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Letter from Stephen Goodhue Emerson to his mother, 7 April 1863

Letter from Stephen Goodhue Emerson to his mother, 7 April 1863

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  • Writing home to his mother from the encampment of the First Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, near Falmouth, Virginia, Private Stephen Goodhue Emerson describes daily life in camp, including the difficulties soldiers faced trying to obtain furloughs and the special duties he was assigned while nursing his sore throat back to health. Before sending the letter he added a second page, stating, "I have got to take up my pen and write some more. The President has just been here...He is very homely, but I looked on him with great interest and should like to see more of him."

    Lincoln's Visit

    In early April 1863, Abraham Lincoln participated in a grand review of the Army of the Potomac, then in winter quarters in the vicinity of Falmouth and Aquia Creek, Virginia. On 8 April, Lincoln, accompanied by his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, visited the camp of the First Massachusetts Infantry. In this letter to his mother, Emerson mentions that Lincoln had been expected the previous day and that special preparations had been undertaken: the troops had removed stumps, cleared avenues, and made themselves presentable for the visit. All that work had to be redone the next day. Shortly after Lincoln's review of the Army, preparations began for the spring campaign that would lead to the battle of Chancellorsville.

    Stephen Goodhue Emerson

    Stephen Goodhue Emerson was born in Chester, New Hampshire on 17 July 1838 to Nathaniel French Emerson and Clarissa Goodhue Emerson. He and his siblings, John and Elizabeth, were raised on the family farm in Chester. Emerson came to Massachusetts in the spring of 1855 to attend Phillips Andover Academy. After graduating in 1856, he became a teacher in Effingham, New Hampshire, returning to Massachusetts in 1858 to attend Harvard. He graduated in 1861, and then enrolled at the Andover Theological Seminary, where he intended to prepare for the ministry.

    In the summer of 1862, moved by the call for additional troops to replenish dwindling regiments, Emerson enlisted from Chelsea, Massachusetts, where he had made a home and attended church during his time at Harvard. He was mustered into service with Company H of the First Massachusetts Infantry Regiment on 13 August 1862.

    The First Massachusetts had been raised from the First Massachusetts Militia Regiment in April 1861, and had seen hard service in the Seven Days' Battles of the 1862 Peninsular Campaign and at the Second Battle of Manassas. Emerson joined the regiment in time to see action at Fredericksburg, where his regiment was lightly engaged.

    On 3 May 1863, during heavy fighting at Chancellorsville, Emerson was reported missing and assumed to be a prisoner of war. Many months later his death was confirmed by a fellow soldier who had been taken prisoner. His comrade stated that as he and Emerson attempted to retreat from a rifle pit, Emerson had been shot and killed.

    Celebrating Abraham Lincoln and Massachusetts

    From 12 February to 30 April 2009, the Massachusetts Historical Society will celebrate the bicentennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln with an exhibition documenting Lincoln's ties to Massachusetts. "With Hayseed in My Hair" (Lincoln's description of himself during his first visit to Massachusetts in 1848) will consist of manuscripts, artifacts, engravings, photographs, and sculpture drawn from the Society's extraordinary research collections. The Stephen Goodhue Emerson letter will be displayed as part of the exhibition. The exhibition will be open to the public without charge, Monday-Saturday, 1:00-4:00 PM. For further information contact Elaine Grublin, the MHS reference librarian, at egrublin@masshist.org.

    For Further Reading

    Cudworth, Warren H. History of the First Regiment (Massachusetts Infantry), From the 25th of May 1861 to the 25th of May 1864. Boston: Walker, Fuller, and Company, 1866.

    Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. Harvard Memorial Biographies. Cambridge: Sever and Francis, 1867.

    Massachusetts Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines in the Civil War. Norwood, Mass.: Norwood Press, 1931.

    Wert, Jeffrey D. The Sword of Lincoln: the Army of the Potomac. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.


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