Hingham Sailors in the Civil War: Where the Wild Winds Swept Them

In August 1862, three young Hingham men enlisted in the U.S. Navy. At the Charlestown Navy Yard, they were issued uniforms and entered into the record: Benjamin Jones, twenty-nine, hazel eyes, dark hair; George Merritt, twenty-one, blue eyes, brown hair; Henry Trowbridge, twenty-one, blue eyes, light hair. Ranked as landsmen, they will earn $13 a month.1

Trowbridge Henry NavalRec 1862 copy

U.S. Navy, Enlistments at Boston in 1862.  Henry Trowbridge of Hingham.

The war was in its second year. The month before President Lincoln had put out an urgent call for additional troops, and the town had rallied to meet its quota. On July 25, 1862, the Hingham Journal printed a powerful appeal that included increased bounties:

Within days of the newspaper notice, our three Hingham Centre boys enlisted, and the village must have been a hive of activity as family and friends gathered to wish the young men well. Benjamin and Henry were first cousins and related to George through the old Massachusetts families.

098665501After several months of training in the north, the three young men left for the sounds of North Carolina aboard the USS Hetzel, a side-wheel steamer, chartered to maintain blockades on southern ports. In North Carolina, they transferred to the gunboat USS Louisiana, “five guns,”2 whose mission was to intercept blockade runners and support ground troops. The ship was crowded and damp, the weather humid and, in addition to the enemy, sailors fought the plethora of diseases that haunted ships. At some time that winter, George Merritt got sick. Suffering from intense fevers and chills, he was moved to a hospital in North Carolina. On February 7, 1863, he died of “swamp fever” and was buried “from the hospital.”2

George Merritt II

Hingham Civil War Monument, Hingham Cemetery

A letter or telegram carried the news north. Adding to his parents’ grief was the fact their son was buried so far from home. They would eventually place a memorial headstone in the First Parish Cemetery in Norwell,and George’s name would be inscribed on the Civil War Monument erected by the town after the war. The publication produced for the monument’s dedication, details his service and asks: “Is his sleep less sweet in the land where the wild wind swept him, than if soothed to rest at home, and kin and friends had wept him?”2

Benjamin and Henry remained aboard the USS Louisiana through the winter, and in April 1863, they took part in the sea and land battle at Washington, North Carolina. In August, their service complete, they were discharged and “granted passage home.”2 It must have been a subdued homecoming—of the three young sailors who had left the year before, only two came home. And Henry was ill. The Hingham Journal reports the homecoming:

September 4.

Henry Trowbridge has been confined to his father’s residence with fever, is getting better. Benjamin Jones has enjoyed good health since his return from the U.S. gunboat Louisiana, which were blockading Washington, N.C. The young and noble Merritt was one of the three from here in their company; his bones now rest on Southern soil, but his soul is in heaven.

At war’s end, Henry went to work with his father in a meat market in Hingham Centre. He married, moved out of his parent’s house on School Street, and built a house at the corner of Pleasant and Union streets. After the untimely death of his wife, Mary Ordway Trowbridge, he married Hannah Ferris, an Irish immigrant, and had five children. In addition to rebuilding the house at 51 Pleasant Street after it burned to the ground, he built two houses on Union Street, the one at 11 Union survives. Throughout his long life, he lived to be 87 years old, he was involved in the work of US Grand Army of the Republic post, which Civil War veterans started after the war.  When he died in 1930, he was remembered as “one of the oldest GAR men in the State.”4

Henry Trowbridge age 21

Henry Trowbridge, age 21. Hand-tinted dagurreotype from family collection.

Footnotes

  1. “United States Naval Enlistment Rendezvous, 1855–1891,” NARA microfilm publication M1953. Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration. Henry Trowbridge, Benjamin L. Jones, George H. Merritt, Aug 1862. FamilySearch. Web. Author note: Henry and George were actually both 20, not 21 as indicated in the records.
  2. Burr, Fearing, George Lincoln, The Town of Hingham in the Late Civil War. Includes biographical information Benjamin Jones, pp. 312–313; Henry Trowbridge, p. 313; George Merritt pp. 388–389.
  3. See photo of memorial headstone, George H. Merritt, First Parish Cemetery, Norwell, Plymouth County. Find a Grave website, findagrave.com
  4. Henry Trowbridge obituary: Daily Boston Globe, May 7, 1930.

About the author

Meg Ferris Kenagy is a freelance writer who grew up in Hingham, Massachusetts. She is the author of The House on School Street, Eight generations. Two hundred and four years. One family.

Ruth Litchfield Marsh (1893-1991), Hingham Visiting Nurse

Ruth Briggs Litchfield, 19 years old, 1912. Photo courtesy of Meg Kenagy

At the end of August 1918, the worldwide influenza pandemic hit the Boston area. Doctors and hospitals were overwhelmed. Red Cross volunteers and nurses stepped in to help. In Hingham, Ruth Litchfield Marsh, two years out of nursing school, worked throughout the crisis. She was 25 years old. It was through this experience that she became committed to public health, working over her long life with the Hingham Visiting Nurses Association and as a volunteer for South Shore Hospital.

 

Ruth, the elder of S. Frances and Wilbur Litchfield’s two daughters. Photo courtesy of Meg Kenagy.

Ruth was born in April 1893 at 11 Union Street, Hingham, the first of two daughters of Sarah Frances Briggs and Wilbur Trowbridge Litchfield. She lived most of her life on School Street. She married George Marsh in May 1919, had four children and many grandchildren. Her house and gardens were always beautifully kept and she always had time to bake a casserole for a neighbor, talk to a child, and teach sewing. When she died at 97 years old, she was remembered for her many contributions to the town:  Girl Scout leader, nurse, volunteer, member of the Women’s Alliance of the Old Ship Church.  She was my grand-aunt and I, as well as many others, remember her compassion and gentle sense of humor.  For more about the life of Ruth Litchfield Marsh, you can read: The House on School Street, Eight Generations, Two hundred and four years. One family.

 

 

A Letter from Home: Easterly Winds and Death

Old letters open a window to the past. There isn’t a genealogist or historian who doesn’t yearn for them. And for good reason: letters carry the voices of our ancestors, they tell us a story. They illuminate our history.

One such letter, written on May 1, 1830 by Hingham resident Benjamin Thomas, Jr., to his uncle Martin Cushing in Maine, contains “sorrowful” news. It relates the death of Martin’s older brother Adna, who died the day before. The story it tells is of working conditions, medical knowledge, and a community caring for its own.

By way of background, Martin and Adna, sons of Isaac and Mary Cushing, were born in Hingham in 1788 and 1785, respectively. Descended from Matthew, the first Cushing to settle in town, they grew up in Hingham Centre, working on the family farm and in the sawmill. As adults, they entered the trades: Adna became a stonemason, Martin a bricklayer. In 1810, Adna married Sarah Leavitt and built a house at what is now 63 Pleasant Street; within a decade, he had moved his family to Leominster. Martin married Susan Thomas and moved to Maine.

In the letter, Benjamin recounts the facts of Adna’s death. He does not indulge in emotion or offer sympathy. From it, we learn that, in the winter of 1830, Adna worked indoors as a stone mason and that “the dust gave him a bad cough.” We learn that spring brought bad weather: there were “3 weeks of easterly winds and mist, by which [Adna] took a bad cold.” We learn that at the tail end of April, while working on a job in Charlestown, Adna fell violently ill and died. We learn he “labored” within days of his death.

When he died, his body “was brought to Hingham by a sail boat,” and “he was buried from M. & F. Burrs house” on the day of his death.

What the letter doesn’t tell us is that Adna was only 44 years old when he died. It doesn’t say how his wife and children learned of his death. Knowing he was buried the day he died, we understand that he was in the ground before most people knew he was dead. We see that immediately following his death a group of friends or co-workers carried his body from Charlestown to Hingham by sailboat. We know the news was rushed to Hingham Centre, and that the Fearing Burrs opened their home for an unexpected funeral. We realize that, in a matter of hours, a coffin was acquired, a gravedigger found, and a minister fetched. We are left to imagine the ripples of grief that spread across the villages and towns as friends and family heard the news.

Martin died seven years after his brother and is buried in Maine. How the letter survived is not clear as his widow is believed to have remarried and moved west, but it was handed down through the Cushing family. Thanks to the letter, we have a better idea of what it was like to live in Hingham in 1830.

Endnotes

Benjamin Thomas Jr. (1799-1854) was a nephew of Susan (Thomas) Cushing, Martin Cushing’s wife. He was the son of her brother, a gunsmith who lived in Hingham Centre. Lincoln, George et al., History of the Town of Hingham, Massachusetts, Vol. III (Genealogical), 1893. Pub. by the Town.

A copy of the letter from Benjamin Thomas Jr. to Martin Cushing was shared with me by researcher Margie von Marenholtz.

Adna Cushing (1785-1830) and Martin Cushing (1788-1837) were two of Deacon Isaac and Mary (Jones) Cushing’s seven children.

The Capt. Adna Cushing house at 63 Pleasant Street was built in 1811, according to the Hingham Historical Commission, Inventory of Historic, Architectural and Archaeological Assets. On Adna’s move to Leomister, see Cushing, James Stevenson. The genealogy of the Cushing family, an account of the ancestors and descendants of Matthew Cushing, who came to America in 1638.1905. Montreal, The Perrault Printing Co.

On M. & F. Burr’s house: Fearing Burr Sr. (1778-1866) had a store and home in Hingham Centre. Lincoln, George et al., History of the Town of Hingham, Massachusetts, Vol. III. Ibid. Adna is buried with his parents and his wife in Hingham Centre Cemetery. Note: His gravestone says he was 45 years old when he died; he was 44, in his 45th year.

Martin Cushing died 20 May 1837. “Maine Deaths and Burials, 1841-1910,” database, FamilySearch, Feb. 2018.