Monday, April 28, 2014

A farmer goes to war, his family bears the brunt

Sarah D. Hobbs was desperate. Her 43-year-old husband Carey had joined the 12th New Hampshire Volunteers in August 1862 and left her on their small Dorchester, N.H., farm with their three children, 8-year-old Mira Ellen, 7-year-old Elmon Allen and 5-month-old Carrie Etta.

Other than the hay, the crops were still in the field. Carey had allotted $3.25, a quarter of his $13 monthly private’s pay, to his family, but at least some of this went for the mortgage on the farm.  He counted on the town to help Sarah and the three little ones with their daily needs.

Sarah was new to Dorchester, a town of about 700 people in the western part of the state, but shortly after the 12th New Hampshire left for the front, she went to the selectmen to request aid. They turned her down flat.

Gov. Nathaniel Berry 
When a state Supreme Court grand jury convened in November in Plymouth, 18 miles away, Sarah took her case there. The grand jury indicted the selectmen. It found that town aid was “imperatively demanded by the circumstances of the case.” Hobbs and her children were “indigent, and unable to support themselves.” The indictment charged the three original selectmen, Thomas J. Fitts, Benjamin Davis and Hiram Reed, with “contriving and fraudulently intending to withhold” the money.

Ordered to pay Sarah, the selectman paid her two-thirds of a normal allotment for four months. Then a new board of selectmen, elected in March, stopped the payments.

Fitts, Davis and Reed had appealed their indictment. Dorchester had not appropriated money for aid to soldiers’ families at town meeting, they argued, and they had no power or duty to do so. On this technicality, the indictment was quashed.

Sarah fought on. She was a literate woman, and she wrote to Republican Gov. Nathaniel Berry to plead her case. Her letter is preserved in the correspondence file of Berry and his Executive Council at the New Hampshire State Archives.

Here it is in full: 

                                                                               May 26, 1863

To his excellency Gov. Berry.

Sir, I trust that you will pardon the liberty that I have taken in addressing you, when you have learned my object for writing as I have. The subject to which I wish to lay before you for your consideration is concerning the treatment of many soldiers families whose husbands are now in the service of their country. I will take but one case as a sample of many that have occured during the past year, and that one shall be my own.

My husband enlisted in the 12. N.H. Regt., leaving property to the amount of perhaps $350. and that was in a small farm. The crops were in the field unharvested excepting the hay. I had no money to pay for the harvesting, or to provide other things that are needed in a family.

I am living about eight miles from a mill, nearly five miles from a store. When my husband left home, my oldest child was 8 years of age, my second was about 7, and the youngest about 5 months. Soon after the 12. Regt. left Concord, I called on the Selectmen of our town to get the aid that N.H. has granted to the families of soldiers that are left in my situation. But was met with a prompt refusal. They treated me with the utmost disdain, told me that I would not get it &c.

When the court sat at Plymouth last Nov., I laid my case before the grand jury. There was an enditement found against the selectmen, and they were compelled to pay me about two-thirds of what the law allows me, they paid me up to Feb. 21.

Now we have another board of selectmen of the same stamp who refuse to pay me one cent. As I am situated I hardly know how I am to meet necessary expenses.

My husband has made an allotment but he left home with an understanding that a part of his wages would go to secure our home that he might find his family together should they live, and he be permitted to return from the war. I realize the awful woe and misery to which this cruel war subjects us all. They who are in public, and in private life, feel the blast of its withering power.

And we see there is a party among us who turn everything in their power to a political account. They seem to take every advantage of a law made by Union men, and turn it if possible to some disadvantage to the Union. I realize that it is so with the State aid. Wherever a town is Loyal to their country, I am told that they treat the soldiers families with respect and grant them their just claims.

The final words of Sarah D. Hobbs's plea for the governor's help.
I have not lived in the town where I now reside quite two years. Nearly all the people were strangers to me when my husband went from home. I hardly knew where to go for advice, but I can assure you that I never have yet worried the soldier about the discomforts to which I am sometimes subject.

I wish to know if there cannot be an amendment in this law, when our State’s Legislature meets next month? If so, if there is anything I can do to help the cause, I will do it readily. I have done all that I possible could thus far, not only to help myself but to aid other who must have suffered the past winter had they not been able to get any State aid.

I will leave the subject for your consideration, beging you to excuse this poor composition for other business has pressed my time so I have not had time to write as I should.

                                                                   Yours respectfully
                                                                   Sarah D. Hobbs

The Berry file at the State Archives does not include his response to Sarah Hobbs. Nor do I know whether the Legislature, which met in June 1863, took up her suggestion that the law governing aid to families be liberalized. This was a time when towns and states had begun to put up large bounties for volunteers, and perhaps these reduced the need for state aid.

Sarah Hobbs’s letter is a reminder of how difficult life was for a woman in the man’s world of the 1860s. With her husband gone to war, she was publicly identified as indigent. To get food for her children, she had to appeal to the selectmen, a grand jury and the governor, all men. She was a political neuter – couldn’t vote at town meeting or in elections.

But consider the firm, rational approach Sarah Hobbs took in her letter. She knew that being a newcomer to a small town, especially one with Democratic leanings, worked against her. She was not shy about laying out her case but broadened her plea to include other deprived soldiers’ wives. She assured the governor she was not troubling her husband in the field about home difficulties. And she wrote a succinct assessment of the war’s costs:  “I realize the awful woe and misery to which this cruel war subjects us all. They who are in public, and in private life, feel the blast of its withering power.”

For Hobbs and her children, that blast would soon strike close to home. At Chancellorsville 3½ weeks before she wrote to Berry, the 12th New Hampshire had suffered enormous losses – more than any other Union regiment on the field – but Pvt. Carey Hobbs had survived. Two months later, after Maj. Gen. Dan Sickles moved his corps into harm’s way at Gettysburg, a rebel attack killed 26 men in the 12th. Among them was Carey Hobbs.

In lieu of her husband, Sarah D. Hobbs probably received a small federal pension.

At Gettysburg, the 12th New Hampshire formed for battle facing the Emmitsburg Road, which runs to the right of the
barn and shed in this photo of the Klingle farm. The regiment fell victim to simultaneous attacks from its front and left (beyond the trees). The back of the regiment's monument is visible just to the right of the shed.

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