Almost immediately after the victory of the Union forces in the great War of Rebellion, New Bedford City Fathers began deliberating how to make certain the blood tributes of troops and sailors would never be forgotten, nor the reasons why they fought and died. They set a deadline of July 4th, 1866, to complete the memorial project, agreed on financing and hired a well-known Boston architect.
After 155 years, the Civil War monument at Clasky Common Park is showing its age. Time’s ravages have dulled the chiseled edges of that message those city fathers so carefully crafted. The other day, this Ancient Scribe had to squint and brainstorm to interpret the inscription’s weather-worn lettering and double check with a keen-eyed companion lest the meaning be misread. No mistake. The antique lettering carried the message from our ancestors sharp and stark. Here’s what the inscription said:
“Erected by the city of New Bedford as a tribute of gratitude to her sons who fell defending their country in the struggle with slavery and treason.”
Revisionist historians and Lost Cause advocates can have their say. People can claim the war was about state’s rights and the original Constitution. In New Bedford they knew differently. It was about human dignity and freedom from slavery. It was also about defending the Union from those who would break it apart.
Rev. Alonzo Quint of the North Congregational Church, one of the speakers at the dedication ceremonies, would ask, “Is it all a dream — these four years? That clash of arms … That feverish life in which men and women grow a year older in each of many days? No, this stone shall declare it was a reality. Many a man and woman will see upon its faces scenes which the artist had not cut there.”
He saw the monument as a sacred place, a sanctuary. To this day, it has that feeling of holiness. Vandals defaced the monument during the Scott Lang administration. Lang quickly installed a black iron fence keeping vandals at a distance. The scribe sees it as a kind of altar rail. Quint was likely referring to the hundreds of men not at the celebration that day, lost to battle or disease or infections from festering wounds. Others would look at the blank funereal stone and fill it in with recall of the anxiety-spawned nightmares of missing fathers and sons as the fortunes of war spun wildly month after month after month, capped at the end by the ghastly assassination of President Lincoln. We read about those days as history; the people at that dedication that Fourth of July saw it as the cold harsh reality they endured, the disaster they survived.
Back then, New Bedford was a fast-changing city of 24,000 souls and more than 10 percent of that population, 3,300 men, had joined in that epic struggle.
Stonecutters, fighting the clock for the long-awaited Fourth of July dedication, had no time to add the names of the slain. The dedication date was already inscribed, quite literally, a hard deadline if there ever was one.
So, no one got named at all. Not a single soldier or sailor, a politician, let alone an architect, just the city of New Bedford, as a whole, not Mayor Perry, not the august sage and abolitionist James B. Congdon, not an alderman, a whaling baron, a mill owner, or banker. The city did this, the entire city. None got credit, except the men not there, the force of the fallen.
It was a united and joyous New Bedford that July day as people, white as well as Black, cut loose, not so much to mourn, as they did the May 30th just past, but to celebrate, as bands played on in what was and remains one of the city’s most beautiful reserves. The crowd was by all accounts varied, returning veterans, store owners and clergy, lawyers and dentists, mill workers in a city turning from whales to textiles, politicians, of course, women in widow’s weeds and discharged soldiers, a few on crutches or missing an arm.
The Yankee population was decidedly dominant in 1866 but the Irish were the largest immigrant group back then, clustered near the Common. Waves of French and Portuguese and Azoreans remained on the horizon. The Black population, including a sizable number of freedmen, lived mostly in the West End. The Cape Verdeans, years before, had gained a foothold in the whaling industry, and their numbers were on the rise as well.
The unity of that day was born on the battlefield as returning veterans recognized their mutual sacrifice while taking pride in their own accomplishments. The survivors of the 54th Regiment would soon form their own post of the Grand Army of the Republic, named after Col. Robert G. Shaw, killed while leading the 54th in its bloody assault on Fort Wagner, key outpost defending Charleston, S.C.
The same thwarted attack cost scores of other lives, including more than a half-dozen lives of New Bedford troops in the regiment. But it also made the 54th famous for its bravery under fire. A symbol of that bravery was Sgt. William Carney, whose heroism that day while seriously wounded made him nationally known. He would become the first man of color ever to win the Medal of Honor.
White Union veterans established a GAR post of their own, named after Lt. Col William Logan Rodman, killed in battle in Louisiana. A member of one of New Bedford’s most prominent families, his body was shipped home to a hero’s welcome in 1863. He was the highest-ranking officer among the New Bedford war dead.
Any racial antagonism would come years later.
That wondrous day of joy and jubilation ended in a baseball game, an intra team match pitting the Wamsutta Club bachelors against the married men. No box score survived, but close to 100 runs were scored in a very close game. Don’t ask the Scribe who pitched. He doesn’t know.
(Ken Hartnett is former editor-in-chief at The Standard-Times and founder of The New Bedford Light.)
(Photo at top of story of Sgt. William Carney, circa 1864.)
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