Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Henry H. Pearson: The story behind one of the names chiseled in stone at the Exeter Historical Society

With Barbara Rimkumas, curator, and Laura Gowing, program director at the Exeter Historical Society.
Last night, as Monique and I drove from Concord to Exeter, N.H., we joked about how the farther southeast we went, the balmier the weather turned. It’s only an hour’s drive, but the temperature climbed from 7 to 9.

Our destination was Exeter Historical Society, where I was to speak on Our War and the New Hampshire Civil War experience.

The society is housed in a stately old building with portraits and artifacts displayed on the walls and elsewhere around the rooms. Lionel Ingram, chairman of the society's trustees, pointed out that the building was built to honor Exeter’s Civil War veterans. He took Monique and me back out into the cold to show us the stone tablets flanking the front doorway. They bore an impressive list of names of men who had served.

The Exeter Historical Society in warmer climes. One of the tablets bearing
the names of the town's Civil War soldiers is visible just inside the arch. 
I was not surprised to see Lt. Col. Henry H. Pearson’s name on top of the roll of Exeter men who had served in the 6th New Hampshire Volunteers. When I can, I tailor my talks to the towns where I give them, and Pearson was one of my subjects last night.

For such a frigid night, the audience was ample. It was especially good to see a group of students from Exeter High who had come for extra credit.

Here is what I had to say about Pearson:

Henry H. Pearson of Exeter grew up in Illinois but was a 21-year- old student at Phillips-Exeter when the war broke out. He was so outraged by the killing of 6th Massachusetts soldiers in the streets of Baltimore on April 19, 1861, that he went to Baltimore to offer his services. He wangled his way onto a troop train from Baltimore to Washington, but Col. Ambrose Burnside kicked him off because he was wearing civvies. He walked the rest of the way to Washington, where he ran into a member of the 6th Massachusetts in the streets and went with him to the U.S. Senate. There Pearson joined the regiment.

That fall, when the 6th Massachusetts’s three-month term was up, he came home and raised a company for the 6th NH Volunteers. This regiment formed in Keene under Col. Simon G. Griffin and trained at the Cheshire Country Fairgrounds. On Christmas morning of 1861, the regiment marched through the snow to the station to take the train south.

Capt. Pearson commanded Company C. If I’m not mistaken, he also became a correspondent for the Exeter News-Letter, writing letters that told of the exploits of the 6th New Hampshire. To give you a flavor of how well – and how candidly – he wrote – I want to quote from his account of the second battle of Bull Run in August 1862. First, his telling of his role in the battle:

“About two o’clock Friday, (Major General) Heintzelman attacked the enemy. . . . After half an hour’s sharp fighting, the rebels were driven . . . back into the woods. . . . Here they made another stand. Kearney’s Division and Hooker’s Division were repulsed with great slaughter in succession and driven entirely from this part of the field, leaving nearly half their numbers killed or wounded in the hands of the enemy. It would seem that after the slaughter of two such divisions as Hooker’s and Kearney’s, General Pope would have sent a larger force into these woods. Instead of this, however, he ordered up our Brigade . . . and ordered us to clear the woods in front of us. We deployed and advanced in line, the 6th New Hampshire on the left. We had not entered the woods more than three or four rods before the muskets began to pop ahead of us and a few bullets to whistle by us. Soon we could see plenty of snuff-colored pants ahead of us not more than seventy-five yards, and the cracking of rifles became general.

“We delivered a volley and advanced loading and firing. The storm of bullets soon became terrible. The rebels fought us every inch of the way. We charged upon them in a sunken road which ran through the woods parallel to our lines and drove them from it.

Henry H. Pearson
“As they were skedaddling from the ditch road, our boys poured in a volley which literally strewed the ground with them. When we had advanced some fifty paces, we could see through the woods into the open fields beyond. . . .

“Discovering that our regiment was alone and (that) the bullets began to come thick and fast from the rear, the Colonel sent me back to see why the other two regiments did not follow us and to tell them they were firing upon us. Peeping up over the bank, I could hardly trust my eyes when I saw yellow legs standing as thick as wheat not more than twenty-five paces from the ditch. I instantly called to the regiment to retreat to the ditch, which was done at a run.

“Taking a second look to see if I could spot a flag, I saw one, their battle flag, with a red cross worked in it and a swarm of rebels following it at double quick towards our left, as we were now faced, so as to surround us. As it was evident that we would soon be surrounded and overwhelmed with numbers, and be all killed or captured, the Col. wisely ordered a retreat . . .”

And now, from the same letter, Pearson’s summation of the battle:

“General Pope is a most unblushing liar. In his official dispatch, he calls the result of the contest a victory when every man in the army knows that we were defeated at all points . . . because at all points we were out-generaled. . . .

“The battle was a great blunder. The defeat was as complete as that of the old Bull Run. . . . A rebel prisoner with whom I conversed told the truth when he said, ‘Boys, you can fight as well as we can, but Old Jackson is always one day ahead of you.’

“The Northern people get not the faintest idea from the newspapers of the true state of affairs at the seat of operations. The lying reports of our general and reporters beat anything that ever existed among the rebels. The whole army is disgusted.”

A month and a half after this battle, Pearson was appointed lieutenant colonel of the 6th New Hampshire, second in command. In May of 1864, during Grant’s bloody Overland campaign, Simon G. Griffin left the regiment for a promotion to brigadier general, and Pearson took over. He was 24 years old.

Two weeks later, the 6th reached the North Anna River in Virginia. At about 4 p.m. on May 26, Lt. George Upton of Derry informed Pearson that the rebels were installing a battery ahead. Pearson asked for the field glass and climbed on a stump so he could see over federal lines. Just as he put the glass to his eye, a rebel bullet struck him near the right temple and went through his head. He fell backward, and Upton and Capt. Lyman Jackman caught him. They laid him on the ground and called for a stretcher. He died at 8 p.m., never having spoken another word.

When orders came for the 6th to move later that night, Major Phin Bixby of Concord and Capt. Josiah N. Jones of Wakefield went to the rear to see if they could have their young leader’s body shipped to Washington and back home. There was no time for that. The two officers ordered a grave dug. They found a wooden box in a farm outbuilding, and this became Henry Pearson’s coffin. Captain Jones took a bread box and tore off one side. On it he wrote Pearson’s name and regiment. Jones and the chaplain stayed behind to cover the shallow grave and then rode off to rejoin their men.

Pearson’s body was later exhumed and moved to the Fredericksburg National Cemetery.

[Thanks to Dave Morin for the transcription of Pearson’s letter, which is at the U.S. Army Military History Institute at Carlisle Barracks, Pa. The account of Pearson’s death and burial come from eyewitness accounts published in History of the Sixth New Hampshire Regiment in the War for the Union, by Lyman Jackman.]

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