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Aurore Eaton's Looking Back: Manchester's Joseph Kidder, an eyewitness to life during the Civil War

August 27. 2013 12:40AM

This Harper’s Weekly magazine illustration depicts the Battle of the Wilderness on May 5-7, 1864. This was part of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign in Virginia. (MANCHESTER HISTORIC ASSOCIATION)

Through his daily diary entries, Manchester store owner Joseph Kidder left behind a rich accounting of civilian life during the Civil War.

Although the War did not touch the Kidder family directly, the psychological effects of the years of death, destruction, economic distress and political upheaval took a toll on Joseph. He wrote of General Grant's Overland Campaign in May and June 1864, "A series of the most terrible battles known in history is now taking place in Virginia. Thousands upon thousands have fallen until a vast extent of country is covered with the dead and dying. The scenes are described as awful indeed. The annals of history furnish no parallel."

On February 3, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln met with Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens in an attempt to work out a peace agreement. This failed, and the next day Joseph wrote, "…to all human observers this Peace is now further from us than it was three years ago. Then we thought we could reasonably hope for Peace — but now it looks dark — all dark with no prospect of Peace but war — all war — for an indefinite period in the future. God have mercy!"

Joseph found solace in his family life with wife Sarah and daughters Maria, Sarah, Annie, and Mary. On January 13, 1864, he wrote, "For a business man engaged as I am from morning till night there are few things more agreeable to him than spending an evening with his children, enjoying their incessant sports and merry laugh. It does me good more than medicine. Such has been my case tonight." Joseph also enjoyed the camaraderie of his Odd Fellows' lodge, and he also joined the local Masonic lodge. And he occasionally engaged in one lighthearted pastime or another. On April 26, 1864, he wrote, "There is no game more innocent or to me more interesting than the game of dominoes. With two or three friends I frequently play and we enjoy it 'highly' as the saying is. We have played tonight and some pretty hearty laughs."

A major source of fulfillment for Joseph was his involvement as a trustee of the Reform School. This had been founded in 1854 on what had originally been the farm of General John Stark in north Manchester along the Merrimack River. The School housed children who had been in trouble with the law, many of whom were orphans or who had simply been abandoned on the streets. Joseph visited the school often to check the progress of the students, and he would occasionally lecture them on historical and moral topics. He wrote on July 5, 1864, "Somehow I love to visit the Reform School. I love to see the boys and girls and look into their faces and speak a kind word to them. Kind words do them good and help to lead in the right way."

The Confederate Army under General Robert E. Lee finally surrendered on April 9, 1865. Everyone in Manchester rejoiced. The celebration ended abruptly, however, when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth on April 14. On April 19, Joseph wrote, "Such universal sorrow has never pervaded the people of this country as now. Almost every house is trimmed in badges of mourning as though the head of their family had departed. The very air deemed oppressive with the sounds and symbols of mourning."

Concerning the death of the murderous John Wilkes Booth on April 26, Joseph Kidder wrote, "Booth, the assassin of the President, was shot and killed by a squad of cavalry… He died a miserable death, being a just punishment as may be for the horrible crime that he committed. I believe it is just and right that he depart from earth."

Finally, Joseph Kidder allowed himself to express, with some caution, that peace and prosperity may now be possible for his beloved country. He reflected on May 5, 1865, "God knows my heart when I say that I hope our national troubles may soon be settled up and peace and prosperity once more reign in our midst. We have had enough of bloodshed and it seems to be time to cultivate the social amenities of life."


Next week: A Valley Cemetery Story — Joseph Kidder in old age and family notes. .

Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her at

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