Vintage Views: The elusive Uncle John Virgin

  • A late fall view of the Old North Cemetery in Concord. Wendy C. Spain / For the Monitor

For the Monitor
Published: 5/21/2022 5:06:43 PM
Modified: 5/21/2022 5:06:24 PM

I visited the beautiful Old North Cemetery last fall in search of a gravestone that remains quite elusive. It is a stone that marks the final resting place of a Concord soldier that served our country during the War of 1812. On this particular fall day, the maple and oak trees boasted some beautiful colors with shadows dancing across the hallowed ground, this ground that held the remains of John Virgin so reverently.

John Virgin was a Concord native and lived his life in a most simple way, somewhat of a mystery it was only known that he served under General William Henry Harrison as a soldier during the War of 1812. John Virgin is remembered gently in local lore most commonly in his last years decades after the War of 1812. He returned to Concord after the war and constructed a primitive cabin on the east side of the Merrimack River near the bluffs we know as Sugar Ball. John was not known to work for he survived in his simple ways on a federal pension in the amount of $96 annually, enough to purchase his basic needs and go on living in the wooded area not far from the river.

Our ancestors would see John Virgin walking about Main Street only on rare occasions, when he needed supplies or other particular items. The people he encountered during his rare jaunts to the west side of the Merrimack River affectionately called him “Uncle John.” The citizens of Concord new him as an old war hero and showed respect accordingly. Uncle John Virgin was a very intelligent man and a strong supporter of his old friend General Harrison when he ran for president of the United States. People would ask Uncle John how the election was proceeding and he graced them with a most elegant response as he bestowed his support for General Harrison. A favorite quote attributed to John Virgin was known to be “Glory to the noble General William Henry Harrison,” a very strong and dedicated supporter of this candidate.

Local lore does tell us that John Virgin was a soldier during the War of 1812 and he did indeed serve gallantly under General Harrison. It is a fact that both John Virgin and General Harrison both engaged in the battle of Tippecanoe. Uncle John spoke of this battle when the opportunity presented itself, then he would wander back to his little cabin in the woods across the river, not to be seen again for months. Uncle John was indeed well liked, the people of Concord made every effort to assist this older war hero in any way they could. For the most part all offers of charity were declined by Uncle John, he preferred to live simply by himself, perhaps harboring his memories from his military days. As the years passed and John Virgin became elderly the offers of assistance increased, but Uncle John still stood strong with his opposition. It is known that our ancestors still helped him in their own quiet ways. People would leave firewood near his old cabin, warm meals by his door when the opportunity presented itself.

The people of Concord knew that John Virgin did not have any friends. He had no friends by his own choosing and preferred to live alone with the desire to die alone and be buried alone.

So, it was during the winter of 1853 when people in Concord started to speak about Uncle John Virgin once again. It was a very cold February day and the people about town started to ask questions about the longer than usual absence of John Virgin. He was not seen for a very extended period of time that winter and the good people of Concord decided it was time somebody walk across the frozen Merrimack River and hike the hill to the cabin near Sugar Ball.

It was on Feb. 24, 1853, that Mr. Moses Cass and Mr. True George gathered the strength to pay a visit to Uncle John, just to make sure he was well. As they crossed the frozen Merrimack River and waded through the deep Concord snow they saw the old cabin in the distance, of particular note was the fact that no smoke rose from the old chimney on this bitterly cold day. Both Moses and True approached cautiously and further realized the ground surround the cabin was void of all footprints in the deep snow. Their thoughts were forlorn as they reach the cabin door and entered slowly.

John Virgin was found on this day, frozen to death. His body was located on the cabin floor in front of the woodstove, the woodstove door askew with his hand gently inside the long cold woodstove. Uncle John Virgin was no more, the stories of his heroic action during the War of 1812 were recounted until the years claimed those memories, much like the forest reclaimed the old cabin where John Virgin drew his last breath.

Seth Eastman, Esquire, conducted an inquiry into the death of John Virgin. He spoke to both Mr. Moses Cass and Mr. True George to document the discovery of the deceased old man. It was commonly known around Concord that Uncle John always said he wanted to live alone, die alone and be buried alone, so it was with these thoughts a burial was planned.

The Concord Selectmen set about placing John Virgin to rest eternally at once. There would be no celebrations or services for this local war hero, Uncle John would not have appreciated that at all. The Church Sexton Joseph Brown retrieved the body the same day it was discovered and brought it to the hearse-house near the Old North Cemetery. Joseph Brown placed the remains of John Virgin in a plain pine box and brought his remains into the Old North Cemetery for burial at 11 a.m. the very next morning. Yes, this war hero who lived alone and died alone was in fact buried alone. It was just John Virgin and Joseph Brown that cold February morning at the Old North Cemetery. I would like to think Joseph Brown said a few prayers as he ushered John Virgin to his eternal rest.

As I visited the Old North Cemetery on that beautiful day last fall, I searched for the gravestone with the name of John Virgin. My search was unsuccessful so I visited Jill and George at the Concord Cemetery Office where the burial records are filed for all Concord cemeteries.

I believe Uncle John Virgin, that War of 1812 Veteran from Concord, New Hampshire was indeed a respected person. He lived alone, he died alone and he was buried alone. There are no records for the burial of John Virgin at the Old North Cemetery. There is no gravestone to be found. Yes, Uncle John Virgin has found his eternal rest within the hallowed confines of the Old North Cemetery, anonymous as can be.

Vintage Views is a local history column that explores Concord and its surrounding towns. It runs every week in the Sunday Your Life section. The author is a historian and not a member of the Monitor’s staff.

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