|Houstonia cerulea in bloom.|
People, young and old, kept dying. Couples married. Speakers came to town and drew crowds at the same brick town hall where Abraham Lincoln had spoken in 1860. Eastern bluebirds tweeted. The Great Comet of 1861 lit up the sky. The “army worm” came and went. Blueberries and walnuts abounded. Houstonia cerulia blossomed.
But on the day Rev. Elias Nason noted the spring debut of the cerulia, also known as bluets or Quaker ladies, his diary also mentioned another phenomenon in his hometown of Exeter, N.H.: Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, was hanged in effigy.
In 1861, the year the Civil War began, Exeter was a town of just over 3,300 people. It was known, then as now, primarily for Phillips Exeter Academy, a prep school with a student body of 110 at the time. Lincoln’s son Robert had studied at the academy the previous year. Amos Tuck of Exeter had served in Congress with Lincoln in 1847-49. The town had a rich political history. It had been the capital of New Hampshire during the American Revolution and, with Tuck as its leader, had grown into a Republican stronghold.
Nason, a local Congregational minister, kept an almost daily account of the events that caught his attention. Remarkably, he also had his diary published at the end of each of the first three years of the war. The first volume was titled Brief Record of Events on Exeter, N.H., during the Year 1861 Together with the Names of the Soldiers of this Town in the War.
The diary shows how war became the focus of activity in the town. As Nason wrote six days after Bull Run, the first major battle: “Remarkably quiet and beautiful day. General topic of conversation – WAR!”
The town’s first concern was answering the call. At the back of the diary, Nason lists 167 men from Exeter who had volunteered for the army before 1861 was out. His entries record recruitment meetings, town votes to support the soldiers and their families, women’s groups forming to raise money and to knit and sew for the soldiers, bands playing, and regiments passing through town on the way to the front.
But Nason’s occupation led him to include many local deaths and marriages in his diary. His curiosity about botany and biology also generates many entries. As a contributor to the weather logs of the Smithsonian Institution, he often recorded barometric readings and temperatures.
Thus, even though Nason seldom writes more than a single sentence on a topic, his diary neatly pairs two themes that only an insider could capture: War changes everything, but life goes on.
I’ve transcribed a chunk of the 1861 diary to give you a taste of it. I’ve also annotated it where I could. (The entire diary can be read here.)
|Elias Nason was a naturalist and a writer.|
Before we begin, a few words about Nason:
He was born April 21, 1811 in Wrentham, Mass., and thus turned 50 years old just as the war began. He grew up on a preacher’s farm in Hopkinton, Mass., where his father tended the farm work. Young Nason learned paper-making at 15 and often worked in a paper mill between periods of study. His academic interests were music, classical and modern languages and botany. He taught school in his early years and entered Brown University in 1831. There he learned Greek and became fluent in French and Italian. Afterwrd he became principal of Cambridge Latin Grammar School, but stayed only briefly before moving to the South.
In Georgia and South Carolina, he became expert in southern flora and began to lecture widely on the subject. “While in the South, as ever after, Mr. Nason was in sympathy with the colored people,” his eulogist wrote. “His life was threatened, more than once, for acting as their defender.” He had begun keeping a diary in 1830, and one entry during his southern sojourn described the hanging of an African-American woman.
Nason was licensed to preach during the 1840s and ordained in Natick, Mass., in 1852. He served as a pastor in Exeter throughout the war. Afterward he bought a 45-acre farm in Billerica, Mass., moved there and expanded it to nearly 100 acres. He named it “Brightside.” He made a living farming, gardening and lecturing. He loved his work and remained at home in either his garden or his study until his death in 1887 at the age of 76.
He introduced his 1861 diary, published in Exeter the following year by Samuel Hall, with these words:
“As the year 1861 will ever be memorable on account of the most stupendous and wickedest rebellion the world has ever known; and as every correct history of the country must devise its sources in a measure from the current events of the individual towns which make up its sovereignty, I have thought proper to select from my Daily Journal a few brief memoranda relating to Exeter, and to embody them; together with the names of our gallant soldiers; in this little brochure which I take the liberty to present as a New Year’s Offering to our patriotic and worthy citizens.”
Jan. 15 – Mrs. Sally Marden dies, aged 89. Dr. George W. Dearborn’s store robbed of watches, jewelry, &c., to the amount of $115.
Jan. 21 – Trees overladen with snow and ice. Scenery beautiful. Rev. Mr. Taylor lectures on London.
Jan. 23 – Mr. Alvan White, powder manufacturer, dies, aged 59.
Feb. 18 – Students in the Academy contribute nearly $70 in aid of sufferers by famine in Kansas.
Feb. 21 – Trees covered with snow and ice; W.S. Abbott, Esq. delivers lecture on “Education” at the Town Hall. Barn of Mr. J.J. Wiggin, destroyed by fire about 11 p.m.
|The eastern bluebird|
March 2 – High School examined and appears well. The bluebird (amphelis sialis) is heard. Mrs. Abby P. Porter dies, aged 43. Infant daughter of J. Atherton dies, aged 2 yrs.
March 4 – Bell rung and National salute fired for the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States.
March 5 – Magnificent golden clouds at sunset. Francis O. French, Esq. and Miss Ellen Tuck married. [French was the son of Benjamin Brown French of Chester, Lincoln’s commissioner of public buildings, and Tuck was the daughter of Amos Tuck, former congressman and Exeter’s leading Republican.]
March 8 – Ther. 1 at 7 a.m. Bar. 30.50 at 7 a.m. Wind N.W. Clear. Leverett Saltonstall, lectures in Town Hall on the Questions of the day. –10 Bar. 29.20 at 7 p.m.
March 12 – Annual Election. . . . 397 votes are cast for Berry, and 182 for Stark . . . [Nathaniel Berry, the Republican, won election as governor over Democrat George Stark.]
March 16 – Snow about nine inches deep and much drifted.
March 19 – Annual examination of Phillips E. Academy which appears to be in a very prosperous condition.
|Ichabod Goodwin, outgoing governor.|
March 27 – A bass weighing 27 pounds is taken from the river. Rockingham Co. Bible Society, formed. Gov. I Goodwin Pres’t. [Ichabod Goodwin, a Portsmouth Republican, was near the end of his second and final one-year term as a governor.]
April 1 – Bar. 30.51 at 7 a.m. A flock of wild geese flies southward. Cloudy. 2. Furious snow storm all day.
April 4 – James Dwight Nason dies, aged 20 years 5 months.
April 8 – Schools in District No. 1 commence their session. The “Dido” arrives. A boy named McNamara is severely injured by the elevator in the factory.
April 11 – Fast day. Services in the churches. Splendid Aurora Borealis at 9½ p.m.
April 12 – Earth worms make their appearance.
April 15 – The elm is in blossom and frogs are heard.
April 18 – The Trailing Arbutus (Epigeoe repens) appears in bloom.
April 19 – Great excitement in town in reference to the attack on Fort Sumter. Mr. P. Broderick and C. Curtin m[arry].
April 20 – Academy students hoist a flag and fire 32 guns. “Ducit amor patriae.” [Led by love of country.]
April 22 – A grand mass meeting, in respect to the war, at the Town Hall, Hon. C.H. Bell presiding. Many Patriotic speeches made and money pledged for the support of soldiers. [Bell, an Exeter lawyer and Republican politician, served as governor of New Hampshire in the early 1880s.]
April 24 – The Granite State Bank tenders a loan of $20,000 to the State of N.H. for military purposes. Rockingham Co. Agricultural Society decide not to hold a Fair the ensuing autumn. Ladies of Exeter meet at Town Hall to make clothing for the soldiers. They form a Society and choose Mrs. E.S. Cobbs president. Rev. Mr. Lanphear repeats his sermon on the war at the Town Hall.
April 26 – Jefferson Davis hung in effigy. Houstonia cerulia in bloom.
April 28 – Mr. E.J. Conner catches in his weir two fine shad, the first of the season. Rain storm.
May 3 – Mr. John H. Thing ploughs up a silver lever watch in good state of preservation after a burial of 9 years.
May 5 – John E.C. Sawyer of the Academy departs for the war.
May 9 – Swallows appear. Voted in a legal Town Meeting to raise a sum not over $5,000 for the benefit of soldiers and their families. Mr. Loring Newton and Miss Almeda Kimball married.
May 12 – Fifty men are now drilling under Chas. H. Bell, Esq.
May 13 – Citizens to form a “Home Guard,” and choose Gen’l Andrew Chase as drill officer. Mr. James Folsom dies, aged 75 yrs. 5½ mos.
May 15 – Currants and strawberries in bloom. The 2d Maine Regt. passes through town. A large company assemble at the depot and a salute is fired.
May 18 – Mr. John M. Mallon, volunteer, and Miss Mary J. Smith married.
May 19 – Minnie M. Fifield dies, aged 3 yrs. 7 mos. Rev. Mr. Nason preaches a sermon to the Volunteers on Psalm 20:5. [“May we shout for joy over your victory and lift up our banners in the name of our God. May the Lord grant all your requests.”]
May 25 – Ladies present many articles of clothing to our volunteers, who leave for Portsmouth, attended by the Band, to join the 2d N.H. Regt. 27 Bar. 29.20 at 2 p.m. Rain storm.
May 28 – Appletree in bloom. Plum and cherry trees do not blossom at all.
June 1 – Beautiful morning; and very warm day. Com. J.C. Long raises a splendid flag.
|Gilman Marston, later in the war, as a brigadier general|
June 3 – Hon. Gilman Marston enters on his duties as Col. of the 2d N.H. Regiment. [Marston, of Exeter, was a congressman at the time.]
June 7 – Maine 3d Regt passes through town and receives a collation from our citizens. The Academy Cadets drill under command of Mr. Dubois and make a fine appearance.
June 10 – Citizens present a sword and other equipments to Col. G. Marston.
June 11 – Rockingham Co. Conf. of Churches meet here. Willie Senior dies, aged 8 yrs. The R. Co. Temp. [Temperance] Soc. Meets. Exeter Cornet band serenade the citizens in the evening. A new Catalogue of the Town Library is published. No. of Volumes about 3000.
June 14 – Members of H. School present Bible, pistol, etc., to Charles F. Smith, leaving for the war. Equipments are also presented to Lieut. W.H. Smith. [As a 28-year-old captain in the 2nd New Hampshire, William H. Smith was mortally wounded at Cold Harbor on June 3, 1864.]
June 20 – Mr. Joel Lane dies, aged 69 yrs. 10 mos. Many citizens visit Boston to witness the departure of the 2d N.H. Regt.
June 22 – A gold watch and clothes are stolen from Messrs. Carpenter and Irons while bathing. Mr. Nason delivers a lecture on “National Music,” at the Town Hall, the band attending and performing our national airs.
June 27 – Steamboat “Clipper” arrives.
July 1 – A very brilliant comet seen at 9 p.m., tail about 90 deg. long. Fair weather from June 8 to July 2. [The comet, visible with the naked eye for three months, was known as the Great Comet of 1861.]
July 4 – Fair and warm. Gunpowder freely expended. Sab. School of the 1st Cong. Soc’y celebrate the day with speeches, music, &c., in the grove near the depot. The Elm St. Baptist Soc. also have a pleasant picnic by the river.
July 18 – Business is remarkably dull. Carriage and cotton manufacturing have practically ceased.
July 20 – Bar. 29.60 at 2. p.m. Wind S.W. Mrs. Mary York dies, aged 73 yrs. Showers in p.m. Mr. John E. Wilbur opens a recruiting office at the Town Hall. Schooner “Northern Warrior,” Capt. Kent arrives. [As a captain in the 3rd New Hampshire regiment, Wilbur was court-martialed and cashiered for conduct unbecoming an officer.]
July 21 – Fair. Col. G. Marston wounded in the right arm at the battle of “Bull Run.” Wm. H. Morrill also wounded in the hand. F.L. Tebbetts taken prisoner. [Marston recovered from his shoulder wound; William H. Morrill, an 18-year-old private in the 2nd New Hampshire, was killed May 5, 1862, at Williamsburg, Va.]
July 22 – Great excitement on account of the recent battle in which a number of our soldiers were engaged. A clear day – most of the ministers and teachers absent.
July 27 – Remarkably quiet and beautiful day. General topic of conversation – WAR!
Aug. 1 – Party of 16 Exeter boys encamp at Hampton Beach. The “army worm” in great numbers suddenly appears in Mr. Gilman’s field. Very little secession sentiment in Exeter.
Aug. 5 – A great war meeting at the Town Hall. An account of the battle of “Bull Run” given.
Aug. 7 – Town vote to pay a sum not exceeding $15 per week to the families of soldiers enlisted.
Aug. 8 – Mrs. Margaret Mason dies, aged 46. Capt. Wilbur’s Company leave for Concord, to join the 3d N.H. A Gas company organized and stock taken.
Aug. 10 – Bar. 26.70 at 9 p.m. Showery. Blue berries abundant – 8 cts. per qt.
Aug. 15 – Col. G. Marston, suffering from his wound, returns to town. Great fears for the safety of Washington.
Aug. 21 – The lads of High School and their teachers visit Hampton Beach. Bar. 30.35 at 7 p.m. Fair. Mr. Gilman Barker has 15 sheep killed by a dog about this time.
Aug. 22 – Messrs. Conners’ Fish and Meat market entered by burglars. Mr. Benj. Swain appointed Police officer, vice, J.A. Fogg. Mr. R. Carter is recruit’g for the 4th N.H.
Aug. 23 – Maine 7th Reg. passes through town on way to seat of war in fifteen passenger cars. Soldiers of Co. D return from Concord on furlough.
Aug. 24 – The “army worm” disappears. Mr. T. Moses in his 95th year visits the town.
Aug. 27 – Miss Ellen Fellowes dies, aged 19½ years. A boy 4 or 5 yrs. old, has his arm broken by the cars. Patrick Gilroy takes a turtle near the Ox-bow, weighing 26 lbs.; 13 inches long. Rev. Dr. Hitchcock visits this town.
Aug. 31 – Southern corn is selling at $1.25 a bag.
Sept. 1 – Mr. J. B. Wadleigh, late conductor of the B. & M. R.R. dies, aged 47½ years. Mr. John Marsh and wife are burned to death.
Sept. 3 – B.W. Cram and James Jack escape from jail. The former is retaken. N.K. Leavitt, Esq., is appointed Jail-keeper, vice John S. Brown, Esq., resigned.
Sept. 9 – There are now 110 students at the Academy.
Sept. 11 – A refreshing rain occurs after a long drouth. Mr. Peter Leighton digs up a thimble in the rear of “Squamscott House,” marked 1772.
Sept. 26 – Edward Bachelder wounded in the arm by premature discharge of gun. National Fast. Well observed, most of the stores closed and service in the churches. Mr. J. Swasey badly kicked in the face by a horse.
Sept. 29 – The churches take up contribution for the hospitals at Washington; in all about $90. Capt. Edwin Ludington is recruiting at the Squamscott House for the U.S.A.
Oct. 4 – A circus in town. Not largely patronized.
Oct. 5 – Rainy day. Col. Marston leaves for Washington.
Oct. 24 – Dr. E.P. Cummings appointed assistant Surgeon in the Navy. Lieut. O.M. Head and Capt. H.H. Pearson are recruiting. [Edward P. Cummings also served as assistant surgeon to an infantry regiment, the 23rd Massachusetts; Orin M. Head, a 26-year-old private in the 2nd New Hampshire, had been discharged to accept a promotion to adjutant of the 8th New Hampshire; Henry H. Pearson rose to lieutenant colonel of the 6th New Hampshire before his death in May 1864 at the North Ana River. More about him here.]
Oct. 30 – Bar. 29.45 at 9 p.m., pleasant. Ladies have sent 25 India rubber blankets etc. to our soldiers in the 2d Regiment.
Nov. 2 – Severe S.E. storm last night and to day. Highest tide in the river since 1816. Great anxiety in respect to the Naval Expedition. N.H. 3d and 4th Regt. in it. [This was the expedition that captured Port Royal, S.C., southwest of Charleston. The two New Hampshire regiments then joined the federal occupation.]
Nov. 7 – Naval action and Union victory at Port Royal witnessed by many of our soldiers on board the “Atlantic.”
Nov. 10 – Three females baptized in the river just above the “Great Bridge.” Sunset extremely fine. Aster and golden rod still in bloom.
Nov. 12 – Miss Emily F. Greenleaf dies, aged 19 yrs. 7 mos. 14 days. Mrs. Mary Kennedy dies, aged 88. The Hutchinson Family give a concert at T. Hall. Mr. Sam’l Palmer raises a parsnip 25 inches in cir. and weighing 3 lbs. 10 oz. High winds. Walnuts plentiful.
Nov. 14 – Bright and beautiful morning. Ladies – each with a billet of wood for fuel – meet at Concert Hall to knit and sew for the soldiers. One of them has knit 12 prs. stockings for them with her own hands.
Nov. 15 – A few flakes of snow, first of the season, fall in the a.m.
Nov. 16 – Schools in Dist. 1 close. Calvin L. Dearborn of Co. L, N.H. 2d Regt. dies of typhoid fever at Washington.
Nov. 22 – Capt. H.H. Pearson’s company leave to join 6th Regt., Col. Mack, at Keene. [Oscar A. Mack was a Regular Army lieutenant and the 6th’s original colonel, but Simon G. Griffin took command in April 1862.]
Nov. 28 – Annual Thanksgiving. Fair and quite dry. Churches open and well filled. Co. B, 3d Regt., mostly from Exeter, dine on turkies and sweet potatoes at Hilton Head, S.C.
Dec. 6 – Snow. Miss Mary E. Tilton dies, aged 37. Sword presented to H.H. Pearson. Bar. 30.65, 2 p.m.
Dec. 12 – Fair. Ladies continue busily at work for the soldiers; they have recently sent to N.H. 2d Reg’t, 120 prs. socks, 30 prs. mittens, 12 prs. wristers, etc., etc. – also one box by Dr. Howe to Missouri, containing 50 prs. socks, etc. They have, moreover, made 175 prs. shirts and drawers for Concord.
Dec. 16 – Col. Marston is dangerously wounded by the accidental discharge of a pistol in the hands of a boy of Lt. Col. Fiske.
Dec. 20 – Many trophies, caps, fans, cotton, etc. received from our soldiers at Hilton Head.
Dec. 25 – Christmas. Santa Claus, well filled stockings and Christmas Trees present their annual store of “good things” to the children. Mr. Joseph T. Porter and Miss Ann M. Wiggin, married. The Unitarian S. School have a very pleasant meeting at the house of Charles Burley, Esq.
Dec. 26 – Ther. 8 at 7 a.m. – clear and cold – fine sleighing. Mrs. Eliza Barlow dies, aged 35. Our soldiers from the 8th Regt. at home on furlough. The material of their clothing is wretched stuff indeed! Whose fault?
Dec. 29 – John P. Leavitt dies, aged 64. Rev. Mr. Bird gives an interesting lecture on Syria.
At the end of the diary, Nason characterized 1861 as a “year of treason; year of lofty patriotism; year of battle, agony, death; of progress, liberty; year of tearful sowing for a golden harvest; year of God’s great mercy.”