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From the Bay State to the Free State: A Massachusetts Soldier in Maryland

The Civil War diary of Joseph Warren Phinney, a recent acquisition of the MHS, is a small unassuming leather volume. Probably fewer than half the pages are covered with smudged pencil entries dated 13 July 1864-22 April 1865, as well as miscellaneous memoranda. But even a cursory look into its contents reveals fascinating details.

Phinney hailed from Sandwich, Mass. and served with the 5th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, Company A. His diary complements our other holdings related to this regiment, which include the papers of Charles Bowers, William Wallace Davis, Benjamin Newell Moore, and George L. Prescott. But it was Phinney’s entry of 8 October 1864 that piqued my interest. It begins: “To-day I was detailed to go with a squad to protect the Polls in a small town on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.” October was too early for the presidential election, but Phinney didn’t provide any context, so I consulted Alfred S. Roe’s 1911 history of the regiment to learn more.

Phinney was, in his small way, taking part in a momentous day in Maryland’s history. The Emancipation Proclamation had freed slaves in the Confederacy nearly two years before, but Maryland had never seceded and so was still a slave-holding state. In fact, its 1851 Constitution explicitly outlawed “any law abolishing the relation of master or slave.” October 1864 saw Marylanders voting to ratify a new constitution which would, among other things, abolish slavery in the state. (It ultimately squeaked by with a tiny majority of 375 votes.)

The 5th Massachusetts Infantry sent several squads from Baltimore’s Fort McHenry down the Chesapeake Bay to protect polling places along the Eastern Shore. Phinney’s squad was detailed to the small town of Trappe in Talbot County. They were quartered there for about a week, first in a schoolhouse and then a church.

But this 19-year-old bachelor wasn’t thinking about his place in history. He wrote: “We received many favors from the inhabitants and lived high on sweet potatoes and johnny cake brought in by them. The boys had plenty of liberty and improved it by seeing all they could and tasting all they saw.”

If you sense a certain tone to his words, you’re not imagining things. After his return to Baltimore, Phinney elaborated: “How much I enjoyed my visit at Trappe I can’t well express, but a long letter, containing three closely written sheets of good sensible sized note paper seems to tell me that I wan’t the only one who remembers with pleasure my visit to the ‘Eastern Shore.’” His correspondent was someone named either Emma or Erma—I can’t quite make out his handwriting. Whoever she was, he called her “darling” and “a good sweet little dear” and cherished her “token of love and friendship more than I shall dare to express here.”

I won’t keep you in suspense: as far as I can tell, Phinney and the young lady in question never saw each other again. But she wrote to him six months later, prompting him to reflect, in the only other entry he wrote about her: “Who would imagine that she would remember me enough to write such a letter after such a time since we met has elapsed. I am sure I didn’t when we enjoyed ourselves so pleasantly on the Eastern Shore of ‘Maryland, My Maryland,’ – as she used to sing so sweetly.” But she lived too far away, and he was a “wandering vagabond” and “scallawag” who couldn’t provide for a family. So he concluded: “I guess it will be best policy to let them all slide Nettie, Emma, and Lizzie, the whole boodle of them.”

Phinney didn’t let the whole boodle slide, however, at least not permanently. He married in 1869 to Susan Jane Turner, with whom he had two children before she died 13 years later. Phinney then married Priscilla Chase Morris and had four more children.

Other entries in Phinney’s diary are interesting, funny, or just plain cryptic. He had a tendency to scribble down random thoughts, financial memoranda, aphorisms, etc. He also sometimes vented his frustration. After his promotion to sergeant of the guard, he wrote: “Hullo, Sergeant Phinney? Your three stripes look better than two. How mad Walsh was that he didn’t get the warrant. I don’t give a damn!”


And here’s an excerpt from his description of the day Abraham Lincoln died, which stretches for several pages: “This has been a day of sorrow and mourning for the nation. […] On the opening of the telegraph office there was an immense crowd gathered in front of the entrance, awaiting, with intense anxiety, something definite in regard to the matter. Alas! The news was too true, for the wire confirmed what we had before hesi[ta]ted to believe. We cannot depict the horror and grief that seized our community.”

The MHS also holds a copy of Catch ’ems?, a beautiful two-volume compilation of the letters of Phinney’s daughter Ellis Phinney Taylor, published in 2004 by other members of the family. Although the letters date from the early 20th century, Catch ’ems? gave me my first glimpse of Joseph Warren Phinney and the Phinney family.




Phinney was born in 1845, the only son and youngest child of Warren and Henrietta J. (Smith) Phinney. His mother died just a few months after his birth, and his father a few years later, so young Phinney was raised by his maternal grandparents. After the Civil War, he became a printer and type founder and designed several typefaces. He died in 1934 at the age of 89.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 21 September, 2016, 12:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

Summer officially ends this week. With its demise comes a rise in programs here at the Society. Here is what's on tap this week:

- Wednesday, 21 September, 6:00PM : With a major election looming, you might wonder what the young vote can do to alter the outcome. First, get some historical perspective. Join us for a public author talk featuring Jon Grinspan of the Smithsonian as he talks about his new book, The Virgin Vote: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century. Registration is requried for this event with a fee of $10 (no charge for MHS Members or Fellows). A pre-talk reception starts at 5:30PM and the program begins at 6:00PM. 

- Thursday, 22 September, 6:00PM : Calling all graduate students and faculty! Please join us on for our seventh annual Graduate Student Reception for students in history, American Studies, and related fields. Enjoy drinks and hors d’oeuvres as you meet colleagues from other universities working in your field. Take a behind-the scenes tour and learn about the resources the MHS offers to support your scholarship, from research fellowships to our seminar series.

- Saturday, 24 September, 10:00AM : Come on in for a free tour of the Society's home at 1154 Boylston St. The History and Collections of the MHS is a 90-minute, docent-led tour of the public spaces at the MHS. The tour is free and open to the public with no need for individuals or small groups to set reservations. Larger parties (8 or more) should contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley in advance at 617-646-0508 or

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 18 September, 2016, 12:00 AM

Margaret Russell’s Diary, September 1916

Today, we return to the line-a-day diary of Margaret Russell. You can read previous installments here:

January | February | March | April | May | June | July | August

In August, Margaret Russell wrote about her ambivalence planning a trip to the American west due to the uncertainties created by the looming railroad strike. The strike was resolved, however, and as her diary reveals Margaret went ahead with her travel plans. On September 6th, the Wednesday after Labor Day (established as a federal holiday in 1894), she went to Boston to purchase tickets. Between September 7th and September 21st she traveled to Colorado and back by train. It is unclear whether Margaret Russell traveled alone or with other members of the family; her diary seldom reveals her daily companions. Her diary once again reveals her to be a lover of walks and drives, as she details the natural beauty of the landscape in the West. 

On the return journey she notes a tragedy: “Two men killed by our train but we did not know.” Were the men laborers? Were the deaths intentional suicide? An accident? She likely did not know and certainly does not say. It is a passing horror in an otherwise “splendid trip.” The final week of September sees Margaret return to her usual routine of errands, walking, and visiting on the North Shore and in Boston.

 * * *

September 1916*

1 Sept. Friday - Stayed at home in the morning. Drove to Newburyport for tea at Blue Elephant. Home by turnpike.

2 Sept. Saturday - First to Hosp. on to Natick Inn for lunch, on to see Mrs. Hodder home at 6. Dined at Marblehead to see Miss Reulker.

3 Sept. Walked to church & back. Family to dine.

4 Sept. Labor Day - Stayed at home in the A.M. Made calls at Nahant in the P.M.

5 Sept. Tuesday - Mrs. Ward’s last lecture, took tea with Jennie.

6 Sept. To town to make last plans & get tickets. Packing in the P.M.

7 Sept. Left home 8.30. Boston at 10 A.M.

8 Sept. Arrived at Chicago at 12.30. Bath & lunch at Blackstone. Drove through the Riverside Park. Left at 6pm for Denver.

9 Sept. Omaha when awakened at 7. Arrived Denver at 9.45. Brown Palace Hotel. Very noisy room.

10 Sept. Sunday. Fine service at cathedral & sermon from Dean on 10 Commandments. Took sight-seeing bus in P.M. Changed rooms.

11 Sept. Rainy - museum in the A.M. Movies in the P.M.

12 Sept. Left Denver at 8 A.M. Train to Loveland motor to Estes. Wonderful drive thru Thompson canyon. Stanley Hotel most comfortable.

13 Sept. Walked about in the A.M. I found flowers. Drove to Long Peak’s rim in the P.M. & on way home saw beaver dams.

14 Sept. Walked on the Prospect Trail & took Fall River drive up to 10,000 feet. Wonderful view.

15 Sept. Friday - Walked nearly to Glen Lake. Drive the High Drive & Moraine Park. Wonderful weather.

16 Sept. Saturday - Walked along river. Drive to Sprague’s in P.M. The most beautiful drive yet. Views superb.

17 Sept. Sunday Left Estes P- by motor at 2 in thunderstorm which was short. Reached Denver at 6. Road fine thru canyon very dusty on plains. Room Palace Hotel.

18 Sept. Went to museum. Very interesting, did errands. Left Denver at 2.45 for Chicago N. P. & C.M.St.P. Comfortable weather. Saw wind storm.

19 Sept. Travelling all day through corn fields & stock farms. Two men killed by our train but we did not know. Chicago at 9.

20 Sept. Left Chicago at 10.30. Went to Creighton's first under Hotel Blackstone. Comfortable train & cool.

21 Sept. Arrived in Boston at 3. Had my hair washed & got home by 5.30. Mama very well. A splendid trip.

22 Sept. Writing & paying bills. Drove to Salem for errands & to N. Andover for tea in the P.M.

23 Sept. Saturday - Went to N. Andover with H.G.C.’s. Lovely day.

24 Sept. Walked to church. The two C’s & Ellen to dine only.

25 Sept. Monday - Town for errands. Lunched at Marian’s, went out to see Aunt E.

26 Sept. Tuesday - Walked from little Nahant. Drove to Lynnfield swamp & cut fringed gentian.

27 Sept. Wednesday - To town after lunch for Mayflower Soc. meeting.

28 Sept. Thursday - Walked from Marblehead across [illegible]. Quite warm. To Salem to see Ropes’ house in P.M. Dined at Beverly.

29 Sept. Friday - Church at ten. Looking [illegible] flowers to take to Gray. P.M. went to Herbarium & to Radcliffe tea.

30 Sept. Went to see Mrs. H. Then to Southboro to lunch with H.G.C. Much cooler. High wind.

* * *

If you are interested in viewing the diary in person in our library or have other questions about the collection, please visit the library or contact a member of the library staff for further assistance.


*Please note that the diary transcription is a rough-and-ready version, not an authoritative transcript. Researchers wishing to use the diary in the course of their own work should verify the version found here with the manuscript original.



comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 14 September, 2016, 12:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

It is time, once again, for the weekly round-up of events to come here at the MHS. A reminder: be sure to look ahead using our online calendar of events to see the myriad programs we have slated for the fall. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, here is what this week holds:

- Wednesday, 14 September, 6:00PM : In Confounding Father: Thomas Jefferson's Image in his Own Time, historian Robert M.S. McDonald explores how Jefferson emerged as a divisive figure in his day. This author talk is open to the public at a fee of $10 (no charge for MHS Members or Fellows) and registration is required. A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30PM followed by the program at 6:00PM. 

- Thursday, 15 September, 6:00PM : MHS Fellows and Members are invited to a special program, reception, and chance to view Turning Points in American History, the current exhibition on display at the Society. With "More Turning Points: Documents & Artifacts That Didn't Make the Cut," Stephen T. Riley Librarian Peter Drummey will highlight some of the turning points that did not make it into the exhibition. Guests can then head upstairs to view the exhibition, socialize, and enjoy a reception. Registration is required at no cost, though seating is limited. 


There is no public tour this week. 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 11 September, 2016, 12:00 AM

Reference Collection Book Review: Bay Cities, Water Politics

During a year when much of Massachusetts is experiencing drought conditions and water use restrictions have become a reality in the lives of many in the Commonwealth, it is timely to consider what our regional history of water use and management has been. In the recently-acquired Bay Cities and Water Politics: The Battle for Resources in Boston & Oakland (University Press of Kansas, 1998), historian Sarah S. Elkind documents the political development of water use policies in two geographically and culturally divergent areas of the United States: eastern Massachusetts and the San Francisco bay area. Briefly surveying early water use policies in both the Boston area and the East Bay, Elkind focuses her historical narrative on the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when first-generation water systems began to strain under increasing demand and each region had to determine a way forward.

In Massachusetts, where clean water delivery and sewage disposal had long been framed as a public health concern, the political elite were able to build the case for a regional system that put water and sewage into the hands of state agencies. The voters supported the creation of “new institutions, controlled by engineers and bureaucrats...because they face pollution and water supply problems that their municipalities had repeatedly failed to solve” (114). On the East Bay, meanwhile, water resources became a struggle over private versus publicly-held water supplies as powerful commercial interests resisted attempts to establish publicly-controlled regional deep into the twentieth century.

In both regions, Elkind argues, “rural activities and economies were sacrificed for urban prosperity in spite of the continued nostalgia for America’s rural past” (155). While each region developed temporary solutions to both water supply and waste disposal, these systems remained vulnerable to increased demand for clean water and the growing environmental burden of pollution. Regionalism, Elkind argues, was a Progressive-era solution to challenge of water resource management. By creating infrastructure somewhat immune to the local politics of individual city or corporate interests, regional solutions created water systems that provided clean water to citizens and removed waste. However, regional technologies “ultimately impaired the ability of...natural systems to absorb the byproducts of modern industrial life” (171). By the late twentieth century, regional entities came under harsh criticism from citizen activists in both Massachusetts and California as water battles took center stage in regional politics once again.

For a book on water politics, Bay Cities and Water Politics is a fairly dry read. Elkind relies on government records, the personal papers of key figures, newspapers, pamphlets, and other print materials to construct her history. Readers unfamiliar with the individuals, municipal agencies, and corporations involved may get lost in the play-by-play accounting of regional politics at work. Nonetheless, the title will be an essential resource for anyone needing background on Progressive era water and sewage politics in Boston. It complements the work done by Carl Smith in City Water, City Life (University of Chicago Press, 2013) documenting water supply politics in Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago before the Civil War.


Related Collections:

Boston & Roxbury Mill Corporation records, 1794-1912. 

Elizabeth S. Houghton papers, 1916-1999; bulk: 1955-1999.

Allen H. Morgan papers, 1923-1990.

Lemuel Shattuck papers,1676-1909; bulk: 1805-1867.

Quincy family papers (1665-1852) in the Quincy, Wendell, Holmes, and Upham Family Papers, microfilm edition.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 9 September, 2016, 12:00 AM

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