John Whitcomb Piper


This archive of 40 letters written by Sgt. John Whitcomb Piper (1820-1903) of Co. L, 4th Massachusetts Heavy Artillery is a delightful read and offers a sustained view of Washington D. C. from the perspective of a non-commissioned officer not commonly found during the civil war. Serving as the company’s commissary sergeant, Piper was permitted to cross the Potomac in and out of Washington on nearly a daily basis seeking provisions and running various sundry errands for “his boys” in Company L. He used the opportunity to visit places of interest in the city and wrote home regularly and faithfully to his wife in Lynn, Massachusetts, of his daily “tramp.”

The first letter was written in late September 1864 from Ft. Lincoln in the District, not long after the 4th Massachusetts Heavy Artillery (H. A.) had relocated from Gallop’s Island in Boston to Washington. The next 18 letters — dated between early October and mid-December 1864 — were written from Co. L’s post at Ft. Bennett, opposite Georgetown on the Virginia side of the Potomac river. The last 21 letters were written from Ft. Worth in the outer defenses of Washington, deeper in Virginia, a half mile beyond the Fairfax Seminary west of Alexandria. The letters from Ft. Worth begin on 19 December 1864 and end abruptly on 27 March 1865 though it is my understanding that the company was posted there for several more months. During the time Piper was posted at Ft. Worth, there were two gaps in the letter writing — once when his wife came to visit him from mid-November until early December, and a second time when he went home on furlough the first couple weeks of February 1865.

Piper’s letters reveal a man devoted to his family of a strong Christian character who did what he could to contribute to the preservation of the Union, despite his advanced years. He was equally devoted to the men who served with him in the 4th Massachusetts H. A. and looked for opportunities to acquire the best provisions from various available sources in the Washington D. C. area. The last letter in the archive gives a hint of the trouble he got into, however, as he shuffled funds between accounts — including his own resources — to furnish timely rations and supplies needed by the men. Though the details of this trouble are not revealed by these letters, Piper’s military record indicates that he was arrested on 28 May 1865 for “exchanging rations.” Clearly there were some individuals in his company who believed that he had shortchanged the men or had somehow personally benefited from his position as the commissary sergeant though these letters suggest otherwise. Only trivial sums of money (50¢ to a dollar) were being sent home with the letters to his wife. Sadly the letters abruptly end on 27 March 1865 and we are left to wonder whether the balance of Piper’s Civil War letters were used as evidence to clear himself of these charges and subsequently never recovered. In any event, Piper was discharged with his rank as sergeant intact at the end of his term of enlistment, leaving the service as he came into it — as “tough as a pitch pine knot.”


John Whitcomb Piper (1820-1903) was born in Ashburnham (Ashby), Massachusetts, on 19 March 1820. He was the fifth of eleven children born to Philip Piper (1785-1858) and Rhoda Richardson (1788-1874). Briefly mentioned in these letters are John’s siblings Maria Piper (1813-1866), Silas Piper (1821-1876), and Emma Piper (1823-1867). He mentions “Mother Piper” from time to time; his father — a farmer– died in 1858. Before the Civil War, John earned a living as a carpenter, as a farmer, and as a machinist.

From a letter contained in this archive dated 5 January 1865, we learn that Piper first saw “the little girl” he would someday marry working at the looms in Fitchburg. Though he had to ask her twice, he eventually married Emeline Barrell (1825-1915) in Fitchburg on December 29, 1846 when she was 21 years old. Emeline was the daughter of Nelson Barrell (1800-1860) and Mehitable Jones (1801-1869).

In 1850, three and ½ years after their marriage, John and Emeline were enumerated in Ashburnham, Massachusetts. They were still childless. Three infants in three years had all died in infancy. The only other occupant of the household was Abigail Barrell (b. 1790) — a spinster aunt who was blind.

In 1860, John and Emeline were enumerated in Lynn’s 4th Ward where John worked as a machinist. Other members of the household included Emeline’s mother and four children (Marietta, John A., Abby, and Philip). It was at this location on Silsbee Street, a short walk to Nahant Bay, that John and Emeline made their home in a brick duplex. Crossing Silsbee Street on its way to the Central Square Depot in Lynn ran the tracks of the Eastern Railroad that connected Maine to Boston. The 4th Ward was filled with blue collar laborers like John who worked long hours in the city shoe manufacturing factories and machine shops.

From a Golden Anniversary notice and from one of the letters in this archive dated 19 March 1865 we learn that John and Emeline had twelve children in their first eighteen years of marriage though by 1865, only five of the children — highlighted in boldface — were still alive. On-line genealogical records tell us their names were: Emma Francis Piper (1847-1848), Frank Abbott Piper (1849-1849), Emma Piper (1850-1850), John Winthrop Piper (1851-1851), Marietta Piper (1852-1882), Abbie Kendall Piper (b. 1855) Ella Maria Piper (1856-1857), Philip Piper (b. 1858), Emeline Louisa Piper (1860-1896), twins Caddie and Carrie Piper (1861-1861) and John Abbott Piper (1863-1931).

After John was discharged from the service, he returned to Lynn where he found employment as a shoemaker. In 1870, he and his family were still in Lynn where John kept a large boarding house while their five children attended school — the eldest, Marietta, at the prestigious Holyoke Female Seminary. The boarding house accommodated 45 occupants besides the Piper family. Three domestic Irish-born servants were hired to help the Pipers with the board.

The aforementioned anniversary notice mentions that John “spent most of his life in his native place (Ashby), but for a time was engaged in the grocery business at Lynn and in the meat business with John Lowe, in” Fitchburg.

John W. Piper died of “La Grippe”(heart failure) at the age of 83.


“Mr. and Mrs. John W. Piper celebrated their golden wedding [anniversary] this evening at their residence, between this city [Fitchburg] and Ashby centre.

John W. Piper was born in Ashby, March 19, 1820, on the place then owned and occupied by his grandfather. He was married in Fitchburg, December 29, 1846, to Emeline Barrell. Mr. Piper was the fifth of eleven children of Philip and Rhoda (Richardson) Piper. He is a veteran of the civil war, serving in Co. I, 8th Massachusetts Woolbridge Cadets, nine months; in the 11th Massachusetts at Dorchester and Marblehead, reserve duty, three months; and in the 4th Massachusetts Heavy Artillery at Galloup’s Island [and in Virginia]. He spent most of his life in his native place, but for a time was engaged in the grocery business at Lynn and in the meat business with John Lowe, in this city. He is well known throughout the county. He built the flatiron block, a four-story structure, in this city.

Mr. Piper comes of historic stock and traces his ancestry back through four generations, to Deacon Steven Gibson of Stowe, Mass. On his mother’s side of the family the descendants are traced back to Abram Richardson of Townsend, who was a revolutionary soldier. At the end of his service he settled in Ashby, and built the house in 1783 on the site of which Mr. Piper now lives.

Three of twelve children born to this worthy couple survive — John Abbott Piper of Ashby, Philip Piper of Newport, New Hampshire, and Abbie Kendall Curtis of Lynn.

Letters of regret were received from H. A. Goodrich, John Lowe, C. S. Graves, Col. Henry Greene of Lynn, 8th Massachusetts regiment, comrade; ex-Mayor Fosdick, A. T. Eddy, Lowell Miles of Fitchburg, Mrs. S. E. Piper of Somerville, Edward Piper of Lynn.

Many beautiful remembrances were received by the couple, among them being $50 in gold from Mr. and Mrs. Philip Piper of Ashby.

A charming entertainment was provided and a spread served.

Mr. Piper is a member of Post 19, G.A.R., and the American Sons of Revolution.”