Noah Shaw Died in 1896—Was He the 5th New Hampshire’s Last Combat Fatality?

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.

[v] “United States General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934”, database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QJDP-HVTP : 13 March 2018), Noah Shaw, 1863.

[vi] Ayling, Revised Register, 954.

[vii] “United States Census, 1870”, database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MH5R-SXY : 13 June 2019), Noah Shaw, 1870.

[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.

Shooting Oneself by Accident or by Design

When I first started working on the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry, the following question occurred to me: how often did soldiers accidentally shoot themselves? It may seem like a strange thing to contemplate, but I thought that if one gave rifles to a thousand men who were mostly in their twenties, a number of people were bound to make a mistake either through carelessness or inexperience and shoot themselves. And lo and behold, I soon discovered the story of Frederick Manning, the 5th New Hampshire’s first casualty.

On October 29, 1861, the regiment boarded a train in Concord, NH, bound for Washington, DC. Edward Cross, the regiment’s colonel, had made arrangements to prevent anything untoward from happening on the trip. Among other things, General Order No. 5, which he had issued three days before, stipulated that officers were to stay with their companies to “preserve good order and perfect sobriety,” ensure that the men followed regulations, and prevent soldiers from leaving the cars “without urgent necessity.” Non-commissioned officers were instructed to keep an eye on their squads to prevent drunkenness and misbehavior. Cross promised deserters and drunkards that they would be swiftly arrested and punished. Interestingly enough, most of the soldiers were unarmed; Cross ordered each company commander to bring only five rifles for “guard purposes” since the regiment would be issued with its weapons once it arrived in Washington, DC.[i] All well and good, but still not enough to prevent Frederick Manning of Company I from shooting himself. Before the regiment boarded the train, Manning (see image below, courtesy of David Morin) started loading a pistol that went off in his hand, sending a ball traveling up his forearm. It’s not clear who tended to Manning, but according to the Nashua Telegraph, this person “cut four great ugly gashes in his arm at different points between the wrist and elbow, without finding the ball.” Manning somehow ended up on the train, and by the time it reached Nashua, he had almost passed out. He was removed from his car, and Governor Nathaniel Berry, who happened to be aboard, sent for Dr. James B. Greely to take care of Manning. Greely promptly found the ball and removed it.[ii]

Stephen H. Holt belonged to Company K, but he hailed from Francestown, NH, only a short distance away from Manning’s residence of Lyndenborough, NH, and he appears to have known of Manning. Holt related the incident in a letter to his grandparents:

Tell Mr. Smith that that Manning that went from Lyndboro was loading his pistol just before we started and it went of and it struck right in the middle of his hand and went up his arm to his elbow. The Doctor cut his arm all to peices and then did not get it he said that it had lodged some where in among some of the bones of the elbow and if it matterated his arm would have to be cut of but he said it might heal up.[iii]

This story reminds me of the following commercial.

Manning recovered from his encounter with the inept doctor. He was later wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 13, 1862) but unfortunately was killed in action at Gettysburg (July 2, 1863) during the hard fighting in Rose Wood near the Wheatfield.

Aside from the incident involving Manning, Ayling’s Revised Register only refers to two other cases where men accidentally shot themselves. While on guard duty at Camp California near Alexandria, VA, John Merrill, Jr. of Company D was approached by a boy with a loaded pistol. As he and several other soldiers examined the weapon, it went off and the bullet struck Merrill in the chest. Two surgeons were on the scene within ten minutes, but nothing could be done to save the stricken soldier.[iv] According to a letter from the regiment to the Farmer’s Cabinet,

He called for “Andrew,” a number of times, his messmate, who was standing over him all the time—His last call was for his wife [Sarah], whose miniature was held before him, but he could not see it his eyes were fixed, and he died without a struggle. I sent to camp for his Captain [John Murray] and some of his friends as soon as the accident happened, but they were about two minutes too late to see him breathe his last.[v]

This depiction of the scene bears all the hallmarks of a “good” death: the dying soldier is surrounded by his comrades and casts his last thoughts to his loved ones at home.[vi]

Miles Peabody of Company K reported the incident in this way:

we had a sad accident in Camp last night causing the death of a soldier he was accidently shot by a revolver in the hands of a soldier. He was a member of Co. D. he left a wife and two children.[vii]

The other accident referred to in Ayling’s Revised Register involved Enoch J. Quimby of Company A who was wounded accidentally in March 1862 (the date was unspecified) and discharged on account of those wounds on May 24, 1862. I have no information concerning Quimby’s wounding. James Larkin, the 1st Lieutenant of Quimby’s company, makes no mention of it in his correspondence.[viii]

But there were more accidents than just the ones referred to in Ayling’s Revised Register. Towards the end of January 1862, Major E. Parker (yes, “Major” was his first name) of Company E shot himself by accident while on guard duty at Camp California. Ayling’s Revised Register records that Parker was discharged disabled on February 3, 1862, but indicates nothing about the cause of the discharge. However, 2nd Lieutenant William Moore, who was in Parker’s company, wrote home to his sister about the accident:

Major E Parker of Lisbon, who accidently shot off three of his fingers while on Guard in the night, will be discharged from the service in a few days. He has been a good faithful soldier and we regret the loss of him.[ix]

The seriousness of the wound is hard to determine; Parker later enlisted in the 1st New Hampshire Heavy Artillery in September 1864 and served in that unit for ten months before being mustered out.[x]

How many men accidentally shot themselves and were not listed as having done so in Ayling’s Revised Register? It is impossible to say unless, as in the case of Parker, we encounter evidence from other sources.

Thus far, we’ve discussed men who clearly shot themselves accidentally. But as I looked at surgeon’s reports for several battles, a particular line of inquiry got me thinking that some men may have sought to injure themselves with their own firearms. On several occasions after major battles, the New Hampshire Statesman printed copies of the surgeon’s report for the 5th New Hampshire.[xi] These reports don’t totally jibe with Ayling’s Revised Register (some men appear as wounded in the surgeon’s report but not the Revised Register, and vice versa) but they do seem reliable. The results are as follows.

Battle of Fair Oaks

Of the 164 casualties listed for this battle, 12 were wounded in the hand or finger. Six of these wounds resulted in amputation (out of a total of 11 amputations performed).

The Seven Days Battles

One-quarter of the casualties suffered during this battle (12 out of 48) were wounds to the hand or finger. Five of these 12 wounds necessitated amputation. Only a total of six amputations were performed—the sixth one being that of a foot.

Battle of Antietam

The surgeon’s report listed 111 casualties with a total of 12 wounds to the fingers, hand, or wrist. Of the 14 amputations performed, half involved a hand or finger.

When I first saw these figures, it seemed to me that the number of wounds to hands and fingers was rather large. After all, the head, torso, legs, and arms occupy far more surface area than hands and fingers. I did not know how to explain these numbers. And thus the matter rested—in the back of my mind. . . .

Until I ran across the following post on Mysteries & Conundrums: Exploring the Civil War-era landscape in the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania region. The post briefly discusses self-inflicted wounds during the Overland Campaign (1864). It begins by quoting a May 1864 passage from the diary of Darius Starr of Company F, 2nd United States Sharpshooters (he belonged to one of the two New Hampshire companies in the regiment) to the effect that he seriously considered wounding himself to avoid combat during this period.[xii] The post then goes on to quote Assistant Surgeon John Billings who claimed that many men shot themselves in the hand during this campaign to avoid combat:

A very large number of wounds of the palm of the hand and of the fingers have been observed. In many of them the skin was blackened with powder, and the injury was self-inflicted. The usual cause alleged is the accidental discharge of their own or a comrade’s musket. Amputation of the injured fingers, in such cases, has been usually performed without the use of an anaesthetic.[xiii]

Undoubtedly, many wounds to the hands and fingers were legitimate. And undoubtedly, the Army of the Potomac in 1864 was not what it was in 1862. But the foregoing makes me wonder: how many men were shooting themselves in the hand in 1862 to avoid combat?


[i] William Child, A History of the Fifth Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers in the American Civil War, 1861-1865 (Bristol, NH: R. W. Musgrove, Printer, 1893), 10-11.

[ii] Mike Pride and Mark Travis, My Brave Boys: To War with Colonel Cross & the Fighting Fifth (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2001), 43-44.

[iii] Stephen H. Holt to grandparents, November 1, 1861, Stephen H. Holt Papers, Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth College.

[iv] See Pride and Travis, My Brave Boys, 64.

[v] Farmer’s Cabinet, February 27, 1862, 2. “Andrew” may have been one of three men—Andrew J. Mitchell, Andrew J. Pinkham, and Andrew T. Reynolds, all of Company D and all from Dover, NH, Merrill’ hometown. See Ayling’s Revised Register.

[vi] See Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York: Vintage, 2009).

[vii] Miles Peabody to parents, February 19, 1862, Peabody Papers, New Hampshire Historical Society. It is interesting to note that the Farmer’s Cabinet claimed Merrill had four children. According to the Census of 1860, Merrill then had three children. See “United States Census, 1860”, database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:M7WY-D23 : 14 December 2017), John Merrill, 1860.

[viii] Larkin’s papers are located at the New Hampshire Historical Society

[ix] William Moore to Sister Bettie, January 30, 1862, Moore Papers, New Hampshire Historical Society.

[x] Parker, however, appears to have died only ten days after mustering out of the 1st New Hampshire Heavy Artillery. I write “appears” because although his family tree in FamilySearch states unequivocally that he died on June 25, 1865 in Lisbon, NH, I could find no documentation to confirm this date. See https://www.familysearch.org/tree/pedigree/landscape/94DD-PJ7

[xi] New Hampshire Statesman (Concord, NH), June 21, 1862, 2; New Hampshire Statesman, July 19, 1862, 2; New Hampshire Statesman, October 4, 1862, 2.

[xii] Starr’s admission was all the more poignant since he was captured at the Battle of the Wilderness and later died at Andersonville. See Ayling’s Revised Register, 981.There is one problem though with the passage cited in the post. According to the post, the diary entry was from May 9, 1864, but Starr was captured on May 6, 1864.

[xiii] The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion. (1861-1865) Part I. Volume I. Medical History (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1870), “Report of Assistant Surgeon J. S. Billings, USA,” 202.