generally suspended, but as the clergy are mostly absent, there are no services in the churches.

Aug. 10 – Mr. Wm. Nudd of the 15th N.H. regt. dies, aged 48 years. He arrived in town on Saturday. [More than 10 percent of this nine-month regiment died of disease – 109 men. The 15th lost 30 men in battle.]

Aug. 11 – The draft for this district, at Portsmouth. From the 224 Exeter names enrolled, 67 are drawn.

Aug. 18 – James W., son of Samuel Sawyer, is fatally wounded by Edward Owens in Bromfield St., Boston. Dysentery quite prevalent in town.

Aug. 20 – The 6th, 9th and 11th N.H. regts. are at Covington, Ky. The Roman church is dedicated. Tho Bishop of Portland is present.

Aug. 27. – A splendid morning; “Nature in deepest verdure clad.” Many people attending the “camp meeting” in Epping. Rum kills more of us than rebels.

Aug. 29 – Adj. Orin M. Head and Sergt. Geo. S. Cobbs of the 8th regt arrive from New Orleans.

Aug. 30 – Jewell Weed (Impatiens fulva) attains the length of 6 ft. 8 inches in Dea. F. Grant’s garden.

Sept. 2 – Fall term of the P. E. Academy begins.

Sept. 8 – Eight conscripts have paid commutation $300 each. [This fee was one way out of the draft; another was to hire a substitute.]

Sept. 9 – Stockholders in the B.&M. R. R. visit Lawrence. The road sides are now decorated with various species of the aster, solidago and spired. Leaves of the elm beginning to fall.

Sept 11 – Slight frost in low places last night. Wages of hired men on our farms, $16 per month.

Sept. 13 – Private “script” has disappeared. Corn $1.80 per bag.

Sept. 21 – Mrs. George Rooney presents her husband with three children at a birth – one girl and two boys.

Sept. 23 – Capt. Daniel Conner dies, aged 92 years, 1 mo. and 5 days. Oldest man in town. Luther Austin breaks jail; but is soon recaptured.

Sept.. 30 – A spider spins its thread from the twig of a tree across the stream, some three rods wide, and attaches it to a blade of grass on the opposite bank. Mr. Saml. Lamprey opens a juvenile dancing school at the Town Hall.

Oct. 1 – Mr. J. Johnston has an apple tree, set in the Spring, which has borne two successive crops and is in blossom for a third this season. Fruit mature, fruit half grown and blossoms may now be seen at the same time upon the same tree.

Oct. 3 – Lt. Col. M.N. Collins at home, convalescing. [Moses N. Collins of the 11th New Hampshire was killed at the Wilderness on May 6, 1864.

Oct. 9 – Two oxen of N. Swasey are run over and killed by the 5 o’clock train from Boston.

The original Hutchinson Family Singers of Milford, N.H.
Oct. 13 – The Hutchinsons give a patriotic and amusing concert at the Town Hall. [This group was one of the remnants of the Hutchinson Family Singers of Milford, N.H., the country’s most popular entertainers of the 1840s.]

Oct. 16 – A sword, sash and belt presented by the citizens to Capt. A.M. Perkins in token of his distinguished bravery.

Oct. 17 – One of the triplets of Mr. George Rooney dies, aged 20 days.

Oct. 20 – A second of the “Triplets” of Mr. George Rooney dies, aged 23 days.

Oct. 26 – Leaves of the white birch, Am. Poplar and red oak still green. Mr. Ezra Gee, a brakeman, aged 27 years, fatally injured in passing under Middle St. Bridge.

Oct. 30 – Mr. M. B. Dillingham, member of the senior class, P.E. Academy, dies at Falmouth, Mass., aged 22 years.

Oct. 31 – Hay crop short this season. Butter selling at 30 cents per lb. Apples S2.50 per bushel. Miss Ellen Murray dies, aged 19 years, of consumption. Tobacco successfully raised by Mr. Henry Dow. Sergt. Josiah Norris, supposed lost, arrives in town. [Norris, of the 15th New Hampshire, lived in nearby Brentwood. He had been wounded at Port Hudson on June 14.]

Nov. 2 – An arm of Charles L. Taylor is broken by a cow.

Nov. 4 – A valuable silver pitcher is presented to Mr. J. Henry Folsom, late organist at the 1st Congregational Church.

Nov. 8 – Jeremiah Emerson, aged 67 years and formerly of E. is found dead in a culvert of the railroad at Epping.

Nov. 11 – Town meeting for raising our quota of men.

Nov. 13 –The last of the triplets of Mr. George Rooney dies.

A.P. Peabody
Nov. 18 – Town meeting to raise funds for filling .our quota (32) under the last call for troops. Wm. A. Jackson, Jeff. Davis’ coachman, gives an address in town. [Jackson had escaped slavery in 1862 and given information to Union military leaders.]

Nov. 24 – Examination of the P.E. Academy. The Trustees partake of a sumptuous dinner at the “Squamscott.” Dr. A.P. Peabody, John L. Sibley Esq. and other literary men present. [Andrew P. Peabody had graduated from Harvard at the age of 15 and gone on to become a professor of Christian morals and preacher to the university. Sibley was the Harvard librarian. Here is Sibley’s diary entry for the same day: “Rose about 4h 30m, at 6 a.m. took breakfast with Dr. Peabody, at 6.30 took horse cars to Boston, at 7½ cars to Exeter & arrived there about 9½ o’clock a.m., & attended the examination of the Academy. Dined with the Trustees. Spent an hour with the Rev. Elias Nason in talking over antiquarian matters. It rained violently, & for $1.25 I hired a conveyance to Dr. Levi Stevens Bartlett’s in Kingston.”

John L. Sibley
Nov. 29 – Dr.. N. Bouton preaches in town. Three churches contribute nearly $100 in aid of the soldiers.

Nov. 30 – Town meeting for filling our quota of soldiers.

Dec. 7 – Williams’ Panorama o’ the Rebellion exhibited at the Town Hall.

Dec. 14. – Ellinger and Newcomb exhibit some dwarfish persons at the Town Hall.

Dec. 22 – Shortest day in the year. Good skating on the river and many enjoying it by moonlight.

Dec. 24 – The parishioners of the 1st Congregational Church visit their Pastor by surprise and make himself and wife very valuable presents. The Sabbath School of the Unitarian Church hold a “Christmas Festival” at the Town Hall, where a “tree” is liberally provided with good things for all.

Dec. 30 – A valuable box is sent by Mrs. E. S. Cobbs (ever efficiently at work with head and hand to bless the soldier) to the Sanitary Commission. About 150 volumes, mostly novels, are taken from our Town library – which contains about 3,000 volumes – per week.

Dec. 31 – As the year comes in, so it closes with a beautiful day. 


  1. Mike: The Nason diary is a tremendous ongoing labor of great value that you're putting on your blog. Terrific illustrations and insightful comments. This blog is telling a story about New Hampshire in the Civil War era that is a model for other state histories. But what other state can boast the match between fresh material and an a knowledgeable expert to edit and make sense of it?
    Keep going.

    Michael J. Birkner

  2. Thank you, Michael. I wish the 1864 and 1865 Nason journals from Exeter had been published, but I have found no evidence (yet) that they were. Apparently he wrote them in shorthand.

  3. Wow. Thank you. Leonard H Caldwell (May 13 entry) was my 3rd great-grandfather. Til now, I was unsure if he had been shot at Fredericksburg or Antietam. Amazing to read this.