Saturday, April 12, 2014

Coming to America: An immigrant horn player takes the grand tour, courtesy of Uncle Sam (part one)

Had there been such a concept in the mid-19th century, Henry S. Hamilton would almost certainly have been declared an illegal alien. After all, he ran away from a 14-year commitment to the British Army, sneaked onto a steamer to Liverpool and boarded a ship for America.

From there Hamilton’s story took a hard turn, followed by an ironic turn. Much later, as a productive and esteemed private citizen, he married a descendent of New Hampshire’s preeminent Revolutionary War hero, John Stark.

An 1835 map of Lynn, the walled port town where Hamilton was born. 
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Hamilton left us his life story in an 1897 memoir called Reminiscences of a Veteran. Let’s start at the beginning.      

Hamilton was the third of 11 children born to a bricklayer and his wife in Lynn, also known as King’s Lynn, a walled borough town in Norfolk County on the east coast of England. After he finished the local academy at the age of 13, his father apprenticed him to a printer for seven years.

Hamilton hated the printer. The pay was meager (the equivalent of a quarter a week to start), but worse, the printer abused him. One day, when Hamilton was 19, the printer kicked him for taking a dinner hour that the printer considered too long. Hamilton lashed back.

He ran away from the apprenticeship on May 1, 1854. In Cambridge he enlisted in the 11th Hussars with the promise of going to the Crimean war. He traveled to London, where with a contingent of 50 recruits, he was lowered onto the straw-covered floor of a steamer’s hold. The men made their beds of the straw.

The South Gate of Lynn, a walled town (see map above).
Writing about his comrades, Hamilton expressed a feeling common to new soldiers. “Here were wealth and poverty, intelligence and ignorance side by side, but all were animated by the same purpose: all willing to share alike the dangers and privations of war.”

The lure of camaraderie faded during cavalry training in Ireland. “I began to think that the wearing of a gaudy regimental suit, with clanking sword and jingling spurs, was not all pleasure,” Hamilton wrote, “and that the printing office was not the hardest place after all.”

Sheepishly he asked his father for money to buy his discharge. His father sent 25 pounds, but Henry had trouble converting the note to cash. He went AWOL, came back and was sent to the guardhouse. When he finally got his cash, he ran again and took a boat across the Irish Sea from Dublin to Liverpool. There he boarded the Isaac Wright, one of 413 passengers setting sail for America.

“It would be impossible to describe my feelings at that instant,” he wrote. “I felt sad, and at the same time glad. My sadness was caused by the thought of leaving home and friends, without even the privilege of bidding them good-by – friends whom, in all probability, I would never see again, and going to a foreign land, among entire strangers. While I was glad to think I was escaping from cruel hardship, and going to a country whose government recognized no titles, where rich and poor, high and low, all shared alike.”
He added a couplet from a schoolboy song called “Cheer, Boys, Cheer”: 

Here we had toil and little to reward us,
But there shall plenty shine upon our pains.

The voyage took six weeks. Food was scarce, quarters cramped, and the ship hit a three-day storm in the mid-Atlantic. The tedium of the journey soon overtook Hamilton’s sense of adventure. By the time the storm hit, “all the romance of a sea voyage, which had been conjured up in my youth by a perusal of Robinson Crusoe and similar books, had well-nigh died out.” He rejoiced at the sight of tugboats heading out to guide the Isaac Wright into New York harbor.

A boarding-house shyster and others relieved Hamilton of all his money his first day ashore. Together with a shipboard friend, he walked to Albany, then Troy, and started for Buffalo, nearly 300 miles away, looking for work. Nowhere could Hamilton find a printing job. He gave up, trudged back to Albany and, on Oct. 14, 1854, enlisted for five years in the U.S. Army.

Jesse Gove of Concord, N.H., Hamilton's commanding officer.
He trained in the Northeast and made sergeant in the 10th U.S. Regulars. His company commander was Capt. Jesse Gove* of Concord, N.H., whom he saw as “a brilliant officer and a perfect gentleman” but also a tough disciplinarian. While some Southern officers treated their men as slaves, Hamilton wrote, Gove considered them human beings.

Gove’s wife, “one of Concord’s fair daughters, accompanied her husband in all his early campaigns, and proved herself in this, as in all other things, the captain’s brave and noble helpmeet.” At Fort Ridgely in Minnesota, the Goves had a daughter, whom they named Jessie Ridgely Gove. She became “the daughter of the regiment,” Hamilton wrote.

He never forgot an order early in his service to flog a man who had been caught running away. Of course, he himself had fled the British army twice. Reluctantly, and as quickly as he could, he delivered 50 lashes with a knotted rope. “Throughout this punishment my sufferings, mentally, were equal to those of the culprit,” Hamilton wrote. “It was a great shock to me, and I felt ashamed, disgusted and sad at the spectacle before me.”

The man was drummed out of service. When Hamilton saw him downtown, the man thanked him for his speedy lashes. “I never felt so mean in the presence of anyone before,” Hamilton wrote.

A later stereoscopic view of Old Bets, a woman who comforted Sioux prisoners at Fort Ridgely  in 1862.
A bugler early in his service, he accepted the bandmaster’s invitation to join the band. In October 1855, he discarded books, clothing and other possessions for the trip to Fort Snelling, Minn. Out of that fort and Fort Ridgely, 150 miles north, the regiment’s mission was to keep the Sioux in check. When the 10th relieved the garrison at Ridgely, the Sioux came in to meet them. Hamilton described the encounter:

“They formed in one mass, old and young, and with droning voices, in unison, with orchestral accompaniment – the latter consisting of two small kegs with a skin drawn tightly over one end, which was pounded with sticks – commenced a dance, which was nothing more than clumsy springs about two inches from the ground. At intervals of a few minutes they would stop and give a war-whoop, consisting of ear-splitting shrieks and yells; then one of the chiefs would step into the centre and deliver a short oration, which must have been quite interesting, from the applause given, which, by the way, was not by clapping of hands or stamping of feet, but by grunts, as ‘ough, ough’; then another war whoop, when dancing was again resumed.

“As it was so warm, their clothing was rather scant, consisting only of breech cloth, and their faces and bodies were painted in every conceivable color, no two being alike. The dance continued for about two hours, in a very hot sun, causing the perspiration to run in streams down their bodies, and badly mixing the colors.” 

Fort Ridgely. This drawing was made after the Sioux Uprising of 1862.
The post’s colonel gave the visitors an old ox. They killed the animal and cooked it by throwing chunks on the embers just long enough to singe off hair and scorch the meat. Then they “ravenously devoured it as might be expected from a pack of wolves.”

The soldiers often saw the Sioux hanging around army cookhouses. “I never saw an Indian, no matter how much he had eaten, who could not always eat as much more as you chose to give him,” wrote Hamilton. “It has been said, and I believe with some truth, that they can eat enough at one meal to last them an entire week.”

He saw Sioux women as “drudges” who did nothing but work. “How wonderfully the Indian woman differs from the white, in regard to dress! Her whole thought is in the appearance of her husband, while with her pale-faced sisters the idea is reversed.” 

Brigham Young, leader of the Mormons.
In May 1857, the regiment left Sioux country for Fort Leavenworth, Kans., to prepare for the long march to Salt Lake City. They were to escort newly appointed judges and Alfred Cumming, the Georgian whom President James Buchanan had chosen as governor of the Utah Territory. Cumming was to replace Brigham Young, the Mormon leader, who did not wish to be replaced. The government sent along 2,500 troops under Col. Albert Sydney Johnston because, based on recent history, it expected trouble from the Mormons.

The troops started west on July 18. On the trail Hamilton befriend Josephus Stark, a descendant of John Stark, the Revolutionary War general who won the battle of Bennington and gave New Hampshire its motto, “Live Free or Die.” Young Stark was a big man – 6 feet, 200-plus pounds – who played the drum and constantly bragged about Concord, his hometown. Whatever scene of pleasure the army encountered, Stark insisted that Concord had something newer, better or more beautiful. His friends nicknamed him “Concord, New Hampshire.”

It took months for the six-mile train to come near Utah. When it did, Young was ready. Mormons harassed the expedition, burning the grass to rob the livestock of food. They rode into camp and drove off horses and mules. They attacked corrals, destroyed 75 wagons and sent threatening letters to the caravan’s leaders.

As winter approached, the weather became the Mormons’ ally. Five hundred animals died in the cold. At Fort Bridger, the soldiers went hungry. Mormons hung around outside so that whenever men went to search for supplies, they had to go in large groups. Young taunted the garrison, sending a party to say he had heard it was out of salt and to offer some. Johnston refused, but a few soldiers followed the Mormons out of the fort and brought back salt.

Cumming, meanwhile, had been making nice with Young. Escorted by Mormons, he left his military entourage behind and went to Salt Lake City on June 1, 1858. Young had finagled a way to retain power while Cumming served as the territory’s nominal governor.

Hamilton and his fellow soldiers followed these events from outside the city and pondered the bellicose and even apocalyptic rhetoric of Mormon leaders.

Harper's Weekly cartoon depicts Young and other men arming their many wives for battle with the U.S. Army.
The Deseret News, the Mormon newspaper, wrote of “the cord that bound the Saints to the World,” suggesting: “When a military force was sent to Utah to kill (Young) and his people, then would be the time to cut it.” Brother Heber Kimball’s benediction to his flock went like this: “Send 2,500 troops here, my brethren, to make a desolation of this people! God Almighty helping me, I will fight until there is not a drop of blood left in my veins. Good God! I have wives enough to whip out the United States! Amen!”

On June 26, nearly a year after leaving Fort Leavenworth, Gen. Johnston’s 2,500 men finally marched into Salt Lake City. They found the houses deserted, windows boarded up. The silence was eerie.Hamilton wrote of an incident that sealed the troops’ distrust of Gov. Cumming. It began on Aug. 10, after Johnston’s men had left Salt Lake City and settled into Camp Floyd in the Rush Valley. Howard Spencer, the son of a Mormon Bishop, argued with Sgt. Ralph Pike, of Hebron, N.H., a man in Hamilton’s company. Pike later said Spencer threatened him with a pitchfork. Pike swung his rifle and struck Spencer in the head with the butt.

The Mormons immediately arrested Pike and charged him with assault with intent to kill. He appeared court, pleaded not guilty and headed for the Salt Lake House, the leading hotel in Salt Lake City. Spencer approached him from behind, asked if he was Pike and shot him in the side with a pistol. He rode away with several well-known “Danites,” members of a Mormon fraternal group.

Pike died after two days in pain. The Deseret News praised Spencer for his courage. But what angered Pike’s comrades most was that Spencer escaped justice, and Cumming did not protest. The soldiers of Co. I nearly mutinied, Hamilton wrote, and threatened to destroy Salt Lake City. Spencer arrested – and acquitted – in 1889, 31 years after the killing.

Hamilton, who had fled the English army to seek a new life in America, had now seen the country the hard way. He had lived among the Sioux in Minnesota, trekked to the Far West, survived the cold and hunger of a winter in hostile territory and seen the Mormons defy federal efforts to control them.

He left the army and traveled east to the Plains with Stark, his friend from Concord. Stark eventually went home, but he wrote regularly to Hamilton. When the secession crisis broke out, he invited Hamilton to New Hampshire.

“I was advised by friends in Nebraska not to go there,’ Hamilton wrote, for they said the state was all rocks: but the glowing accounts Stark gave of it, and the way he had always spoken of the old Granite States, had considerable weight with me.”

In May 1861, Hamilton hopped a train in Missouri and began the three-day trip to Concord. It was raining when he reached the station. He met a man who knew the Stark family and started for the Stark farmhouse two miles away.

Joe Stark welcomed him with open arms. Hamilton noted that as much as Stark loved his violin, he had little interest in farming his 70 acres. But Concord would soon become the staging ground for Hamilton’s next adventure – more soldiering – and in time the Stark household would provide him with a wife.

Next: Making music in the Civil War.

(Go directly to part two of Henry S. Hamilton's story.)

*Gove, a native of Dunbarton, N.H., was later colonel of the 22nd Massachusetts. He was killed on June 27, 1862, leading the regiment at Gaines’ Mills, Va.


  1. My friend Al Hutchison, who emigrated himself in the 1940s, emailed me this comment about the Hamilton blog-post: I found it very interesting that your blog made mention of King's Lynn. My brother, Richard, was stationed just outside King's Lynn early in World War II and about 10 or so years ago his pilot took me and my cousin to the air base and to the pub where he and Richard had downed many a pint during their stay there. What I'll never forget is the small church cemetery very near the pub where there were graves of airmen from various nations, including Germany. It was, like the American and British cemeteries on the continent, extremely well cared for but much, much smaller. I don't know if you know much about the "dam busters" mission that the RAF carried out against targets in Germany but the Lancaster bombers that were used in that famous air raid were based not far from King's Lynn but in the next county, Lincolnshire, and we had a few brews in the favorite pub of those crews too.

    1. Mike, thanks for publishing this essay on Henry S. Hamilton, whose adventures in the American West with the Tenth U.S. Infantry I have been following for 55+ years with the help of my own copy of his "Reminiscences of a Veteran." For those wanting more context for Henry's service with the Tenth in the Utah War of 1857-1858, the country's biggest military involvement during the period between the Mexican and Civl wars, I refer you to my book "At Sword's Point, Part 1: A Documentary History of the Utah War to 1858," published in 2008 by The Arthur H. Clark Co., an imprint of the University of Oklahoma Press. The Utah War adventures of Hamilton's commander in the Tenth's Co. "I" can be found in Capt. Jesse A. Gove's book of letters to his wife, Maria, published by the NH Historical Society in 1928. I don't have my research notes at hand, but from memory I'll mention that Henry S. hamilton left NH in the early 20th century to live with a son in Boston, where he died.
      Bill MacKinnon
      Independent Historian
      Santa Barbara, Calif.

    2. Thanks, Bill. I look forward to reading your book and the Gove letter book, which I'll look at the next time I visit the NH Historical Society. How much do you know about Frank Fuller, the NH man who became secretary and de facto governor of the Utah Territory around the time the war started? I've found some online and read Fuller's 1860 letters to the Portsmouth, NH, paper about his visit to Lincoln in Springfield, but I'd like to find his papers. Mike

  2. Mike,
    I know very little about Frank Fuller, Utah's territorial secretary and acting governor during the early months of the Civil War. If there is a concentration of his personal papers somewhere, I do not know where they are. One of the more interesting New Hampshiremen to serve in the Utah War (along with Bugler Henry S. Hamilton and Capt. Jesse A. Gove) was Maj. Fitz John Porter of Portsmouth, who was the Utah Expedition's adjutant and the tentmate of its commander, Col. Albert Sidney Johnston. Porter's diary is in the Library of Congress's manuscript Division, and is one of the most valuable primary sources shedding light on the campaign in Utah. He had access to all of the expedition's papers and, because of his proximity to Johnston, understood what was on his mind.
    Bill MacKinnon
    Santa Barbara