I have always been intrigued by how historical events have been experienced by the people who lived through them, and how it might be possible to replicate that experience, at least in part. The way most of us experience history-making events in our own time is through the news—now mostly on television and the Internet. 150 years ago, the primary medium was the newspaper.
In the 1860s Middletown had two rival papers. The Sentinel and Witness was the Democratic paper, published by the Starr family. The Constitution was established as a Whig paper, but by the time of the war it was the voice of Middletown’s Republicans, led by long-time editor Abner Newton and his son.
My original plan was to read both papers from exactly 150 years ago, and then post a weekly blog entry with selections from them. But there was a problem. The complete run of The Constitution is accessible from a variety of sources, but not so The Sentinel and Witness. Some individual issues of The Sentinel are accessible, but not the complete run from 1861-1865. So I decided to blog only articles from The Constitution.
Each week I read the paper, and then select articles to include in the blog entry. I select the stories and determine their order, but otherwise I provide no commentary or interpretation. I want others to have the same experience I am having–reading about the war and the times through the eyes of Middletown residents, just as it happened.
The blog begins with articles from the February 20, 1861 edition of the paper. The big national story is the electoral college confirmation of the election of Abraham Lincoln as President. But most of the news is local, including the breakup of the ice in the Connecticut River and the upcoming celebration of Washington’s Birthday. In April and May of 1861, after the surrender of Fort Sumter and the declaration of war, the local news is dominated by the forming of companies in Middletown and other communities:
“Departure of the Middletown Volunteers:–Wednesday last was a day to be long remembered. On that day the volunteers for the service of the General Government were to leave town. We have never on any occasion whatever seen our community so deeply moved as it was then.” (May 1, 1861)
“Another Great Day for Middletown.–Three companies of volunteers, numbering about 225 men, have now gone from this city, which in proportion to population is a larger number than has been furnished by Hartford, New Haven, or any other town in the State. And the men who have gone from here are as fine a body of soldiers as are to be found in the army. (May 22, 1861)
But in the succeeding months the battlefield losses and wartime inconveniences take their toll on the Middletown community and local soldiery:
“Departure of the 24th Regiment.—The regiment finally went off by the steamer Granite State on Tuesday evening. Their departure was marked by turbulence and disorder. Much dissatisfaction was felt by the men because they were not paid as they had expected to be for the two months they had been in camp. Some of them made this a pretext for disturbance on Tuesday afternoon. They refused to obey orders and insulted their officers. Lieut. Webb, U. S. A., the mustering officer, received some slight personal injury.” (November 26, 1862)
But even when war news dominates the headlines, there are other stories as well. Some are tragic:
“Child in a Well.–On Tuesday morning last week about six o’clock the wife of Mr. Samuel Ranney, who lives on the corner of Main and Spring streets, took her young child and threw it into the well. The well is forty feet deep from the top to the surface of the water, with a depth of twenty feet of water. On coming into the house she told her husband what she had done. He procured the help of a neighbor, who went down into the well and found the child just below the surface of the water. It was taken out and restoratives applied, when it revived and soon appeared to be as well as ever.” (October 9, 1861)
“Death of Josiah M. Hubbard.—A few weeks since, Mr. Hubbard was thrown from his wagon into the road, and the wheel of a loaded cart passed over him crushing one of his limbs in a fearful manner. Just previous to the accident he had received the sad intelligence of the death of his son Robert Hubbard, shot in the battle of Antietam. It was thought Mr. Hubbard would recover from his injury notwithstanding his age and the depressing news of his son’s death. He was apparently doing well until the beginning of last week, when he unexpectedly and rapidly failed. He died on Tuesday morning.” (November 26, 1862)
Others concern local elections and civic projects:
“EVERY VOTE for the Republican Ticket next Monday is a vote in favor of maintaining the government of the United States. EVERY VOTE for the Republican Ticket is a vote in aid of the Administration in its arduous duties at the present crisis. EVERY VOTE for the Republican Ticket is a rebuke to secession and treason.” (March 27, 1861)
“Pameacha.—Any man in the south part of the town who attempts to take a walk finds his steps gravitate towards the Pameacha. On a pleasant evening about sundown an interested crowd always gathers at that particular point of the city limits and gazes good naturedly into the abyss that is to be spanned by the bridge that is to be built. The idea of having a new bridge, and a new stone bridge, and a new stone bridge that will not fall down within a hundred years, is a novel one. People are not used to it.” (June 11, 1862)
And still others are comic tales of the times:
“A rather amusing cowhiding affair came off on South avenue, Rochester, Thursday evening, in the grocery store of D. S. Sornberger. A man named Rollin Cramer, who occupies the shady side of fifty, was trounced with a cowhide in the hands of a young married lady named Hayes, whose husband is in New York. The offence is alleged to have consisted in the circulation of obnoxious reports concerning the lady’s character.” (July 3, 1861)
“An exchange remarks, pathetically, ‘have you a sister ? Then love and cherish her with a holy friendship.’ This is all proper enough ; but in case you haven’t got any sister of your own, take some other fellow’s sister and love her. The effect is just as good, and sometimes better.” (June 4, 1862)
Reading The Constitution each week for the past 22 months has been instructional and entertaining. I read each issue far more closely than I do any contemporary newspaper. And I now have a sense of the events covered in something like real time; I ‘remember’ how long it has been since Fort Sumter was fired on or the hippopotamus came to town. Finally, I have a vivid sense of the life of Middletown and its citizens at the time—the events and stories that shaped their lives, and what they thought of themselves, their town, and their country. Every week I spend two or three hours immersed in the Middletown of 150 years ago—and it is a very good place to be.
–Patricia Tully, President, Middlesex County Historical Society (December 2012)