Rethinking the American Civil War, Through the Eyes of a Teenager

By Adrienne M. Naylor
2010, Vol. 2 No. 01 | pg. 2/3 |

By coincidence, Whitcomb was in Keene during these days of heightened community mobilizing, but it was because of the Cheshire County Teachers’ Institute, in which she was ‘considerably interested.’ Yet even the educational assembly, while ‘not wholly neglected’ was ‘seriously affect[ed]’ by the war excitement. Mr. Titus, the Cheshire County School Commissioner, who had evaluated Whitcomb’s school three months earlier and whom she liked ‘very much,’ stepped away from the Institute to not only speak at the rally on the 22nd, but to put his name first on the list of volunteer recruits, thus beginning his ‘gallant and meritorious services during the war’ that won him a series of promotions from private to his eventual commissioning as Brigadier General in 1865 upon the war’s close. Though it did not launch a military career for him, Professor Bailey of New Haven, whose lectures Whitcomb had been attending at the Teachers’ Institute, also took a break from the Institute to ascend the podium, addressing those concerned with fighting a ‘fratricidal war,’ rebuffing them with, ‘Traitors are not our brothers, nor cousins.’12

Whether watching the companies drilling or departing, or attending the ceremonial burials of soldiers, Mary Whitcomb included herself in the supportive community upon which the enlistees relied. She did not attend Union War-Clubs, but neither does she seem to be among those who would demand of an enlistee, ‘why he was fighting in this “black Republican” war.’ To her diary, however, she does not hide her consternation at the voluntary service of her neighbors. ‘It is strange how they can go so willingly. I cannot make it seem that it is their duty to go.’13

We are all somewhat excited. It is apprehended that drafting will be resorted to in less than two weeks.
Whitcomb’s diary, 7 August 1862

Whatever community enthusiasm had existed in Swanzey for suppressing the Southern rebellion had exhausted the town’s supply of voluntary recruits after the fifth federal call for troops. The sixth call on 4 August 1862 for an additional 300,000 troops came with an attached provision to draft whichever men and boys could not be enlisted voluntarily. Whitcomb was nineteen, she had marked the twenty-first birthday of her brother George a month earlier, confident that she will, ‘always be proud of him as now.’ George Edwin Whitcomb was now in the pool of boys and men called out to Keene to enroll themselves for the draft on 8 August 1862.14

By this time, Whitcomb’s experience of the Civil War included attending three military funerals, with two of the soldiers dead from disease and the third killed in Williamsburg. Another one of her acquaintances was discharged with disability after coming down sick during Bull Run.15 It is unlikely that Whitcomb failed to absorb the contents of local newspapers, whether by reading them or hearing them read or retold, which carried letters from soldiers on the front lines and reprinted lists of the sick and wounded New Hampshire soldiers in distant hospitals, frequently quite grisly in nature.

With George’s fate uncertain, Whitcomb wrote of ‘the suffering of the last three days. We have hardly slept or tasted food.’ She does not ascribe cowardice to her brother, or to the thirty some ‘lost boys’ missing from the town in the wake of the draft announcement—‘nearly a thousand cowardly copperheads,’ if the New Hampshire Sentinel is to be believed. Instead, of the young man who once spent three hours and twelve miles searching for a girl’s lost bracelet, Whitcomb finds it ‘terrible to think that he was taken and to be pressed into service. Almost like death.’ Whether out of paternal concern for his young son, economic investment in the promising young worker, political disdain against the reigning Republican Party, or a combination of factors, the open actions of her father Roswell, being ‘upon the go all of the time trying what could be done,’ seem to belie a masculine culture of bellicosity. The appearance at the Whitcomb home the following day of ‘many sympathizers’ further impugns the town’s overall investment in and sense of obligation toward the War of the Rebellion. Whitcomb’s derision is saved for young men who are ‘so enthusiastic about this glorious cause.’16

While the casualties piled up, the supply of volunteer soldiers dried up, and the demand for troops led to the call for drafting on 4 August 1862. Towns were desperate to avoid the stigma attached to conscription and began offering bounties, or monetary enticements, to enlistees. Following the 1 July 1862 call for 300,000 troops, New Hampshire started by offering $10, but when it failed to attract the requisite numbers, they doubled it to $20, then $50 soon thereafter. Men willing to enlist could examine their options and search around for the highest bounties, with the National Eagle’s grumbling that New Hampshire men ‘swelled the ranks of Vermont,’ which had consistently been offering higher rewards. Following the 4 August threat of the draft, the Northern Advocate noted with ‘surprise’ the ‘alacrity of our smaller and purely agricultural towns in adopting measures to fill their quotas.’ Claremont and Newport, New Hampshire were each offering $50 bounty to enlistees. Chelsea, Maine was offering $125. As Mary Whitcomb in Swanzey wrote on 11 August 1862, ‘They think there will be no drafting at present as they voted at Town meeting to day to pay $200 bounty from the town and many stand ready to enlist.’17

On 30 August the New Hampshire Statesman printed the quotas of soldiers required from each town, with Swanzey bearing the burden of providing 115 men and boys for service, ‘but we trust now that George will not be one of them.’18

Who is there so base, amongst the sons of New Hampshire as to hesitate in duty? We trust, not one.
The New Hampshire Sentinel, 18 April 1861

As Whitcomb’s journal concluded, more men and boys continued to die of disease and in battle. Out-of-towners from as nearby as Boston and Lawrence, Massachusetts, others from as far away as England and Ireland came to collect Swanzey’s generous bounty and credit their names to the town’s quota. Some of these enlistees went on to receive wounds in battle, some would die from disease, but a great many grabbed the bounty money and deserted at the nearest opportunity. Nor was desertion limited only to the substitutes and bounty-seekers. Despite the lack of anonymity that came with fighting alongside one’s neighbors, friends and families, and despite harsh punishments threatened against and occasionally doled out to deserters, at least five local men and boys, longtime residents of Swanzey, deserted before the war’s close. Indeed, for every thousand New Hampshire enlistees, 112 would desert.19

An option for draftees with financial resources was to hire a substitute to fight in their place. Among the names of Swanzey men who, in 1865, ‘voluntarily obtained substitutes to fill the town’s quota,’ is not only Mary Whitcomb’s brother George Edwin, but the man whom she would marry in 1869, Orlow E. Parsons. George Whitcomb and Orlow Parsons would later become business partners, elected representatives, and respected members of their communities.20

I have been reading most of the time since then.
Whitcomb’s diary, 10 May 1863

Whitcomb’s diary entries did not extensively catalogue her reading selections, as did some of her contemporary New England diarists, as studied by Ronald J. Zboray and Mary Saracino Zboray. Seeking insight on civilian literary culture, the Zborays consulted over 4,800 items written by New Englanders and focused on 430 manuscript letters and diary volumes written by those who wrote extensively on their own literary practices.21 A highly literate individual, Whitcomb was very much a part of the social literary culture that pervaded white New England, irrespective of gender and class. Frequently recording large portions of her day spent reading, Whitcomb also borrowed and lent out books, read out loud in public and private settings, did domestic work as others read out loud, and shared letters addressed to her as she partook in letters shared by others. But once the war broke out, the similarities between her journaling practices and those of her contemporaries are fewer. The Zborays’ subjects found that the war pervaded their social life and their reading habits, disrupting their ability to continue reading and recording life as it had been before the outbreak of hostilities. Whitcomb recorded a total of nine titles, only one of which can be plausibly tied to concurrent national affairs.

While it would be understandable for pro-war diarists to become so distracted by war events, even a Maine anti-war Democrat, Persis Black, once a very social character and an ‘eloquent diarist,’ ceased almost all entries on social life and reading, writing instead on the pages of her journal complaints about sermons and war news. ‘The war is terrible, but I cannot write of it,’ she wrote in July 1863. ‘It is history & will be written by others.’ No more did she transcribe poems, quote authors, or insert clippings into her diary.22

Another pattern the Zborays found was the keeping of a war timeline, with most to all of the diarists mentioning Fort Sumter, Lincoln’s replacement of General McClellan, General Pope’s campaign, a number of battles in 1863, and the draft riots. From this list, Whitcomb mentioned only Sumter in 1861.23

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