On this 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, communities are finding it a portal into local history
In 1861, a day after he turned the minimum enlistment age of 18, Duxbury resident Herbert Chandler signed up to fight for the North in the Civil War. He was joined by 214 others from his town — including 14-year-old Charles Rogers and seven other teens, who apparently all lied about their ages.
Chandler and Rogers made it home — unlike 35 of their neighbors — and lived to ages 68 and 63, respectively. Others from Massachusetts were less lucky: Of the 146,730 who fought, almost 10 percent died in battle or from disease.
For the next four years, the state and communities like Duxbury will remember the people and events of the Civil War with a variety of lectures, reenactments, exhibits, and blogs celebrating its sesquicentennial — or 150th — anniversary.
“We’d like to remind people of the contributions of the common people, not just the generals, but all the youngsters who went off and volunteered to preserve the union and abolish slavery,’’ said David L. Smith, president of the Civil War Round Table of Greater Boston and a member of the recently formed Mas sachusetts Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission.
The state’s celebration is getting a late start, acknowledges Thomas Turner, vice chairman of the state commission and a professor emeritus of history at Bridgewater State University. (An expert on Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Turner advised director Robert Redford on historical accuracy on the new movie “The Conspirator.’’)
Some Southern states have been planning for the sesquicentennial for years and already have held major events, Turner said.
“It’s pretty clear the Civil War still has more resonance in the South, in the area where the fighting occurred,’’ he said, adding that Massachusetts is more attuned to events of the American Revolution and its well-known local historical sites.
In April, Governor Deval Patrick signed an executive order creating the Sesquicentennial Commission, charging it with developing programs to commemorate the anniversary and creating an inventory of Civil War-related sites in the state — but provided no public money for the task.
“We’re still getting going, quite honestly,’’ Turner said. “Obviously, we’ve already passed Lincoln’s election and his inauguration, and even the firing at Fort Sumter. So we have to pick up from where we are.’’
But while Massachusetts may be a little behind schedule, it’s ahead of some other Northern states, Turner said. “New York, for example, decided not to have any sesquicentennial commission at all,’’ he said.
Turner said his group hopes to generate interest in Civil War history, in part through a website that will showcase anniversary events across the state and provide historical information.
“Massachusetts played a big role in the war,’’ he said. “There were a lot of abolitionists here, lot of supporters. When the call came out from Lincoln [for troops], Massachusetts responded right away. East Bridgewater, where I live, sent in three companies.’’
Weymouth also contributed heavily to the war effort, sending a company of about 100 men to the 12th regiment, which was organized by Daniel Webster’s son, Fletcher.
A marching band accompanied the local men from Weymouth Town Hall to the Weymouth Landing train station, according to Weymouth Historical Commission member Phil Smith. From there, the group went to Fort Warren on Georges Island to train with other volunteer soldiers from Boston, Stoughton, Abington, Gloucester, and what is now Brockton, Smith said.
The 12th fought in many of the major battles of the Civil War, including Bull Run, Antietam, and Gettysburg. When Webster was killed at Bull Run, Weymouth Captain James Bates took command. He was in his 40s and came from an old Weymouth family. He’d been a teacher and managed one of the town’s more than 60 shoe factories, Smith said.
“He had a pretty interesting career. At the beginning of the Gold Rush, he went to California [by boat], part owner of a company of about 150 men. They scouted around [for gold] for four or five months and ended up disbanding. [Bates] brought the ship back to Boston and picked up a load of guano on the way to sell as fertilizer,’’ Smith said.
After the war, Bates returned home and was named an honorary general for his “gallant and meritorious service.’’
When he died, in 1875, a special train brought mourners from Boston, and more than 2,000 people attended his funeral, Smith said. Bates’s gravestone in Highland Cemetery was restored recently by the Olde Colony Civil War Roundtable, which meets in Dedham.
Bates’s frock coat, shoes, and canteen are on display at the Weymouth Town Museum in the Tufts Library, with other artifacts of the Civil War.
The Duxbury Rural and Historical Society is planning an exhibit of Civil War-related photos, letters, and artifacts this summer, and, according to its executive director, Patrick Browne, will save lots of space for Duxbury native Charlotte Bradford.
A nurse on a hospital ship in the Potomac River, Bradford later ran a Soldiers Home for recuperating veterans and a Home for Wives and Mothers, Browne said.
“This was a place for the women who were flocking to Washington to find their husbands, fathers, and sons who had been injured. A lot of these women would drop everything and arrive totally destitute with no money, no place to stay, and no idea how to find their family member. Charlotte would give them a place to stay and help them,’’ he said.
Browne, who is a Civil War reenactor, said his organization also hopes to have a reenactment/picnic and already has started a blog — duxburyinthecivilwar.wordpress.com — about Duxbury’s role in the war.
A recent entry told the story of John Southworth, a teenager who volunteered with his older brother, Walter. Both shoemakers, they joined the 18th Massachusetts regiment.
Walter came home, but John died in Andersonville Prison.
Throughout the war, John wrote to his cousin, Emma Cushing Paulding, telling her about the miserable conditions, long marches, and battles.
In one letter, he described the suicide of a soldier who couldn’t face another day of war.
In his last letter to his cousin, Southworth wrote about his experience in “the abominable, diabolical war. I can’t say anything bad enough about it.
“I’m afraid of shot and shell, I have had too many of them sing around my head already and I never want to hear another one fired at them, don’t know how dreadful they sound.’’
Johanna Seltz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.