On my first day working at New England Historic Genealogical Society, I noticed a collection of framed ambrotype photographs of founding members of NEHGS, taken in the 1850s. While the vast majority of the men in the photographs were in their older years, one man was visibly younger than the rest—he seemed to be in his early 20s, with dark hair and a tilted bow tie. Under his image was the name George E. Henshaw. When I got home that night, still curious, I looked to see what information I could glean about this young founder. To my surprise, I found a detailed biography of George E. Henshaw’s life in Volume 5 of the Memorial Biographies of New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1853-1855.
George Eddy Henshaw was born on November 15th, 1839, in Cambridge Massachusetts. He was a middle child, the fourth of eight children born to William and Sarah Henshaw. He was educated in the Cambridge public schools. Elbridge Smith, the master of Cambridge High School, noted: “George E. Henshaw is a boy of sterling merit in every respect, – obedient, docile and studious.”
According to this biography, George displayed an unusual love for reading and nature. After high school, he worked for the leather merchants P. R. Southwick and Company on Fulton Street in Boston. It was around this time that he became associated with New England Historic Genealogical Society. By 1858, at the age of 18, he was elected to be a resident member of NEHGS. It was said that he took an active and unusual interest in the society for such a young man. Volume 16 of The Register records:1
“He had spent much time in collecting information relative to the genealogy of his family and was desirous that the material he had taken pains to gather and perfect might be deposited in the archives of the society, so as to be made available to all who felt interested in such subjects.”
When the Civil War began in 1861, George Henshaw enlisted in Company A of the 18th Massachusetts Infantry. He enlisted as a private, but in the weeks that followed he was promoted to Corporal, then to Sergeant by the time the Regiment left the state in October of 1861. In a letter he sent that same month, he wrote home about his thoughts on the war:
“I have forty rounds in my cartridge box; and if every one shall accomplish the end for which it was made I shall cause more misery than I can make happiness in the rest of my life. And yet I believe my cause is just and holy; whatever has brought others to the field, I can say I stand only for the right and have sacrificed somewhat of personal interest to see this thing through… “2
In January of 1862 George wrote:
“there is a little more sickness here than there has been owing to the extreme dampness of the tents, I think. A funeral service is taking place now from Company D. We are still at Hall’s Hill: I wish we were anywhere else. Such wet, muddy, drizzly, snowy, sleety, haily, rainy weather was never seen in Massachusetts. We are promised a move when the weather permits.”3
By March of 1862, the soldiers of the 18th Massachusetts Infantry had not yet seen combat, and many of the soldiers were hoping to participate in battle. George wrote of this:
“Yesterday we had target practice; and today battalion drill. I made second best shot at one hundred and fifty yards… Most all think the Eighteenth won’t be called into fight, we are so far behind; I don’t know. I hope we shall. I feel well, so don’t worry until you hear the contrary. I expect to get so used to wearing my knapsack as to not move without it. When I get home I shall wear it to church…If that drinking tube can be sent by mail, I’d like it for the water is very poor. One hundred are sick from it now.”
In May of 1862, George sent a letter to his family:
“Have not been very well this week; nothing serious however… I stayed here, not being quite well and not believing there would be any fighting. We here think the war is about played out, and we talk freely about going home in a few months… Came here yesterday. Was too weak to march. Expect to rejoin my regiment by going up the James River. There is no need to worry about me… I am very weak so excuse mistakes. Love to you all. I think I’m going very soon.”
George Henshaw died the same day the letter was sent. He was 22 years old. After his death, all of his genealogical papers and manuscripts were donated to NEHGS.4 He was the first, but unfortunately not the last of our members that died during the American Civil War. After learning of his death, George’s father traveled to Alexandria, Virginia and brought his son’s remains back to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Quoting Memorial Biographies of New England Historic Genealogical Society once again:
“There with suitable services, he was buried, in the southwestern part of the Cambridge Cemetery, overlooking the Charles River along whose banks he had so often when a boy wandered and sported. In the center of the lot is a plain granite headstone with the name HENSHAW inscribed on its face. The headstone bears the following inscription: George Eddy Henshaw age 22. Died at Alexandria Va, May 20, 1862, in the United States Volunteer Service. He looked from Nature up to Nature’s God”
Over 150 years later, I took a short drive to the Cambridge Cemetery. As I walked through the narrow paths, I thought about all of the people whose graves I passed. I thought about how every headstone represented a person who had once walked the same ground. When I arrived at the small, weathered stone bearing George’s name, I found myself thinking about what genealogy actually is: the preservation of stories of the past. Stories like George Henshaw’s matter because they reveal the humanity behind the history we work to preserve. And as I watched the sun set over George’s beloved Charles River, I couldn’t help but feel connected to him and everyone who came before.
1 New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Volume 16, page 373.
2 Memorial Biographies of New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1853-1855, Volume 5, Page 53.
3 Memorial Biographies of New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1853-1855, Volume 5, Page 55.
4 New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Volume 18, Page 215.