1861: James Henry Foss to his Brother

James Henry Foss

This 1861 letter was written by James Henry Foss (1842-1916), the son of Joshua Nathan Foss (1799-1886) and Eliza Foss (1801-1883) of Penobscot county, Maine, who relocated to Rowley, Essex county, Massachusetts, in the 1840s. In 1859, he entered Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. The school catalogue shows him residing in Room 14C of Hope College. He graduated from the school in 1863. By reviewing an autobiography Foss wrote in the twilight of his life, we learn that his father was but a farmer and a meagre income so Foss was only able to attend Brown University by winning a scholarship that paid his tuition fees and room rent which was supplemented by preaching and tutoring.

Foss’s letter captures the intense excitement in the City of Providence during the week that followed the firing on Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for troops. He mentions the local artillery—the Providence Marine Artillery Company—that was commanded by William Sprague and who had less than a year previously been elected Rhode Island’s 27th Governor at the age of 29. William inherited wealth from his prosperous family that operated the largest calico textile mill in the world—hence Foss’s reference to him as the “little calico boy.”

Foss’s autobiography reveals his limited military experience—apparently incredibly enhanced either through faulty memory or a sense of guilt for the transcribed letter suggests little interest in “any such small business” as joining the military.

“The university cadets unanimously tendered their services to the government; were at once accepted, and it was the proudest day of my life when, as an officer in our battalion, I marched with the rest to the drill camp on the historic training ground. The citizens turned out en masse to do us honor, and frantically cheered us on our way to do or die; every house was gay with old glory; our best girls, inspired with patriotic fervor, applauded while they bedewed the streets with their tears; the air resounded with martial music and the boom of saluting cannon; the young war governor, who went up like a rocket and down like a stick, led the way on a prancing charger; the people vied with each other in tendering hospitalities, and every corner afforded its liquid refreshments. We thought it lemonade, but it “had a stick in it” and, presto!–we were no longer seedy theologues, but young heroes all, resplendent with brilliant uniforms and flashing bayonets, marching to defend our great and glorious republic. We, unsuspecting, imbibed freely the seductive fluids, and soon our heads were in a whirl. We wildly sang the war songs and gave the college yells. It is but a step from the sublime to the ridiculous. That night, Jupiter Pluvius burst upon our frail tents in all his fury, and I awoke the next morning half covered with water, and in a raging fever. I was taken to the hospital, and as I was a minor my father took me from the service. For weeks I was a wreck, and all my dreams of martial glory vanished, alas, like the many which have bloomed in the summer of my heart. Before I regained the little strength I ever had, the war was over, but I had done my best to serve my country, and the rapture of pursuing is the prize the vanquished know. The few remaining students plodded along through the curriculum; but our hearts were far away on the battle-fields, from the glory of which, cruel fate debarred us.” [Source: The Gentleman from Everywhere]

In 1863, following graduation, Foss was enumerated in the Draft Registration as a 21 year-old teacher residing in Rawley, Massachusetts.

[Note: Transcribed by Alan Thompson/edited & researched by Griff]

Hope College & University Hall in Providence, Rhode Island


Providence [Rhode Island]
[April 16, 1861] Tuesday evening, 9 ½ o’clock

Dear Brother,

“Wild is the night, yet a wilder night” will hang around “the soldier’s pillow”!

The rain is pouring down in torrents. The wind shrieks with wild and plaintive sound over the lofty columns of Hope College, and before resigning myself to the “arms of Morpheus,” I will for awhile have a quiet chat with the old folks at home. 

“The din of arms,” the fiery car rattling o’er the stony street resounds on all sides. The people are rising in their might under the bugle cry of liberty!! The flying artillery of this city, probably the best company of the kind in the country—150 men strong, march on Friday [April 19th] to Washington.

Gov. William Sprague—the “little calico boy.”

Governor [William] Sprague is wild with enthusiasm. The gallant “little calico boy” rode nearly all last night visiting the various armories of the city and town inspecting them and exhorting the soldiers and people to arms. The utmost enthusiasm prevails. The recruiting office just below is crowded. We can even now hear the loud hurrahs the peals of music! The students have caught the war spirit. Six or seven have enlisted, one from the Sophs, the strongest fellow in our class, a noble man. Three from the freshman class and the rest from the upper classes.

Tomorrow the “Star Spangled Banner” is to be flung to the breeze from the lofty dome of University Hall where the French troops were quartered in the Revolution!! A salute of 34 guns will be fired by the marine artillery, 150 men. A brass band will be in attendance, and a great time is expected. As everything undertaken by the collegians is popular, there will be a grand rush to the campus of ladies, uniforms, &c. Some speeches will probably be delivered.

There was a grand parade of the students last night at midnight which awakened much enthusiasm. Hurrah for the old Bay State, but be careful not to let the fire of patriotism carry you too far, for it is one thing to rush hotheaded and rashly into danger, and quite another to be shot down like a dog. You may be sure that you won’t catch me in any such small business. 

I have just received a letter from Carlton. He is prospering well [and] wants me to get him another school. His present one closes May 9th. 

My health is first rate. This session closes next week [on] Friday, then Saturday I shall come home if not before. That is if you see fit to send the needful. I wish you would send $4.00 as soon as you can which will be enough to pay some little bills and the fare home.

But it is growing late. I must close. Write soon. Good night all. – James H. F.

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