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Home | Looking Back with Aurore Eaton

Aurore Eaton's Looking Back: Frederick Smyth, the quiet hero of the Civil War

Special to The New Hampshire Union Leader

February 04. 2013 5:54PM

In 1862, after visiting England, Frederick Smyth continued his European journey in his official role as the representative to Europe of the United States Agricultural Society.

Along with his companion, C. L. Flint of the Massachusetts Board of Agriculture, Smyth visited France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy. While on a sailing ship in the Mediterranean, he was injured when he fell into the hold of the ship. He continued on, seated in a wheelchair pushed by an attendant. While in Rome, he caught up with the news from the United States, which was plunged in the darkness of the Civil War. He grew anxious to return home, so he made his way back to London and then to the U.S.

Smyth arrived in Manchester in September 1862, just as the Tenth Regiment was getting ready to leave the city. Some Manchester citizens had bought horses for the officers. According to a newspaper, Smyth purchased a "large showy horse," which he presented to Major Jesse Angell. According to Smyth's biographer, "Major Angell was a fine-looking officer, and left a good place in the mills for the war in behalf of his country."

Smyth was engaged in banking during this time, and did all he could to encourage financial support of the government's war effort. His biographer wrote, "He felt that every possible exertion should be made to sustain the soldiers in the field for upholding and maintaining the principles of free government, and was ever ready to advance any measure calculated to promote the comfort of these brave Boys in Blue."

In May 1863, Smyth chaired the committee that organized a fair in Smyth's Hall to benefit the United States Sanitary Commission. The event raised $4,000 for this private organization that benefitted sick and wounded Union soldiers.

The Battle of Gettysburg took place from July 1-3, 1863. Over 158,000 men took part in the bloody fight. It was a Union victory, but the price was high. Frederick Smyth rushed to the battle site to volunteer.

A battlefield surgeon wrote of him "The prompt, efficient, and able manner in which he aided both officers and men with counsel and means to procure needed articles for the relief of distress, was remarked by all.

Through drenching rain, through mud, wading swollen creeks, he seemed everywhere present." In the end, Smyth was overcome with exhaustion and malnourishment, and spent most of the fall of 1863 bedridden as he recovered.

Frederick Smyth had been elected mayor of Manchester in 1852, 1853 and 1854. He had no intention of running again, but circumstances played a hand in bringing him back into that position for a fourth term. In 1863, Manchester found itself in a terrible financial situation due to the stresses of the war. According to a local newspaper, "Manchester was in trouble; she needed more funds than could be had, and with all her wealth, seemed like a beggar." No one wanted to run for mayor, and the general consensus was that the only person who could lead the city out of this difficulty was Frederick Smyth. Several prominent men tried desperately to convince Smyth that he must run. He agreed to serve one more term, and ran unopposed in the November election.

Smyth was successful in getting the city back on track. His biographer wrote that "harmony prevailed in every department of the city government. He was a peace-maker."

On May 5-7, 1864, the terrible Battle of the Wilderness took place in Virginia. There were 30,000 casualties among the 160,000 men engaged in the inconclusive battle. Smyth made his way to the battlefield to help tend to the 12,000 injured Union soldiers. He assisted in carrying the wounded to Fredericksburg, Va., where they could be cared for. His biographer wrote "While tenderly caring for the wounded, he encouraged the survivors to 'fight it out on that line,' assuring them that they would eventually be led to victory, glory and final triumph."

After the war, Smyth received many letters from men he had helped during the war, some saying pointedly that they owed their life to him.

Next week: Frederick Smyth and the governorship.

Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association. Email her at

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