Maine Genealogy Blog

Case Study: Corporal Sumner Henry Needham

The first Union soldier to fall in the Civil War is said to have been Sumner Henry Needham—a Maine native who served in a Massachusetts company. Let's see what we can find out about Needham using only free Internet resources.

Needham's Wikipedia entry is brief, and incorrect. He was wounded April 19, 1861, in the Baltimore riot, but didn't die until the 27th. A contemporary account taken from the Lawrence (Mass.) Journal confirms this date:

Sumner Henry Needham, whose case has been watched and speculated upon from hour to hour, during the past week, died Saturday morning, at the Lombard-street infirmary, in Baltimore, from wounds received on the 19th in the cowardly attack upon the Massachusetts troops in that city.

The account goes on:

Mr. Needham was born in Bethel, Me., and was thirty-three years of age the 2d of March last. He came to Lawrence some twelve years ago, and of late years has ben engaged in the lathing business with his brothers Charles M. and Otis S. Needham. He was a member of the Lawrence Light Infantry for four or five years. He resigned at one time, but joined the company again last summer, and was one of the corporals at the time of his death.  He has a mother, two brothers, and a sister living in Bethel, Me., and a young wife, residing at No. 41 Atlantic corporation, and brothers and sisters in this city, to mourn his untimely death.

That Needham was born in Bethel is repeated elsewhere, but evidence points to his having been born in the town of Norway. When he married Hannah M. Johnson, Jan. 1, 1857 in Lawrence, he gave his place of birth as Norway.

In my research of Oxford County deeds, I have found that his parents, Evi and Maria (Latham) Needham, settled in Norway in 1823, and did not remove to Bethel until 1840.

Sumner Henry Needham (evidently known by his middle name) was enumerated twice in 1850: once in Bethel with his parents, and a second time in Lawrence, where he had already taken up the lathing trade:

In 1855 he and younger brother Charles lived in a Lawrence boarding house. In 1860 he boarded there alone, enumerated, curiously, without his wife:

As noted above, Needham was a member of the Lawrence Light Infantry—Company I, Sixth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Militia—which was sent south to protect Washington just days after the surrender of Fort Sumter. En route to the capital, the regiment was set upon by a mob of Southern sympathizers in Baltimore.

A rioter struck Needham in the head with a brick. Efforts to save him proved futile.

[Dr. William A.] Hammond determined that the unfortunate recruit had bled into his brain; he undertook the very risky operation of trephination, the drilling of a hole in the skull, in order to relieve the pressure caused by the hematoma. Needham did not improve following the operation and he died a few hours later.

Sumner Henry and Hannah M. (Johnson) Needham had just one child, named for his father and born months after his father's death. The widow and child were granted $390 by the General Court in 1862. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts resolved in 1871 that "there be allowed and paid out of the treasury to the city of Lawrence, the sum of one hundred and seventy-two dollars, being the amount paid by said city to Hannah M. Needham, widow of Sumner H. Needham, as state aid on account of her child Sumner H. Needham; and that from and after the first day of January, eighteen hundred and seventy-one, said Hannah M. Needham shall be taken and deemed to be entitled to receive the same amount of state aid to which she would be entitled had her child been born prior to her said husband's death and her said husband had been duly mustered into the military service of the United States." Hannah lived as a widow in Lawrence, and died there Jan. 12, 1898.

Needham wrote to his wife just days before arriving in Baltimore: "My heart is full for you, and I hope we may meet again. I believe that we shall. You must hope for the best and be as cheerful as you can." He was less hopeful on the day of the riot, allegedly telling a fellow soldier, "We shall have trouble to-day, and I shall never get out of it alive. Promise me, if I fall, that my body shall be sent home." Needham was taken home and with appropriate ceremony buried in Bellevue Cemetery, Lawrence. A prominent monument was erected on his grave:

By the City Government
of Lawrence, this Monument
is erected, to endear to
posterity the Memory of
of Co. I, 6th Regit. M.V.M.,
who fell a victim to the
passions of a Secession Mob,
during the passage of the
Regiment through the
streets of Baltimore, march-
ing in Defence of the Nation's
Capital, on the memorable
19th day of April A.D., 1861.
Aged 33.
A Loyal North, in common
with his widow and an only
child, mourn his loss.
A.D., 1862.

 Published April 14, 2011