April 1863:" I think they have as much to fear from the Avarice of the North, as of the South..."By Joan Fink, Volunteer
Letter from Francis J. Meriam to David Thayer, 24 April 1863
“I think they have as much to fear from the Avarice of the North, as of the South, for the position and opportunity to accumulate rapid fortunes, would apt to prove too much and corrupt good men and of course, bring the worst out of bad men.” Writing from Beaufort, South Carolina in April of 1863, Francis J. Meriam shares his personal observations relating to the management of both black and white regiments, as well as the abilities of white commanding officers with Dr. Daniel Thayer, a homeopathic physician and fellow abolitionist from Boston. Meriam also articulates his concern for the economic plight of the freed slaves and worries that even with a Northern victory, they would fall into the condition of “degraded peasantry.”
Francis J. Meriam, who was born on 17 November 1837, was the grandson and namesake of Boston abolitionist and historian Francis Jackson. Like his grandfather, Meriam was devoted to the antislavery cause. He was an admirer of John Brown, and was with him in Virginia during the failed raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859. Meriam was not directly involved in the raid on the arsenal; he and several others remained behind to distribute the weapons that Brown had stockpiled to the many slaves he envisioned joining the fight. As a result, Meriam had the distinction of being one of only five surviving Brown associates to evade capture in the aftermath of the raid.
Dr. Daniel Thayer was born on 19 July 1813. In 1835 he was one of forty students expelled from Phillips Academy, in Andover, Massachusetts, due to his involvement in a student organized antislavery protest. He was active in abolitionist circles, allowing his home to be used as a refuge for fugitive slaves, and was a friend and supporter of William Lloyd Garrison. Thayer also offered some financial support to John Brown’s cause in the 1850s, and allowed Meriam to stay in his home temporarily while the latter was seeking passage to Canada after his escape from Virginia.
Francis Meriam’s Civil War service began in 1863. As he indicates in this letter, he travelled South in hopes of receiving a commission in one of the Union regiments then being formed in South Carolina, their ranks filled by escaped slaves from the surrounding states. He was eventually commissioned as a captain in the Third South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, which formed in June of 1863. At the time he writes to Thayer, Meriam is attached to the First and Second South Carolina Volunteers, under the commands of Colonels Thomas Wentworth Higginson and James Montgomery. Stating that the “management of the Black troops is being conducted in a half-way spirit,” Meriam informs Thayer that the Union officers frequently mismanage the black troops by failing to instill in them proper discipline or train them in the fundamentals of military operations and procedures.
In order to provide the southern blacks with a motive to fight for the Union cause as well as an opportunity to become economically self-sufficient, Meriam suggests Thayer encourage support in the North for a plan in which Congress would enact a law granting every former slave, upon joining the Union Army either as a volunteer or a conscript, fifty acres of cleared land (if possible, on the plantation from which he came). Recognizing that the anxiety of being separated from their families was a detriment to many of the freedmen considering volunteering for service, he also suggests that the families of soldiers be settled on that land immediately. Meriam feels that this will both give the soldiers a reason to fight hard, and encourage stability in the South after the war.
Meriam also informs Dr. Thayer of the ravages of war, including the Union Army’s burning of homes in Jacksonville, Florida. Meriam confesses to burning a half dozen homes by his own hand and then watching from the deck of a nearby steamer while the homes were destroyed by fire. Alluding to his participation in the doomed raid on Harper’s Ferry, Meriam writes “it was a new feeling to be burning Southern houses under government authority by a John Brown man and go unhung.”
Near the close of the letter, Meriam laments that one of the obstacles to his obtaining a commission with one of the South Carolina regiments is that he had been slandered by Charles Plummer Tidd, one of Meriam’s fellow escapees from Harper’s Ferry. Although by April of 1863 Tidd had been dead for over a year, Meriam reports that Tidd falsely accused him of deserting and threatening to betray John Brown, crimes that Meriam contends Tidd was guilty of. The historical record shows that both men fled North once it became apparent that Brown’s mission was doomed. Further, it is just as likely that Meriam’s poor vision and questionable mental state—contemporaries described him as having only one good eye and being mentally unstable, given to fits of both depression and ranting—stood in the way of his receiving a commission at that time.
After completing his service with the Third South Carolina, Meriam enlisted in the Fifty-Ninth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, and was wounded in the leg at Spotsylvania, Virginia on 12 May 1864. He transferred to the Fifty-Seventh Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in June of 1865 and was discharged for disability in July of that year. He died suddenly in New York City on 28 November 1865 at the age of twenty eight, leaving his young widow, Minerva Caldwell. After the war, Dr. Thayer continued to practice homeopathic medicine and served in the Massachusetts legislature. Throughout his life, he continued to speak on behalf of the plight of Southern blacks. Dr. Thayer died in 1893 at the age of eighty.
Sources for Further Reading:
The featured letter is from the David Thayer papers II, a small manuscript collection containing both personal and business papers belonging to David Thayer. Among the many topics covered are the treatment of black soldiers and the Union Army’s wounded, as well as emerging trends in the field of homeopathic medicine. The MHS also hold a second collection, David Thayer papers, which contains more personal records, in addition to letters written by his nephews Levi Bunker and Alfred Parker, who both died while serving in the Union Army.
Hargrove, Hondon B. Black Union Soldiers in the Civil War. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1988.
Reynolds, David S. John Brown Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights. New York: Knopf, 2005.
Williams, H. Clay. Biographical Encyclopedia of Massachusetts of the Nineteenth Century. Boston: Metropolitan Publishing and Engraving Company, 1883.