History News: Lost Sword of Robert Gould Shaw Located

Anyone who’s watched the Civil War movie “Glory” knows about the courage of the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the first all-black volunteer units to ever fight in an American war. Anyone who hasn’t seen it really should. After he died with his men during the 1863 assault on Fort Wagner, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw was buried in a mass grave alongside them. For several years, his sword, which bears his initials, was considered lost, but eventually was recovered in South Carolina and given to the Shaw family, only to disappear again in the following decades. In 2017, when sorting through the attic of their Massachusetts home, descendents of Shaw’s sister came across it and donated it, along with family papers, to the Massachusetts Historical Society. Today the sword can be seen by prior request.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Information from Mass. Historical: Regulation Infantry sword made for the American market by Henry Wilkinson, Pall Mall, London. Number 12506 with gilt HW seal; blade proofed May 23,1863. British Pattern 1845/54 Officer’s Sabre. Steel blade, etched decoration on both sides with initials R.G.S. below a displayed US Eagle near hilt on back of blade which is slightly curved and unfullered. Normally, this sword would carry an openwork “Crowned VR” cypher in the oval cartouche of the knuckle guard, but made for a non-British customer this feature is left solid and is textured with matt punching. The chamois bag given with the sword is the remains of a “slip,” a soft bag in which one would keep a sword (and its garniture) when packed away. Grip of sharkskin banded in silver wire with flat metal ribbon sword knot ending in acorn affixed to hilt.

One of the treasures of American history.

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Historical Fiction: The Witch of Willow Hall, by Hester Fox

The Witch of Willow Hall
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The year is 1821. Boston’s prominent Montrose family has left town under a cloud of scandal, relocating to their stately “summer home” in New Oldham, a mill village in northern Massachusetts. Mrs. Montrose has been crushed by the shame of it all, but her husband is quite detached from everything but his new business venture. The three sisters make the move, but their brother remains behind, apparently oblivious to scandal. Their attempts to settle in to their new home is narrated by Lydia, the middle sister, who maintains a close bond with  Emeline, the youngest, but deeply resents  willful, Catherine, the eldest, whose behavior lies at the root of their problems. Lydia herself is quiet, studious, and sensitive. She has noticed with some trepidation that when she grows angry, strange things that she cannot explain occur; Mrs. Montrose, who is descended from a victim at the Salem Witch Trials, promises to explain all in due time.

From the moment she steps inside Willow Hall, Lydia feels a deep sense of foreboding, and the story she tells is romantic in some aspects, but deeply tragic in others. Having led a sheltered life, her viewpoint is that of a young adolescent, so the novel reads  like a coming of age tale for young adults. She is quite willing to grant legitimacy to  the supernatural events that occur around her, even though they make her fretful and fearful. Lydia’s emotions are amply described, but I did not find that they transferred to me as I read. The prose is competent, but here and there colored by anachronistic phrases (i.e. “I lost my cool” or I’m lousy at this”) that spoiled the mood. As for characters, they were types — the spoiled young heiress, the cad, the snide townspeople, the bored invalid aunt.  I was also puzzled by the book’s claim on the cover that  it takes place two centuries after Salem, when 1821 is only 130  years from the date of the trials.

I would recommend The Witch of Willow Hall to young adults rather than to readers looking for richer historical content.

View all my reviews

It’s a Mystery: The Last Summer of the Camperdowns, by Elizabeth Kelly

The Last Summer of the Camperdowns

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While cruising the opening chapters of The Last Summer of the Camperdowns, the two totally self-obsessed women from BBC’s comedy series, Absolutely Fabulous, sprang to mind. I thought they were the ultimate narcissists, but they have nothing to hold over Greer and Godfrey Camperdown, parents of the novel’s narrator, Riddle, an only child. Greer is a former movie star, Godfrey an aspiring congressman and songwriter who enjoys treating dinner guests with impromptu performances. Just as in AbFab, the child has to play referee when the parents’ egos run amok, something that occurs nearly every day. Riddle is a thoroughly engaging 13 year old, who copes with the madness around her by throwing herself into horseback riding, that age old refuge of young girls. One summer afternoon, when searching for her lost puppy in the stable, Riddle overhears the ominous sounds of someone in pain and distress. To her horror, the stable manager discovers her presence, realizing that Riddle has been an ear-witness to something terrible. He spends the rest of the novel reminding her that she had better keep the secret.

This is the story of how Riddle copes with her guilt over not telling what she knows, which becomes crushing when she figures out who the victim was. At the same time, she develops her first agonizing crush on the older brother of the victim. Riddle is a fairly reliable narrator, and her accounts of the actions of the adults that surround her are perceptive and telling. Ancillary characters are also well drawn. The setting, among the dunes and ponds of Wellfleet, Cape Cod, is idyllic, evocatively described, as are the times, the very early 70’s when memories of WWII are still sharp. The length of this book is excessive, bogging down in the middle of the story, but the ending is a winner; just when you’re sure you know what happened, a series of bombshells in the final dramatic chapters puts paid to that illusion. If you decide to read Last Summer, have patience when the pace slows, because once it picks up, it’s memorable.

Esther Williams Meacham: The Redeemed Captive


On the bitter cold night of Feb. 29, 1704, the little town of Deerfield, MA, an English outpost on the western fringes of the Bay Colony, once again found itself in the cross-hairs of the imperial feud being waged between France and Great Britain for the dominance of the North American continent. The armed conflicts of the 18th century between the English colonies in North America and the French settlements that stretched into Canada were fought with the support of Native American allies.

In 1704, Mohawk Indians, converted to Catholicism by Jesuit missionaries, allied with the French settlers in Canada, attacked the frontier village of Deerfield, Massachusetts, killing 50 of the very young and old and kidnapping 112 more. They then marched the prisoners to Canada, killing 20 more women and several children along the way as acts of mercy, including the wife and infant son of John Williams, a Puritan minister and a prize hostage. While he and his surviving sons were ultimately released, his daughter, Eunice, who was seven at the time of her capture, remained with her captors, converted to Catholicism, and at the age of 16 married an Indian, with whose people she chose to spend the rest of her life. A fuller account of Eunice’s saga can be found here:

Raid

The opinions expressed in the linked article are not necessarily my own.

The gravestone pictured above is located in the Nathan Hale Cemetery in Coventry, CT, and it marks the burial site of the sister of Eunice Williams. Esther Williams Meacham was one of the Deerfield captives who was released and returned to her life among the Puritans. Esther married a minister and relocated from Mass. to Connecticut, and local accounts tell of Eunice’s infrequent visits to her sister’s household, during which she refused to stay inside the house, preferring to pitch her own shelter on the village green.

Esther Meacham’s gravestone contains a summary of her ordeal among the Mohawk:

Here lies what was Mortal of

Mrs. Esther Meacham ye Pru

dent Pious & virtuous

Consort of ye Revd Joseph

Meacham she was ye Daugh

of ye Venerable John Will

iams of Deerfield & was

Carried Capture to Canada

with her Father & his Family

was wonderfully preserved

& Redeemed & lived an

Eminent Example of what

was amiable in a wife a

Mother a Friend & a Christian

Slept in Jesus March 12th

1751 in ye 60th Year of her Age.

Esther’s marker was carved by a local Coventry craftsman, Gershom Bartlett. Follow up to Eunice’s story:
link

 

 

Biography: Captive Histories

by Evan Haefeli and Kevin Sweeney

 

haefeli_sweeney_300In 1704, a French and Indian coalition raided the frontier village of Deerfield, Massachusetts, destroying property, killing 50 of the inhabitants, and kidnapping 112. Forced to march in the dead of winter to Canada, many of the captives died along the way. Many survived, however, and later printed narratives of their ordeals. The most famous victims of this raid were members of the Williams family, and much has been written about them in subsequent centuries. In Captive Histories, Sweeney and Haefeli have gathered primary documents pertaining to the Williams survivors and those less famous. The difference in this book is the inclusion of multiple perspectives, including the Abenaki and Mohawk stories that have been passed from generation to generation via oral tradition. Letters, military reports, oral narratives,and memoirs are collated and evaluated in such a way as to compare and contrast the English, French, and Native American points of view, and to assess belief systems, traditions, the the reliability of the evidence. Captive Histories does not read like a historical novel; it is an important and valuable piece of research and socio/political/cultural commentary on one of colonial New England’s most notorious events.

Sheep in Folktales: Mary Had a Little Lamb

Perhaps the most famous four line rhyme in the English language, Mary Had a Little Lamb is based upon and incident in the life of one Mary Sawyer, who grew up in Sterling, MA. But that is about all authorities can agree upon when attributing authorship to the verse.

Two New England towns claim bragging rights to the children’s poem . Years ago, the town of Sterling, Mass. erected a statue of a lamb to celebrate the birthplace of Mary Sawyer. In 1815, young Mary was followed to Sterling’s schoolhouse by her pet lamb. Her classmate, John Roulston, wrote the poem. In other versions, Roulston is described as a visiting Harvard student. It is said by some that Mary knitted some of her lamb’s wool into mittens and stockings that she sold to benefit Civil War soldiers, or alternately, to help save the Old South Meeting House in Boston.

Newport, New Hampshire, claims that the poem was actually written by their local poet Sarah Josepha Hale, and that she invented the lamb at school incident herself. Hale is honored in Newport with a simple plaque. In fact, Sarah Hale was the first to publish the poem in a book called Poems for Our Children, in 1830. Sterling maintains that the first three stanzas of Roulston’s poem were incorporated by Hale into her own verse.

There is a different theory, that the rhyme was written by an anonymous. Harvard student. Still others, (probably not haling from either Massachusetts or New Hampshire), contend that the rhyme predates Mary Sawyer, and originated in old England as a sort of religious parable. Mary, the mother of Jesus, had a little lamb (Jesus, of course) whose fleece was snow white (Jesus was without sin). The Jesus -Lamb is sure to go with his believers wherever they go.

As for the Sterling schoolhouse, it was purchased by Henry Ford and moved to The Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Mass; it’s authenticity as the very schoolhouse immortalized in the poem may be wishful thinking, however, as by that time it had been much modified and was serving as a barn. Mary Sawyer became Mrs. Tyler, worked as a schoolteacher and as a matron in a retreat for the insane, and died in 1889. She is buried at Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass. The house where she was born still stands in Sterling (as of 2003).

Archaeology News: UMass search for the Original Village at Plymouth

Many visitors to  Plymouth Plantation do not realize that this recreation of the pilgrims’ first village lies about three miles from its actual site in what is now downtown Plymouth. An archaeology team from UMass Boston is currently searching for evidence of the wooden palisade that surrounded the fort and the houses that surrounded it. Although most of the evidence unearthed so far dates from the 19th century, the hope is that some 17th century artifacts will turn up. But the main goal is to find the remnants of  the first houses and of the post holes the supported the walls built around them to protect the settlers. According to the article in the June 21 issue of the Boston Globe, the dig is part of a multi-year site survey and excavation leading up to the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing. The map posted here is from the same article, which can be found in its entirety here .