Friday, November 11, 2011

For Gallant and Meritorious Service

On September 29, 1864, Samuel Augustus Duncan, Dartmouth '58, then a Lieutenant Colonel in command of the Color Troops of the 4th Brigade of the 3rd Division of the XVIII Corps, led his men on a heroic and tragic charge up New Market Heights.

New Market Heights is a hill about 8 miles south east of Richmond, Virginia. On that morning in 1864 the top of the hill was fortified and held by General John Gregg of the Confederate Army. Gregg’s 2,000 men were part of a set of strategic fortifications put in place by General Robert E. Lee to keep the Union Army from reaching Richmond. These fortifications had been frustrating attempts by General Ulysses S. Grant's Army of the Potomac to push the confederates southward.

Colonel Duncan’s brigade in conjunction with the 6th Brigade, both under the command of General Paine, was to spearhead the attack. The African American soldiers were chosen for this task because General Butler, an advocate for the use of Colored Troops, wanted to prove to the world that they would and could fight.

The confederate forces were well aware of the, supposed, surprise attack on their stronghold. They waited until Duncan and his men, who had made their way to the hill over swampy ground in the dark, were well entangled in the abates (sharpened sticks driven into the ground as a defense) before opening fire. The officers and color bearers were quickly eliminated as they made easy targets. Duncan himself was wounded four times. His men suffered 452 casualties including 63 killed. After two days of fighting the Union troops finally drove the Confederate forces from the hill.

In a letter home to his mother from the hospital on October 6, 1864, Duncan describes his wounds and recovery. But he also speaks proudly of his men, "You will see that they all [the New York papers]—the Herald even—praise the Colored Troops of Genl. Paine’s command for what they did on the 29th."

Duncan was honored for "gallant and meritorious service." He went on to become a patent lawyer after the war. Samuel A. Duncan died in 1895 at the age of 69.

Ask for the Samuel Duncan papers, MS-541.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

W. W. Dewey and the "Old Dartmouth Cemetery"

In 1797, William Worthington Dewey, a local farmer, decided to begin an "accurate record" of all the "Deaths in the Vicinity of Dartmouth College." At the time the only records available were those kept by the churches, which seldom indicated the causes of death. Dewey was determined to change that. His record would not only reflect that information but would also benefit from his own observations and knowledge about the deceased.

His comments ran the gamut from the mundane to the unintentionally humorous. While there are descriptions pertaining to the status of the deceased, such as "consort of" or "a transient person," more often they are lengthy descriptions of the circumstances of the person's death. John Russell, for example, who died in 1795, was "gorged to death by an enraged bullock with which he was contending," while Frederick Weizer, a "native of Germany," was "one day dining very heartily [when] he swallowed a very large piece of meat which caught in his throat and caused almost instant death." Mr. Samuel Bingham, who died in 1804"
had been indisposed for three years and all the while was rather an enormous eater… He likewise grew very corpulent and unwieldy… He finally died suddenly… He then weighed over 300 pounds. To examine him internally after death it was necessary to cut over four inches through a clear fat substance. It took 6 men at each relief to support the bier while conveying him to the grave.
In the summer of 1807, Dewey's record was "purloined" and he abandoned the project for the next few years. "On the solicitation of some friends" he began again in 1810, using his own "recollection" and some "extraneous assistance" to reconstruct the register up to that date. He continued the record until 1859, two years before his death at the age of 84.

Since then Dewey's record has been used by many researchers including Professor Arthur H. Chivers who, in the 1950s, mapped and recorded in six volumes all of the grave marker descriptions in the Old Dartmouth Cemetery, verifying their authenticity through correspondence with the surviving families of the deceased.

List of Deaths in the Vicinity of Dartmouth College, including likewise the hamlet usually called Greensborough from AD 1769 to 1859 will be on display in the Rauner Reading Room through the month of November.

Professor Chivers records The Dartmouth Cemetery can be found in The Collection of New Hampshire and Vermont Cemeteries, DH-38, Box 2.