Norwich native’s Civil War diary gains new readers
NORWICH, Vt. (AP) — For much of this summer, Eleanor Lubell waded through a steady if prosaic stream of observations in the Civil War diary of Norwich native Albert Nye: the bout with jaundice that was keeping him far from his comrades in the 15th New Hampshire Infantry, the weather around his hospital in New York City, the then-rural surroundings at the north end of Broadway.
Then last week, while transcribing the penciled-in entry of March 15, 1863 from Nye’s slim, 2-by-4-inch, leather-bound diary, Lubell, a newly minted graduate of Hanover High School who volunteered to interpret the diary, found herself in the rapids of the soldier’s journey into history: the Union siege of a Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River north of New Orleans.
“Remained there about 15 minutes watching a Bright fire which appeared to bee in the River when it Exploded and was the most magnificent sight I ever witnessed,” Nye wrote from Baton Rouge. “It aluminated the Heavens + Sent up the most splended sheet of fire I came witnessed then in about 30 seconds there came a report that Sounded like heavy Thunder and all was as dark as Night.”
As she transcribes the diary, Lubell is keeping a blog about her findings on the Norwich Historical Society’s website. In a post on Sunday, Lubell wrote that Nye learned the day after the fire and thunder he witnessed that “the bright light turned out to be the explosion of the USS Mississippi, which, while coming down the river by Port Hudson with 5 other boats, grounded and was riddled with Confederate shots. To avoid the boat being captured, in Nye’s words, ‘when the Captain found he could not get her off he set her on fire + blew her up with all of the wounded on board.’”
“Romanticism in American history ends at the Civil War,” Lubell said last week, during an interview at Dartmouth College’s Baker Library, “and realism begins.”
Whenn Lubell started her transcription of Nye’s diary this summer, she already knew a fair amount about the realities of Upper Valley soldiers who served in the Civil War. During seventh grade at Richmond Middle School in Hanover, she discovered a passion for the era from the Civil War project that social-studies teacher David Callaway assigned annually.
Callaway’s students always found plenty of local stories to explore in the Norwich Historical Society archives, from the nearly 40 diaries and dozens of letters to hundreds of photographs, family Bibles and manuscripts “that are frail but tell so much about the community,” Sarah Rooker, director of the historical society, said last week.
Historical society records show that James Huntley donated the Nye diary in 1968, with no indication of how he came by it. Mostly, the artifact sat in an acid-free box with other diaries, but it was receiving enough use that “it seemed like a useful document to digitize,” Rooker said. “It is incredibly frail, because Albert wrote it in pencil, and the pencil is starting to fade off the pages.”
Enter historical society member Dan Collison, a physician with a deep interest in local history who volunteered to scan the diary’s pages into a digital document to which local history buffs and scholars alike could study.
“These are deteriorating materials,” Collison said at the historical society offices at Main and Elm streets in Norwich on Thursday. “It’s going to fall apart at some point.”
Just as Rooker was contemplating ways to share the diary with the community and to encourage contributions of information, artifacts and comments, Lubell approached Rooker about volunteer opportunities.
“When Sarah first took me upstairs to look at the diary, there was so much material to transcribe,” Lubell said. “If it’s not transcribed, it’s not as accessible as it should be, not searchable.”
Before starting to post on the blog in early August, Lubell spent several weeks transcribing as well as combing other sources for information about Nye. Under the guidance of Laura Braunstein, the digital humanities librarian at Dartmouth College’s Baker-Berry Library, Lubell has found hints at Nye’s background, some of them from documents in the college’s Rauner Special Collections Library, some from the Baker-Berry website.
In a genealogy of the Nye family, Lubell learned that Albert Bancroft Nye was born in Norwich on March 16, 1834. He married Abbie Emerton in 1861, on the eve of the Civil War, and over the ensuing 20 years they had six children. In a hint of how much the family moved around while Nye worked as a painter, one of the children was born in Lebanon, two each in Norwich and Thetford and one in Hanover. The family was living in Lebanon when Albert enlisted in a New Hampshire regiment. Nye survived his wartime service and lived to age 78, dying in 1912.
Lubell’s subsequent research led to an account book kept by painting contractor David Morrill, an uncle of future U.S. Sen. Justin Morrill. One listing showed David Morrill advancing $10 to Nye, an employee, to buy paint and brushes.
“Albert’s handwriting is not as neat as Morrill’s,” Lubell said.
Such revelations keep the narrative going and growing, and the historical society welcomes as many contributions as readers of the blog can provide.
“You cannot (predict) who has the piece of information you need — the adjacent puzzle piece to your piece,” Collison said.
The hunt for scraps that “provide real insight into one person” appeals to Lubell enough that at Yale, where she starts her freshman year this week, she’s planning to study humanities, through an intensive program that mixes literature, philosophy, history and political science.
“My summer reading has included Plato, Homer and Herodotus,” she said. “My brain is here in the Upper Valley and also in ancient Greece and Persia and the Civil War.”
If Lubell needed any more incentive to stay engaged in Albert Nye’s story through the summer and beyond, she found it recently in a Valley News story from September 2017, describing the dedication of headstones at Nye’s and another soldier’s unmarked graves in Norwich’s Hillside Ceremony.
“At one point the story says that ‘not much is known about the veterans,’ ” Lubell said. “I took that as a challenge.”
Information from: Lebanon Valley News, http://www.vnews.com