The Morrisons were once among Derry's most distinguished families. One of my favorite members of this clan was Professor Charles P. Morrison (1837-1909). While he is mainly forgotten today, he was once a nationally known composer and had been an incredibility brave soldier in the Civil War.
The first of his family to live in town was John Morrison, who arrived here from Northern Ireland in 1720. Town records recorded that he lived to the age of 108.
His great-great-great-grandson was Charles P. Morrison. Charlie was the third generation in his family to be born in the Lane mansion in East Derry - now the site of the law office of Rebecca Rutter.
The family moved to Newburyport, Mass., when Charlie was very young. There, he attended elementary school and studied vocal and instrumental music. When he was about 16 he was sent back to Derry to live with relatives so he could graduate from Pinkerton Academy. In 1854 he returned to Newburyport, where he taught music. In 1856, he married Mary-Agnes Plummer, and in time they would become the parents of three children.
The Civil War began on April 12, 1861, with the attack on Fort Sumter. Four days later Charlie Morrison kissed his pregnant wife and kids goodbye and joined the 8th Massachusetts Infantry. Soon this regiment, nicknamed the Boston Minute Men, was on the way to Annapolis, Md., to prevent the USS Constitution from falling into Confederate hands.
During his absence, his wife gave birth to a daughter. Mrs. Morrison died a few days later, and the baby shortly afterward. Charlie couldn't come home to grieve or bury his wife. He was needed to protect Washington, D.C. from Southern attack.
Charlie finally returned to Boston on Aug. 1, 1861, to make sure his two remaining children were being suitably cared for. On Oct. 1, he enlisted in the 48th Massachusetts Infantry and was immediately commissioned as lieutenant. He is recorded as standing 5-foot-7 and having blues eyes, brown hair and a dark complexion. In early May 1863, Charlie received word that his 2-year-old daughter had died.
The regiment went by steamship to New Orleans. From May 13 to July 9, 1863, he was involved with the siege of Port Hudson, part of Gen. Grant's campaign against Vicksburg. The massive citadel fort at Port Hudson was on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi and was manned by 7,500 Confederate soldiers. The 40,000 Union soldiers outside were commanded by Gen. Nathaniel Bank.
The Union army tried attack after attack on the fort without success. By the 40th day of the siege, General Bank was totally frustrated. By now 10,000 of his soldiers had been killed or wounded or had died from disease. Desperate times called for desperate actions.
Gen. Bank called for an "elite" band of 1,000 volunteers to storm the fort at night. This band of brothers was immediately christened "The Forlorn Hope." The title is from the Dutch "verloren hoop," which means the "lost group" - soldiers who volunteer for a suicide mission. Among the volunteers was Lt. Charles Morrison. This do-or-die outfit's only function was to act as a flying wedge that would open up a hole in the Confederate defenses. Immediately afterward, Banks' reserve column would stream into the fort by going over the bodies of the 1,000.
Can anyone imagine the anxiety Charlie Morrison must have felt as he waited by his campfire on the night of July 8, 1863? He knew that within hours he would probably be killed climbing the bluff up to Port Hudson. Perhaps he found comfort from the hope that soon he would be reunited with his wife and daughters in Heaven.
That night, while Charlie Morrison waited for the sound of the bugle to start the attack, the word came down that Grant had captured Vicksburg.
Immediately, Banks sent word of the Union victory to the Confederate commander inside Port Hudson. The southerner realized that now there was little sense in keeping up his defense of his fort. On the morning of July 9, the citadel at Port Hudson surrendered to the Union army. Lt. Morrison and the men of The Forlorn Hope were spared from having to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Charlie left the army in September 1863 and moved to Worcester, Mass., where he became a respected music teacher, played the organ in several churches and conducted the local orchestra. In the summer of 1869, he took part in the National Peace Jubilee in Boston. This massive musical event had a chorus of 10,000 singers supporting an orchestra composed of some of the world's greatest musicians. The finale involved a performance of Verdi's "Anvil Chorus" featuring 1,000 red-shirted firemen beating hammers on a thousand blacksmith's anvils.
In 1879, Morrison moved to Saint Louis, Mo., to become head of the music department at Washington University. While at the college, Professor Morrison composed many hymns, masses and songs. He also had published two volumes of church anthems, three school song books, a history of Gregorian requiem masses and numerous pieces of sheet music.
He always expressed a love for the town of Derry. Every year Charlie would vacation among his old haunts seeking out old friends. In 1908 his health began to fail and he became blind. Wanting to spend his last days in his home town, Charlie moved in with his sister Alice Bly at 52 East Broadway, now the site of the Fairpoint Telephone office. Charles Morrison died there on Dec. 3, 1909. He was buried at the Forest Hill Cemetery in the Morrison family lot.
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Rick Holmes is the former chairman of the Derry Heritage Commission. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack's Apples and Derry libraries.