For Memorial Day: Rufus Cogswell


Rufus Cogswell’s grave at the Old Soldier’s Home, in Washington DC

Memorial Day was originally a day to remember soldiers who died in the Civil War, so it’s appropriate to remember Rufus Cogswell, Mom’s great grand-uncle, who was the only person on the Dunn side of the family tree to die while serving in the military. Rufus was born in Rutland in 1829. When his parents, Stephen and Lucy (Seaver) Cogswell moved to Dublin, New Hampshire in the 1850’s, Rufus followed them, along with his sister (Mom’s great grandmother) Lydia, and Lydia’s husband Leonard Smith.

In 1859 Rufus married Elmira (Knowlton) Moore, a Dublin widow with three children. Rufus and Elmira then had a further two children of their own. On September 10th 1862, just five months after the birth of their son Milton, Rufus joined the Tenth New Hampshire Volunteers and headed off to war.

Rufus died two weeks later, on September 24, 1862, shortly after his regiment arrived in Washington. It was Rufus and Elmira’s third wedding anniversary.

The cause of Rufus’s death is not known for sure, but based on testimony given in support of Elmira’s application for a widow’s pension, it was probably diphtheria, which was a common cause of death at the time. A number of Rufus’s comrades testified that he had shown symptoms of the disease on the long train trip from Manchester to Washington. One wrote

We left Manchester for Washington DC on the 21st of September and arrived in Baltimore on the 24th… while at Worcester, Mass. on the way, he complained of being unwell, but was so as to be about with the other soldiers… soon after leaving Baltimore for Washington I saw… Cogswell and noticed that he was unable to speak aloud though he was perfectly rational; that afterwards and before we arrived in Washington which was in the afternoon of the same day… we were called into a line by Capt. John L. O’Brien that… Cogswell was the 4th person from me in the line… Cogswell [illegible] out of the line and go toward the barracks where he was ordered back by the Capt. soon after which he was found lying by the rail road track dead…

Another testified

Rufus died very suddenly … at or near the depot… while said Regiment was marching from cars immediately after the arrival … in … Washington- that he… dropped down and died almost instantly- that for three or four days before he died he was not able to speak above a whisper on account of a trouble in his throat…

There was no autopsy performed, but the regiment’s surgeon testified that based on witness accounts and his observations of Rufus prior to his death, diptheria was the likely cause of death.

But Rufus’s commanding officer, Captain John L. O’Brien, was of the opinion that Rufus had been murdered:

I am not able to say what disease caused his death, as his death was sudden, he dropping out of the ranks and dying almost instantly- but to my best knowledge and belief he died from poison from some source- that he had been seriously afflicted with throat disease for a day or two previous to his death and his death might have been occasioned by the poison of diphtheria or, as I more fully believe, by poison administered to him while passing through Baltimore by some person unknown

Union troops passing through Baltimore were often harassed and attacked- Maryland was, after all, a slave state, and had been under martial law since rioters had attacked Massachusetts troops passing through the city the year before. There is, however, no indication that Captain O’Brien’s suspicions were ever investigated.

Rufus was buried in the military cemetery on the grounds of the Old Soldier’s Home in Washington.

Elmira’s pension application was rejected at first, on the presumption that Rufus had been ill before he entered the service. She then had to hire an agent to gather evidence and plead her case, and eventually was awarded a pension of eight dollars a month, plus two dollars a month for each of Rufus’s two sons until they reached the age of sixteen. Elmira lived with her children in Dublin until she died in 1894 at the age of 70. The couple’s younger son Milton died in 1878 at the age of sixteen from Bright’s Disease.

Their other son, Nathan, married and settled in Swanzey, New Hampshire. He and his wife Alice had no children- he was the last of our branch of the Cogswells left in the Monadnock region. Nathan passed away in 1936 at the age of 76, and is buried with the rest of the Cogswells and Smiths in the Dublin Cemetery.

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