The last several posts have focused on statistical analyses of the 5th New Hampshire’s veterans. Today, I thought it was time for a change of pace.
Having read the title of this post, you may ask, “If the Civil War ended in 1865, how could the 5th New Hampshire’s last combat fatality have died in 1896?”
Listen to this story.
Noah Shaw appears to have been born in Freedom, NH, in January 1841. As he grew up an only son with many sisters, Shaw worked on the family farm alongside his none-too-prosperous father, Ira, and his grandfather and namesake, Noah. Still living in Freedom when the war broke out, Shaw volunteered to join Company H of the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry on October 3, 1861.[i] According to his enlistment papers, he had blue eyes, brown hair, and a light complexion. At 5’ 11”, he was uncommonly tall.[ii]
On June 1, 1862, at the Battle of Fair Oaks, the 5th New Hampshire’s first major fight, Shaw was shot in the neck. Only five days later, Luther M. Knight, the regiment’s surgeon, produced a “Surgeon’s List” that provided terse details about the men who were killed, wounded or missing. Shaw’s wound was listed as “neck; not severe.” It appeared, then, that Shaw had fared better than the 25-odd men who had been killed and many of the 160 or so wounded (for example, poor Damon E. Hunter of Claremont, NH, suffered a double amputation of the left thigh and right shoulder joint and died on June 22, 1862).[iii] Although the neck wound was “not severe,” it proved sufficiently bothersome to earn Shaw a disabled discharge on November 28, 1862.[iv] He filed for a pension only five months later.[v]
“Wounds of the Neck by Conoidal Musket-Balls” from The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, Part 1, Volume 2, opposite p. 402. One can find digital copies of this magnificent work on the Internet Archive and the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Shaw’s health seemed to improve because at the end of September 1864, he volunteered for one year’s service in Company G of the 1st New Hampshire Heavy Artillery. From Shaw’s perspective, this regiment must have seemed enticing. For one thing, two former members of the 5th New Hampshire played a prominent role in recruiting and commanding this unit (Charles H. Long and Ira Barton). For another, heavy artillery regiments promised little danger since they typically garrisoned fortifications. For that reason, the ranks of this unit filled up very quickly (presumably because men sought to avoid the draft). Shaw was mustered in as a Corporal and appears to have spent the rest of the war in the forts that surrounded Washington, DC. Only one unusual incident marked his career with this unit: on February 16, 1865, Shaw was reduced to the ranks at his own request. Why he made this request remains unclear. The explanation may be sitting somewhere in his service records.[vi]
Shaw was mustered out on June 15, 1865 and returned to Freedom where he resumed farming and appears to have experienced somewhat greater success than his father had (the Census of 1870 indicates Shaw possessed $1000 in real estate and $500 in his personal estate).[vii] Shaw also married at some point between 1865 and 1870; he and his wife, Lois, however, never had children. Shaw eventually left Freedom and moved about five miles away to Effingham, NH (South Effingham Falls, to be precise) where he was now tucked up against the border with Maine.[viii] In the “Veterans Census” of 1890, Shaw reported his old wound. Under “Disability Incurred,” we find the remark: “Shot in neck.”[ix]
And then on October 21, 1896, Shaw died at the age of 55 years, 10 months, and 11 days. The cause of death listed in the town record was “Inflammation Result of Gun Shot Wound.”[x]
This simple statement left me with many questions. Had Shaw’s old wound taken a sudden turn for the worse? Or had it been a chronic problem throughout his life? How does a 34-year-old wound kill a man who appears to have been healthy enough to farm for a number of years? And how exactly does somebody die of “inflammation”?
To figure out some of these questions, I contacted a friend of mine—a doctor who enjoys rummaging through old medical textbooks. I told him Shaw’s story, and my friend had two interesting things to say. First, he had a question about the death record: where did the town clerk get his information about Shaw’s cause of death? I naturally assumed that the town clerk had spoken to a doctor, but that is, after all, an assumption. Had the town clerk known of Shaw’s condition and taken for granted that the neck wound had killed the veteran? Or had the clerk spoken to a doctor who had inferred the same thing without examining Shaw? In other words, what was the procedure for determining cause of death and assigning that cause on a death record? My doctor friend explained to me that even today, the procedure by which we determine cause of death suffers from some important omissions that influence the statistics collected by various states. These deficiencies in data collection warp the findings of the National Center for Health Statistics at the Center for Disease Control. In any event, I thought, note to self: I need to figure out how cause of death was determined for death certificates in New Hampshire in the latter part of the 19th century.
The second interesting thing my doctor friend had to say was this: a number of medical terms with which we are familiar today were used to signify something different back in the 19th century. From a historian’s perspective, such an argument makes a great deal of sense. After all, historians’ bread and butter consists of studying change over time. In the case of Shaw, my friend speculated (after having looked at some 19th-century works), the word “inflammation” may well have been used to signify an infection. Dying of an infection in the days before antibiotics seems to make much more sense than dying of inflammation. I may be mistaken here, but I think I understood my friend to say that infection would have been more likely if the bullet had stayed in Shaw’s neck all those years. My impression is that a Civil War minié ball would have been a rather large object to remain lodged in the neck without damaging something vital (but then again, George Orwell was shot in the throat during the Spanish Civil War and lived to tell that tale). In this context, I remembered that Captain Edward Sturtevant of the 5th New Hampshire, who led Company A at the Battle of Fair Oaks, had been struck by buckshot (he wrote in a letter to the New Hampshire Statesman that “I received a buck-shot in one of my shoulders, which was somewhat painful for a short time, making only a slight wound.”).[xi] When one considers the miscellaneous nature of Confederate firearms, especially during the early part of the war, it is quite possible that Sturtevant was not the only member of the 5th New Hampshire who was struck by buckshot (or maybe even a portion of a buck and ball charge). Perhaps Shaw received some buckshot pellets in his neck. These may not have seemed “severe” at the time, but perhaps they were never extracted and became infected over time.
It is fun to speculate, but after all, speculations are just that. Some of the answers to the questions posed by Shaw’s death probably lie buried in his pension file in Washington, DC. Whatever the case, it appears that he very well may have died of an old wound sustained 34 years earlier. And that may have made him the 5th New Hampshire’s last combat fatality.
[i] “United States Census, 1850,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MWZ8-MTH : 29 October 2019), Noah Shaw in household of Ira Shaw, Freedom, Carroll, New Hampshire, United States; citing family 127, NARA microfilm publication M432 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.); “United States Census, 1860”, database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:M7WP-Y1Z : 14 December 2017), Noah Shaw in entry for Ira Shaw, 1860.
[ii] “New Hampshire, Civil War Service and Pension Records, 1861-1866,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:Q2Q1-BF5Y : 16 March 2018), Noah Shaw, 03 Oct 1861; citing Carroll, Carroll, Coos, New Hampshire, United States, New Hampshire Secretary of State, Division of Records Management & Archive; FHL microfilm 2,257,028.
[iii] New Hampshire Statesman, June 21, 1862, 2.
[iv] Ayling, Revised Register, 266.
[vi] Ayling, Revised Register, 954.
[viii] “United States Census, 1880,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MHRD-5J9 : 14 August 2017), Noah Shaw, Effingham, Carroll, New Hampshire, United States; citing enumeration district ED 18, sheet 246D, NARA microfilm publication T9 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.), FHL microfilm 1,254,760.
[ix] “United States Census of Union Veterans and Widows of the Civil War, 1890,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:K837-29S : 11 March 2018), Noah Shaw, 1890; citing NARA microfilm publication M123 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.); FHL microfilm 338,199.
[x] “New Hampshire Death Records, 1654-1947,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:FSLH-LH9 : 10 March 2018), Noah Shaw, 21 Oct 1896; citing Effingham, Bureau Vital Records and Health Statistics, Concord; FHL microfilm 1,001,105.
[xi] New Hampshire Statesman, June 14, 1862, 2.