Lifespans of 5th New Hampshire Veterans Part 1

In my last post, I explained that, having accumulated information on 300 veterans of the 5th New Hampshire (randomly selected from among the 1000 original volunteers), I was stopping briefly to take stock of what the data revealed about their lives. Eventually, I will push forward and collect information on about 400 men and report my results at a later date. Whereas the last post looked at how old soldiers were when they volunteered for the 5th New Hampshire, this one will look at data about the lifespans of veterans of that regiment.

The Pool (Average Lifespan: 63.2 years)

Of the 300 veterans from the 5th New Hampshire in my pool so far, I was able to figure out how long 268 of them lived. The average lifespan for these men was 63.2 years, and the median was 65. The shortest lived veteran only reached the age of 21 (James P. Milton, who died in 1866) while the longest-lived veteran died at the age of 98 (Oscar Collins who lived to see 1940). The chart below records how many died at which point in their lives.

Age

20s 30s 40s 50s 60s 70s 80s

90s

Number

12 14 31 34 72 64 36 5

Below, I’ve added what amounts to a Gantt chart of lifespan. The lifespans at the top are the men who were oldest when they enlisted (led by Jeremiah Atwood, born in 1809). Those at the bottom are for the youngest (Frank B. Camp, born in 1846). I’m not quite sure what to make of this data yet, but I’m very proud that I could hack Excel to produce a Gantt chart.

What I’d hoped or thought this chart would reveal was that the men born earlier generally experienced shorter lifespans, and while that does seem to be the case, the difference does not appear to be all that great. What I’d really have to do is create a plain bar graph to figure that out.

In any event, I can’t decide if 63.2 years is long or short. Historical demographers are not much help; they can’t seem to agree on what average life expectancy for people was in this period. I suppose that, considering the circumstances, a lifespan of 63.2 years was pretty good. At least two-fifths of my sample had been wounded. On top of that, a large number obtained disabled discharges for various illnesses that became chronic (e.g malaria).

Having calculated the average of the pool, I started thinking about the way different factors could influence lifespan, and the results of that thinking are below.

Teenage Enlistees (Average Lifespan: 62.8 years)

During this period, male teenagers had not reached full maturity (I’ve found that teenage enlistees were often several inches taller when they re-enlisted in 1864). I wondered if those who volunteered before reaching the age of 20 adversely affected their lifespan by undergoing war trauma at a relatively young age. I found 75 veterans in the pool who had enlisted as teenagers (between the ages of 15 and 19) for whom I had birth and death dates. I discovered that their average lifespan was 62.8 years—four-tenths of a year shorter than the pool as a whole. I don’t think that’s a statistically significant discrepancy, but it’s worth thinking about.

Of these men, 31 had been wounded during the war (41.3%, which is exactly the same as the pool as a whole), so that was probably not a factor in reduced life expectancy—unless, of course, getting wounded had a greater impact on younger men than older ones. The average length of service in this group was 22.4 months, slightly more than the pool’s average of 19.8. Perhaps we can attribute the slightly lower lifespan to greater length of service? Then again, maybe the ability to serve for a slightly longer time indicated greater robustness and resilience.

We must keep in mind that a great deal of variations lurks beneath our averages. When he enlisted in the fall of 1861 as one of the original volunteers in the 5th New Hampshire, Frederick Barrett was one of those teenaged recruits we have been discussing. Born in 1842, he was only 19 when he signed his enlistment papers. Barrett had been born in Hinsdale, NH, but his family soon moved to Winchester, NH. At some point before the war, Barrett’s father, a moderately prosperous farmer, died. According to the 1860 Census, Barrett’s mother, Olive, was the head of household and oversaw the family farm. Upon mustering in, Barrett was appointed corporal. He was wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg but recovered and was mustered out in October 1864. After the war, he returned to Winchester, NH, to become a farmer. In 1874, at the relatively late age of 31, he married Laura M. Nutting. The couple moved with Olive to Framingham, MA, where Barrett bought a new farm and had two sons (Frederick and Robert). Laura died in 1889, but Barrett did not lack company; for the rest of his life, he lived with his son Frederick’s family. Barrett eventually assumed the job of farm superintendent, and as he grew older, he became a simple farm laborer. He died in May 1929 at the ripe age of 87—far older than the 62.8 years that was the average lifespan of teenage volunteers. (Image courtesy of David Morin.)

Deserters (Average Lifespan: 67.9 years)

I next thought of deserters. I find them interesting largely because they are not as well researched as other soldiers. I located 18 deserters in the pool for whom I could establish a lifespan. Their average age on enlistment was slightly lower than the pool as a whole (23.3 years versus 25.0). Their average lifespan was 67.9 years—appreciably higher than that of the pool. A somewhat smaller proportion of these deserters were wounded than the average for the pool (33.3% versus 41.3%). Deserters also averaged a shorter length of service than the pool as a whole (17.0 months versus 19.8). Do these factors account for their longer lives? Or is the pool of deserters far too small to make any judgments?

Wounded Men (Average Lifespan: 64.8 years)

Before I write anything else on the subject of wounded men, I have to admit that Ayling’s Revised Register probably undercounted the number of men who were wounded. I’ve found several old soldiers in the “Veterans’” Census of 1890 who claimed wounds that do not appear in Ayling. Determining definitively who was wounded and who wasn’t from among 400 men (let alone 1000) would be a terrible chore, so I will just have to accept Ayling’s figures for now.

Out of the 268 men in the pool for whom I’d established lifespans, Ayling lists 112 who were wounded (41.3%). These men had been slightly younger than the average upon enlistment (24.4 years versus 25.0). Surprisingly, they lived, on average 64.8 years—slightly longer than the pool as a whole. I can reach for no straw to explain this fact.

Amputees

Of course, not all wounded men were equal. Some suffered from grievous wounds that badly damaged life outcomes. In my pool, I could only find five men who had undergone a serious amputation—that is, one that included an arm, hand, leg, or foot (a fairly large number of thumbs and fingers were amputated in this group, but I did not count those). There may be more than these five, but this is all the information I have at the moment. Not one of these amputees attained a lifespan equal to that of the pool’s average.

  • Private William Delury (1837-1890) underwent an amputation of his left leg after the Battle of Ream’s Station. An Irish immigrant, he had been a common laborer before the war in Concord, NH. Unlike a great majority of his comrades in the regiment, he never married. He died of “hematemesis” (vomiting blood).
  • Born and raised in Amherst, NH, 2nd Lieutenant George Washington George (1832-1875) lost his left leg at the Battle of Antietam. Married before the war, he became a clerk in Washington, DC. I could find no cause of death in his case.
  • Private George G. Leslie (1840-1883) had his right leg amputated at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Born in Lowell, MA, he was a painter by trade. He too never married. He spent some time at the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in Togus, ME. A couple of years later, he was found frozen to death in the woods between North Chelmsford, MA, and Tyngsborough, MA.
  • Born in Vermont but living in Concord, NH, upon the outbreak of the war, Private Benjamin F. Morse (1836-1898) lost his left foot at the Battle of Antietam. Only 17 when he joined the 5th New Hampshire, he became first a machinist and then a barber after the war. He was also married, but it is not clear whether he had children or not. He died of “organic disease of heart.”
  • Private Peter Murphy (b. 1836) also lost a foot at the Battle of Antietam. I have very little information about him aside from the fact that he was an illiterate, married laborer from Ireland living in Dover, NH, before the war. After he was hospitalized, he was discharged disabled in February 1863.

Commissioned Officers (Average Lifespan: 60.3 years)

In my pool, I found 21 men who at one time or another served as commissioned officers (lieutenants, captains, majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels). Just over half (11) started the war without a commission; that is, they rose from the ranks (the 5th New Hampshire promoted almost exclusively from within). This group tended to be somewhat older upon enlistment (27.6 years) than the regiment as a whole which makes sense. This group also suffered from an appreciably shorter lifespan (60.3 years). Part of the explanation might have to do with the greater frequency with which they were wounded; 47.6% were injured during the war. What is interesting, of course, is that wounded veterans as a whole had a longer lifespan than veterans who had been officers. Was it the stress of command that explains the difference?

Non-Commissioned Officers (Average Lifespan: 68.4 years)

This group includes all men in the pool who at one time or another became a corporal or sergeant of some sort. How did they fare? I found 40 in the pool. Surprisingly, they were younger upon enlistment than the rest of the pool (23.8 years). They also tended to serve for a much longer period of time than the average of the pool (29.1 months). Finally, 24 of them (60%) were wounded over the course of the war. So it’s surprising that despite all these marks against them they tended to live about five years longer than the average of the pool (68.4 years).

Long-Serving Soldiers (Average Lifespan: 64.8 years)

Did long periods of service affect lifespan? I located all the men (76) for whom I had lifespan information who served for 36 months or longer. This group enlisted, on average, at a relatively young age (23.4). Their average length of service was 38.6 months in the 5th New Hampshire (my accounting did not include the 88 veterans who served in other units after being discharged from the regiment). A total of 42 men (55.3%) in this group were wounded. That would make sense; the longer one served, the greater the chance of getting wounded. What doesn’t make sense is that this group, which had surely seen a great deal of arduous service and been wounded at higher rate than the rest of the pool, lived on average for 64.8 years.

Soldiers Who Served for a Short Period of Time (58.3 years)

So if soldiers who served for a long period of time lived slightly longer than the average of the pool, what about men who experienced much shorter periods of service? I found 35 men for whom I had birth and death dates who also served six months or less. Although there was a smattering of deserters in this group, the great majority had been discharged for disability (and almost all of these had been for illness). This group had an average lifespan of 58.3 years which was five years below the pool’s average—a substantial difference. As usual, one is presented with a chicken-and-egg question. Did these men obtain disabled discharges because they contracted illnesses that shortened their lives? Or did they suffer from pre-existing conditions that made them less robust in the first place?

Tall Men (Average Lifespan: 62.5 years)

According to recent research, shorter people enjoy greater longevity than tall ones. So, for the sake of sheer curiosity, I thought I’d look up the lifespan of veterans who were 5′ 10″ or taller. There were 53 who in the pool who fit this criterion. On average, they lived 62.5 years (seven-tenths of a year less than the pool as a whole). Of these men, 25 were wounded (47.2%), so maybe that explains the discrepancy.

Veterans Who Lived to 80 Years or More

Having paused a spell to contemplate the question of the war’s impact on lifespan, I had a sudden flash of inspiration: why not look at the veterans who enjoyed long lives? Did they share anything in common that might provide some insight into the way war trauma shortened other men’s lives?

Alas, the answer is, more or less, no, not really. I found 41 men in the sample who lived to be 80 or older. They enlisted, on average, at the age of 25.6 which was a smidgen above the pool’s average. Their average period of service was 21 months which was slightly higher than the pool’s average. In this group, 16 men were wounded (39%). This percentage is slightly below that of the pool (41.3%). The difference doesn’t seem sufficient to account for the greatly enhanced lifespan. There is only one substantial difference that I can see so far which sets this group apart from the rest of the pool. Of the 41 men in this group who lived to 80 or more, 11 of them were non-commissioned officers (31.7%) which is an extraordinarily high number (NCOs constituted 14.9% of the sample). In thinking about this phenomenon, we ought to remember that veteran non-coms in general enjoyed longer lifespans than any other rank. Still, this fact along does not explain why these men lived for so long.

Conclusions

I hesitate to draw any hard and fast conclusions, partly because I still haven’t finished assembling my pool and partly because the data are difficult to interpret. It is hard to disentangle cause from effect. Did veterans who enlisted as teenagers suffer from shorter lifespans because the type of person who enlisted as a teenager tended to be somewhat reckless? Or were these young volunteers more susceptible to the trauma of war than their fellow soldiers?

The same question can be applied to what I see as the great surprise of this preliminary foray: the longevity of non-commissioned officers. I hardly think that simply wearing stripes on one’s sleeve allowed men to reach a great age. It seems much more likely that the qualities that marked them out for promotion must also have been associated in one way or another with a longer lifespan. But what exactly were these qualities?

2 thoughts on “Lifespans of 5th New Hampshire Veterans Part 1

    1. Haha, my bad. Tyngsborough has always–more or less–been a part of Massachusetts. Having said that, I did discover the following. The area that was settled as part of Tyngsborough was originally part of the massive Dunstable Township created in the mid-17th century which encompassed 200 square miles and straddled the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border. The boundary between the two colonies was only defined in 1740, placing the settlement of Tynsborough squarely in Massachusetts. However, Tyngsborough did not become a town until 1809. But that’s no excuse for my mistake. I’ll edit it right away!

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