Thursday, July 16, 2009

We Behold As In a Magic Mirror: Part Three

This is the third in a series of posts about two brothers who died in the Civil War. Benjamin Franklin Heald and James Hersey Heald were younger brothers of my great-great grandfather Lysander.

In 1784, the family's patriarch, Benjamin, had emigrated from Carlisle, Massachusetts to Butterfield Plantation, a 47,ooo acre tract of land, presently comprising the towns of Sumner and Hartford, Oxford County, Maine. Benjamin's son, Hiram, my great-great-great grandfather, married Sophronia Hersey in 1824. They had eleven children.

Our story continues with a narrative of Hiram and Sophronia's life in Sumner and culminates in the outbreak of the Cvil War in 1861. Part Two in the series may be found here.

Little is known of Hiram and Sophronia’s day to day life, although we may presume that they lived much as their parents’ had; the exhausting round of farm chores requiring the use of much the same tools and equipment that had been employed since the time of the earliest settlements. There were indications by mid-century that the economy was gradually changing.

Asa Robinson, the proprietor of a store in East Sumner established by his father Increase, makes mention in his account books of the sale of “one stove” in 1848. This was, if not a luxury item, certainly much coveted hardware that not only spared the backs of women bending low over the hearth but required far less wood to heat the home. Its purchase also suggests that the economy had begun to evolve away from mere subsistence farming to one in which realizing an agricultural surplus was a possibility. Hiram’s new home may have been built with monies accrued from just such a surplus. That there was an increasing awareness of larger markets beyond Sumner is apparent as well, and Asa Robinson’s account books indicate that he engaged in long-distance hauling to Portland, Hallowell, and Lewiston.

As was the case throughout New England, the advent of the railroad was the most striking symbol of change. In 1856 an East Sumner station was opened, although predictable and reliable service would not be provided until after the Civil War.

Although we may infer something of Hiram and Sophronia’s economic life, we know little of their personal character, of who they were as individuals. No written record remains, or has yet been discovered, that would provide the necessary information. However, there is a daguerreotype, very possibly made when the likeness of Franklin and James was also produced, which provides some clues.

As did the two boys, Hiram and Sophronia sit side by side, dressed in their finest clothes. Hiram, wearing a white shirt, black cravat, and frock coat, gazes confidently at the camera; his left hand tucked – Napoleon style – into his vest accentuates the self-possessed, even somewhat cocky, appearance.

Sophronia, wearing a lace bonnet and collar, a beaded necklace (in all likelihood, the only one she owned), and cotton dress, also gazes steadily ahead, although the impression the viewer receives is of a more interior soul. Her substantial hands, with thick fingers devoid of rings suggestive of hard domestic work, are folded left over right atop a large book, undoubtedly the family Bible. It must be said that the long exposures called for in such settings, requiring ramrod-straight postures and minimal facial expression, make any inference of the sitter’s character extremely difficult. But barring any other evidence, we are more emboldened to conjecture about such things. We might even be willing, in retrospect, to see in Sophronia’s inward-looking gaze something of the suffering she would so soon undergo.

By 1860, only six persons remained in the Heald household on Sumner Hill – Hiram (62) and Sophronia (57), their eldest daughter Marcella (35), younger daughter Althea (18), Franklin (16), and Oscar (13). Albert, Stephen, and Emogene had all married and moved away from home even if, as was the case with Stephen, it was only next door. Abel had recently joined his brother in Sandwich, Massachusetts, as had James, to be closely followed by sister Althea later that year. Their grandmother Rebekah had died in 1858 and was buried beside her husband in the family cemetery on the rise above the homestead.

In November of that year, Abraham Lincoln, an attorney from Springfield, Illinois who had served several terms in the state legislature, one as a U.S. Congressman, and who had gained considerable notoriety in his 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, was elected president. Sumner, as did the rest of Maine, strongly supported Lincoln’s election. There can be little doubt that those male Healds of voting age cast their ballots for the Republican ticket.

The election only further exacerbated escalating tensions between North and South. At 4:30 A.M, April 12, 1861, General P.G.T Beauregard’s troops opened fire on the federal garrison at Fort Sumter with the big seacoast guns and mortars ringing Charleston Harbor. In response to Lincoln’s subsequent call for 75,000 volunteers, Sumner was one of only four Maine towns (noted Sharon Robinson who would later enlist with the Ninth Maine Regiment), that “not only promptly filled its quotas, but had a surplus besides.” Of those one hundred and ten who signed the rolls, and of those thirty-eight former Sumner men who joined the ranks of regiments out of state, many would not survive. Of those six sons of Hiram and Sophronia who enlisted, four would return from the South alive, two would not.

Image Source: Daguerreotype of Hiram and Sophronia Heald; early 1850s (?)


Geoff said...

Nice stuff, Dave. Thanks. I'm so used to looking at photgraphs made by a camera with a fast shutter, capable of catching personality on the fly, that this picture is a little chilling, a tad depressing. I'm glad you addressed that point, but the feeling of stiff, humorlessness is hard to shake off, as if we're actually looking into two frozen souls. We can only warm them up in our imagination, having no information to fill in the gap. Well, there's no help for it. I'll choose to believe that they loved to dance.

MichaelRyerson said...

My great-grandfather, John F. Ryerson, served with the Ninth Maine Volunteers, enlisting on August 15, 1861, wounded on June 22, 1864 in front of Petersburg, Va, losing his left arm in the bargain and mustered out in November, 1864. Enjoyed reading your blog, appreciate your having it.