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Henry Austin Clapp
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 Henry A. Clapp and the Clapp Family

[Material excerpted directly from introduction to Letters to the Home Circle: The North Carolina Service of Pvt. Henry A. Clapp, Company F, Forty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Militia, 1862-1863. Edited by John R. Barden. Raleigh: North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, 1998. Barden gives his sources in footnotes in that publication. Letters to the Home Circle includes the text of 44 letters written by Henry Austin Clapp to members of his family back in Dorchester.]

Henry Austin Clapp was born July 17, 1841, the eldest child of John Pierce Clapp, of Dorchester, Massachusetts, and Mary Ann Bragg Clapp. Dorchester was an ancient town, and the Clapp (or Clap) family had been among its earliest settlers; John P. Clapp was sixth in line from Nicholas Clap, who came soon after the town was founded in 1630.

John Clapp's father and grandfather had both been conspicuous figures in the town's history. John's grandfather, Noah Clapp, was chosen clerk of the town in 1749 and served in that office for nearly forty-seven years. When some of the town records were destroyed by a fire in his house, Noah replaced much of the missing information from memory. John Clapp's father, Ebenezer Clapp, was a tanner by trade but did not let the roughness of his profession prevent him from serving his community with dignity and dedication. At age fifteen Ebenezer joined a company that enlisted from Dorchester to suppress Daniel Shays's rebellion. In his maturity he served as town selectman, overseer of the poor, and member of the school committee. He was the eighth member of the Clapp family to serve as deacon of Dorchester's First Church, an office he held for more than fifty years.

John P. Clapp, born in 1803, was the fourth of Deacon Ebenezer Clapp's thirteen children, eight of whom were still living at the rime of the Civil War. John followed his father into the tanning business. In 1840 he built a new house near his tannery and brought his wife there in August of the same year. Mary Ann Bragg Clapp, born in Westmoreland, New Hampshire, in 1816, to Henry Bragg and Mary Felt Bragg, was more than thirteen years younger than her husband. By 1860 her eighty-year-old mother made her home in the Clapp household as well.

Henry A. Clapp's entrance into the world was followed by three others: Mary Helen (called Helen) was born on June 7, 1845; Louisa Howe, on June 3, 1847; and William White (Willie), on December 11, 1848. During Henry's childhood his father's health weakened, causing him to leave tanning for the lumber business. Eventually, even that occupation proved too strenuous; by the Civil War, John Clapp was an insurance agent with an office on Merchants Row in Boston. Like his father, John Clapp offered his time and talents to the community, serving as a lieutenant colonel in the Massachusetts militia, as town assessor and treasurer, and as a member of the school committee. Clapp also offered his service to his church, albeit in a different denomination. In 1842 John P. Clapp was confirmed as a member of the Episcopal Church and worked hard to establish that denomination in Dorchester. When St. Mary's Parish was organized in 1847, Clapp was elected junior warden and later served for thirty-six years as senior warden of the parish, an office that--according to his son--meant more to him than being "Emperor of the Russias."

John Clapp and his family were not rich, but they were comfortable. In 1861 Clapp paid taxes on $4,700 worth of personal and real estate. (By comparison, his brother-in-law, John H. Robinson, one of the wealthiest men in Dorchester, had an estate valued at $60,400, including a mansion house on the same street as the Clapps' cottage.) Henry's reference to his childhood home as a "little cottage" suggests coziness rather than grandeur. Nevertheless, all evidence suggests that Henry was reared in a home filled with love, encouragement, piety, and opportunity in a town where his name was respected and where he knew practically everyone.

Dorchester in Henry Clapp?s Childhood

Henry Clapp's entire childhood was spent in Dorchester, then a separate town just south of Boston. Although the town's eastern lands abutted Dorchester Bay, the heart of the community lay along a north-south ridge some one hundred feet above sea level, offering a picturesque view of the Blue Hills to the south and refreshing breezes throughout the summer months. During Henry's childhood, much of the town was already occupied by "handsome and attractive private residences, with extensive grounds, beautiful lawns, and shade trees around them." The town's proximity to Boston, combined with its uncrowded natural beauty, offered "the freedom and delights of the country with the advantages and privileges of the city."

Local historians recalled when Dorchester, which celebrated its two hundredth anniversary eleven years before Henry was born, had been one of the largest and most influential towns in Massachusetts, rivaling Boston in its early days. The town, including seven generations of the Clapp family, participated fully in Massachusetts's early history. The town records began in 1632. The first minister of the Dorchester church was Richard Mather, father of Increase Mather. [ed. note: Actually Richard Mather followed John Maverick and John Warham who served as co-pastors.] Dorchester was the scene of the killing that sparked King Philip's War in 1675, and the town was gripped by the witchcraft hysteria of the 1690s. In later years the town supported the repeal of the Stamp Act, and "Indians" seized a half-chest of tea at Ebenezer Withington's house during the tense days just before the American Revolution. Dorchester Heights, overlooking Boston, were seized and fortified by the British. [ed. note: Actually the area called Dorchester Heights was fortified by Revolutionary Patriots to fend off the British.] Five Clapps answered the call to arms on the day of the Battle of Lexington; seven other family members served later.

The nineteenth century saw Dorchester fall farther under Boston's shadow. Twice, in 1803 and again in 1855, Dorchester saw small portions of its land transferred to its larger neighbor. The town was now bounded by Boston on the north, Roxbury on the west, Milton and the Neponset River on the south, and Dorchester Bay on the east. Nevertheless, Dorchester grew rapidly. In 1800 the population was 2,347; a half century later the town boasted nearly 8,000 inhabitants; on the eve of the Civil War, 9,769. Shipbuilding and agriculture were succeeded by paper mills along the Neponset River, including the first manufactory for playing cards in America. Chocolate manufacturing began under Dr. James Baker in Milton and spread to Dorchester. In 1849 tinsmith Roswell Gleason produced the first American silverplate at his britannia ware manufactory on Washington Street. Amid this burgeoning industry, the citizens of Dorchester did not forget the cultivation of the mind. The town proudly claimed to have opened the first school in America supported by public funds (1639). As noted above, members of the Clapp family served on the school committee. Henry Clapp was the first generation to benefit from the town's establishment of a high school, which opened in December 1852 under the leadership of the noted Shakespearian authority William J. Rolfe. Henry's own interest in the works of Shakespeare, so evident in his Civil War letters, was sparked when this dedicated scholar loaned the eleven year-old student a copy of the Bard's complete plays.

Henry Clapp also benefited from the Dorchester citizens' broader interest in improving their minds, as expressed in the erection of the Lyceum Hall in 1839 as a place for public meetings. There Clapp may have attended talks on topics as varied as geology, phrenology, and slavery. Late in his life, he wrote fondly of the old Lyceum: "Few buildings of its sort in New England have been allied in more intimate and diverse fashion to the life of a community."

St. Mary?s Church

A major influence on Henry Clapp's values and attitudes was his family's church. Why John Clapp left the Congregational church of his ancestors for the Episcopal faith is not known. Since Henry was baptized in the Episcopal church at Roxbury the year before his father was confirmed, it is possible that Mary Clapp was the agent who brought the family into the Episcopal fold.

The Protestant Episcopal Church, successor to the pre-revolutionary Church of England, had never been strong in Massachusetts. As late as the 1840s the denomination had just eight parishes in the Boston/Dorchester/Roxbury area. Of the families attending Episcopal churches, only a handfull had been brought up in that faith. Henry Clapp recalled some years later that suspicion of the Episcopalians, with their high-church liturgy and vestments, ran strong in the old Puritan community of Dorchester.

Before 1843, Dorchester residents who adhered to the Episcopal tradition had to attend churches in Boston or Roxbury. In July of that year a committee of interested citizens, of whom John Clapp was probably a member, invited an Episcopal minister to hold a service at the Dorchester town hall. St. Mary's Church was organized four years later. The first church building, begun in 1849, cost about five thousand dollars. The first minister of the parish was George W. Porter, whose five-year tenure in Dorchester, Clapp suggested, was not entirely happy. Porter was succeeded by the Reverend E. L. Drown, who served until 1860, when he was replaced by the Reverend William H. Mills.

By the 1860s, the church was growing rapidly; the priest reported 94 communicants in May 1861, 103 in May 1862, and 124 in May 1863. The records of the parish are sprinkled with the names of many families Clapp mentioned in his letters: Emery, Withington, Rice, Page, Gilbert, Bradford, Stedman, Stimpson, Dorr, Glover, and others. In such a small congregation, a leading family such as the Clapps were bound to be on familiar terms with nearly all the parishioners; but Henry's letters leave little doubt that many of these relationships spilled over into everyday life as well.

Whatever social satisfaction Henry Clapp may have derived from his church membership, he was also a devoted worshiper. "If it were right I should wish to be with you now at dear St Marys," he wrote from North Carolina. While in the army he attended service as often as he could, and his comments on his feelings there were far from perfunctory: "When the first notes from the organ thrilled the air I could feel the tears start into my eyes and I was half ashamed of my weakness." Easter Sunday 1863 found Clapp in a church far from home, in a St. Mary's Church service presided over by a uniformed army major. There he heard, for the first time in his life, the hymn "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today" read "as it should be, like a trumpet peal and a song of jubilee and triumph." But his heart sighed to he home in Massachusetts: "I missed the many accompaniments of St Mary's which add so much to the glory and sacredness of the day.?

Henry Clapp at Harvard

Henry passed his entrance examination to Harvard College in the summer of 1856, following in the footsteps of his great-grandfather Noah, who was graduated in the class of 1735. The college catalog would have informed him what sort of academic regimen to expect. Prospective freshmen were examined in Latin, Greek, higher mathematics, and history before they even arrived at the college. Although the curriculum had been modernized in 1846 to include some electives for juniors and seniors, especially in the areas of modern languages and sciences, even seniors were required to complete studies in philosophy, logic, physics, and history (having already completed six terms of compulsory Greek and Latin).

Life at Harvard in the 1860s rested on more than two centuries of precedent and tradition: "There are daily devotional services, with the reading of the Scriptures, and singing, in the College Chapel. All Undergraduates are required to be present. Early on, the college had been caught up in the debate between orthodox Christianity and the emerging Unitarian movement. Although conservative views still made themselves heard, especially among some of the older faculty, the prospective clergymen training in the Divinity School were likely to he of the Unitarian or other liberal stripe, while Congregationalists sought their education at Andover Theological Seminary or Yale University.

Increasing secularism at Harvard was accompanied by a steady expansion of programs, especially in the sciences. New schools were added, transforming the undergraduate college into a true university. The establishment of the Astronomical Observatory in 1839 and the Lawrence Scientific School, beginning in 1847, lured such giants as astronomer William C. Bond [ed. note: Bond was also a Dorchester resident] and naturalist Louis Agassiz, whose private collection of specimens became the university's Museum of Comparative Zoology. Indeed, the faculty, which in Clapp's time consisted of .just fifty-one members, included men who were considered intellectual giants in their own day, as well by later generations. Poet Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. was professor of anatomy and physiology in the Medical School. James Russell Lowell, also a well-known poet, taught European languages.

In Clapp's day Harvard was elite, yet surprisingly intimate. The class of 1860, in which Clapp was graduated, consisted of 110 members, the largest to that time. The entire college enrollment was just 446, with an additional 402 attending courses in the professional schools (divinity, law, science, and medicine). Talented young men whose names would become household words in later years--such as Robert Gould Shaw, who led the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry in its heroic charge against Fort Wagner, South Carolina, or Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., later chief justice of the United States--were fellow students with Clapp in an environment in which ability and public service were expected of all.

Despite the academic and social responsibilities thrust upon them, the students were little older than boys; few of the seniors had reached twenty years of age. College authorities tried to preserve order according to the "Laws," regulations first set down in 1790 and modified periodically thereafter. Students were expected not to keep any gun, pistol, gunpowder, or explosive material or fire any such device within the city of Cambridge; attend or participate in any theatrical entertainment during term time; or be present at any entertainment within the college at which intoxicating beverages were served. Less severe but still punishable offenses included sitting on the steps of the college buildings, calling out from windows, smoking, kicking a football in the college yard, or sitting out of alphabetical order at chapel exercises. Such regulations merely taxed the ingenuity of undergraduates. Pranks were frequent, and the establishment of a horse-car line between Cambridge and Boston in 1856 made it easier for students to escape the rigors of disciplined life when they chose.

Clapp appears to have been one of the college's quiet students, progressing in his studies along a predictable and creditable path. He produced an exhibition part (or essay) titled "A Latin Dialogue from the Comedy 'All's Not Gold That Glitters'" (with fellow student Edmund Wetmore) in 1858, another ("Caricature in Literature") in 1859, and a commencement presentation ("Grotius as a Man") in 1860. Following his graduation, he was elected usher in the Boston Latin School and taught there until January of the following year. In May 1861 he began to read law in the office of David H. Mason of Boston and entered Harvard's Dane Law School in the fall. He won the Bowdoin Prize in 1862 for a treatise titled "The Services of Modern Missionaries to Science and Knowledge.? During his second term in the law school, Clapp also served as a proctor in the college, living in the college buildings and attempting to maintain some order among the undergraduates.

On August 12, 1862, halfway through his law studies, Henry Clapp sent a letter to the officers of the Harvard Corporation, informing them that he resigned his place as proctor, having enlisted with the nine-months men in the New England Guards Regiment.

[most of these sections omitted: Massachusetts in the War and the Formation of the Forty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Militia; Eastern North Carolina in the Civil War; The Occupation of New Bern]

If Clapp's thoughts of the home circle in Dorchester sustained him during the difficult moments of his military service, his college circle, close at hand, undoubtedly provided strong emotional support as well. According to Mrs. Clapp, the Forty-fourth Regiment "enjoyed the confidence and affection of the whole people; well-nigh conferring upon it the title of the 'Beloved Regiment.'" There is little doubt that, in large part because of the high percentage of local men in the ranks, the fate and well-being of the Forty-fourth was of great interest to many Boston-area families. In the field, however, the Forty-fourth and (to a lesser degree) the rest of the nine-months troops encountered considerable hostility from men in other regiments. Part of that enmity can be attributed to envy on the part of three-years troops, who still had eighteen months left to run on their enlistments. Some seasoned troops also wagered that the untested men would not hold under fire. But the trait that the veterans despised most in the men of the Forty-fourth was their refined style and their self-confidence, which the older men interpreted as an air of superiority. According to one observer, the troops of the Forty-fourth "passed the poor three-years men with the same patronizing and patrician air, their eye-glasses clasped upon their noses in the same manner, as when strutting amid their fathers' workmen in Massachusetts, or when promenading the thoroughfares, and ogling the girls. . . at home. It is true they were civil, . . . but their civility, though well intended, was bestowed with a hauteur which had an opposite effect."

Clapp and his company mates anticipated no such unpleasantness while they were still in camp at Readville. Although much of each day was spent in drills and difficult marches over the Massachusetts hills, the regimen was relieved by pranks and friendly competitions, such as the race to see which company could erect the tallest flagpole in front of its barracks. The men also looked forward to visits by family and friends, who could avail themselves of the nine trains that ran from Boston to Readville each day. The barracks frequently overflowed with homemade provisions that supplemented the less tantalizing government rations.

By the beginning of October, rumors of departure spread through the ranks of the Forty-fourth, although whether the intended destination was the Potomac or New Orleans or North Carolina was anybody's guess. Northern morale had been boosted the previous month by the bruising defeat inflicted on Lee's army at Antietam in Maryland. Was the Forty-Fourth to join McClellan's army to wipe out the rebels in Virginia once and for all? On October 17 a soldier got a glimpse of a staff officer's box marked "New Berne," and orders on October 20 confirmed the fact. The Forty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Militia was bound for North Carolina.

Henry Clapp as Observer

Henry Clapp may well have been a bright child by nature, but his early nurturing and education no doubt trained him to observe what went on around him and to turn his impressions into words. An appreciation for writing and speaking well must have been an important part of the Clapp household from an early date. From the age of eight, Clapp was taken to children?s performances at the Boston Museum theater, where ?wild joys ? thrilled our little breast when The Enchanted Horse, The Enchanted Beauty, The Forty Thieves, The Children of Cyprus, and Aladdin possessed the fairyland of the state.? While still in his early teens, Clapp was introduced to Shakespeare through his principal, William Rolfe. About the same time, he first saw the great Shakespearian actor Edwin Booth appear on the stage in Boston. Clapp also found a love for great literature closer to home in Dorchester. The Lyceum Hall presented notable speakers, a Shakespeare Club studied the Bard?s works, and Clapp himself organized a rhetoric class for his siblings and neighbors, featuring the works of Shakespeare and Milton, as well as other English classics.

Henry Clapp was familiar with a broad range of literature. In addition to Shakespeare, Milton and Latin and Greek classics, he knew the writings of popular authors such as novelist Charles Dickens, playwright Thomas J. Williams, poet Nathaniel P. Willis, and essayist Mary Abigail Dodge. The ease with which he offered apt literary allusion or a short review of a story he had just read lend color and interest to his own writing. Clapp was an avid reader, even during his stay in North Carolina. He had his Shakespear and Tennyson with him and availed himself of opportunities to read new works, such as Craik?s Mistress and Maid and Rathbone?s Lady Willoughby.

Clapp?s education and literary background gave him a broad vocabulary, as well a polished style in conversation and in writing. His self-confidence enabled him to interact comfortably with all sorts of people. Gifted with an ear for the cadence of words, he found the speech patterns of Southern people, both white and black, of great interest. His eyes caught images, which his mind translated into vivid words. On can see the two tracks of his future career?law and criticism?already in place, the clarity of observation needed for the first and the apt choice of word and metaphor required for the second.

Henry Clapp?s letters are not just a personal record. They give a striking depiction of life in an occupied Southern town. Since he was writing to members of his family, no doubt Clapp left out a great deal of the ugliness, filth, meanness, and vulgarity that accompanied day-to-day life in any army. Nevertheless, what is left is still true and tells a great deal (and often tells it very well) about an important era in the histories of both North Carolina and Massachusetts.


The reader of Henry Clapp's letters may be interested in a brief account of his career after his return from North Carolina. Unlike a number of his comrades, Clapp did not reenlist or take a commission after his muster out at Readville on June 18, 1863. He returned to law school at Cambridge and resumed his proctorship for a year. After working for a while in a Boston law firm, he was admitted to the bar on July 1, 1865. He practiced law until 1875, when he was appointed assistant clerk of the Supreme Judicial Court for Suffolk County, Massachusetts; his appointment was renewed regularly until 1887, when he became clerk, a post he held for the remainder of his life.

On June 23, 1869, Clapp married Florence Clarke of Oswego, New York. The couple had one child, Roger, born March 20, 1877. The family settled in Boston, where Clapp continued to be active in the Episcopal Church.

Soon after his return from North Carolina, Clapp began to contribute articles, chiefly book reviews, to the Boston Daily Advertiser. By 1868 the paper employed him as dramatic and musical critic, and he wrote articles for a number of other magazines and newspapers as well. His astute observations on Boston's theatrical performances gained him a reputation as one of the three or four most influential American dramatic critics of the late nineteenth century. In 1885, building on the enthusiasm instilled by William Rolfe at Dorchester High School thirty years earlier, Clapp began a series of lectures on Shakespeare's plays. He was invited to repeat his talks many times in the years that followed. A collection of his writings was published as Reminiscences of a Dramatic Critic in 1902, the same year that he became chief dramatic critic for the Boston Herald.

Henry A. Clapp died of pneumonia on February 19, 1904, at the age of sixty- two and was buried in the old North Dorchester Cemetery. Oddly enough, this son of Dorchester survived his native town by more than three decades. By the 1860s the city of Boston, which had annexed the town of Roxbury, needed all or part of Dorchester in order to complete a drainage plan for the city. The voters of Dorchester gave their approval to annexation on June 22, 1869. The town, which had been the first in New England to establish the town meeting, held its last such conclave on December 28, 1869. The annexation took effect on January 4. 1870.

The rest of the Clapp family continued to reside in the part of Boston that had once formed Dorchester. In 1870 William W. Clapp married Annie Wilson of Oldtown, Maine, and appears to have moved to the West. John P. Clapp died of pleurisy on May 18, 1885, at the age of eighty-two, much lamented by the congregants of St. Mary's Church, where he still served as senior warden. In 1891 he was followed by Mary Clapp, who was seventy-four years old at her death from "phthisis," or tuberculosis. Henry Clapp's two sisters, neither of whom ever married, also died early: Helen in 1897 and Louise in 1904, just six months after her older brother. Henry Clapp's son Roger grew up to graduate from Harvard in 1899 and, like his father, earned his law degree there. He served for many years as an assistant attorney general for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In 1909 he married Antoinette Louise Hayes; their daughter, Ruth, was born in 1911. Roger, Henry Clapp's only child, died in 1964. In 1980 Ruth Clapp died unmarried, and Henry Clapp's line thus became extinct.

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Created: September 4, 2005   Modified: September 4, 2005