Thursday, January 24, 2013

James H. Stetson's New Testament

The New Testament owned by James H. Stetson, killed at Gettysburg.
Image source:
One of the things I love about historical artifacts is that there is often so much more than meets the eye. For most artifacts on exhibit in a museum, the curator only has a small amount of space to explain the historical significance. For the sake of brevity, the story you get, while interesting, is often only the tip of the iceberg.

If you take the time to dig a little deeper, a whole story awaits discovery. Recently I experienced this phenomenon when browsing through the online collections database of the National Museum of American History. I came across the following entry: New Testament owned by James H. Stetson, who was killed at the battle of Gettysburg. Aside from giving an overview of the battle, the entry for this artifact did not tell me much about James H. Stetson, other than that he was killed at the battle. The tip of the iceberg.

I wanted to know more: who was James Stetson and where was he from, how old was he, to what regiment did he belong, and where did he fight at Gettysburg. I decided to dig a bit deeper on my own. I know the Smithsonian probably has a file with a great deal of information about the artifact, including the artifact's provenance, but these sources are not readily available. Despite this, I managed to use the wonderful array of digital sources now available on the web to put together a pretty good picture of our soldier's story. Through the National Park Service's Soldiers and Sailors system I located a few James Stetson's - but I soon narrowed it down to the one I sought.

James Henry Stetson was born on July 12, 1842 in Medford, Massachusetts. His father, John, was a shipwright. The 1860 Census reveals that the eighteen-year-old worked in Medford as a clerk. On July 16, 1861 James enlisted in Company C of the 13th Massachusetts. Nearly two years later, on the morning of July 1st, 1863, the 13th marched toward Gettysburg as part of the 1st brigade, 2nd division, 1st Corps of the Army of the Potomac.

We can't know exactly what James experienced at Gettysburg, but we can get a sense by other accounts left to us. Private Charles E. Davis Jr. of Company B left us one of these accounts in his 1894 regimental history, Three Years in the Army: The 13th Massachusetts from July 16, 1861 to August 1, 1864. Davis recalled that the 13th arrived at the Lutheran Seminary sometime around 11 a.m. and soon proceeded to throw up breastworks along Seminary Ridge on the orders of General Doubleday. His account continued:
While we were on Seminary Ridge, spent cannon-balls could occasionally be seen rolling slowly along the earth from the battle-ground to the north of us. Such a sight was common enough during battles, as every soldier knows, and once in a while a man was seen who was foolish enough to try stopping one. While we were busy with our earthworks, such an incident happened close to us. One of our officers saw a soldier of a Wisconsin regiment with great glee, boldly put out his heel to stop a ball that was rolling toward him, supposing it to be the easiest thing in the world to do. Those who saw his purpose yelled with all their might; but it was too late, for when their remonstrances reached his ear his leg was off. The poor fellow cried like a child to think he had lost his leg in such a manner, when, as he said, he would gladly have lost it in action.
Soon the brigade, commanded by Brig. Gen. Gabriel Paul, had orders to leave the Seminary and move north to confront elements of Ewell's Corps on Oak Ridge. Davis continued:
We filed round the front of the building, then east a short distance to a bed of an unfinished railroad, then north and north-west to an oak grove near the Mummasburg road, where we were faced, at first, to the north-west in line of battle. As we came into position we saw the rebel line advancing by brigades formed en masse.
These Confederate units belonged to the brigades of Colonel Edward A. O'Neal and Brig. Gen. Stephen Dodson Ramseur. Davis remembered:
Firing as rapidly as possible, we drove the enemy back, while we slowly advanced toward the Mummasburg road. Each time the enemy advanced we drove him back, while up and down the line officers were encouraging the men.
13th Massachusetts monument at Gettysburg. The
monument features Color Sergeant Roland G. Morris,
who also fell in the fighting on July 1st, 1863.
Photo by Michael Noirot. Creative Commons Licensing.
Writing a month after the battle, Lieutenant Colonel N. Walter Batchelder reported that the regiment occupied the extreme right flank of Paul's brigade, and that its Colonel, Samuel Haven Leonard, was wounded early in the fighting. Even  so, Batchelder believed that the command had maintained a steady fire against the enemy for upward of an hour. Soon a Confederate regiment approached the Mummasburg Road and took shelter behind its banks, causing serious annoyance to the 13th. Batchelder ordered a bayonet charge on the road and captured over 130 Confederates.

After a long fight along the Mummasburg Road, the 13th eventually found its supply of ammunition dwindling and both flanks of the army beginning to retreat back toward the town. The 13th would have to do the same. Private Davis recalled the retreat:
We saw the end was near and fell back towards the hill, each man for himself, it being impracticable to do otherwise without losing still more men. The order was given to rally on Cemetery Hill. While some of the boys fell back along the railroad cut, others went directly through town to the hill. Those who went through the town were obliged to run the gauntlet of the side streets, already filled with men of Ewell's corps, who were endeavoring, with artillery and musketry, to prevent our escaping. We saw at once that we had stayed at the front a little too long for our safety. Some of us were to be gobbled and sent to rot in rebel prisons. Over fences, into yards, through gates, anywhere an opening appeared, we rushed with all our speed to escape capture. The streets swarmed with the enemy, who kept up an incessant firing, and yelling, "Come in here, you Yankee ------!" Still we kept on, hoping to find a chance of escape somewhere.
Of the 284 men that went into battle, only 99 mustered with the regiment when it rallied that evening on Cemetery Hill. The regiment had lost 7 killed, 77 wounded, and 101 missing. One of those killed in action that afternoon was James H. Stetson.

Today, Stetson's New Testament resides in the National Museum of American History. I do not know how this artifact came to the museum's possession, or whether Stetson himself carried the bible with him during his service as a soldier. Yet the bible helps to preserve the story of a young 21 year-old soldier, whose patriotism called him to serve his country, and who gave his last full measure of devotion to the cause on July 1st, 1863.


  1. Very interesting!
    In early January, 2005, my husband and I moved from North Wales, Pennsylvania, to Adelphi, Ohio where we had bought an old house late in 2004. We had attended the auction which took all day because they had so much stuff.

    When we walked into the empty house we saw a shoebox on the dining room floor. Inside we found some old financial papers from the previous owner (of no value), a old picture of his mother(1900?), and a New Testament. The exact one in your picture above.

    Inside the front cover I can read (in pencil) Enlisted August 7. At least it is very faint and I believe it is August.Flip over a page and on the right page in ink it says (faint):
    Mr. John ? Neff
    Bible found on Battle
    field at Gettysburg, PA
    July 2nd, 1863

    This is also written on the page before the back cover minus the Mr.

    I think it is pretty good condition considering everything. No pages are falling out. The 2 pages before the title page at the top have pulled out of the thread and there is discoloration, of course, to the pages and a little on the leather cover.

    I found, I believe, Mr John Neff in the Adelphi cemetery. A civil war flag holder at his grave. I tried to give the book to the few remaining Neffs in Adelphi, but they didn't want it. What a pity. But I was thrilled to have it. I came across it in my "2005 Memory Box" (I have one for each year since '96)

    So I think I will do a little digging now on Mr. Neff. Thanks for your post.

  2. This is a bit of a late response to this post but I just found this. I have a lot of information about the 13th Mass at Gettysburg on my website,
    Brad Forbush