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. Perhaps 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 any family member knows. Their words, their lives, their illnesses – all become available to the historian who pursues them.
And I pursue Eben Stoddard.
I once spoke with the great grandson of the man who first hired Stoddard into the occupation that would eventually consume him. I went there to find out about Barnabas and Joseph Baker. I left there knowing that Stoddard was my objective.
You see, Barnabas and Joseph Baker were the elusive two who are but a cipher in the books about the Civil War. They were always just B & J Baker – or the Baker Brothers; the “Celebrated Wreckers.” And they raised the Merrimack – which became the CSS Virginia. I wanted to know their names. I wanted them to be less than a cipher. I wanted to know who they were. And I knew that E.M. Stoddard was their associate. Also a mystery. But never mentioned. I had dug deep to find that name.
So when I asked Billy Baker what he knew about Barnabas and Joseph – he regaled me with stories. He verified facts. He gave me so much, and helped unlock the key to the cipher.
But when I asked him about Eben Stoddard, he stopped cold. And this man who had never known any of these people first hand said quietly:
“Stoddard. Now, he’s the real hero.”
And it was that day that my focus shifted. It was that day I chose to follow Eben Stoddard.
I know he was born in Ledyard, CT in 1834 or 35 – depending on which sources you believe. I know that he was the youngest child of 4 by 19 years – perhaps a surprise in his parents’ mid-40s. He shipped out to sea on a merchant vessel while still in his teens – the schooner Elizabeth Segar out of Mystic, CT. The schooner carried miscellaneous cargo between ports in the Gulf, Caribbean, and along the Atlantic seaboard. Stopping in New Orleans in November 1855, Eben received his affidavit of citizenship – a proto-passport if you will, designed to provide sailors with national identity. During his time on the Elizabeth Segar he visited the Hampton Roads region of Virginia. Though it is unclear when he came to live there permanently, by 1861 it appears that he had thrown in his lot with the wreckers Barnabas and Joseph Baker.
He was a Union man – as were the Bakers, though I had no way of knowing that at first. But when the war came, his path was clear – though that path from Virginia to the North was likely not one he would have willingly chosen. Captured by the Union navy while working a wreck belonging to northern interests, he was initially branded a Confederate – a claim he vehemently denied at trial. After being exonerated, he headed back north, where he joined the US Navy.
So it is that recently 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 there for a time as the ship was readied for service. And he found love there – 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.
They married right after the war – after his service was done. And so 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 that day in New Hampshire. I am as fascinated with her as I am with him. I cannot pretend to know what motivated either of them in their personal lives. I cannot know how difficult the marriage may have been. I do not 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.
His last years were difficult. His health failing, his business bought out by a larger concern he turned his hand to fishing. Yet this old wrecker who had saved so many had to be rescued himself when his fishing vessel was driven ashore in NC in 1895. There, along the very shore where his daring and skill had vaulted his name into national headlines, he suffered the same fate as so many – his ship lost, but his life spared. After that, he quit the sea – though the sea was never far from him. Moving in with his nephew Orrin and family in Middletown, CT, he continued to write, invent, and build, though he became more and more an invalid.
At some point he built a small pulling boat – a peapod modeled on the surf boats he had used so often in his countless jobs along the coast. While it is not certain for whom it was built, it was likely for his nieces and nephews with whom he lived. That vessel called to me as well – from a darkened corner of collections storage at Mystic Seaport. I had not gone seeking the boat – but it surely sought me. Its elegant lines bespoke an artistry that came from his decades upon the water. His great-grand niece Martha donated it to Mystic sometime in the 1970s, saving it from the fate of most old boats built by long-gone relatives.
By 1898 he could barely walk and barely hear. He certainly could no longer work. It appears any money he may have had went to Ellen for the upkeep of their son Stephen, who suffered from some sort of mental instability. Essentially destitute, Eben had himself committed to Sailor’s Snug Harbor on Staten Island. The notation on his intake form said that he was ‘deaf and worn out’; his occupation had destroyed so much.
On that intake page at Snug Harbor Ellen 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 even weeks at a time. Then the times grew less frequent. Shorter. Until he no longer left at all. HIs cause of death was listed as syncope. His heart had simply given out. His nephew brought him back to Connecticut and buried him in Ledyard.
And Ellen died alone – in a hotel in Philadelphia 11 years later. The death certificate reveals diabetes, and pancreatic cancer. She was sent home on that final journey – to her Portsmouth. She is elusive, though. That day in Portsmouth I could not find her mortal remains. But I know where she lies now, so I will return.
Their daughter married and had a family. As far as I can tell she had a good life. The son – not so much. Institutionalized for years – he died alone, just like his father and mother. 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 in Portsmouth 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.
But for that one day in Portsmouth, 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. Half-bemused, I allowed them to 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 his story as best I can.
It’s what I do.