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Natick played a role in Civil War glory

NATICK -- Retired history teacher Cary Holmes was combing through records of Natick's Civil War veterans recently when he noticed that one of the town's vets served with a conspicuous regiment -- the 54th Massachusetts. Having found one 54th officer with Natick ties, he wondered whether there might be more.

Indeed there were.

Anyone who has seen the 1989 movie "Glory" is familiar with the 54th, an all-black regiment created to support Union efforts and buttress abolitionist sentiment. When the War Department authorized Massachusetts Governor John Andrew to raise an all-black regiment in 1863, he created a panel to seek out white officers.

Many of those officers, according to Holmes's research of documents from the Grand Army of the Republic, a Civil War veterans group, hailed from or retired to Natick -- at least 12 that he's found so far.

"It says something about Natick, as part of a web of abolitionist sentiment with South Framingham and [noted abolitionist] Lydia Maria Child out in Wayland," Holmes said.

Samuel Willard Mann was one of the first officers Holmes discovered. Mann, of Boston, served in Company D of the 20th Massachusetts Regiment. He rose to the rank of second lieutenant following the bloody September 1862 battle at Antietam, in which 23,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed. A year later, Mann received a promotion to captain and was transferred to the all-black 54th.

Mann was severely injured in the leg during the assault on South Carolina's Fort Wagner, the battle in which Commander Robert Gould Shaw, who was played by actor Matthew Broderick in "Glory," was killed. After the war, Mann moved to Natick, buying a house on Washington Avenue. His postwar jobs included stints as a shoemaker, railroad conductor, and janitor at the Bacon School. He served as a Natick selectman before his death in 1923.

"So, here was a guy living in Natick who fought with the 54th and was severely wounded just before Colonel Shaw was killed," said Holmes, a reference librarian at the Morse Institute Library. "And tracking him down, I found another two Natick people that played a very prominent role, not only with the 54th, but with a sister regiment, and one of the guys went on to be a brigadier general."

Much of what Holmes learned about Mann was derived from the officer's application for membership to the Natick post of the Grand Army of the Republic. The library has in its collection 250 applications from the post. Holmes's handwritten application is now posted in a display case on the lower level of the Morse Institute Library, along with other photos and documents from Natick men who served with the regiments. The display will remain in place through next month.

Martha Jones, who collects materials and oversees archives at the library, suggested Natick may have been home to a cluster of officers because the officers wanted to serve with people they knew and could trust. "They knew these were people they could depend on," she said.

The 54th, immortalized in the Oscar-winning "Glory," was not the only all-black regiment from Massachusetts. A sister regiment, the Massachusetts 55th, was formed later.

One of its officers was William D. Nutt, who transferred from the 54th. Nutt received several battlefield promotions during the war, at one point commanding the 55th, according to Holmes's research.

Nutt returned home to Natick after the war, opening a law office downtown. He was active in town affairs until his death in 1909.

One Natick resident whose postwar life has been well-documented is Alfred S. Hartwell, who served as a captain in the 54th and was later transferred to the 55th, becoming a full colonel in command of that regiment in 1863. During the war, he advocated for equal pay for black enlisted men, and afterward, he ran an office of the Freedman's Bureau in South Carolina. He would later return to Natick, finish his law studies at Harvard, and eventually serve as Natick's representative to the state Legislature.

(His public life did not end there. He was enlisted to serve as a justice, and later chief justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court. He died in Hawaii in 1912, and is buried there.)

Holmes said this is just the beginning of his research. He has come across the names of at least five black enlisted men with Natick ties, but with records of slaves and free blacks scarce, verifying identities is a challenge, he said. Also, he recognizes many of the family names as common in Natick, and is hoping descendants of some of the officers are still living in the area.

Holmes and Jones said they hope this information expands Natick's awareness of its military history. Veterans groups are very active in the town, and the names of servicemen and servicewomen who died during 20th-century wars are inscribed on a plaque outside the library. An ongoing oral-history project at the library is collecting stories from the town's veterans.

And while the town's Native American heritage also is well-known, much of its role in the country's development during the 19th century has been overlooked, Jones said.

American history can be best taught as local history, Holmes said, recounting a mantra he learned from a mentor.

"I think this begins to say something about local history that no one has been aware of."

John C. Drake can be reached at 508-820-4229 or jdrake@globe.com.

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