It is during the weeks around Memorial and Veterans Day that I feel the absence of an active Salem historical society or museum most keenly. Don’t get me wrong: there are dedicated interpreters of the past in our city. Salem has a wonderful veterans’ agent (a SSU history grad) who does an amazing job marking these days and creating initiatives which reference the past while also attending to his present duties. And there is a Salem Historical Society consisting of avid historians who provide important resource and reference roles and highlight moments when they can, but it has no collections and no official commemorative role. Everything is in Rowley, of course, and the “official” purveyor of all things historical seems to be Salem’s tourism office, Destination Salem, though if you go to its website and consult the timeline of “Salem’s History” you would not know that Salem had experienced any war after the War of 1812: no Civil War, no Spanish American War, no World War I or II, no Korean War, no Vietnam War, no wars in Irag and Afghanistan.
Of course, Salem men (and women) participated in all of these wars: these wars are part of “Salem’s History”. I have tended to focus on the Civil War in my Memorial Day posts in the past, perhaps because its aftermath and collective mourning are the origins of the “holiday”. I also use these posts to come to some understanding of this war and its impact personally: I’m not an American historian and I don’t have grounding in the historiography of this conflict, but I can see and feel, as we all can, that it is still with us. This year I want to highlight a source that has given me new insights into the experience of Salem men during the Civil War: Patriots of Salem. Roll of Honor of the Officers and Enlisted Men during the Late Civil War, from Salem, Mass. compiled by Thomas J. Hutchinson and Ralph Childs (1877).
This is such a great source, and if you cross-reference it with other sources (like the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors database maintained by the National Park Service and local and genealogical sources—I have some key references here) you can glean both broad and specific perspectives of Salem’s contribution to the Union effort, which was great: over 3000 men served in the war and there were myriad support efforts at home. The compilers of Patriots of Salem endeavored to produce a register, “in neat and compact form” to be utilized “for future reference” and kept in every home, as a memorial reminder of sacrifices made. They succeeded: the volume is a great expression of both commemoration and local history. As its subtitle indicates, it includes rank, age, date of mustering in, date of discharge and the cause thereof for every Salem soldier, as well as a list of prisoners of war, the wounded and killed in action, and those who died in service. Because the book has been digitized by the Internet Archive, you can also search its contents and make up your own list of who was at Antietam, who was at Wilderness, who was at Gettysburg: noting that William L. Purbeck of Church Street and the 5th Massachusetts Battery died at the latter battle at age 18, I searched through all the sources to find his dying words: “Who shall care for Mother now?”
Monument to the 5th Massachusetts Battery at Gettysburg, c. 1880. Huntington Library.
The majority of Salem soldiers were discharged due to “expiration of service,” thank goodness, but records of desertion, suffering and death are embedded in the text: apparently a detachment to Louisiana was a veritable death sentence, due to disease rather than combat. I was thoroughly unprepared for the number of Salem men who ended up at Camp Sumter at Andersonville, the most notorious of the Confederate prisoner of war camps: 31, of whom 20 died there. I know I have cited a much smaller number in previous posts but my blog is so unwieldly now I can’t find them. Twenty Salem men died at Andersonville, from June 22 to September 15, 1864. This time frame is significant: most of the Salem men were among the nearly 10,000 prisoners of war transferred to Andersonville from other southern POW camps beginning in June, and by the end of that month a reported 30,000 Union soldiers were being held in a camp which had been built for 10,000. Patriots of Salem does not list the precise causes of death of the 20 Salem men who died at Andersonville, but the most common conditions were typhoid, dysentery, scurvy, gangrene, and above all, “chronic diarrhea”. On the very day that the photographs below were taken, July 17, 1864, Privates Charles W. Coney and George W. Cross, both Salem shoemakers from the 14th Massachusetts, died: two losses among nearly 13,000 at Andersonville.
Camp Sumter, Andersonville, Georgia, July 17, 1864, Library of Congress.