Dear Ones at Home: The Hattie M. and Merritt Morse Papers

I found a bit of Cotton with the seeds in it just as it grew. It is dirty, but i will put it in you can if you wish plant them & see how it grows. when growing it is very tender. When it first comes up has two broad leaves after a time a third will start out. light “Sandy loam”is best adapted to its growth.

Cotton sent within a letter, Box 2, Folder 26, Hattie M. and Merritt Morse papers (MS2020-020), John J. Burns Library.

In the years leading up to the U.S. Civil War, recently married Merritt (1832-1913) and Hattie Morse (1838-1892) lived in West Cambridge, Massachusetts. Both were from northern New England, Merritt from New Hampshire and Hattie from Vermont. By the time of his Army enlistment in August, 1862, they had relocated to the village of Jefferson Mills, New Hampshire near Merritt’s family. Hattie would give birth to their first child there, one month after Merritt’s departure with Company I of the 3rd New Hampshire Regiment. Merritt would serve nearly three years – until the close of the war. He transferred to the U.S. Signal Corps in 1863, and later to the X Corps and the XXIV Corps of the Union Army of the James in Virginia before returning home in June, 1865. Letters in the collection cover the entire period of his service.

Congress created the U.S. Signal Corps in1860 and the Army adopted it in early 1863. Enlisted men like Morse worked as flagmen and used a line-of-sight communication system of flags, lanterns, and codes to send and receive information from vantage points on the tops of buildings, trees, and towers.

Detail of an envelope printed with the image of a torch between two crossed flags, the symbol for the U.S. Signal Corps, Box 1, Folder 39, Hattie M. and Merritt Morse papers (MS2020-020), John J. Burns Library.

Communicating with Hattie by more conventional means, Merritt sent frequent, long, affectionate letters to New Hampshire filled with observations on military matters and humanitarian efforts, food, health, social life, finances, family, spirituality, etc.

Printed patriotic stationery envelope with letter, Merritt Morse, Box 1, Folder 11, Hattie M. and Merritt Morse papers (MS2020-020), John J. Burns Library.

The Sea Islands were an area of strategic importance under control of the Union Army beginning in November, 1861. To support the Union Army presence there, the U.S. government embarked on a project to salvage the islands’ cotton crop while also sending aid in the form of teachers, missionaries, and supplies. Merritt describes and assesses these efforts in his letters.

White plantation owners and their families had fled the area, while many enslaved people remained. Merritt’s service placed him near communities of “contrabands,” enslaved people whose legal status would remain uncertain until emancipation.

Owing to the relative isolation of the Sea Islands and surrounding areas, enslaved people there more strongly retained an African language and cultural influences more than those in other areas of the country. The people, their creole language, and the culture are called Gullah, and continue to have a presence on these lands to this day.

Merritt worshiped with, ministered to, and wrote about members of this community, participating in regular prayer meetings with them. In June, 1863 when a child there died, he was asked by the child’s parents and a leader of the congregation, “Father Cuffee,” to participate in her funeral on Hilton Head Island.

The people have a way of conducting this peculiar to themselves
& in some respects different from any I have 
ever witnessed. The hour, the place, the ceremonies and
to my own mind perhaps more than all these, associations of 
the just victory of this people. lent a peculiar impressive
-ness to the scene. I will not take time or give place to
the workings of my own feelings & imagination, but 
simply give you a statement of the proceedings.
The corpse was simply shrouded in a plain white
sheet with a napkin over the face & placed in a 
rough coffin. When ready for the service it was removed
to the street in front of the House. Seats arranged
around it so to form a square. Mr. Sanford
then commenced the service with appropriate
remarks & reading of scripture. Then sang a 
part of the Hymn. “Why do we mourn departed friends”
Then those who wished viewed the “corpse” the lid was
nailed down. Then men took the coffin on thier shoul-
ders & bore it towards the grave slowly followed 
by the people in procession chanting a wild and
mournful dirge of their own – when we reached
the burial place the sun was just throwing its last
departing rays across the broad landscape. The coffin
was immediately lowered. The remainder of the Hymn 
sung – all standing around the grave. Here let me 
say that I was never so deeply impressed by the solemnities 
of any service in my life. I think I have mentioned
before the situation of this ground – but will say again
that it is a little wood near the “beach” & I am told
contains more than one thousand graves of colored
People. The water the setting sun, the lengthened, dense
shadows of the trees & vines. those hundred or more dark
mournful figures, clustered round the little open grave 
made a picture that must impress one even less  ima
-gination than I am
I was asked to offer prayer & must say that I never engaged
publicly in this duty so glady in my life.
After this one of the “Patriarchs” of the plantation stood
At the head of grave I took a shovel of earth, another
repeated the words “dust to dust” The the first sprinkl
-ed a little upon the coffin. Then again. “Ashes to Ashes”
when the first done the same with the [?] of earth upon
his shovel. then were repeated some words which 
I could not make out after which all formed
& in a single file & passed around the grave each
throwing a handful of dirt upon the coffin. 
then the grave was filled & all returned to 
the house of the parents & each washed his 
hands with water prepared for that purpose
– all this is new to me & the meaning which they
attach to these ceremonies I have not learned –
– it was then nearly dark & all were called to prayers.

Merritt Morse, 1863 June 14

Items Merritt enclosed with letters are also part of the collection. They include eleven carte-de-visite photographs of Merritt’s colleagues in the Signal Corps. Merritt’s Lemaire field glasses, wallet, and a Confederate States of America ten dollar bill.

Photograph of Sgt. Joseph E. Doughty of the Signal Corps, between 1863-1865, Box 2, Folder 82, Hattie M. and Merritt Morse papers (MS2020-020), John J. Burns Library.

In addition to several letters written by Hattie and her family, there are approximately 148 letters written by Merritt during his military service in South Carolina, Florida, Virginia, and Washington DC. There is much to discover in the Morse papers. To use these materials for research or instruction, please contact us at

The Morse papers are one of several collections of Civil War letters at Burns Library.

*Available online.

-Shelley Barber, Outreach & Reference Specialist, John J. Burns Library

Special thanks to  Anne Cushman, M.A. Boston College, who started a rough transcription of these letters so the Burns Library Instruction Program could more easily incorporate them into class plans.


This entry was posted in Archives & Manuscripts and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Dear Ones at Home: The Hattie M. and Merritt Morse Papers

  1. John says:

    What a cool story!

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