153 Years of Thanks

First, a quick note: tomorrow (November 22nd), the library is closing early, so our Special Collections open hours will be abbreviated, running from 3:00-5:00 (instead of the usual Wednesday hours of 3:00-7:00).

Second: Have you been sitting at your computer thinking, “gosh, I wonder what people in Sheffield, Mass. were doing 153 years ago on Thanksgiving?” Well, are YOU ever in luck! Today we’re featuring a pamphlet with a discourse delivered in Sheffield on Thanksgiving Day during the American Civil War. (It’s not very exciting-looking, admittedly.)

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As you likely already know, Thanksgiving has been celebrated in the United States as a harvest celebration since a presidential proclamation in 1789, and became a federal holiday in 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln called for a nationwide day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” (In the interest of historical accuracy regarding early Thanksgiving celebrations, we’d like to recommend the article from today’s New York Times entitled “Most Everything You Learned About Thanksgiving is Wrong.”)

The discourse in the pamphlet above was delivered one year after Lincoln’s proclamation by D. Dubois Sahler, the pastor of Sheffield’s Congregational Church. (It’s unclear whether it was delivered in the Congregational Church, but that seems likely. Sheffield’s Congregational Church building was erected in 1760 and still stands–check out their website, or look at this not-very-beautiful street view of the beautiful church from Google maps):

 

Sahler’s discourse is like a hit parade of popular 19th century Christian topics. He praises the United States for its beauty and its fertile land, gifts from God to remind us of His Heavenly intent and to keep us secure from famine:

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In the North lies a chain of lakes or inland seas. They claim, after their kind, preeminence in beauty and extent. Our coasts present inviting harbors to the mariner. The Hudson, with an easy grace, carries away the crown for attractiveness from other rivers… In the center and heart of our country are found the almost unlimited prairies. We see them in the flowery bloom of spring, and in the green and gold of their summer attire. Once beheld, they can never be forgotten… From east to west, ten thousand valleys, springs, and rivulets reflect the smiles of Heaven. Mountain chains traverse the country and vary the landscape…

The hit parade continues with a good dose of xenophobia, as Sahler praises the Pacific Ocean for keeping the United States at a great distance from Asia and its purported atheists:

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Upon our Western borders… the Pacific rolls for ten thousand miles its silver tides. Beyond, lie those mysteries of human existence, the nations of Asia. It is well that their crowded and suffocating millions are not at our doors. The characteristics of these nations are insatiable avarice and ututterable atheism. Their proximity would be the omen of a moral and physical struggle of portentous magnitude and duration. Our virtue and our patriotism might not save us from terrible disaster or destruction. The widest expanse of water on the earth is made to separate between us and them.

Phew. He then discusses slavery as a familiar yet immoral institution, and describes the Civil War as a moment for “a nation’s ruin or regeneration.” Sahler’s language here is especially interesting in light of current media focus on political polarization in America:

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We are here reminded we can not be mere spectators of this national drama. We are actors in these scenes. There are things for us to determine and to do. Present duty demands our attention. Let us attempt to follow its direction.

As a nation, we are evidently entering upon a new era. The time has, therefore, come when those who have been opposites as to governmental policy should be reconciled, and mutually forgive. Let, therefore, the past be past. Let the bitterness, the partisanship, and the sectional feeling which have arisen sink forever in the depth of generous forgetfulness.

Unfortunately, the tensions from the Civil War have not exactly sunk “forever in the depth of generous forgetfulness,” even 153 years after Saleh delivered his discourse. I’m also fairly confident that many of us will be discussing these same issues at our Thanksgiving tables later this week.

If you’d like to read more of this pamphlet, or any of our many other pro- and anti-slavery Civil War pamphlets, please visit during our open hours or make an appointment!

 

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Cutting up Documents for Fun and Profit

If anyone makes a special collections horror movie, this would undoubtedly be one of the scariest villains:

autograph scraps

 

These are just a few of the hundreds (HUNDREDS!) of autographs in our Miscellaneous Manuscript Collection. Many were collected by a single, dedicated individual whose interest in history went as far as the signatures on the documents but not so far as the documents themselves. In some cases the autograph collector apparently sent a blank card requesting a signature, as in this example signed by Mark Twain:

Twain SignatureBut in many cases signatures were brutally cut from their proper places:

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It would be nice to know what Daniel Tillinghast was writing in 1785 (“… will not answer … till she is over…” is an intriguing bit to have), but that isn’t likely to happen thanks to our autograph collector.

I recently came across an example of the autograph industry from the other side of the mirror: Laid into one of our copies of Thomas Clarkson’s History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade (1808 ed.) is a letter from Clarkson to the book’s owner at that time, a man named Edward Raleigh Moran. The copy is inscribed by Clarkson, and Moran is requesting information about the recipient to whom Clarkson presented the book:

Clarkson Letter

 

In a postscript Clarkson writes “I have below sent you two autographs, which you may cut off and give to any of your friends should any be desirous of having them.” Mr. Moran’s friends apparently were not desirous of having them (or perhaps Moran wasn’t desirous of cutting up his letter and giving them away), because they’re still visible at the bottom of the page. (The verso of the page is blank, so if Moran had in fact cut out the signatures at least we wouldn’t have lost any original writing.)

 

Civil Warrior of the Week #15 (Special Edition): George Turner

George Turner in a tent

The image above is a sketch from a letter written by George Turner, a Rhode Island Civil War soldier whose correspondence has recently been scanned and transcribed by URI student Michaela Keating. The online collection (available here) includes nearly 200 letters, mostly sent by Turner to his parents at home in Rhode Island, dating from 1861 to 1864. Taken together they offer an evolving portrait of one soldier’s daily life over the years of the war and his developing attitudes toward race, the South and the purpose of the war.

Turner wrote the letter from which the image above was taken in December of 1861, not long after the Union capture of Fort Wells in Hilton Head, South Carolina, where Turner spent the majority of his time during the war. In the letter, Turner describes his entry into the fort and the circumstances of his drawing:

Soon after entering the Fort we were allowed to stroll around and look about. And during my stroll I cam across a gun carriage that was completely smashed up and while I was looking at it I picked up picked up part of a man’s ear and some teeth and while looking at it come to conclusion that this man had changed his southern views and gone to another land. And now that I think of it of will give you another drawing [sketch of two figures in a tent with “Traveller’s Rest” written on the side of the tent] The picture which I bring before your view this time represents your humble servant writing a letter to his Rhode Island friends while one of his mess mates lays on the ground smoking. The name which you see marked on the tent is marked with a led pencil. But I pity the poor fellow who comes there for rest if he does not belong there. Now I have lived in just such a house as you see just four months on the 20th this month, and during that that time I have not taken off my pants olny when I change my under clothes or to wash all over. And I am just as tuff as a birch I am fat rugged and saucy. I can swallow a roast turkey at one gullup. Yesterday we had the first white bread we have had since the 23 day of Oct and when we got our loaf we went about looking at it like so many boys with a new year’s present. But after a while we came to the conclusion to eat it and the way it went down my illustrious gullet was a caution to lookers on.

The letter is typical in its attention to the daily details of camp life. Also typical is the discussion that takes place just prior to this excerpt in which Turner displays antagonism toward the “contraband” freed slaves present at the fort. It’s a theme that develops throughout the course of Turner’s letters, as he grows to despise the former slaves he feels are being better treated than the soldiers.

For more information about the George Turner correspondence, visit our online exhibition, which provides background information about Turner and some of the major themes of his letters. And visit the digital collection to read the letters yourself. As of now over 100 letters have been transcribed, with more to come. And if you’d like to take part and try transcribing some of the letters yourself, just click the “Transcribe this item” link at the bottom of an item and then click the “edit” button.

(If you’re interested in Turner you might also want to check out the Summer/Fall 2012 issue of Rhode Island History (vol. 70.2), which features an article by Kirsten Hammerstrom on Turner titled “Souvenirs of War” (pp. 74-86).

Civil Warrior of the Week #14: Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln entering Richmond

In April of 1865 you couldn’t see him in the movie theater, but you could see him on the streets of Richmond, victoriously entering the city. There are multiple accounts of Lincoln’s actions that day, and you can try to determine from the famous depiction here whether he was “joyous as a boy or plumb tuckered out“.

 

Civil Warrior of the Week #11: George McClellan

This portrait of McClellan appears in a scrapbook that sets Civil War officers beside a specimen of their handwriting. In this case the portrait is accompanied by a letter from McClellan, written many years after the war while he was Governor of New Jersey, in which he offers his support for what appears to be a widow’s pension request:

The soldier’s name appears to be “Doull,” and there was indeed a single Major Doull serving in the Union Army. Doull seemed to have performed some reconnaissance preserved in this map.

Spies by Subscription

It’s always a particular pleasure when we add a new item that overlaps with more than one of our collections. Here’s an example of a recent addition that will be useful for researchers interested in either the Civil War or the history of printing and the book trade: a publisher’s sample book for taking subscriptions to The Spy of the Rebellion.

The practice of subscription publishing has been at work for a very long time, going back at least to the seventeenth century. The original model was designed to work around the necessity of raising the capital to publish a book: All the expenses are paid (or at least promised) up-front by interested would-be readers who don’t mind shelling out their money first and getting the book later. This still happens today at places like Kickstarter, where someone has already raised $40,000 to publish something called Dinocalypse Now.

But there was another reason for subscription publishing, and it was a particular strategy of 19th-century American publishers: Subscription publishing — which sent an army of subscription collectors out door-to-door in out-of-the-way corners of the country — brought books to new audiences. In some cases this was expressed with missionary zeal:

Ignorance everywhere raises his stupid front, and among the best weapons with which to vanquish him are books, and in the interior, with a vast number, the habit of obtaining and of using these will not be acquired unless brought to their very doors.*

It was also a good way to make money, often by selling books that appealed to many buyers’ decorative sensibilities (they were often published in seemingly luxurious, gilt-decorated bindings) rather than their intellectual curiosity.

Alan Pinkerton, who founded the famous Pinkerton agency, offered his services to the Union (particularly to George MacLellan) during the Civil War, and The Spy of the Rebellion is a hefty account of his exploits. It’s one of several autobiographical works authored by Pinkerton, and a copy has long been part of our Harris Collection on the Civil War & Slavery. And we’re now able to add a subscription book that was used to sell copies like ours.

The subscription book is on the left, the full copy on the right. In addition to offering the table of contents and a selection of text and illustrations of the volume, it includes complementary blurbs:

and a form to be filled out by interested buyers:

This copy also includes an inscription on the flyleaf — “Edith Morgan | Burnham Maine” — indicating both the type of area in which subscription-takers were most active (Burnham’s current population is around 1,100) and that this particular copy may have been used by a woman.

Whatever the case, it also includes scrapbook-style additions that don’t seem relevant to the text for sale. Recipes and “household hints” are pasted in and written in manuscript at the back of the volume:

One of the most interesting features of books like this, and one of the reasons they appeal to historians of the book, is that they demonstrate the steps by which a book like Spy of the Rebellion came into being, and point to potential that may never have been realized. At the very end of this subscription book is pasted in the spine of a leather binding, not at all like the binding of the copy we have here in the library. This is presumably the “Sheep, Library Style” binding referenced in the subscription sheet. Or maybe it’s a binding that was never offered at all.


Henry Howe, quoted in Lehmann-Haupt, The Book in America (New York: Bowker, 1951), page 250.

Fighting (at) City Hall

Civil War sesquicentennial events are underway all over the place, including Providence City Hall. Brown University students have used local resources (including our Harris Collection on the Civil War & Slavery) to put together what promised to be a fascinating exhibition on Providence during the period of the Civil War.

Here’s a little more info from the exhibition organizers:


After 150 years, some might assume that the history of the Civil War is a closed book. The exhibit Rhode Island in the Civil War: Myth, Memory, and (Mis)Information reopens a chapter of this story to reveal the deeper complexities of Rhode Island’s Civil War experience. Curated by students in Brown University’s Methods in Public Humanities class in collaboration with the Rhode Island Civil War Sesquicentennial Commemoration Commission, the exhibit examines the history and legacy of Rhode Island’s involvement in the Civil War, using items from local archives and libraries. The exhibit will be on view at the City Hall Gallery from April 28 through June 22, with an opening reception on May 3.

 

A period-uniformed brass band playing music of the Civil War will kick off the opening reception at 5 p.m. on the steps of City Hall, accompanied by a uniformed color guard of teenage Civil War reenactors from the Met School. At 5:30 a brief speaker’s program will include remarks from Keith Stokes, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Economic Development Commission, Chairman of the Rhode Island Sesquicentennial Commission Frank Williams, City Archivist Paul Campbell, and Brown University Professor Anne Valk, whose students researched, planned, and installed the exhibit. The opening is free and open to the public. Refreshments will be provided.

About the Gallery at City Hall:

Offering space to artists and organizations that might not have a permanent gallery, the Gallery at City Hall exhibits an eclectic array of work that highlights the artistic and cultural diversity found in the Providence community. It is open to the public during City Hall business hours: Monday to Friday, 8:30am to 4:30 p.m. and is located on the second floor. City Hall is located at 25 Dorrance Street.