Saturday, April 26, 2014

So what became of Henry S. Hamilton?

I have spent hours reading Pvt. Henry S. Hamilton’s Reminiscences of a Veteran and boiling it down to what I hope are three interesting stories. The first recounted Hamilton’s immigration and antebellum U.S. Army service, the second his early days with the 3rd New Hampshire Volunteers, the third his regiment’s dispiriting defeat on James Island.

Before I let Hamilton go, I want to share a few thoughts about him and let you know what became of him after James Island.

Hamilton’s ability to tell a story was impressive. He wrote clean, unaffected narrative in an age of florid prose. His powers of observation were keen. He knew how to show, not tell, using concrete details to bring the past to life. His sense of humor and generous spirit lived on the printed page.

What makes this noteworthy is that Hamilton started life as the third of eleven children of a bricklayer and his wife in a walled town in England. His formal education ended at 13, and his father, not knowing what to do with him, apprenticed him out to learn a trade.

Two factors from his early years hint at where his prose style originated. He lived in a literate country and often read for pleasure. And the trade his father chose for him – printing – was often a ticket into the writing life, or at least a life in which good writing became a passion.

Setting type and getting it to press were labor-intensive work during the mid-19th century. The seven-year apprenticeship that Hamilton’s father committed him to at 13 speaks to the difficulty of becoming proficient.

Edward E. Sturtevant of Concord, 1st N.H. & 5th N.H.
Hamilton ran away before completing his apprenticeship, but it wasn’t printing he ran from, it was a cruel boss. When he found himself penniless shortly after the boat dropped him off in New York City, he began walking to Albany and beyond seeking a printing job. Finding none and having to eat, he joined the U.S. Army.

I have found printers galore in my Civil War research. To name two prominent examples, Col. Edward E. Cross of the 5th New Hampshire and Edward E. Sturtevant, New Hamspshire’s first volunteer and later Cross’s major, were both printers – and used their association with newspapers to become superb writers.

Cross’s first newspaper work consisted of somewhat fanciful and heroic stories about the military exploits of men from his state. At the age of 25, he began one of them with a prose ode to the printer’s trade. It went like this:

Col. Cross at Antietam by Charlotte Thibault,
on the cover of a history of his regiment. 
“There is no class of men who have the passion for adventure, the love of excitement, so largely developed, as printers. They are continually wandering from city to city, from land to land – restless, unsettled, and ready to engage in any exercise that promises honor and profit, or affords them an opportunity to ‘see the world.’. . . A printer is well versed in human nature – there is no place like a printing office to sharpen a man’s ideas, and give him a knowledge of the real motives, intents, and actions of humanity. Thus a printer grows wise, as it were, has an inexhaustible store of miscellaneous information, and no one can say that they do not do their part in moving the world.”

Despite the early trials of Henry S. Hamilton’s printing career, he found a place as a printer when he returned home from the war. We’ll get to that in a minute.

The battle of James Island was not the end of Hamilton’s military adventure. After the “wretched failure” of the 3rd New Hampshire’s campaign against Charleston, the regiment’s ranks were “decimated, and our courage was at low ebb,” he wrote. In July 1862 the line of sick men in front of the hospital tent grew longer each day.

Companies of the 3rd camped on different plantations, costing the regiment its cohesion. Hamilton and the band lived in a cotton house on Graham’s plantation. They obtained watermelons, green corn and other food from ex-slaves. It was hot – over 100 degrees some days – and branches and fronds were stuck in the ground to provide shade at the posts of sentinels.

Company H of the 3rd, reduced to about 40 men, camped on Pinckney Island. Early on the foggy morning of Aug. 21, a Confederate force attacked the company, killing its commander, Lt. Joseph E. Wiggin of Sandwich, N.H., and four privates, wounding others and capturing all the rest but six men. (See a fuller account of that story here.)

Thirteen days later, the band started for home. In July Congress had ordered an end to regimental bands. On Sept 2, Hamilton and the other musicians boarded the Star of the South, bound for home. “Although a pang was felt at leaving our comrades with whom we had shared so many hardships, and who, we were assured, were pained at the separation, still, most of the members were glad to return to their homes and friends in the old Granite State,” Hamilton wrote.

Nathan Gove of Concord, N.H., was 12 years old when
he went south with the 3rd New Hampshire band. His
father, also Nathan, was also in the band.
During the Star’s previous voyage horses had fouled the hold in which the men now slept. The food was expensive and wretched. The little drummer boy, Nathan Gove, fell ill on the way home, and the adults cared for him.

Hamilton reached Concord on Sept. 11. He tried to get a commission to return to military service but got no encouragement.

He had written to Nancy Chase Stark, the youngest sister of his old friend Joe, while in South Carolina. Not long after hitting town, he went to the Stark farm and asked her to marry him. She said yes. The native Englishman and the great-grandniece of Gen. John Stark married on Oct. 14. They lived on the farm for 20 years and had four children.

For work, Hamilton “picked up the stick and rule” and landed a printing job with McFarland and Jenks, a prominent and prosperous Concord firm, and later its successor, the Republican Press Association.

Evenings he played in an orchestra and became leader of the 3rd New Hampshire National Guard band. He moved happily in three circles – musicians, printers and war veterans.

In 1872 Hamilton traveled to England to visit his family. He looked up his brother William, who had been just 10 when Henry left for America. William had been an officer for the East India Co. for 12 years. Now he lived near Norfolk with his wife and three children. When the men’s mother heard that Henry had come to visit, she took the first train to Norfolk.

“Poor old Mother!” Hamilton wrote. “As she entered the room where I was, she fell into my arms, and had I not supported her would surely have fallen. She could not speak for several minutes, while the tears coursed down her wrinkled cheeks.”

The next day, Henry visited his boyhood home, where “a young lady of twenty-two threw her arms about me and kissed me. I could not realize that this was my four-year-old, rosy-cheeked little sister, who was at home when I left so suddenly.” His 18-year-old brother, whom he had never seen, stood nearby.

In King’s Lynn, “changes met me at every turn,” he wrote. “New railroads, new docks, new streets, and even the famous ‘Wash,’ where, in 1216, King John and his train of followers were rescued from drowning by the people of Lynn, sent its waters into the harbor through another channel. The ‘Banks,’ where, as a boy, I used to bathe and fish, was now partially under cultivation.” With a raised eyebrow he noted the changes in the schools and church he had attended. He met childhood chums, recognizing none and finding them all “middle-aged men with families growing up around them.”

He sounded like an old-timer in his opinion of all this. “All this progress and improvement must have been a source of great satisfaction and pride to the people of King's Lynn, but for me the old town had lost many of its charms, and, although sad at parting with my relatives, I came away with less regret than I did on a former occasion.”

In 1882, Hamilton and his family moved to Manchester from the Stark farm in Concord. Four years later, he went back to Lynn after receiving “the startling news that both my parents were dead. As I approached the house, a feeling of deep sadness came over me, for no father or mother were there to greet me; the curtains were gone from the windows, the door-plate had been removed, and the old homestead looked desolate and forlorn.”

By law and against their father's wishes, Henry’s oldest brother had taken possession of the house. He had sold off the contents for a pittance.

Hamilton returned home thinking that “in choosing a home in New England I had made no mistake; for I liked its laws, loved its people, and had adopted its customs.”
Postcard from shortly after the turn of the 20th century shows some of the New Hampshire Grand Army of the Republic
buildings at the Weirs on Lake Winnepsaukee in Laconia. In 1924, a fire destroyed the 40-year-old 3rd N.H. building.  
When he wrote his memoirs in 1897, at the age of 63, attendance at 3rd New Hampshire reunions at The Weirs in Laconia had dwindled. He called the site a Mecca – a place where “old comrades meet and talk of the scenes and trials of the march and the camp.” But only nine other members of the band had responded to the roll call at that year’s Grand Army of the Republic encampment.

“The war veterans, one by one, are slowly but surely passing away,” he wrote. “Their familiar forms will soon be seen no more. The sound of the last tattoo and ‘Lights out’ is not far in the distance; and the soldiers of the Civil War will be but memories of the past.”

[Thanks to Dave Morin, my friend and a proud owner of an original copy of Hamilton's memoir, for calling my attention to it.] 


  1. I do not have my research notes of 55+ years standing at hand, but as I just posted on Part 1 of this essay, my recollection is that Henry S. Hamilton left New Hanpshire early in the 20th century to live in Boston with a son and died there.
    Bill MacKinnon
    Independent Historian
    Santa Barbara, Calif.

    1. Thanks, Bill. You are no doubt correct about Hamilton's later life.