Sadly no biographical sketch for the author of these letters has been found so I will have to cobble one together from census and pension records. James Henry Clark was born on 15 September 1841 in Townsend, Middlesex county, Massachusetts—forty miles northwest of Boston near the New Hampshire border. He was the 2nd child and the only son (who lived past infancy) of seven children born to James Clark (1814-1854) and Lucy Robbins Coburn (1815-1913). Those siblings mentioned in these letters include his older sister Lucy Ann (“Annie”) Clark (1840-1932)—who married James Mansur (1829-1912) in December 1862 and went off to live in northern Ohio—and his younger sisters Ella (“Nettie) C. Clark (b. 1848), and Ada Everlyn Clark (b. 1851).
James Henry Clark—a red-haired, freckled lad who went by the name “Henry” or “Hen” and often spelled it “Henrie,” was left fatherless just before his 13th birthday. His father had earned a modest living as a teamster but after his premature death at the age of forty, his widow struggled to keep the family together and caused her some financial embarrassment. What schooling Henry and his older sister Annie had completed up to that time seems to have terminated not long afterwards. Henry must have felt the responsibility keenly.
In his late teens, Henry took a job as a foundry worker in Springfield, Windsor county, Vermont. In the 1860 US Census he is enumerated in the household of 27 year-old Darius Adams. The situation may have been arranged for Henry by his Uncle Franklin Davis (1816-1883) who was married to Caroline Coburn (1813-1878). In his letters, Henry frequently refers to his Davis cousins—Callie, Frank, Anna, Nellie, Gertie, and Lutie—all residents of Springfield when he worked in the foundry. It’s possible that Henry may have attempted some other profession before enlisting in the army as he referred to debts he had incurred there before the war and hoped to repay.
In any event, when the Civil War began in 1861, Henry enlisted with his friends from Springfield, Vermont, into Co. A, 3rd Vermont Regiment. In the very first letter of this archive, written on 8 May 1861—less than one month after the firing on Fort Sumter—we learn that Henry has already indicated his intention to enlist. It is curious, however, that at age 18 (if his DOB is correct), he would need his mother’s consent to enlist.
Henry served nearly three years in the 3rd Vermont and his letters are divided into the four different calendar years in which he penned them. He was a private until the Battle of Crampton’s Gap (South Mountain) at which time he accepted a corporal’s rank and the honor of serving on the regiment’s color guard. He continued in this duty through the Maryland Campaign, the Battle of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, the Gettysburg Campaign, the Mine Run Campaign, and on the Overland Campaign where he took a gunshot to the head in the Battle of the Wilderness and died on the battlefield May 5, 1864. His comrades hastily buried him on the battlefield, penciling his name on a pine board and nailing it to a nearby tree to mark the spot before moving on with the regiment toward Spotsylvania Court House. [See the last three letters in the archive written by Henry’s chum, Edward D. Hatch, in late 1864.]
From the letters we learn that Henry’s mother wished desperately for his body to be returned home for burial but he is not buried in the Townsend cemetery with his family, nor could I find him in a National Cemetery. Most likely his remains were exhumed and taken to the National Cemetery at Fredericksburg where he lies in the grave of an unknown soldier.
In one of the last letters of the archive, upon hearing of Henry’s death, a relative wrote to his mother, “That he died a noble-hearted brave boy fighting in the foremost ranks the bitter enemies of his country and of humanity, does not serve to dry a mother’s tears or heal her wounded heart, but it does place your dear boy’s name on that roll of honor and of imperishable fame with the rest who have sacrificed their lives that their country might be saved—among those whose memories will be cherished and honored through all coming ages.”
[Note: the photograph of the young man in the banner of this webpage is NOT James Henry Clark, though it is of an unidentified Vermont soldier. I should also note that there are two letters transcribed and posted here that I found in Henry’s pension file at the National Archives. Both of these letters are footnoted to identify the source.]