Some thoughts about following a dead man.

Historians are supposed to be objective. We are supposed to let the sources speak for themselves and not manipulate them to our purposes. We are supposed to remain removed from our subjects of study.

All of this is good. And it makes for great history.

But there are times you meet someone long dead about whom it is hard to stay completely objective. Because, you see, historians can and do fall in love with the past. Not a romantic love, mind you. But a kinship. Maybe more like family. I mean – you insinuate your way into their lives like a family member, and in many cases, you know more about them than their current family does. Their words, their lives, their illnesses – all become available to the historian who pursues them.

And I pursue Eben Stoddard.

So it is that today I found myself walking through Portsmouth, New Hampshire trying to find the essence of a young sailor who cast his lot with the Union and found a berth as volunteer Acting Master on the USS Kearsarge. He lived here for a time as the ship was readied for service. And he found love here – though it was a love fraught with difficulty and frequent separation. It was a love that did not survive his post-war occupation which found him away from his wife and family more than he was with them.

He moved his young wife from Portsmouth to Portsmouth. New Hampshire to Virginia. He spent days, weeks, months away in his job as a wrecker – traveling as far as South America, the Caribbean, Bermuda, and Africa to do his work. They had a child – a girl – in 1870, and a boy in 1880. But by then I guess his wife had had enough and went back to her Portsmouth with the children.

I visited her home today. I’m as fascinated with her as I am with him. I don’t pretend to know what motivated either of them in their personal lives. I can’t know how difficult the marriage may have been. I don’t know who was at fault, though I suspect it was a shared fault. They divorced – which was not common. But then they remarried. Each other. The pension files tell a terse story – it was for the insurance.

Her claim was denied.

He died alone at Sailor’s Snug Harbor on Staten Island – no longer able to work in his adopted home of Norfolk, Virginia. His company had been bought out by Merritt & Chapman, but in any event he could barely walk and barely hear – the notation said ‘deaf and worn out’; his occupation had destroyed so much.

On that intake page at Snug Harbor she was an afterthought – added as next of kin after almost anyone else. I doubt that they saw each other much – if at all – after he arrived there in 1898. He lingered on until 1902 – active at first, being allowed ‘leave’ for days or weeks at a time. Then the times grew less frequent. Shorter. Until he no longer left at all.

I don’t know yet if he saw his children during those years. The daughter went on to marry and have a nice life as far as I can tell.

The son – not so much. Institutionalized for years – he died alone, just like his father. But he was in a mental institution with no next of kin known. Father and mother both long dead. Sister moved on. I had hoped to find the son today as well – to stand there and say ‘I know who you are. I know from whence you came, and I am here to honor you’ – but perhaps that is for another time.

And she died alone – in a hotel in Philadelphia. The death certificate reveals diabetes, and pancreatic cancer. She was presumably sent home on that final journey – to her Portsmouth. She is elusive, though. I have found her mortal remains nowhere.

But for today – I honored their young selves – Eben and Ellen. Full of hope, hopelessly optimistic and looking into a future that neither one of them could ken. I walked through the streets of Portsmouth as much a ghost as they were. I was half-bemused, letting them lead me to the places I needed to see. My GPS was turned off. Instinct was turned on. And I found them there. And I will find them elsewhere. Until they tell me that I have followed them enough.

He was a hero by any accounts. He commanded the aft pivot of the Kearsarge in the battle against the Alabama. But that was a few short hours in his life. The rest of his life was spent rescuing ships, cargo, and human life from the clutches of the sea and shore.

But he couldn’t rescue what had been with his wife and family. Because all heroes have their faults.

As do historians. But I’m going to try to tell their story as best I can.

It’s what I do.


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