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James Richardson.

Private Twentieth Connecticut Vols. (Infantry), August 2, 1862; died at Washington, D. C., November 10, 1863, of disease contracted in the service.

In portraying most of the younger men whose memoirs are contained in this volume, one is naturally led to compare them with what they would, perhaps, have been in times of peace. But in writing of the men of middle age, one compares them with what they previously were. To some the war only supplied a new direction for powers already developed and mature. To some, on the other hand, it brought a complete transformation; or if not quite that, yet a consummation so rapid and perfect as to seem like transformation, giving roundness and completeness to lives previously erratic or fragmentary. Of this there was no more striking instance than in the case of James Richardson.

‘A prophet is never called of God until the age of forty,’ says the Arab proverb. James Richardson had all his life been loved and blamed, criticised and idolized, without ever finding his precise or proper working-place on earth. When at forty-five he left his preaching and his farm, to enlist as a private soldier, then his true and triumphant Christian ministry began, and he continued in it till his death.

I remember watching his college eccentricities when I was a boy in Cambridge, and was largely occupied, like most Cambridge boys, in studying human nature as exhibited among the undergraduates. Long after, I was associated with him in post-graduate studies at the same university, where he lingered long; and I have known him ever since. And any acquaintance with him came near to intimacy, because of his open and eager nature and his warmth of heart.

James Richardson was born in Dedham, Massachusetts, May 25, 1817. His mother's maiden name was Sarah Elizabeth [39] Richards. His father was James Richardson, of Dedham, a man who had been a good deal in public life, and was in his old age quite an interesting relic of the stern Federalist days. I remember his fighting his battles over by the fireside, and telling me anecdotes of my grandfather, a warm Federalist like himself. The old man and his son seemed as intimate with each other as two school-boys, and it was easy to see whence the latter had inherited some of his marked qualities.

In his autobiography in the Class Book, he says:—

The earliest event of importance, in my mental and spiritual education, was the death of a mother, when I was but three years old. An epidemic had swept through the little village of Dedham, and three of our family, including myself, became its subjects. My mother and baby brother fell its victims; and though I survived, my constitution has not yet wholly regained its former healthy tone. The death of a mother at this tender age, when I most required her guarding love, was a circumstance of almost incalculable injury to me. Her form and features are indelibly impressed upon my mind; and the remembrance of her teachings in the holy quiet of the Sabbath mornings, when my heart was fresh in innocence and warm in happiness, even now oft fills my eyes with blissful tears. From her I inherited the love of harmonious sounds; and before I could utter articulate words, do I remember catching from her lips the notes of some simple melodies.

After my mother's death, on account of my father's frequent absences on business connected with different public offices, I was left almost wholly to the care of a nurse and other family domestics, who governed me only by fear, and who rewarded me only with tales of murder, bloody-bones, ghosts, and hobgoblins. The best influence of such treatment was to excite the love of the marvellous to an undue degree of action.

To my father . . . . I owe the cultivation of my imagination and my love of the beautiful. Added to his fine poetical taste was a deep love of nature; and after my fifth year my frequent rambles with him, especially on Sabbath evenings, imbued me, in some small degree, with his own spirit. The sports and games which boyhood so generally pursues had no interest for me. I loved to roam the fields, to commune with Nature in her sublimity and in her beauty, in her strength and in her cunning. I would sit for hours gazing upon the mountain rock, the giant oak, the leaping, dancing streamlet, [40] admiring their simple grandeur or reclining under the shade of some ancient tree. I would listen to the sighing zephyr, as it made sad music among the fresh foliage, or to the low murmuring of the rippling stream, till my soul was lost in the misty maze of its own meditations. Or, again, I would watch the yellow-bird, as she lined her downy nest with the soft fur of the mullein-leaf, and the honeybee, as she rolled herself in the farina of the rose's cup. Nature was my study, nature was my delight. By my father I was first introduced to the conversation of the English poets, and many of their sweetest verses I learned to repeat on his knee. It was in my sixth summer that I first fell to rhyming, and a happy boy was I!— happy in that state of purity and innocence which had not yet fallen a prey to the passions and temptations of the world,— happy in an undisturbed peace, not in the triumph of spiritual victory. One evening, ere the light of the moon had displaced the last blush of fading day, as I pressed my early pillow, the thoughts of my great Father's bounty came rushing in a full tide of grateful feeling over my soul, and I gave that joy expression in poetic measure. At the returning day I repeated it to my sister, and as she had advanced a step beyond me, in learning to write, she kindly volunteered to put it on paper for me and hand it up to the schoolmistress among the compositions of her class. Of course the schoolmistress, the scholars, and other foolish friends gave me exaggerated and undue praise, which fostered still more my rhyming propensity, imbued me with a desire of praise, and puffed me up with a nonsensical vanity, which, without the balance of firmness and pride, has marked my character, and injured me no little, even up to the present day. The devotional character of my rhymes, my peculiar course of reading, and the character of my conversation and feelings, induced my friends to suppose that I had inherited the deep religious cast of mind that distinguished my mother, and I therefore received the name of the “little minister.” It was my custom to assemble, in all sobriety and simplicity, my little playmates, and, imitating the parson's robe, to be their chorister and priest. In my sixth year I was attacked with lung-fever, which again brought me to death's door.

He was fitted for college chiefly by Rev. Daniel Kimball of Needham, and entered with his class in 1833. Rev. John Weiss was his first room-mate, and has told me that Richardson showed, within the very first week of his college career, [41] that peculiar nervous excitability which never entirely left him, and which at that early period sometimes caused serious anxiety among his friends. ‘Mental labor would just a little unsettle his delicate temperament’; and this was combined with internal disorders, of which nobody could ever tell— either then or years afterward—how much was real or how much imaginary. These traits of constitution also made his college life less happy than his childhood; and his distaste to all regular study made him no favorite with the Faculty, though his aims were always high and his morals unstained. He had much facility as a writer and speaker, was a contributor to ‘Harvardiana,’ and always claimed to have written in that magazine the first American review of Carlyle.

His long and rambling autobiography in the Class Book closes with this expression of his purposes at graduation: ‘I shall most probably occupy myself in some literary pursuit in the West for six or seven years to come, and then, unless Heaven shall have given me some other pursuit, I shall return to Cambridge and study for the sacred office.’ He graduated with his Class in 1837; and a letter which he wrote to the Class Secretary, dated Haverhill, Massachusetts, November 4, 1847, bridges over the intervening years of his life:—

Prior to the prosecution of my present profession I was from October, 1837, to December, 1838, Principal of the Academy at Milford, New Hampshire. The first young man whom I fitted for college is the Rev. L. Jarvis Livermore, now settled in East Boston. The famous Hutchinson singers were there my pupils. From December, 1838, to June, 1842, I was located in Rhode Island, being Principal of Kent Academy for the first year, and afterward of the Rhode Island Central School in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, where I had youth from all parts of the country under my care, receiving some fifteen into my family.

To the question, “What is your profession?” I reply, a public teacher, or preacher of theology and religion or righteousness, and also, in connection with it, that of minister, or servant in the great cause of human salvation from ignorance, malice, sin, disease, and suffering. To study this profession I stayed three years at Divinity College, Cambridge. I also was much with Dr. Lamson, editor of the Christian Examiner. But I really studied it as little at the [42] college as anywhere. Nature and man were my books, the inward spirit my teacher. I left Divinity College in the summer of 1845; was soon settled in Central Connecticut, in the town of Southington, against my wishes, but from motives of benevolence and missionary duty. I was ordained in June, 1846. Herewith I transmit you an order of exercises. This ordination was the first occasion on which several hundred Unitarians ever sat down at dinner together in Connecticut. Dr. Parkman, of Boston, was president of the day. Dr. Dewey exchanged with me the Sunday before, and spent a week with me. At the collation, after the ordination services, delightful speeches were made by Messrs. Parkman, Dewey, Gray, Harrington, Hodges, Nightingale, Farley, Hale, Snow, &c., &c.

On the 1st of September, 1847, for the sake of being near my father, and having some exchanges, which for two years I had been without, I settled in Haverhill, Massachusetts, though I did not get my dismission from Southington until September 19th, on account of the unwillingness of my people to let me go. When I left Southington my society had increased so as to more than fill their church, it having doubled in a year. I also left bodies of Liberal Christians in the neighboring towns of Berlin, Cheshire, Meriden, &c., —the Unitarian congregation of Berlin being as large as that of Southington.

On the 26th of September, 1847, I preached my farewell sermon in Southington, comprising my views of the nature and services of theology, and my views of Christian religion, salvation by Christ. They are just being published by Crosby and Nichols, 111ZZZZ Washington Street; and as the philosophy they contain is perhaps peculiar, and I think peculiarly important and worthy of attention and consideration at the present theological and religious crisis, I have a great desire that those of the class who take an interest in such discussions, and especially who favor the spiritual-rationalistic school, should peruse them.

I am now residing at Haverhill, where, again, I was settled contrary to my inclination and sense of worldly interest, but from motives of Christian philanthropy and duty.

At this period James Richardson was a very noticeable person, and in fact seemed almost unique in style and temperament. Conspicuous rather than commanding in his aspect, he had a peculiarly formed head, with a forehead rather narrow and very prominent, thin, soft brown hair, pale blue eyes, [43] and very mobile features. Incongruities seemed to meet in him, and he himself seemed to enjoy them, and liked to hear them mentioned. He was tall, erect, and well built,—yet his health was delicate, he had little physical strength, and seemed to move by his nerves rather than by his muscles. His face had always a youthful look, despite his increasing baldness. His voice, in speaking, was rather jarring and metallic,—I always fancied it might resemble Shelley's,—yet in singing it was melodious and beautiful. His verbal utterance was hurried and somewhat confused, yet his style of composition was rather elaborate, and his handwriting unusually clear and regular. In his manners an uneasy self-consciousness was singularly mingled with real power. And every peculiarity seemed to open the way to some other peculiarity, so that the very groundwork of his nature seemed bizarre and fantastic, while all its main tendencies were essentially noble.

He wrote verses easily and smoothly, had a good deal of musical taste, and a faculty for floriculture that seemed akin to genius. He was too vivacious and sociable to be a student; but his memory was well stored and ready for action, though rather loose and inaccurate. He hated argument, and always rather preferred the deferential society of men younger than himself, or his inferiors in culture. To such he was often very dazzling; for with great apparent mental activity and unbounded fluency he combined a real kindness of heart and desire to do everything for everybody, limited only by a decided love of change. He was easy of address,—perhaps too easy, —and had a horror of being thought dignified, of which, however, there was small danger. Of course, he was essentially a reformer. Moral courage cost him no effort, for he liked to be conspicuous and startling; and his free exercise of this virtue, together with his own taste for variety, kept him constantly in motion among the parishes, so that some one christened him ‘the flying prophet.’ As a preacher he was eloquent, rather than satisfactory, and was often the object of great enthusiasm among his congregations, especially during the first weeks of his stay. He was settled for periods varying in length, at [44] Haverhill, Kingston, and Groveland, Massachusetts,— at Southington and East Brooklyn, Connecticut,—and at Rochester, New York.

Most of the peculiarities which have been described were so very obvious that, however wide might be the discrepancies of judgment among comparative strangers, there could not be much variation in the estimates made of James Richardson by those who knew him well. I cannot refrain from matching my own sketch of him by some extracts from an admirable analysis of his character from the skilful pen of Octavius Frothingham, who was also a friend of many years' standing. The first sentence, especially, conveys so felicitous a statement, that it might almost take the place of all which I have said.

I have just an impression of him as a wreath of fire-mist which seemed every moment to be on the point of becoming a star, but which never did, though it showed signs of solidity here and there, in spots of special effulgence. I remember him as all diffusiveness, loving everybody he knew, and wishing it believed that he loved everybody he did not know, and knew everybody that his friends loved. Was there any end to his cousins and intimates? Was there any end to his affectionateness, his obligingness, his desire to be of service to his fellow-men? His mental apprehension was so rapid, that reflection with him had no chance. He was hospitable to ideas, and entertained so many strangers that he had no bed to sleep on and no stool that he could call his own. Each guest monopolized him in turn. But through all his mutations of mind his spirit remained the same, always bright and buoyant and hopeful, always believing, always anticipating better things, always charitable and kind. If Richardson could have contained himself, he would, I think, have been a man of mark. He was a powerful stimulator, but his stimulus soon spent itself; and when those he had stirred looked for results, they not only did not find any, but they did not find him.

Such was James Richardson at the age of forty-five. He had gradually retired, however, from the active duties of his profession, and had devoted himself more and more to his favorite pursuit of horticulture, on a farm, which he had long [45] owned, in Southington, Connecticut. He had also been married for a few years (since September 18, 1856), to Henrietta Harris, of Brooklyn, New York, but they had no children. The second year of the war had arrived, when, quite to the surprise of his friends, on the 2d of August, 1862, he enlisted as a private in the Twentieth Connecticut Infantry, Colonel Ross.

The regiment was encamped for about three weeks at New Haven, where he was detailed as clerk to his captain, sharing his tent. To this duty, after the regiment had reached Virginia, was added that of attendance in regimental hospital. He wrote after some months' absence:—

I never go on drill or review or parade with the rest. It is understood that I have different and separate duties,—the captain's and company's business generally, and the care of the wounded and sick, so I have to submit and give up “sojering.” I should like to have learned military tactics, drill, discipline, and the use of arms; but I resign myself to what seems a higher duty.

His remarkable combination of faculties, large and small, came rapidly into play. Among his domestic aptitudes, for instance, was a decided culinary talent, and so he superintended the cook-tent. He had picked up a good deal of medical knowledge, and so could be, in case of need, hospital steward or assistant surgeon. Rev. William Henry Channing, who saw him amidst these duties, thus defines his other functions, so far as they were definable:—

In the absence of a chaplain, he became the sympathizing friend, the comforter and teacher; writing letters, receiving last messages of affection, transmitting moneys, and gradually fulfilling the varied functions of confidant, guardian, father, confessor, peacemaker, common friend. Then his fine social gifts of genial sympathy, cheerful good spirits, entertaining gossip, exhaustless anecdote, and love of music came in play to make his tent the centre and focus of brotherly kindness and good fellowship. And finally, when, at the time of a grand movement of the army, it became necessary to transfer the sick from the camps to hospitals in Washington, he was put in charge of these scores or hundreds of helpless men, and with unflagging energy discharged this duty till all were comfortably distributed and cared for or sent home.


It is an indirect illustration of the laborious life which Richardson must have led, that he, who had always before been a rather voluminous writer, now scarcely wrote letters or diary. ‘I have so much to do that I have no time,’ was all he could usually say. Again he wrote:—

I shall try to get time soon to copy my journal; but it is hard to keep it up, as I literally have not a moment, between the wants of officers and men, to call my own. If I could know what my work for the day was to be, I could get some time for myself; but every day there are some new reports or records to make. Then all our sick boys come to me for help and comfort. As I am writing, two boys, one with a sprained foot and one with an ulcerated sore throat, are waiting for me.

Again he wrote, more despondingly:—

Nothing, however, troubles me much that concerns myself. But for my country, at times, I almost despair. How terrible this nightmare of a war, that never seems to advance or accomplish anything! I sometimes feel that the day of grace has passed, that our repentance of our sin is too late, and that our nation is doomed. This defeat of Burnside, and butchery of the boys, the sufferings of the unpaid soldiers, without tents, poor rations, a single blanket each, with no bed but the hard, damp ground,—--it is these things that kill me.

In February, 1863, he was detailed by Colonel Ross, his regimental commander, to report for duty to the Sanitary Commission at Washington. He was to serve in the ‘Special Relief’ Department, planned and directed by his old friend, Rev. Frederick N. Knapp, whose name should be forever remembered in history as one of the ‘more than conquerors’ in that great work of peace. This was a post entirely to his mind, and in this he labored until he died. ‘I have a great satisfaction,’ he says, ‘in having a place of usefulness, where I am conscious of doing great service to the soldiers, and where continually a large field is opening before me.’

But the strain upon him proved very great. He wrote, for instance, after the battle of Chancellorsville:—

I am worn down with the general grief and horror that has fallen [47] upon us like a pall,— this slaughter of my regiment, of the boys in my own company, some of whom were just here; and then to go in the hospitals and see my own boys lying mutilated, maimed, and dying! O my God, all this is too horrible!

Later in the summer he wrote:—

The mental and physical labor of my work here is so great that I cannot bear an ounce more burden of anxiety and care, nor spare another minute from the continually narrowing time allotted to sleep.

He died of fever at Washington, November 10, 1863. But the rest can best be told in the eloquent words of William Henry Channing, who knew Richardson intimately at this period, and whose substitute the latter was, for a time, as chaplain of the Stanton Hospital at Washington. The narrative, from which the following is an extract, was written to be read at a meeting of the Class of 1837.

“Only give me work enough to fill up eighteen hours of every day,” said he, as he entered on his new office, “and I shall be satisfied.” And all but literally did he fulfil the ideal. Of all persons I have met with, during the trials of this civil war, I calmly think that James Richardson was the most indefatigable. Up at dawn, and off through storms on long walks to camps or hospitals, he was all day engaged in patient explorations of difficult and entangled cases; following up every clew through the mazes of different departments, and sitting up till after midnight in completing his records and registers, and finishing his correspondence. He never seemed to feel fatigue, or the want of food or sleep. And instead of being burdened by these accumulated toils, he grew light-hearted, buoyant, bright, and happy, according to the measure of his disinterested services. And in addition to these official duties in the Special Relief Department, Richardson found other spheres for activity, in erecting, arranging, and superintending ‘Soldiers’ Rests' and “Temporary homes,” for the sick and wounded, on their first arrival from the front, or in their transient residence in Washington on their way to their homes, when discharged or furloughed. In these homes he was father, brother, friend to hundreds and thousands, distributing food, refreshing drinks, clothing, money, or whatever might be needed, with a good sense, overflowing kindness, and hearty cheerfulness, which were beautiful to witness. Finally, to all these works he voluntarily superadded the function of hospital [48] chaplain, during the absence from his post of a friend. And thus engaged, through the heats of last summer, month in, month out, without one day's rest or intermission, did our humane and heroic brother labor on, with resistless energy, till he fell, fainting and fever-struck, in the midst of the wide harvest-field of charity, waiting for the husbandman to garner.

A few days before he was called “to come up higher,” he said to a fellow-laborer: “I almost wish I was up yonder, to help our poor boys who are putting off mortality and seeking a soldier's rest in heaven. I should so rejoice to welcome them there.” The wish was very characteristic,—expressive at once of his glowing faith in the nearness of the spirit-world to earth, and the closeness of angelic ministries to man, and also of his generous disinterestedness. The prayer was heard, and he was promoted to higher services. He had fought a good fight, and won a crown, as a hero of humanity.

Personally I never knew our friend till I met him in Washington; but I had often heard of him as extravagant in enthusiasm, and erratic through divergent tendencies. Like many richly endowed men, James Richardson had probably never found his true sphere till the scenes of suffering and sacrifice called his varied powers into action, and concentrated their influence into one glowing focus of good — will for the soldiers of freedom. Here was a bond of unity that gave harmony to otherwise discordant tastes. He could here be spiritualist and physiologist, architect and musician, good neighbor and preacher, reformer and man of business, all at once. The result was charming, in a rare blending of almost feminine sweetness with courageous energy, of poetic ardor with practical skill, of patient fidelity in minutest detail with a loving-kindness wide as the horizon, and hope high as the heavens. Moving swiftly and noiselessly to and fro, with his soft yet luminous blue eyes seeing all, penetrating all around him at a glance,— courteous and graceful in manner, while dauntless insincerity, in speech and deed,— he suggested the thought of one ready to be translated from the struggles of earth to the blessed fellowship of guardian angels.

The manner of his departure seemed in harmony, not alone with the self-devotion of his life, but with the peculiar nervous quality which had always marked it. His wife, who was with him in Washington for some months before his death, says [49] that, on November 3d, he was seized with a chill in dressing, but went out and attended to his duties as usual. In the evening he had another chill, followed by violent pains in the chest, which proved to be pneumonia. For several days he suffered extremely, but was afterwards more free from pain, though very weak. His mind was entirely occupied with his duties; and, in defiance of the advice of physicians and friends, he gave daily directions, and had reports brought to him. His nights were very restless; he was constantly talking in his sleep, and always on the one subject of his work, reiterating directions for the kind treatment of the soldiers. He had at that time the supervision of one of the Sanitary Commission ‘lodges’ at Alexandria, Virginia, and of another at the Alexandria Railway Station in Washington, and had been quite annoyed by the difficulty of inducing the employees to treat the soldiers with proper consideration. This trouble seemed ever present with him; and while giving, in his dreams, directions for feeding the men, he would break out with the exclamation, ‘You must speak kindly to them.’

On the morning of November 7th he thought himself better, and planned new work; in the afternoon he found himself weaker again, and said, that night, that he should never get well. A consultation of physicians was held, who thought that there was no cause for serious apprehension, if he would only give up all thoughts of labor, which he promised to do. He adhered to his original conviction, however, and made all his final arrangements. On the morning of November 10th he was seized with a violent chill, and after it had passed sank into a stupor, and passed away in such quietness that it could scarcely be known when his breathing ceased. It seemed as if his delicate organization, taxed to the utmost, had at last stopped its vital motion without struggle,— in such a death as he would have always predicted for himself, and such a death as he would have wished to die.

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