Remembering the Civil War at the Tamworth History Center

Remembering the Civil War at the Tamworth History Center

Story & photos Kathi Caldwell-Hopper

If you want to learn about the Civil War, there are thousands of books on the subjects. They give facts and figures, such as how many men perished in which battles, and the dates and names of camps and officers.

But if you want to know the human side of the war, and how it crept into the lives of local people, you won’t want to miss a visit to the Tamworth History Center on 25 Great Hill Road in Tamworth. (The road is in the downtown area, quite near the Barnstormer’s Theatre.)

The Laker often gets press information from the History Center and I have been curious about what the place might offer. On a blustery Friday in June, I decided to venture off Route 25 (I was on my way to North Conway) and visit the Tamworth History Center. I was aware they were presenting an exhibit this summer on the Civil War and also gathering information from anyone who had a relative from Tamworth who fought in that war. 

A call to the Center put me in touch with Bob McLean, curator. Although the Center was not open on that particular Friday, Bob was available and happily met me to talk about the Civil War project and to show me around the exhibit.

Before we toured the exhibit, Bob filled me in on some history of the building and the Tamworth History Center’s origins. “The Tamworth Historical Society formed in 1952,” he explained. “From the start, it was an active group. In around 2012, I joined. A few years ago, it was suggested we change the name from the Tamworth Historical Society to the Tamworth History Center, because we are more than a historical society. We also focus on education and involvement with the village.”

The group purchased a house in the center of the village that dates from 1830. It had a number of owners over the years, and was used as a residence, offices and apartments through the decades. When the History Center acquired the building, it needed repairs as many old structures do. The group targeted a part of the building - the first-floor entrance and exhibit rooms - to renovate with plans to renovate other parts of the building in the future. The result is a wonderful, bright and welcoming space with polished wood floors and great exhibit areas. 

“We finished the repairs and opened in 2016,” Bob explained. “Our first summer, we had an eclectic mix/theme on exhibit. Last year, we presented an exhibit of White Mountain artists, which was very popular. This year, we will be offering the exhibit on Tamworth in the Civil War.”

It is a far-reaching subject, but the exhibit manages to educate about the overall effects of the war, and the battles. It also goes well beyond those facts and offers us a look at how the terrible conflict impacted local families. In large part, we now know the local, human-interest side of the Civil War due to Bob and the work he has done on the subject.

It turns out Bob is a treasure trove of Civil War information, and he is just the kind of person I relish speaking with; he makes local history come alive not by statistics, but rather by relating stories of real people. When Bob and his wife moved to Tamworth in 1996, he found himself in an area steeped in history. 

“I was in a ‘Civil War mood’ and I studied the names of local soldiers on the town’s Civil War monument,” Bob said. (These are men who perished in the war.) 

That was the beginning of a project that brought all sorts of information to light as Bob researched names and families and when men left Tamworth to fight far away. “I studied the names on the monument and it grew from there,” he says. 

In sharing information on the Civil War and Tamworth, Bob began by saying that each town had a draft requirement goal to meet. Recruiting offices sprang up in each town, and local men knew they would each be given a $300 payment when signing up. (The payment was split into two installments of $150 each, and was something much needed by many struggling families.) Most men who joined up were in their 20s and 30s, with the oldest being in their 40s. 

After signing up, the men received orders of where to go and were given free passage on a railroad to get to the training camps. “Each state had training camps,” Bob said. “And by the way, we cannot discount the impact the railroads had on the war. The north had a lot of railroads, making it easier to move troops. The south had fewer railroads.”

Civil War uniforms in the exhibit.

Civil War uniforms in the exhibit.

In doing his research, Bob gathered a lot of information and decided to write up what he discovered. He did research at the local library and traveled all over Tamworth to locate cemeteries and the final resting places of those who fought in the Civil War. His work was extensive and he started to divide up the information, such as local Tamworth doctors in the war, the recruiting system, the battles fought, etc. This included the names, and it is the names of real, local people that bring home to us the impact of the war.

“I found a lot of interesting information,” Bob agreed. “Some of it was unexpected, such as the story of David M. Gilman from Tamworth. Actually, that is new information, and I just learned about it three months ago.”

David Gilman started his service in the Civil War as a private. He was wounded and sent home to Tamworth to recover. In 1864, he was healthy enough to return to duty and made a captain. It was then that he oversaw men from the “U.S. Colored Troops”. (The name “Colored” is considered offensive today, but was typical wording of the Civil War time period.) The troops was comprised of about 200,000 former slaves and free men, all of whom were non-white. All of the officers were white, and Bob shook his head when he says, “In tough battles, the ‘Colored Troops’ were sent in first.” Gilman survived and returned to Tamworth. 

It makes one wonder how a man from a non-integrated place such as tiny Tamworth would have handled the command. Had he ever seen a non-white person before the war? Did he make friends among the soldiers under his command? How did those troops feel about Gilman? There is no way to know, but Bob’s research brings the human side of the war front and center.

I asked Bob why Tamworth men signed up for a conflict so very far away. Most had no experience with slavery, so was it the reason they fought? Bob said, “I think they really believed slavery was wrong. And also, President Lincoln was a master of persuasion.”

As we began to tour the Civil War exhibit, Bob stopped at a glass case holding old photo portraits of a young husband and wife. He said this is a poignant story of the war, and relates that the couple were from Tamworth. “The man was Ira Blake and the young woman was Lucy Blake,” he told me. Lucy had a great skill as a writer and when Ira was fighting far away in the war, she wrote to him constantly. 

Ira was a sharp shooter and was wounded in 1864. The couple had a 1 ½ year old child, and Lucy left the baby in the care of relatives so she could travel to the hospital in Alexandria, Virginia to nurse her husband. She was a kindly person and while caring for Ira, she stepped in and also helped care for other wounded soldiers. What she must have seen after her quiet life in rural Tamworth one can only guess. She did write of her experiences while there; sadly, Ira died from his wounds in the fall of 1864. She returned to Tamworth and waited for her husband’s body to be transported home for burial. Lucy never remarried, but her journals are part of the exhibit and bring home just one story of the hardships of war. 

“The librarians at the Cook Library here in Tamworth were very moved by the story of Ira and Lucy and they put on a reading using the couple’s letters. I must tell you that by the end of the presentation, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” said Bob.

Many of the wonderful items in the exhibit are from the collection of Jim Sutherland, who grew up in Tamworth. A partial list of items on display are two military uniforms of Union soldiers, old photographs, gear for a typical soldier, including a tin cup and plate and crude utensils, and guns and swords. 

Whether you are from Tamworth or just visiting the area on vacation, the exhibit is a must-see. And if you had a relative from Tamworth who served in the Civil War, the Tamworth History Center members would love to hear from you. Information from the Center asks, “Do you and your family have photos, belongings, or stories passed down, relating to a Tamworth ancestor who served in the Civil War, or to life in town in the 1860s? We want to tell the stories of Tamworth veterans’ families who still live here. Did your ancestor return home after the war? Did he move west, with or without family members? How else did his experience affect the family? Did your family farm here languish, or grow? Did your forbears start new ventures further west? If you answered yes to any of these questions, Bob McLean, and Becca Boyden, Chris Clyne and Michelle Longley want to hear from you. (Becca specializes in curating family genealogies and stories. Michelle is a researcher and exhibit designer.)

Contact via email: tamworthhistorical@gmail.com.

Exterior of the Tamworth History Center.

Exterior of the Tamworth History Center.

From a young man who traveled far away and commanded a group of former slaves to the story of a young couple forever separated by war, the stories of the Civil War live on. The exhibit at the Tamworth History Center ensures that we remember those who served and their very human stories.

The Tamworth History Center is open Memorial Day to Columbus Day on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 am to 4 pm. During July and August, the Center also is open on Thursdays and Fridays from 5:30 to 7:30 pm. Call 603-323-2911 for information.

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