Honoring the 31st for Memorial Day 2017

by Stan Prager

Plaque Clean Hi-Res IMG_1441A few days prior to Memorial Day, Cliff McCarthy and Stan Prager hiked the south pedestrian walkway over Memorial Bridge in Springfield to tend to a historic marker that honors several Hampden County regiments in the Civil War, including the 31st. Stan had volunteered to be part of a Historic Marker Cleanup Program sponsored by his alma mater, American Public University (APU), and targeted the bronze plaque “War to Preserve the Union” on one of the columns of Memorial Bridge for this effort. This plaque, and three others commemorating settlement and other conflicts, were installed on the four largest columns in 1922. Airborne debris, bird scat and pollutants such as those from car emissions adhere to historic markers and can cause damage over time if not carefully cleaned. Cliff, who offered up his help in this endeavor, partnered with Stan in the slow painstaking process of cleaning the superficial layers of grime stuck to the surface of the plaque and its raised bronze inscription, utilizing only water and soft-bristle toothbrushes so as not to damage the artifact. The work was laborious but rewarding as it served as a small tribute to the men of the 31st and others who sacrificed, and in many instances died, so that the Union endured. The United States exists today because of their service. The letters and diaries and memoirs of the men of the 31st that have been transcribed and posted to this website were much on the minds of those wielding toothbrushes in this endeavor to honor their memory.

IMG_1426 PLAQUE EDIT

A Swiss Immigrant’s View of the War

By Cliff McCarthy

We were recently tipped off by a Comment on our webpage about a journal article recounting the experiences of a Swiss immigrant to America who served in the 31st Massachusetts, named Andrew Hanselmann. Hanselmann had come to New Orleans in 1860 and at the outbreak of hostilities joined with a small group of other Swiss to fight for the Confederacy. However, with the withdrawal of Rebel forces from New Orleans, Hanselmann switched allegiance and enlisted in Co. A of the 31st Massachusetts. His view of the war, written many years later near the end of his life, is both enlightening and humorous. He notes with fascination the technological innovations, such as pontoon bridges and the use of cotton “bags” as a protective barrier.  It should be noted that, while his subjective view is interesting, Hanselmann is not careful with his facts and dates, which are frequently corrected in the footnotes of the article. We reproduce some excerpts here, but for the full article describing many more adventures in California after the war, see “Adventures in North America According to My Own Experiences” in the Swiss-American Historical Society Review, Vol. 47, No. 3, November 2011. Hanselmann’s recollections are NOT part of the 31st Massachusetts Infantry Collection at the Wood Museum of Springfield History.

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“When I arrived in the city of New Orleans, there was a slave market. yet not in the open street as earlier, but in enclosed places. There, people were traded the same way as cattle in our region; men were sold away from their wives, children from their mother’s arms. For a young Negro one paid up to 5000 francs, for a female slave about half, more or less, depending on her looks. I was working on a railroad 40 miles north, and I saw daily how these poor devils were treated. One among them was made slave driver. He had a whip with a short handle, walked slowly behind the workers and drove them on to work. His superior was a supervisor on horseback, armed with gun and revolver. The slave driver had to obey him unconditionally and to carry out any order, even if he felt sorry about it. If the supervisor arrived on horseback and saw one of the laborers not working to his liking, he gave an order to the negro-driver to mete out a number of lashes. How painful it must have been to hurt one’s slave brother in such a horrid way. But today, this shameful slavery is abolished.”

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“The newly-elected southern president of the Confederacy issued a proclamation that all residents living in the South were requested and obliged to participate actively in he war or to leave the country immediately. This was difficult for many who where bound to the place for business reasons. What should Andreas do? Should he leave or should he take part in the war against the North that had his sympathy as an enemy of slavery? Now the town of New Orleans set up a military brigade in order to keep order and prevent murder, theft, and arson. Like many others who were also not of the Southern mind, I joined the brigade. We hoped thereby to avoid being assigned to the field army and, since we did military service, we would thus not be obliged to leave the country. We also wanted to do something that was right and to bring honor to our home country. Therefore I joined four other Swiss to establish a Company of Swiss Sharp Shooters since I had been a sharp shooter in the Swiss military. Now, we needed to be drilled. From a company of Italians we borrowed wooden rifles. When the Italians finished their exercises, they gave us the wooden shooting beaters and things went quite well. There was the advantage that we did not loose time with loading the rifle and did not endanger our hearing!”

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“Suddenly the rumor spread that the Northerners were coming, and it was indeed true. Admiral Faraguth [Farragut] had arrived with 15 warships and 300 cannons down at the mouth of the Mississippi close to Fort Jackson behind which there is a huge forest. There is a bend in the river. Faraguth put a small boat with one man to water who had a flag and paddled towards the bend where, protected by bushes, he could well see the fort.

Now the spectacle was to start. The man in the boat observed how the bullets fell on the fort since the gunners could not see the target. But when they got the right target by the flag signal, they fired many shots because with 20 such ‘may-pipes’ one could achieve quite a lot. There was only one ship in action; if all cannons had fired, the whole state of Louisiana including the ship Mississippi would have had to sink. The troops in the fort were in a difficult position; they could not see the enemy ships because of the forest, and yes, the fort was completely leveled. When the battleships moved in front of the fort about one hundred cannons were positioned on the ramparts, it ‘smelled’ some time more, but the dance did not last much longer. Soon the garrison surrendered; the white flag was set up and Admiral Faraguth was master of the place. He ordered the commander of the fort to fall in line. Faraguth told the men that they were now his prisoners; but if they would swear never to use arms against the Union, he would bring them to New Orleans and everyone could go as a free citizen to wherever he pleased. Those however who wanted to join the army of the Union could decide freely to do so, a ship was ready soon to depart.

When in New Orleans, where the bombardment had been heard, the capitulation of the fort became known, the commander of the town
proclaimed that all habitants were allowed to carry off all goods stored on the wharf. He himself fled from the Yankees. How the citizens ran to the place! Some smashed the bottoms of the sugar barrels and filled the sugar in bags, some others did things more simply and the smart way, they rolled the full barrels away, while a third group rushed to the coffee bags and the smoked meat; there was plenty of all the goods. Those living nearby had an advantage and were quickly back at the place. It was like at a race, everything was stolen. This was permitted or even ordered. The empty ships were burnt, or sank in the waters of the Mississippi.”

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“Now the first ship of the Union arrived in New Orleans. General Butler entered with the 31st Regiment, Massachusetts Infantry. I was enlisted in this regiment and from now on I was a soldier of the North. On a low carriage they brought a cannon to the town that was positioned in front of the houses where the flag of the confederates was still flying. The flag was lowered and replaced by that of the Union. This aroused ill feelings among the rebels, but they had to accept it. New Orleans, Charleston and Baltimore were among the worst rebel cities. Our Swiss Sharpshooters Company was dissolved and we were assigned to different companies. My company took quarter in a pharmacy; the two other companies were never with the regiment, but served at the sea in Fort Peig [Pickens].

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“Once, when I was on guard duty from 12 to 2 o’clock and just released, a flock of screaming women and children came towards me. Nearby was the post office with a jail in the basement. A Swiss soldier was guarding the entrance. I joined him and said: ‘Peter, what are these women and children doing here at night, and why are they screaming?’ Peter answered: ‘There are six prisoners here, they will be executed by tomorrow, and these women and children might be relatives.’ Those men had been taken prisoner in Fort Jackson and had sworn to the admiral never again to take the arms against the North. But then they tried to desert to the Confederates but were arrested by the guards, and now they were condemned to death according to martial law. There was a night of full moon, bright as daylight, and because I was not on duty I had time to observe the matter. Soon two carriages arrived, on each of them were a priest and three coffins. The condemned persons were brought out; they mounted the carriages and sat on the coffins. Two companies escorted the carriages, followed by the crying wives and children. It was a heartbreaking spectacle and many soldiers who faced fire with courage had to hold back their tears. The ride out of town took about two miles. There the carriages stopped on the left side of an open field. The wives and children were kept back and not allowed to enter the place of execution. The condemned stepped down and put the coffins side by side a step apart. Then they had to sit down on the coffins, open their shirts, and take off their headgear. Now the two priests approached. Each of them had to take care of three of the condemned. They said a prayer that the crowd around could not understand. In some distance were 24 riflemen under the command of a lieutenant and waited for the order ‘fire’. In this frightening atmosphere a sudden movement came into the crowd. The lieutenant saw an officer on horseback with a white flag approaching the place of execution, giving the order ‘cock at rest’. The officer rode in front of the soldiers with rifles and explained that General Butler had reprieved the deserters by sentencing them to prison. As soon as they heard the word ‘reprieves’, they jumped from the coffins and stamped the ground and shouted: ‘We don’t want to be reprieved.’ The officer replied that they had nothing to say here; other people were giving orders. The coffins were again loaded on the carts and the party went back to town. The wives and children were astonished and also happy when they saw their men coming back alive.”

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“One day, when I was in New Orleans, I saw a wagon with two policemen and a prisoner between them. ‘What had this fellow done,’ I thought and I followed the wagon. It drove toward the mint, where money is manufactured and where there is a large court. I entered it and saw that they brought the prisoner into the house. Soon he appeared with an officer on the balcony of the second floor. Now I understood what was to happen because I saw a trapdoor and above it a rope. The man was standing on the trapdoor of the balcony. Then his hands were tied on his back and his feet with a leather strap. In his right hand he received a white handkerchief. Now he raised his voice and asked the officer whether he could say some words. This the officer allowed. He mentioned his name, his year of birth, and his home state North Carolina. Then he told with a trembling voice that a citizen from New Orleans had promised him a thousand dollars if he were to take down the Union flag from the mint and, without having known or being aware
that this was such a great crime, he had taken down the flag. But this time no savior appeared. The hangman pulled the black cap over the delinquent’s head down to his shoulders, put the rope around his neck, and pulled the trap board from under his feet – I had to turn away.”
[Hanselmann refers to the execution of William Bruce Mumford, 26 April 1862.]

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“Now I will talk again about Fort Port Hudson. Without having been ordered, we crawled up the five-meter high slope and saw how the garrison troops had dug long and two-meter deep trenches on the shoveled-up ground. At times a shot was fired, but we couldn’t see anyone. Now 2,000 cotton bags were delivered. I guessed the weight of such a bag to be about 30 pounds. Every soldier of the 31st Regiment had to carry two of those bags. We did not debate long how best and most comfortably to carry them. We cut sticks in the bushes, sharpened them at both ends, and pierced two bags each with them. We carried the bags on our shoulder, one in front, and one in the back while the rifle dangled around the neck. The kind reader now may imagine how strange our regiment looked with such armament. On that day we also could get schnapps, which hadn’t been the case until today, and it was placed before us in buckets. There must have been a reason for this. The night passed quietly. At dawn we marched toward the fort. We came to soft, muddy ground. We now had to put our bags down and make a path for our artillery with them. Suddenly the bullets of the rebels covered us like dense hail. We pulled the bags up again, piled them one upon the other and sought cover behind them. We crouched behind them like earthworms. The bullets could not pierce the bags, but some found their way between them.

This was the 24th of July. [Actually, Port Hudson surrendered on 8 July 1863.] No one who was there will ever forget this day. Due to heat and exhaustion, I fell asleep behind the protective wall of cotton. Before the war there had been a forest around the fort. At that time the garrison had felled trees crisscrossed, one on top of the other, and it was nearly impossible to come dose to the fort. Our leader Emmeric, we were told, got the ‘cannon fever’ and ran away. Penn, his deputy, had to suffer in his place since he caught a bullet in his leg. Nearby was our ensign who shot with great courage at the fort. A bullet pierced his car. He rolled around on the ground and cried out loudly for water. This woke me from my blackout-sleep. Then another comrade cried and shouted at my side. ‘What happened to you?’ I asked. ‘I lost my foot,’ he answered. I had a look, but kept my head nicely lowered, and I saw that he had received a bullet through the shoe sole, but the foot was only grazed. I still could tell many things that this day in July had brought. In the evening our Negro cooks cheered us up. They brought hot coffee. Oh, how good it tasted!”

[Note: there were no officers named Emmerich or Penn in the 31st Massachusetts. Hanselman did serve in other units during the war and may have gotten some names confused. It is possible they were officers in another unit to which the 31st was attached during the attack on Port Hudson.]

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[Red River Campaign]

“In the evening the ambulances came and took the wounded and dead away. We crossed a deep creek and got wet from top to bottom. A cold night followed, and we waited in a cornfield for the morning; this time none of us was sweating and we were also standing in deep mud. The order arrived to assault the fort. A dense thorny hedge had been made around it. We crept under it and pulled our rifles after us. The knees of most of us might have trembled when we reached tile earthworks. We climbed slowly onto them and raised our heads cautiously. One soldier was ahead. With one jump he was on the top and could see into the fort. ‘All are gone,’ he shouted. The garrison had left the fort by a secret exit. Soon we discovered the soldiers’ tracks and pursued them. They had already crossed the Red River [Bayou Teche] and had destroyed the bridge. Our artillery arrived and the engineers erected a temporary bridge. We, the foot soldiers, carried the ammunition across; the gunners pulled their cannons through the water. We worked with great effort. We stopped the pursuit and marched far upstream on the left bank of the river. In order to make the connection to the right bank, intersecting bridges were established that I had never seen before. We got a large number of wooden boxes. These contained rubber bags that could be filled with air, so they looked like mattresses. Then they were tied together, put into the river, and fixed with ropes on the two banks so they could not swim away. Along this huge ‘air pillow,’ two beams were put on to these, one board after another.

The bridge was finished. An officer gave the order: ‘Muster!’ Soon we were ready to march in single row. The drummers beat their drums, each in his own way: they didn’t beat a march, and we were not to move in step so that the bridge wouldn’t sway. Such were the orders. We tripped like a herd of sheep over the rubber bridge — it was quite ridiculous. We crossed the river on this ‘air bridge’ in good humor without accident. The ‘mattresses’ were pulled on land, emptied. and packed together with the other material. One had to experience it, otherwise one wouldn’t believe it. Our way went up to Franklin. Here we met our artillery and our cavalry.

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In the morning at dawn the ‘hiking’ continued. We marched a longtime in almost unbearable heat. Finally we had a two-hour rest in a forest. How good we felt! We could sit and lie and smoke a pipe in the cool shade. Suddenly an officer startled us. There was a farmer with him. He protested like a madman because a pair if his boots had been stolen. The officer asked him whether he would recognize the boots-thief if he would see him. ‘I think so,’ he replied, ‘for it had been a drummer.’ So all the drummers were gathered and scrutinized. But the boots did not show up. After this funny intermezzo, the musicians wanted to play a tune, but they didn’t get one single note out. Their instruments were full of dust and they had first to be washed. Now the drummers were ordered to play a march. They formed a circle and lustily beat the drum skins that the forest resounded. An officer
was marching along the drummers and asked one of them:

‘What’s the matter with your drum? It doesn’t have a real sound.’ ‘Yes I know,’ he replied. ‘I’ve the boots in it that the farmer was looking for and couldn’t find.’ The officer broke into a laugh and gave the drummer a pat on the back.”

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[Back in New Orleans]

The people in the government of this town were a gang of rogues. They let it happen that everyone could print and pass out false money. They themselves gave a bad example and put four million false banknotes in circulation. There were two clever artisans, a tailor and a shoemaker, who also printed false notes. They even put their artisan symbol on the paper, the one a pair of scissors, the other a shoe-last. A commercial business issued, of course without any guarantee, 300,000 dollars of invalid bills. It would have been quite a good business if it had continued for a longer period. General Butler, however, quickly ‘put an end to this joy.’ He had all the false money collected, declared it as worthless, and in one day had four million false notes burnt on the open street. He had the members of the government apprehended and imprisoned in the fortress Jackson. With his troops he now had full control over New Orleans. But due to his just and impartial action, he was soon liked, and the people loved him like a father. His task was
huge. No other man could have kept a town of 300,000 inhabitants, who through pressure, roguishness, and unemployment had come close to desperation, in such good public order as he did.

How well he cared for the working class showed one of his proclamations that forbid landlords to give notice to those who couldn’t pay the rent on time or to turn them out to the street. This led to great anger, and the cold-bloodedness, energy, and reputation of a Butler were needed to contain the fires that were to flare up again and again.”

Researcher Seeks Info on Halsey B. Green & Reconstruction

I received the following email on 5 August 2015, from Mississippi researcher Sammy Pace:

“I am researching Halsey B. Green of company I, 31st Regiment Massachussetts Infantry.  I was wondering if you might have any additional information on him.  It appears that Halsey was discharged from the 31st Massachussetts Regiment in late 1863 in order to accept a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in company E of the 20th Regiment Infantry Corps d’Afrique.  This regiment was later redesignated the 91st Regiment United States Colored Troops in about April 1864.  I believe it was then combined with another unit and redesignated the 74th USCT.  Lieutenant Green was in company B of this command.  Shortly after the war, it appears he was a member of the board of registration in Marion County, Mississippi.  This happens to be the county where my dad’s families lived at that time.  I have pasted an excerpt refering to him in this postwar capacity.  It was taken from a publication called “Condition of Affairs in Mississippi, Evidence Taken by the Committee on Reconstruction, 1869.”  This is available online if you desire to look for additional information.  This board of registration was established in many counties, if not all, in the former Confederate States to ensure that fair elections were held and freedmen were not denied or cheated their right to fairly vote according to their conscience.  Following is the excerpt.  Some fellow local history researchers and I are wanting to find out more about what was going on in Marion County, MS shortly after the war.  At this point it is somewhat of a blank page in history.  I want to know what roles these individuals mentioned herein had in the postwar Reconstruction Era of this county.”

These are the excerpts he refers to:

“Columbia, Marion County, Mississippi,
June 16, 1868

Sir:  I have respectfully to make the following report of my inspection of election matters in Marion County:

     The members of the board of registration, Messrs. Lane, Green, and Moore, I found to be familiar with the orders upon the subject of the election and good men for their positions.  Owing to the distance between the precincts – 20 to 25 miles in all but one instance – and the difficult character of the country, it will be impossible to hold the election on consecutive days.  It will be held at Northern box, Whiddon box and Deerman box, on the 22d; at Todd’s Mill, Waterhole box, and Burn’s box, on the 24th, and at Columbia on the 26th instant.

     This county is without a sheriff, and it is therefore impossible to have deputy sheriffs appointed as required by General Order No. 19, for the purpose of preserving order at the polls, and, in fact, performing the duties of deputy sheriffs.  I have empowered the president of the board, Mr. Lane, to appoint constables to be paid at the same rates and in the same manner as deputy sheriffs.  I trust my action in this respect will meet with the approval of the commanding general.

     I have conversed with some of the leading citizens of the county in regard to the subject of the appointment of a sheriff for the county, and believing it to be the desire of the commanding general that the office should be filled, I have instituted measures to procure the name of some good man to be appointed; very little of the State and no portion of the convention tax has been collected, and in fact the interests of the county are suffering for want of the services of an efficient sheriff.  Many of the most prominent men earnestly desire the vacancy filled, and are willing to render material aid in the matter.

     Mail facilities are so poor in this county that I have found it impracticable to have mail forwarded to me from Brookhaven, as I had expected to have done.  If orders have been sent me from headquarters they have not and will not reach me until my return to Brookhaven, about the 20th instant.

     I go, tomorrow, back to Williamsburg, Covington County, where I expect to remain until the close of the election.

     I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
W. M. Atwood,
First Lieut. 19th Inf., Inspector of Election

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Vicksburg, Mississippi, July 3, 1868

Sir:  The enclosed depositions of Marion Barnes and Robert Smith, colored, were taken by me in the case of one Doro Willoughby, a white citizen of Columbia, Marion County, Mississippi.  It appears that he obtained a republican ticket with a flag on the back, and after crossing out all names on the ticket, writing against instead of for, and the name of the democratic candidate for the legislature, gave it to the said Marion Barnes, telling him it was a republican ticket.

     There were several other tickets marked in a similar manner but this was the only case which came under my notice where anything like fraud was attempted.

     Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

                                                    James W. Moore, Registrar.

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Brevet Major John Tyler.

     Marion Barnes, colored, being duly sworn, deposes and says:  That one Doro Willoughby, a white citizen of Columbia, Marion County, Mississippi, did approach him while he was going to the polls and offer him a choice of tickets, and that on his expressing a wish to vote the republican ticket said Doro Willoughby did give him a republican ticket, which was afterwards ascertained had been crossed out and marked in such a way which he did not wish.

                                         His

                          Marion x Barnes

                                     Mark

Witnesses:  Halsey B. Greene, H. J. Manning.

Sworn to and subscribed before me this 27th day of June, 1868.

                                             James W. Moore,

                               Registrar, Marion County, Mississippi.

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     Robert Smith, colored, being duly sworn, deposes and says:  That he was present when Doro Willoughby, a white citizen of Columbia, offered one Marion Barnes, colored, a ticket, telling him that it was a republican ticket, said ticket, as afterwards ascertained, having been marked in such a manner as to cause the said Marion Barnes to vote contrary to his wishes.

                                           His

                                Robert x Smith

                                               Mark

Witnesses:  Halsey B. Green, M. J. Manning.

Sworn to and subscribed before me at Columbia, on this 27th day of June, 1868.

                          James W. Moore,
          Registrar, Marion County, Mississippi.”

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Halsey Baker Green (1840-1914) was born and died in Berlin, Rensselaer Co., NY.  It appears that after serving in the 31st Mass., and as a white officer in the Corps d’Afrique and the U.S.C.T., Halsey Green was called upon to supervise elections in Marion County, Mississippi and to protect the newly-enfranchised black voters from fraud. This document outlines one example of the kind of trickery that was used to confound these new voters.

I’m sure Mr. Pace would appreciate any information that would further his research into Reconstruction-era Mississippi, especially Marion county, or about this man, Halsey B. Green. He can be reached at: pace_family@hotmail.com

“Butler” at the Barrington Stage

by Cliff McCarthy

General Benjamin Franklin Butler

General Benjamin Franklin Butler

Before Major General Benjamin Butler created the “Western Bay State Regiment” and its eastern counterpart, he was commander of Fort Monroe, a solitary Union outpost in Virginia on a peninsula extending into Chesapeake Bay. This is the location of a new play entitled “Butler”, artfully written by Richard Strand and produced by the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass.  It is playing there until June 13th.

Throughout his life, Ben Butler was an interesting, controversial, and sometimes contradictory character, but this play is less concerned with his biography than focusing on one moment in his career. Although little-recognized at the time, the small decision Butler made at Fort Monroe would have a dramatic impact. It is not hyperbolic to claim that it was a direct precursor to the emancipation of southern slaves and to Union victory in the Civil War.

The decision was forced on Butler when three enslaved men from the newly-seceded state of Virginia, who had been employed in constructing fortifications for the Confederate Army, escaped across the river and arrived at the entrance to Fort Monroe seeking asylum.  The Fugitive Slave Act required the return of this southern “property” to its owner, yet if returned, the slaves would be punished and then again put to work aiding the Rebels.  When an agent for the slaveowner did indeed come calling under a flag of truce, Butler was forced to decide the fates of the refugees.  With his politician’s instincts and his lawyer’s mind, perhaps Butler was precisely the correct person to devise the brilliant solution that would have ramifications that resonated until the war’s end.

It is a little-known incident, but one that deserves the attention given it by this play. The four cast members (Wally Dunn, Ben Cole, John Hickok, and Maurice Jones) do a superb job of creating their characters and the script, as whole, is well-written and intelligent.  It’s funny and dramatic and entertaining.  That the dialogue, as presented — a fugitive slave in turns insulting, attacking, and intellectually leading General Butler to his decision — could never have happened that way is of little consequence to the audience.  Call it literary license. The fact pattern of the incident is correct.

While not directly related to the 31st Massachusetts, this play should be of interest to any Civil War buff or fan of General Butler. More information can be found at the Barrington Stage Company website.

Woman in Alaska has Letters from Drummer Boy of Co. K

Carolyn L. Jones, who settled near Fairbanks, Alaska a couple of years ago, contacted us recently about a collection of letters she owns from her great, great-uncle, Thomas Folsom Norris, drummer boy of Co. K, 31st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.  Company K was the one company recruited from the eastern part of the state that was attached to the “Western Bay State Regiment.”

Thomas Folsom Norris res: Somerville drummer boy, Co. K (image courtesy of Carolyn L. Jones, Fairbanks, AK)

Thomas Folsom Norris
res: Somerville
drummer boy, Co. K
(image courtesy of Carolyn L. Jones, Fairbanks, AK)

Enlisting as a 16 year-old musician on 4 January 1862, T.F. Norris wrote home to his family in Somerville, Mass. He served until the end of the war.

Carolyn has about 45 of his letters in her possession and is creating an album for them. Currently, she is painstakingly transcribing the letters and researching the people, places, and ships that Norris mentions in his correspondence. “His letters are quite diary-like. Very fascinating for such a young man.”  She hopes to publish them at some point.

Thanks to Carolyn, the Wood Museum of Springfield History now has a copy of one letter, plus its transcription; a couple of images of Mr. Norris with family members; and genealogical information about several generations of the Norris family.

For more information, Carolyn can be reached at: carolyninak@yahoo.com

Five Frink Brothers From Mount Washington

By Larry Lowenthal

In spending as much time as I have in examining the 31st Mass. roster, it was inevitable that I would be struck by the fact that there were five men named Frink in Company F, all from the tiny hilltown of Mount Washington. The roster, however, lists data such as age and occupation, but says nothing about relationships. Following a web link, I found that Mount Washington, despite its small size, has quite an attractive historical website. Through that, I made contact with the person who had largely developed it, Michele (Patterson) Valenzano. Like many other genealogists, she began by exploring her own family and expanded into wider fields.

Springfield Republican, 18 March 1862

Springfield Republican, 18 March 1862

From her I learned that the five Frinks were brothers. Aged 18 to 28 at the time of enlistment, they were sons of Elias Smith Frink (1807-1873) and Harriet Brazee (1812-1871). The family originated in adjacent Litchfield County, CT, and lived in Mount Washington for only about ten years, c.1855-1865. Two of the sons listed their occupation as farmer and the other three as collier, engaged in the ancient and demanding craft of making charcoal for the furnaces in the Salisbury iron district. The five men who joined the 31st Mass. were not the end of the Frink story, as two other brothers enlisted in the 8th Conn., and the youngest brother was turned down when he tried to sign up. There were also three Frink daughters, but they died in childhood. Mount Washington, isolated in the extreme southwest corner of Massachusetts, recorded a population in the 1860 census of 321. In many of the decennial censuses it was noted for having the smallest population among Massachusetts municipalities, dropping to a low of 34 in 1950.

Thanks to this fortunate contact with Michele Valenzano, I was able to add another fascinating detail to the rich story of the 31st Mass.

“Twelve Years a Slave” Has a 160 Year History

By Cliff McCarthy

It’s Oscar time.  With its annual orgy of the end-of-the-year movies, Hollywood cashes in on the holiday vacation season and puts its best films on display for Academy Awards consideration.  Last year at this time, the buzz was all about the film Twelve Years A Slave, which went on to win three Oscars, including Best Picture.  The film recounts the true story of Solomon Northup [sometimes spelled “Northrop”], a freeborn person of color who is lured from his Saratoga Springs, N.Y. home to Washington, D.C. where he is sold into slavery in 1841.  While most viewers realize the film is “based on fact,” not everyone knows that the book upon which it was based was historically important in its own right.  The original book is in the public domain and one electronic version of it can be found here.

Solomon_Northup_001Northup’s memoir was told to, and edited by, David Wilson and was published in 1853 — eight years before the Civil War began. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the massive best-seller which was credited as contributory to the outbreak of the war, was published only one year before, in 1852. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book was a work of fiction. Twelve Years a Slave, which was dedicated to Stowe, sold 30,000 copies making it a best-seller in its own right. The book was recognized by major Northern newspapers, abolitionist organizations, and evangelical groups. Like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Northup’s book opened the eyes of the general public to the cruelty of slavery.  But as a non-fiction memoir, Twelve Years a Slave gave credence to the earlier book and presented a factual basis that validated Stowe’s portrayal of the institution.  Coincidentally, Northup’s real-life master resided in the same geographical area as Stowe’s fictional Simon Legree — a plantation on the Red River in Louisiana. Stowe herself wrote, “It is a singular coincidence that this man was carried to a plantation in the Red River country, that same region where the scene of Tom’s captivity was laid; and his account of this plantation, his mode of life there, and some incidents which he describes, form a striking parallel to that history.”

If you doubt the impact of the book, read E. C. Bidwell’s narrative, included at this website, about verifying Solomon’s story while on the Red River Campaign in Avoyelles Parish with the 31st Mass.

But Solomon Northup’s story does not end with his return to freedom in 1853. The rest of his life is shrouded in mystery. After his book was published, Northup was in demand as an anti-slavery speaker and toured around the northeast states. It is believed that he became a conductor on the Underground Railroad, secretly harboring and transporting fugitive slaves. He purchased property in Glens Falls, N.Y., but lost that property to foreclosure as his financial problems mounted. A play he wrote, based on his book, was a failure and his debts increased further. Sadly, after escaping from slavery and then contributing to its cataclysmic demise, Solomon Northup himself apparently failed to thrive. The last mention of his being seen in public was in 1857. By the time Bidwell set out to explore the facts of his story in 1864, Northup had dropped out of sight. (See Wall Street Journal blog post by Mark Robichaux.)

In spite of its importance at the time, Twelve Years a Slave dropped out of public consciousness after the war and was for many years out-of-print.  In 1968, two historians separately re-discovered the book and together began investigating its fact pattern.  Joseph Logsdon and Sue Eakin authored an annotated re-issue of the book, published by the Louisiana State University Press. In it, they wrote: “In the last analysis, [the] narrative deserves to be believed, not simply because [Northup] seems to be talking reasonably, not merely because he adorns his tale with compelling and persuasive details. At every point where materials exist for checking his account, it can be verified.” The researchers used trial records, correspondence, a diary, and slave sale records. Now, we can add to the list, Bidwell’s interviews with Northup’s contemporaries.