Published: May 24, 2011
A mere 86 years to the day after “&⁴he embattled farmers stood; and fired the shot heard ’round the world,” Concord once again demonstrated its readiness for war. Bitter discord over slavery had fomented throughout the new republic since colonial days and erupted in the firing on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861.
By April 19, some 40 men of the Concord Infantry responded to President Abraham Lincoln’s initial call for troops, and the entire town turned out to see them off. Subsequent calls for reinforcements brought the total of Concord soldiers to about 300. Of those, around 40 were lost to war or disease.
The exhibition “When Duty Whispers: Concord and the Civil War” opened at the Concord Museum exactly 150 years after the commencement of the war. It is a multilayered exploration of the war, its genesis and its effects on those who fought it and those who waited at home, reflected in the experience of one New England town. What is special about the exhibit is the display of objects actually used before and during the war. They provide a reading of the war in historic terms and from the perspective of the townspeople. They also shed light on the people who gathered them and their feelings about the war.
Concord, an advanced intellectual center since colonial days, was home to American philosophers and writers Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott and her father, Bronson, among others, including Nathaniel Hawthorne. Transcendentalism, which embraced the individuality of man and ultimately abolition, took root from Emerson’s 1836 essay “Nature,” and although its center was in nearby Cambridge, it was well received in Concord.
John Brown’s visit and lectures on abolition were attended eagerly; his support was substantial. The town’s abolitionist nature was in evidence early, particularly among the women. The Female Anti-Slavery Society, established in Concord in 1838 by mainstay Mary Merrick Brooks, with Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau, mother of Henry David Thoreau, and Thoreau’s sisters, Sophia and Helen, was relatively radical.
The Concord meetings of the Middlesex County Antislavery Society were also well attended and lively, as were the periodic antislavery fairs. Citizens of Concord were active in the effort to prevent Kansas from becoming a slave state, raising funds for the cause.
While Concord was among the most militant communities in the country in the 1830s and 1840s, not everyone in town was so inclined. For example, Emerson was considerably less ardent at first (although his wife, Lydia, was much engaged) and Hawthorne was among those who never espoused the cause at all.
That said, the outbreak of war and the departure of the volunteers unified the populace as nothing else had. Even the quibblers supported the troops. The Soldiers’ Aid Society, founded at the beginning of the war, provided clothing, food, bandages, quilts and other necessities for soldiers of the Concord Artillery and later for all soldiers. Its membership numbered about 150 women and men who raised funds and produced goods for the troops.
School children were also active in the cause, engaging in presentations, songs, recitations and declamations. The students of Miss Dillingham’s intermediate school in Concord hemmed 64 crash towels, a coarse plain woven linen essential in matters of personal hygiene and other necessities. In the 1837 The Family Nurse; or Companion of the American Frugal Housewife, Lydia Maria Child advised readers to, “Wash your whole person thoroughly, at least once or twice a week, and rub yourself with a coarse crash towel or brush, till the surface glows. Many a consumption might be prevented by proper regard to this suggestion.”
Soldiers themselves learned to sew as evinced by the 1863 sewing kit that belonged to George V. Monroe of Carlisle, who served in the 47th Massachusetts in New Orleans. Miss Bean’s intermediate school students made 60 bags containing thread, pins and needles.
“When Duty Whispers: Concord and the Civil War” comprises the accoutrements of war, the artifacts of life at home and compelling illustrations of the national political scene drawn from the Concord Museum’s own collection and from the Concord Free Library Special Collections, the Carlisle Historical Society and the Gleason Public Library, the Middlesex School and the Concord Art Association.
Events and personalities are brought to life again through the objects on view. Of the initial departure of troops, author Louisa May Alcott wrote poignantly in her journal, “Our Concord company went to Washington. A busy time getting them ready, and a sad day seeing them off, for in a little town like this we all seem like one family in times like these.” Alcott later served as a nurse in Washington, D.C., and wrote about it in Hospital Sketches .
Each departing officer was presented with an Allen and Wheelock pistol by the Concord Billiards, Chess and Whist Club. The example on view is engraved on the ivory grip documenting the gift and the date of departure, April 19, 1861. It belonged to Joseph Derby Jr, first lieutenant, Company G, Fifth Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.
Weapons on view represent nearly every type of armament used in the war: swords and bayonets; rifles, muskets, pistols and revolvers. They are arranged so that a viewer can see the technological advances in weaponry over the course of the war.
Government-issue guns were made in the armories at Harper’s Ferry, West Va., or the one at Springfield, Mass. The earliest on view is the Model 1842 Mississippi rifle made in 1849 at Harper’s Ferry and relates to the Louisiana volunteers. It is part of the Danner Collection of the Carlisle (Mass.) Historical Society and Gleason Public Library.
The latest weapon on view is the Model 1863 .58 caliber rifle bayonet made at the Springfield Armory in 1864. Two vials of percussion caps gathered from various sites between 1861 and 1865 are labeled to remember “the old days of 1861.” A soldier also carried a cartridge box and a bayonet.
Other objects carried into battle include the Model 1861 artillery driver’s saddle and bridle that was issued to the town of Concord for the horses that drew the two cannons of the Concord Artillery Company, 64 members of which (from Concord and other towns) formed the nucleus of Company G, 5th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment. That regiment, under the command of Captain George Lincoln Prescott, was part of the contingent that left Concord in the initial response to President Lincoln’s request for troops.
Letters home and diary entries on view record the mundane events of daily life alongside the heart-rending and horrifying aspects of the war.
Images such as the 1860 lithograph after Jonathan Badger Bachelder’s painting “Review of the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia at Concord,” a highly detailed view of some 6,000 troops gathered for a muster, is an intense closeup of the militia. The muster is said to have been one of many elements foretelling the war.
An 1881 lithograph of Gettysburg published by Thomas Kelly illustrates the culmination of events on July 3, 1863. Such prints were meant for home viewing. An Anti-Slavery Society broadside of January 28, 1858, advertises a performance to benefit the society by the Concord Dramatic Union, which was established by Louisa May Alcott, her sister Anna and some Concord neighbors.
An early Twentieth Century postcard on view depicts the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery sculpture “Mourning Victory” by Daniel Chester French. It was dedicated to the three Concord brothers, Asa, John and Samuel Melvin, members of Company K, 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery, who all died in the war: Asa at Petersburg, John at Fort Albany, N.Y., and Samuel at the prison at Andersonville, Ga., from which he had written, “I am so sorry to leave my bones in Georgia.” The sculpture was commissioned by their surviving brother James C. Melvin in 1897.
The silk national flag of the 55th Massachusetts Volunteers, one of two black regiments from the commonwealth, dominates one gallery wall. The silk flag and a regimental example were issued July 8, 1863. The regimental flag was carried into battles in Georgia, Florida and South Carolina and did not survive. The surviving flag is part of the Middlesex School collection of Civil War material donated by descendents of Norwood Penrose Hallowell, the regiment’s first commander.
Precious wool fragments from the flag that flew during the 1861 bombardment of Fort Sumter were dispersed, with two ending up in the collection of the Concord Museum.
A Union officer’s tunic of super fine wool on view was tailored in the height of fashion with the desirable “pigeon breast.” The Damon Mill in West Concord supplied 50,000 yards of white cotton and wool flannel to the United States Depot of Army Clothing and Equipage in New York City, where it was made into Union Army shirts.
An enlisted man’s regulation overcoat of sky-blue kersey, a blend of wool and cotton, was made with a short cape and a stand-up collar. Officers were later encouraged to wear them in battle because the color made them less obvious targets. A shortage in 1861 and 1862 resulted in dark blue, black and brown examples going to war.
The variety of headgear displayed reflects its range among Union troops. Some preferred soft wool forage caps, such as the example on view, to stiff black felt dress hats encrusted with brass. The Union officer’s wool felt slouch hat was regulation; the example on view was worn by a soldier from the Wheeler family of Concord. The McDowell cap, a type of forage cap, had a narrow brim and a high crown.
“When Duty Whispers: Concord and the Civil War” remains on view through September 18. The museum is at 200 Lexington Road. For information, 978-369-9763 or www.concordmuseum.org .
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