Saturday, December 27, 2014

'Even wretched looking hovels are draped in mourning'

The Colby family of Springfield, N.H., sent three sons to fight in the Civil War. One of them was stationed in Washington, D.C., when President Lincoln was shot.

The first Colby, George, died of disease in Louisiana at the age of 18. Stephen P. Colby, known by Page, his middle name, was George’s lieutenant in the 15th New Hampshire Volunteers.

The middle Colby son, James, was the first to volunteer, going off at age 24 with the 6th New Hampshire in late 1861. Nine months later he was discharged after a long hospital stay. But in 1864 he joined the Invalid Corps and later still the Veterans Reserve Corps. These units did non-combat duty to free healthy soldiers to fight.

In the capital Corporal James Colby guarded captured and surrendered Confederate officers at the Old Capitol Prison. President Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, a Friday. On Monday morning and for the rest of the week, Colby worked 18 hours a day.

When the weekend came, he wrote his brother Page that there was “great excitement here yet.” John Wilkes Booth was still at large. Rumors of plots and conspiracies ran rampant. Meanwhile, Washington wrapped itself in the cloak of mourning.

“All the Publick buildings and most of the Private buildings even the most wretched looking hovels are still draped in mourning,” James Colby wrote to Page. “Flags remain at half mast. . . . If the President had been assassinated four years ago, it would not have shocked the nation so much for then people were expecting such a thing but now with the prospect of closing the war in a few months the blow falls heavily upon all without distinction of party.

“Even the Rebel officers we have been guarding at the Old Capitol express some regrets at Lincoln’s death, They have to respect him for his generosity toward those that surrendered. They had great hopes that others would follow Lees example and that the war would close this spring or summer.

“One thing is pretty certain. Whenever the armies meet in battle there will be bloody work unless the soldiers cool down from what they are now.”

The Colby family wartime letters wound up in the hands of Mrs. John Edmunds, Page Colby’s daughter. She gave them to Dartmouth College, where they are now preserved in the Rauner Special Collections.

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