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Beehive series: From Our Collections

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

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

“The Poor Wretched People Are Much Difficulted”

I’d like to take this opportunity to write about the topic that’s been dominating U.S. headlines and occupies countless hours of on-air and on-line punditry: the annual migration of the monarch butterfly.

Just kidding. Yes, I mean the U.S. presidential election. Bear with me.

Historical perspective is our bread and butter here at the MHS, of course. Studying the past is almost always both illuminating and sobering. So I thought I’d revisit the U.S. presidential election of 1788-1789, when 56-year-old George Washington became the first chief executive of the brand-new nation.

Looking for inspiration, I browsed through our collection of Miscellaneous Manuscripts, what we call an “artificial” collection. These documents were donated to the MHS at different times, and each is cataloged individually in our online catalog. They’re arranged chronologically, so I could zero in on a specific date range.

I came across a document I’d never seen before but loved immediately. It’s a letter from Baptist minister David Thomas (1732-1815) in Virginia to his nephew Griffith Evans (1760-1845) in Philadelphia. The letter is dated 3 March 1789. After complaining that he’d been “immers’d in the fatigues and troubles of a foolish perverse hairbraind world,” Thomas launched into a bitter diatribe about the sweeping Federalist victory in the presidential election two months before. His letter is dripping with sarcasm and contempt:

“How does Fedralism go on in your State? Does the people know the meaning of the word Fedralism, it is a very pretty word, it has a beautiful sound, it Charms all the learned the wise, the polite, the reputable, the Honorable, and virtuous, and all that are not Caught with the alurements of its melody, are poor ignorant asses, nasty dirty sons of bitches; reserved for future treatment agreeable to their demerrit. […] The whole American world is in an uproar.”


It’s hard to imagine the kind of sea change Thomas was living through. In fact, this letter was written just one day before the U.S. Constitution went into effect, superseding the Articles of Confederation. Thomas clearly resented the strong centralized government that was set to replace the looser confederation of independent states that he preferred.

George Washington belonged to no political party and was elected unanimously, a circumstance inconceivable today. But far from inconceivable is Thomas’s frustration at his state’s convoluted electoral process, which he described in detail:

“Perhaps you are a Stranger to the term hold the pole, of which I will inform you, viz: the Candidate stands upon an eminence close to the Avenue thro which the people pass to give in their votes, viva voce, or by outcry, there the candidates stand ready to beg, pray, and solicit the peoples votes in opposition to their Competitors, and the poor wretched people are much are much difficulted by the prayers and threats of those Competitors, exactly Similar to the Election of the Corrupt and infamous House of Commons in England.”

He’d narrowly escaped a seat in the Virginia Assembly himself:

“At the last Election I was drag’d from my Lodging when at dinner, and forced upon the Eminence purely against my will, but I soon disappeared and return’d to my repast, and as soon as they lost sight of me they quit voting for me. Such is the pitifull and lowliv’d manner all the Elected officers of Government come into posts of honour and profit in Virginia, by Stooping into the dirt that they may ride the poor people; and would you have your Uncle to divest himself of every principle of honour to obtain a disagreeable office[?] I hope not.”

So, if you get fed up with political shenanigans, chicanery, and tomfoolery this election season, what Thomas called “Rotated […] tricks” and “Reverberated flings,” remember that you’re not alone. And be sure to visit the MHS library to learn more about early American politics—or butterflies, if you prefer.

comments: 1 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 31 August, 2016, 12:00 AM

Death of a Party

"At seven minutes to three o'clock on the afternoon of Monday, Oct. 20, 1902, the National Club of Massachusetts committed suicide by voting itself out of existence. The scene of the tragedy was Room 12, Young's Hotel, Boston. Twenty-one members, four less than a quorum, agreed with unanimity and composure to commit this act. A few minutes later, twenty-one gentlemen dispersed to their usual occupations so quietly that neither the elevator boy nor the waiters, nor the lynx-eyed clerks of the hotel, suspected what had been done. The newspapers took no notice of the suicide. The police did not exercise their ingenuity in inventing a theory as to its motive, or debate whether the weapon used were sharp or blunt. To this day, the coroner has ordered no 'quest. And yet, for the historian, the National Club may be of interest, because of the great crisis out of which it sprang. That is why I have been so precise in specifying time and place and circumstance; and why it seems right to give the Society for safe keeping this collection, unfortunately incomplete, of papers refering to the Club and to is parent, the National Party of 1900. Antiquaries today spend their lives gathering similar material about political organizations long past; and in due season our time will be antiquity to a new age."

From "The Suicide of a Political Infant" by William R. Thayer, found in the National Party records, 1900-1903.


If you want to learn more about the demise of this political movement, consider Visiting the Library!

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 20 August, 2016, 12:39 PM

“Have you look’d at this Universe, through the Telescopes of Herschell?”

The Juno space probe began orbiting Jupiter on July 4, 2016, and already has transmitted images of the planet’s moons and famous Great Red Spot. The study of the planets is not new, however, and when he was in England, John Adams had the opportunity to meet one of the most famous astronomers of his day.

In 1781, astronomer William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus, an accomplishment that earned him the patronage of King George III. Herschel set up his telescopes near Windsor, the summer home of the king.

John Adams seems to have been impressed. In 1786 he wrote, “Herschell indeed with his new Glass, has discovered the most magnificient Spectacle that ever was seen or imagined.” He tipped his hat to Herschel when writing his Defence of the American Constitutions: “A prospect into futurity in America, is like contemplating the heavens through the telescopes of Herschell: objects, stupendous in their magnitudes and motions, strike us from all quarters, and fill us with amazement!”

Adams had the opportunity to look through Herschel’s telescopes himself. He was supposed to accompany his friend Benjamin Vaughan to Windsor on the evening of April 1, 1787. A few days later, Vaughan wrote that although Adams had been unable to attend, “Dr. Herschell will always of course be happy to see his Excellency;—but the longer the visit is deferred, the more will be there to see. The most proper time is, the first quarter of the moon, whenever the visit is intended.”

What could have kept John Adams from an opportunity to look through Herschel’s telescopes? Adams explained in a brief note:

“I am very much mortified to loose the Pleasure and Advantage of an Excursion to Windsor, to see Mr Herschell in Such Company: but the State of my Family is Such that I cannot justify leaving it.— Mrs Smith is in Travel and the Anxiety occasioned by this Event has made Mrs Adams so much worse, that I should be very bad Company at Windsor, and what is more decisive, it becomes my Duty to Stay at home.”

Mrs. Smith—his only daughter, Nabby—was “in travel,” meaning she was in labor, and Abigail was understandably anxious about the birth of her first grandchild. As usual, John Adams knew where his duty lay—the volcanoes on the moon would have to wait.

Although we do not know when Adams finally looked through Herschel’s telescopes, we do know that he maintained his interest in astronomy. In 1813, Adams wrote to John Quincy, “Have you look’d at this Universe, through the Telescopes of Herschell? What am I and all my Posterity? What is this Globe of Earth? What is the Solar System?”

For more on the Adamses and astronomy see here


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 17 August, 2016, 10:43 AM

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