“As Drowning Men Catch at Straws”: William H. Simpkins and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment
By Susan Martin, Processing Archivist & EAD Coordinator
I have now to tell you of a pretty important step that I have just taken. I have given my name to be forwarded to Massachusetts for a commission in the 54th (negro) Regt. Coln. Shaw.
This excerpt comes from a letter written by Civil War soldier William Harris Simpkins on 26 February 1863. Harris was serving with the 44th Massachusetts Infantry at New Bern, N.C. and had been recommended for a post in the new 54th Regiment, the first African-American regiment raised in the North. Simpkins decided to accept and, in this letter to his father, preemptively defended his decision and discussed the possibilities of the regiment.
William Harris Simpkins (1839-1863)
Simpkins was born in Boston, Mass. on 6 Aug. 1839 and worked as a clerk before enlisting in the Union Army. When he got word from Col. Francis L. Lee that he had the chance at a commission with the 54th under the command of Capt. Robert Gould Shaw, he was cautiously optimistic. He recognized the significance of the move and acknowledged what he might be giving up. Portions of his letter have been printed in histories of the regiment, but I think it’s worth quoting at length.
This is no hasty conclusion, no blind leap of an enthusiast, but the result of a considerable hard thinking.
It will not at first, and probably will not be for a long time, an agreeable position for many reasons too evident to state, and the man who goes into it resigns all chances in the new white Regiments, that must be raised; […] and there can be no dispute as to, among which color, the most comfortable & pleasurable position will be.
Simpkins’ friend Cabot Jackson Russel saw things in a similar light. The 18-year-old Russel served with Simpkins in the 44th and was also commissioned a captain of the 54th. Just one day before Simpkins, on 25 Feb. 1863, Russel wrote home to say that he had “given up everything” and was “going under Bob Shaw, as it seems so important to put this measure through.” (Russel’s letters can be found in the Patrick Tracy Jackson and Loring-Jackson-Noble family papers.)
Cabot Jackson Russel (1844-1863)
Despite the risks and the uncertainty, Simpkins still believed in the project. His letter continues:
Then it is nothing but an experiment after all. But it is an experiment, that I think it high time we should try; an experiment, that if successful, will be productive of much good; […] an experiment, which the sooner we prove unsuccessful, the sooner we shall establish an important truth and rid ourselves of a false hope.
Some publications stop quoting him there, but I found the next paragraph particularly moving.
There will probably be some trouble with the white troops in the field, arising from a traditional sence [sic] of honor, too nice for me to understand, which distinguishes between fighting behind earth-works thrown up by black laborers, and allowing a negro soldier to stand in the next field to fire his gun at the common enemy; but once prove the efficacy of black troops and I think they will hail them, as drowning men catch at straws.
To make the test you must have men who are willing for the trial. It is of especial importance, of course, in order to win the people to this movement, that it should be undertaken by the right sort of men, and that the first black Regt. should have everything done for it in the way of officers &c that would tend to make it efficient. If I am one of the persons selected, why should I refuse? I came out here, not from any fancied fondness of a military life, but to do what I could to help along the good cause. Why should I not stretch my patriotism a little further and accept a commission in a Negro Regt?
Simpkins was killed on 18 July 1863 during the assault at Fort Wagner as he kneeled next to his injured friend Russel. The 1864 memorial to Robert Gould Shaw includes a detailed description of Simpkins’ death, which was witnessed and recounted by Sgt. Stephen A. Swails.
Stephen Atkins Swails (1832-1900)
Simpkins, Russel, Shaw, and the black soldiers killed in the battle were buried together in a mass grave.
Simpkins’ letter forms part of the Hooper family papers here at the MHS—his aunt married into the Hooper family, and his cousin Henry Northey Hooper also served as a captain in the 54th Regiment. Unfortunately the document we have is only a copy written by someone else, and the location of the original is unknown. However, the Hooper collection does contain two original letters by Simpkins, written to his mother before he enlisted.
The Massachusetts Historical Society has many resources related to the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, both online and in our library, including manuscript collections, photograph collections, and print material. You’ll find a handy introduction here.
| Published: Friday, 26 October, 2018, 1:00 AM
"Splendid Flowering Bulbs": Washburn & Co.'s 1865 Autumn Catalog
By Anna Clutterbuck-Cook, Reader Services
As we near the end of October here in Boston the trees are starting to turn vibrant yellows and oranges while the morning air is crisp with overnight frost. While many gardeners are digging up gardens and bringing plants indoors out of the cold for the winter ahead, it’s also time to think ahead to spring! Now is the season to plant tulips, daffodils, crocuses, and other flowering bulbs to rest through the winter months and flower with the return of light and warmth to the northern hemisphere.
In the Massachusetts Historical Society’s collection of trade catalogs is an autumn catalog for 1865 from Washburn & Co. for Splendid Flowering Bulbs and Other Flowering Roots with Full Instructions for Cultivation. Inside are twenty-four pages of dense description and product listings by type: crocus, cyclamen, hyacinth, lilies, snowdrops, tulips, and more. Each price list is preceded by lush description: “The tulip,” offers the catalog, “of all bulbous flowers, is the most celebrated, popular, brilliant, and beautiful . . . easy of culture both in the conservatory or parlor and the open garden.” The Japanese lily, for which Washburn & Co. was lately rewarded with a silver medal by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, is given pride of place as an illustration inside the front of the catalog.
Gardeners are able to order a range of bulbs for around $1.00 per bulb, or $4-8 per dozen, depending upon the variety. The catalog also offers gardening tools including flower pots, baskets (“a splendid assortment”), weather vanes, preserving jars, and flower arrangements for weddings and funerals. “Orders by Express or Telegraph will receive prompt attention”!
Interested in gardening in times past, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, or other aspects of flora and fauna in New England? Researchers are welcome to visit the library to consult this and other trade catalogs in our reading room. And don’t forget to venture out into this crisp autumn weather and enjoy the changing seasons in your own back yard.
| Published: Wednesday, 24 October, 2018, 1:00 AM
This Week @MHS
We have a busy week ahead with a couple of seminars, an author talk, and a workshop.
- Monday, 22 October, 5:15 PM: Paul Revere's Ride through Digital History with Joseph M. Adelman, Framingham State University and Omohundro Institute; Liz Covart, Omohundro Institute; Karin Wulf, Omohundro Institute. This seminar examines components of the Omohundro Institute’s multi-platform digital project and podcast series, Doing History: To the Revolution. It explores Episode 130, “Paul Revere’s Ride through History,” and the ways the topic was constructed through narrative and audio effects, as well as the content in the complementary reader app. Participants are asked to listen to the podcast and access the reader app before the session.
- Tuesday, 23 October, 5:30 PM: Reproducing Race in the Early Americas with Rhae Lynn Barnes, Princeton University; Deirdre Cooper Owens, Queens College; Sasha Turner, Quinnipiac University, and moderated by Nicole Aljoe, Northeastern University. This roundtable will use the body as frame for examining racial formation in the Caribbean and U.S. from the eighteenth century to the present. The presenters will meditate on biological reproduction in relation to citizenship and subjecthood, labor and economy, medical and scientific knowledge, and representations of blackness in popular culture. This program will take place at the Knafel Center, Radcliffe Institute. This is part of the Boston Seminar on the History of Women, Gender, & Sexuality series. Seminars are free and open to the public.
- Wednesday, 24 October, 6:00 PM: Swindler Sachem: The American Indian Who Sold His Birthright, Dropped Out of Harvard, & Conned the King of England with Jenny Hale Pulsipher, Brigham Young University. Jenny Pulsipher opens a window onto 17th-century New England and the English empire from the unusual perspective of John Wompas, a Nipmuc Indian who may not have been all he claimed but was certainly out of the ordinary. Drawing on documentary and anthropological sources as well as consultations with Native people, Pulsipher examines struggles over Native land and sovereignty during an era of political turmoil and reveals how Wompas navigated these perilous waters for the benefit of himself and his kin. A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30 PM; the speaking program begins at 6:00 PM. There is a $10 per person fee (no charge for MHS Fellows and Members or EBT cardholders)
- Saturday, 27 October, 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM: Fashioning History workshop. Throughout history, our choices about what we wear tell the world about our personality, position, background, and beliefs. From textile in Boston Boycott, manufacture in the Industrial Revolution, to the fashion of war and protest, clothing offers a vivid lens to examine American cultural history. Drawing on the MHS exhibit “Fashioning the New England Family,” we will explore how clothing and style help us understand the everyday lives of historical New Englanders. This program is open to all who work with K-12 students. Teachers can earn 22.5 Professional Development Points or 1 graduate credit (for an additional fee). For questions, contact Kate Melchior at firstname.lastname@example.org or 617-646-0588.
Fashioning the New England Family is open Monday through Friday, from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM. The exhibition explores the ways in which the multiple meanings of fashion and fashionable goods are reflected in patterns of consumption and refashioning, recycling, and retaining favorite family pieces. Many of the items that will be featured have been out of sight, having never been exhibited for the public or seen in living memory. The exhibition is organized as part of Mass Fashion, a consortium of cultural institutions set up to explore and celebrate the many facets of the culture of fashion in Massachusetts.
Take a look at our calendar page for information about upcoming programs.
| Published: Monday, 22 October, 2018, 1:00 AM
Calling All High School Students: Apply for a 2019 John Winthrop Fellowship at the MHS
Are you a student who loves history? Are you a teacher with students who are intrigued by primary source research? Want the chance to spend some time in the MHS archives? Check out the fellowship opportunities at the Center for the Teaching of History!
John Winthrop Student Fellowship
The John and Elizabeth Winthrop Endowed Fellowship encourages high school students to make use of the nationally significant documents of the MHS in a research project of their choosing. Selected students will be referred to as "Winthrop Fellows". Winthrop Fellows and their supervising teacher will each receive a $350 stipend. This fellowship gives students the chance to learn how to navigate an archive, work directly with primary sources, and experience what it is like to be a historian.
Although students are welcome to work at the MHS Reading Room in Boston, online access to hundreds of recently-digitized documents from our collections now makes it possible for students from across the country to identify, incorporate, investigate, and interpret these primary sources in their work. Together with their teacher advisor (a current or past History or English teacher, member of Library/Media staff, etc), students decide on a research project proposal that uses sources from the MHS collections. This can be a project already assigned in class. With the support of MHS library and education staff, students then perform research using MHS materials during the spring and must complete their research project to the teacher advisor’s satisfaction by 1 June, and finally write a blog post about their experience.
The John Winthrop Fellowship empowers students to explore a topic of their interest and helps them to access the often intimidating world of historical research. One of the most valuable aspects of this fellowship is the opportunity for students to directly interact with materials from the MHS archives. In reflecting on their experiences, many students were struck by the immediacy of the artifacts:
"I never expected to be staring at a three hundred year old letter in which Hugh Hall, one of Boston’s prominent slave traders, complains rather vehemently of seasickness. The letter was written in big, loopy handwriting, the polar opposite of Hugh’s brother Richard’s cramped impossibility, on yellowed old paper that felt somewhat slimy. For a moment, I was overcome by the idea that I was touching Hall’s DNA." (2015 John Winthrop Student Fellow)
"It was incredible to see old newspapers that were transported along the Post Road to relay the world’s current events in the early 1700s, transformed into a computer document and displayed right in front of us. The only thing that could top it was being able to hold the physical letter that essentially started the Boston Post Road. Oh yeah, we did that too!" (2016 John Winthrop Student Fellow)
Many students appreciated the chance to draw their own impressions of history directly from primary sources rather than interpreted through a textbook:
"At points in the letters, Nora [Saltonstall]’s sense of humor and wittiness were evident which reminded me that she was indeed human and brought to life the events that transpired, in a way that textbooks are unable to." (2013 John Winthrop Student Fellow)
"I suppose what I liked most was the ability to interpret the original documents on my own and draw my own conclusions around the actual evidence, rather than directly being told a conclusion by a third party." (2013 John Winthrop Student Fellow)
Students also valued the opportunity to work with MHS staff and librarians, who welcomed them to the archive and made the work of historical research more accessible:
"The staff always took me seriously, and was always ready to help if I had a question. Until now I had never used microfiche, but within two minutes the reference librarian had me set up and I knew all I needed to know to use it. I could even take pictures of the old documents and email them to myself so I could do work at home." (2014 John Winthrop Student Fellow)
"Although we were entirely new to the MHS, the staff treated us as if we were any other historians. Along with finding great sources, the respect we received from the staff boosted our confidence in our historical research skills." (2016 John Winthrop Student Fellow)
Most importantly, students walked away from their fellowship opportunity empowered by their experience at the MHS:
"I have always wanted to be a historian. My time at the Massachusetts Historical Society obliterated any lingering doubts in that ambition. Words cannot describe the joy of these encounters with the past, an opportunity I will never forget." (2015 John Winthrop Student Fellow)
Applications for 2019 John Winthrop Fellowships should be mailed no later 18 February 2019. Check out our website for more information on the Swensrud Fellowship and how to apply!
| Published: Friday, 19 October, 2018, 8:00 AM
Hints to Soldiers on Health: 14 tips for those serving during the Civil War
By Sabina Beauchard, Reader Services
In the Albert Gallatin Browne papers you will find a printed piece of paper entitled, "Hints to Soldiers on Health." These "Directions for Preservation of Health" give pointers to soldiers serving in the Union Army during the Civil War on how to keep themselves in tip-top shape while living through the worst of conditions and on the move. It includes my favorite tip, number 11, regarding bleeding to death:
If, from any wound, the blood spirts out in jets, instead of a steady
stream, you will die in a few minutes unless it is remedied; because an artery
has been divided and that takes the blood direct from the fountain of life . . .
Aren't those positive words? If your blood is spurting out, you will most likely die. Don’t forget to wear flannel!
The handout does mention the difference between blood spurting and blood flowing, and what to do in either situation. While it’s necessary to know these things when you are about to enter a battlefield, the rather blunt wording shook me, thinking of all those who did indeed bleed out over the course of the war on both sides.
Number 7 is also a good reminder:
Recollect that cold and dampness are great breeders of disease. Have a
fire to sit around, whenever you can, especially in the evening and after rain;
and take care to dry every thing in and about your persons and tents.
Even in the warmest of climates, it seems like having a fire would still be necessary. As William H. Eastman, a member of the 2nd Battery (Nim's Battery) of Massachusetts Volunteer Light Artillery writes home to his mother from Bayou Boeuf, Louisiana, 8 May 1863:
. . . the flys are awful thick + as soon as the sun sets
musquitoes “Oh Dear” tis no use for me to try +
give any idea of their number a swarm of Bees
is no comparison as soon as sundown we build large
fires of corn husks + keep them agoing all night
why if a man has occasion to do a job for himself
after dark he is obliged to take some husks out + build
a fire + sit in the smoke else his rear will be in rather
a dilapidated condition rather a tough state of things
but such is the case. I am fortunately well off as
I have confiscated the Captains Bed and Musquito bar
that were among the stores but is rather hard for many
of the poor fellows without bars ^who get up + walk around
half the night to pass the time away.
Well! Hopefully this post has made you feel a little more comfortable with your living conditions, and thankful winter will soon set in and erase mosquitoes from our lives for a short time. Remember, "if disease begins to prevail, wear a wide bandage of flannel around the bowels!"
| Published: Wednesday, 17 October, 2018, 1:00 AM