Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Civil War Enthusiast Visits Lexington & Concord

This summer my wife and I decided to spend our family vacation at her parents' house in Westford, Massachusetts.  On previous trips to the Bay State, wedding planning or holiday obligations had gotten in the way of visiting local sites like Lexington and Concord.  This time I had ten days on my hands and was determined to take in some history.  On the Monday before the Fourth of July, my father-in-law (whom readers may know as "the Colonel") and I jumped into his SUV and started our tour.  Most of the sightseeing naturally focused on the Revolutionary War era, but I crafted an itinerary that also promised some local stops related to antebellum America and the Civil War.

We first visited the town of Lexington, where colonial militia and British Regulars clashed on April 19, 1775.  The Colonel and I strolled around the Lexington Green and viewed several Revolutionary War monuments and markers.  I felt incredibly moved to be standing on the very ground where the fight for independence began.  As we walked behind the Buckman Tavern, I spotted a memorial "dedicated to the memory of those who served aboard a ship named Lexington."  Erected in 1988 by the Lexington Lions Club and the USS Lexington CV-16 Association, the monument contains five markers, each one dedicated to a vessel that carried the name "Lexington."  As to be expected, the marker for the Civil War-era Lexington caught my eye.  This timberclad gunboat participated in major battles and campaigns in the Western Theatre, including Ft. Henry, Ft. Donelson, Shiloh, and Vicksburg.

Marker dedicated to the timberclad gunboat Lexington.

We next drove from Lexington to the Minute Man National Historical Park.  Here we viewed a film about the famous Revolutionary War engagements and visited a few landmarks along the Battle Road, including Paul Revere's capture site.  I was reminded of the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 1860 poem, "Paul Revere's Ride," which served as a rallying cry for the Union in the days leading up to the Civil War.

The remainder of our tour was spent in and around Concord.  This town is best known as the site of the "shot heard 'round the world."  However, during the mid-19th century, Concord was home to several famous writers and intellectuals.  Many of these individuals held strong anti-slavery views, and the town became known as a center of the abolitionist movement.  Amos Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May Alcott, was a reformer, teacher, and writer.  A friend of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, he protested against the implementation of the Fugitive Slave Act and even opened his home to runaway slaves.  Poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke publicly against the evils of slavery.  Philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote his famous essay Civil Disobedience (1849) after being arrested for failing to pay taxes in opposition to the Mexican War and slavery. 

Many of Concord's leading thinkers supported abolitionist John Brown and provided money for his cause.  Brown visited Concord in 1857 and again in 1859.  When Brown was captured in the raid on Harpers Ferry, Thoreau came to his defense in a speech that was later published as A Plea for Captain John Brown.

The Colonel and I stopped to visit a few homes that figured in the literary and abolitionist history of Concord (see photos below).  We had limited time, so I could not take docent-led tours, but I am sure that I will be back in future years!  Another must-do on the return trip is the walking tour of African-American and abolitionist history sites put together by the non-profit Drinking Gourd Project.  The Project is also creating an African-American and Abolitionist History Center in a restored cabin that once belonged to Caesar Robbins, a freedman and Revolutionary War veteran.

The Wayside in Concord, which today is part of Minute Man National Historical Park.  The Alcotts resided here from April 1845 to November 1848.  The home, called "Hilldside" by the Alcotts, served as a stop on the Underground Railroad.  Two fugitive slaves stayed here on their way to Canada during the winter of 1846-47.  Author Nathaniel Hawthorne also lived at the Wayside from 1852 until his death in 1864.  Hawthorne, unlike many of his neighbors, was not entirely sold on the idea of abolition.  After a trip to Washington in March 1862 to meet with military and civilian leaders,  Hawthorne penned an essay entitled, "Chiefly About War Matters."  The piece, published in the July 1862 issue of The Atlantic, was critical of the war and earned Hawthorne the scorn of many readers. 
The Orchard House, where the Alcotts resided from 1858 to 1877.   The house is next door to the Wayside.  While living here, Louisa May Alcott decided to volunteer as a nurse for the Union Army.  She headed to Washington in December 1862, where she served until falling ill with typhoid pneumonia in January 1863.  Returning to Concord, Alcott recovered and wrote Hospital Sketches, a book about her experiences as an army nurse.  Originally published as a four-part series in a Boston weekly, the story was released as a book in August 1863.  Alcott also wrote Little Women (1868) while residing at Orchard House.
The Ralph Waldo Emerson House, located not far from the Wayside and Orchard House in Concord.  Emerson resided here with his second wife from 1835 until his death in 1882.
The Colonel and I next made our way into the center of Concord to check out the main attraction on Monument Square.  Like many New England towns, Concord erected a monument to its native sons who died in the Civil War.  At the dedication ceremony on April 19, 1867, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered an address in which he recalled the central role of emancipation in the war:
Every man was an abolitionist by conviction, but did not believe that his neighbor was. The opinions of masses of men, which the tactics of primary caucuses and the proverbial timidity of trade had concealed, the war discovered; and it was found, contrary to all popular belief, that the country was at heart abolitionist, and for the Union was ready to die.

The Soldiers' Monument in Concord, proclaiming "Faithful Unto Death."
Detail of one of the sides of the Soliders' Monument listing the names of those with Concord connections who died in the Civil War.

After lunch and a beer at the historic Colonial Inn, my father-in-law and I drove to the North Bridge.  The site, part of Minute Man National Historical Park, marks the spot where British and colonial forces clashed on April 19, 1775.  The famous statue of the Minute Man by Daniel Chester French sits at one end of the bridge.  President Ulysses S. Grant attended the dedication ceremony for the statue during the Centennial celebration of the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1875.

Minute Man at the North Bridge.  The sculptor, Daniel Chester French, is also famous for his statue of President Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. 
The North Bridge sits close to the Old Manse.  Emerson's grandfather built the home in 1770 and witnessed the battle from his window.  While living here from 1834-35, Emerson wrote Nature, an essay which gave birth to Transcendentalism.   Hawthorne and his wife also called the Old Manse home from 1842-45.

The Old Manse near the North Bridge.  Emerson's grandfather died in 1775.  His grandmother remarried the Rev. Ezra Ripley, and the family continued to reside in the house.  Bronson Alcott and Thoreau often visited the Hawthorne and Ripley families at the Old Manse.

We made our last stop at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, not far from Monument Square in Concord.  Established in 1855, this burial ground contains the graves of many of the town's most prominent citizens.  As I walked through the cemetery and looked over the sloping hillsides, I noticed the large number of graves belonging to Civil War veterans.  Each resting place was marked with an American flag.  I reflected on just how dramatic an impact the war had on a place like Concord.  Far removed from the battlefields in the South, this New England town experienced much sacrifice and loss during four years of war.

Perhaps the most fitting symbol of Concord's ultimate contribution to the Union cause is the Melvin Memorial, known also as Mourning Victory.  James C. Melvin commissioned the memorial in honor of his three brothers who had died in the Civil War.  All three belonged to Company K of the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery, which manned the defenses of Washington before being sent to the front in the spring of 1864.  John Heald Melvin died at a military hospital at Ft. Albany (in Arlington, Va.) on October 13, 1863, while Asa Heald Melvin was killed at Petersburg on June 16, 1864.  Samuel Melvin, who was captured at Harris's Farm, Virginia on May 19, 1864, later died at Andersonville in September 1864.  (Incidentally, all three names are also on the Concord Soldiers' Monument, as seen in the picture above.)

The Melvin Memorial at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.  Daniel Chester French, a longtime friend of James Melvin, created the memorial.  Three tablets on the base of the memorial commemorate each of James Melvin's brothers who died in the Civil War.  The dedication ceremony in 1909 was held on the anniversary of Asa Melvin's death at Petersburg.  Eighty-eight members of the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery attended the ceremony, along with twenty members of the Old Concord Post of the Grand Army of the Republic.
A closer view of the relief sculpture of Victory in mourning, draped in the American flag.

After visiting the Melvin Memorial, I walked to Authors Ridge to see the graves of Concord's famed intellectual and literary community.  The hill is the final resting place for Bronson and Louisa May Alcott, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau.  The latter two died and were buried during the Civil War.  I was fascinated to see that many modern-day visitors have left behind mementos in honor of their favorite authors.

The Alcott family grave site at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.  Louisa May Alcott's grave is marked by a flag to honor her wartime service as a nurse.
The graves of James C. Melvin and John H. Melvin at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.  James Melvin served with the 6th Massachusetts Infantry.  Asa Melvin, killed at Petersburg, is buried in an unknown grave in Virginia, while Samuel Melvin is interred at Andersonville National Cemetery.
Following Sleepy Hollow, the Colonel and I headed back to home base.  The all-day tour not only taught me a thing or two about the Revolution, but also satisfied my craving to explore Massachusetts history during the Civil War era.  If you stop and look around, the war surrounds you everywhere in Concord.   In some ways, the town that helped to ignite the Revolution was at the forefront of a new one.  And the headstones and monuments speak to the high price that the community paid to preserve the Union and end slavery.


Aside from the links provided above, the following sources were useful in compiling this post:

Concord (Mass.), Ceremonies at the Dedication of the Soldiers' Monument in Concord, Mass. (1867); Concord Free Public Library, "Address at the Centennial of the Concord Fight, 1875" (2003); "Famous (and Infamous) Authors: Nathaniel Hawthorne: Clashes with Editors," The Atlantic; National Park Service, Soldiers and Sailors Database; Alfred S. Roe (ed.), The Melvin Memorial, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts: A Brother's Tribute: Exercises at  Dedication, June 16, 1909 (1910); Robert Sattelmeyer, "Miss Alcott Goes to War," Civil War Times, April 2012; Richard Smith, "Concord and Captain John Brown," The Concord Magazine, March-April 2001.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting info Ronnie. As a history buff myself, and a native of Mass I look forward to checking out Sleepy Hollow Cemetery on your next trip north :-)

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks. Glad you liked it. Now if we can just get your sister to come along!

MattCasey said...

Hi Ron,

I came across your site by accident but love your entries. I am a historic site interpreter at The Old Manse and a Civil War buff. There is actually a really cool Civil War history to the home and the town on Concord which is going to be detailed in a book I am working on.

Matt Casey

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks, Matt. What a great place to work! I look forward to hearing more about your book project. I have added your blog to my bloglist. Thanks again for reading.