May 1863: "...I hope soon to see Stephen again, alive and well."

By Joan Fink, Volunteer

Letter from Warren H. Cudworth to [John Sherman or George Harvey] Emerson, 15 May 1863

Letter from Warren H. Cudworth to [John Sherman or George Harvey] Emerson, 15 May 1863

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    Writing to a brother of Private Stephen Goodhue Emerson on 15 May 1863, Reverend Warren H. Cudworth, chaplain of the First Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, states his assumption that Emerson had been taken prisoner by the Confederates earlier in the month. Emerson and his fellow soldiers in Company H of the First Massachusetts were in the thick of the action during the Battle of Chancellorsville and Emerson was last seen on the third of May. At the time Cudworth writes, his ultimate fate was unknown.

    Stephen Goodhue Emerson was born on 17 July 1838 in Chester, New Hampshire, to Nathaniel French Emerson, a farmer, and Clarissa Goodhue. The family later moved from New Hampshire to Massachusetts, where Stephen Emerson continued his education at Phillips Academy in Andover. He entered Harvard in the spring of 1858, after spending a year teaching in rural New Hampshire. While at Harvard, Emerson turned to the study of religion, and in September of 1861, he entered Andover Theological Seminary. But during the summer of 1862, influenced by appeals for volunteers to refill the emptying ranks of the Union Army, Emerson enlisted as a private in the First Massachusetts. Although he was an excellent candidate for a commission, Emerson was drawn to enlist, feeling that many men, deserving of commissions, were already serving and should be promoted, while new soldiers filled the lower ranks.

    Warren H. Cudworth was born on 23 May 1825 in Lowell, Massachusetts. After graduating from Harvard College, he attended Harvard Divinity School, graduating in 1851. He then became a Unitarian minister in East Boston. In May of 1861, he was appointed chaplain of the First Massachusetts, remaining in that position until he mustered out of service in May 1864. In addition to their regular duties conducting services and providing religious counseling, army chaplains like Cudworth were frequently called upon to write letters to families of wounded, missing, and slain soldiers. It is unclear which of Emerson’s two brothers Cudworth addresses here; both of them were also serving in the Union Army in May of 1863. John Sherman Emerson, the eldest brother, was an assistant surgeon in the Eighteenth New Hampshire Infantry Regiment, stationed in Kentucky. The youngest Emerson brother, George Harvey, was a private stationed in North Carolina with the Forty-third Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

    In this letter, Cudworth expresses his hope that he may “see Stephen again, alive and well.” He writes under the assumption that the missing private was taken prisoner by the Confederates when they took control of the battlefield. Later, when it was revealed that Stephen was not in a prison camp, it was feared that he had been burned alive in the conflagration that consumed the field in the final hours of the battle. Fortunately for Emerson’s family, a fellow soldier who witnessed Stephen’s last moments was able to communicate with the family several months later, upon his own release from prison, confirming the details of Stephen’s death. According to this witness, Emerson was killed instantly after being shot in the head by a Confederate soldier.

    Reverend Cudworth eulogized his fallen comrade, describing Emerson as “gentle and unassuming in his manner.” He noted that Emerson “cherished no bitterness toward his enemies nor ever used malicious or vindictive language concerning them, but as they would be the destroyers of a great and prosperous nation he considered it a duty, solemn, imperative and personal to take up arms against them.” In May 1864, when the First Massachusetts mustered out of service, Cudworth returned to his ministry in East Boston, where he later wrote a history of the First Massachusetts. He died in East Boston on 29 November 1883.

    Sources for Further Reading

    The Stephen Goodhue Emerson letters contain over four dozen letters written by Emerson during the nine months he served with the First Massachusetts, in addition to two letters from Revered Cudworth written after Emerson’s death. The majority of Emerson’s letters are addressed to his mother, with a lesser number written to his father and siblings -- John, George, and Elizabeth. In his letters Emerson speaks much about camp life, his decision to join the First Massachusetts, a regiment that lost a great number of men in the Second Bull Run, and his own thoughts of religion.

    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.

    Fifth Report: Harvard College Class of 1861. New York: Printed for use of the class, 1892.

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