During the Civil War, roughly 60 percent of the men in Reading who were eligible to enlist did their patriotic duty. They were shoemakers and machinists, masons and carpenters, some barely old enough to vote. Many left wives and children behind.
Forty-eight Reading soldiers died as a direct result of the war, either from disease or injury, and 27 of them are buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery, just steps from Town Hall.
The beauty and serenity of the well-manicured cemetery, with its stone walls, centuries-old oak trees, and handsome obelisks, are undeniable. Still, time and the elements have inflicted a heavy toll on some of the older markers.
Some are cracked and broken, the once-gleaming stones covered by lichen. Several have fallen over. Concerned about their fragile condition, local resident Virginia Blodgett last year urged town officials to apply for a grant to repair the gravestones of some of Reading’s Civil War soldiers.
“Time takes stones in all graveyards, but I felt these men were important to the history of our town, of our country, and that their stones should be preserved,” said Blodgett, a retired teacher.
The Massachusetts Sesquicentennial Commission of the American Civil War in June awarded Reading a $7,500 grant. A fund-raising campaign is underway to secure required matching funds. To date, more than $4,500 in private contributions has been raised.
The work is expected to begin this fall and must be completed by June 30. Quotes for the work are due Sept. 4, according to Assistant Town Manager Jean J. Delios. The town is hoping to attract several bids.
“Projects like this bring so much back to the town,” said Delios, noting that the work will dovetail nicely with the town’s efforts to identify other resources in Reading that make the community unique as officials try to create a cultural district.
“This preservation effort highlights one of the special features that Reading has right here in the downtown,” Delios said. “Ideally, we’d like to leverage it as an economic development tool, to attract visitors who might be interested in the history and then enjoy some shopping or maybe go for lunch. It all hangs together to solidify the fabric of the community.”
The repairs, Delios said, will be completed with materials made specifically for the type of calcareous stone used for the markers. Work will concentrate on eight gravestones that are in the worst shape, either broken or fallen over.
“We are very supportive of the project,” said Robert Keating, supervisor of Reading’s cemeteries, parks, and forestry.
“Laurel Hill was the only cemetery in town at the time of the Civil War,” Keating said of Reading’s oldest burial ground. Dating to 1737, the sprawling 20-acre cemetery is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“The Civil War was such a huge part of the history of every city and town in Massachusetts because such a high proportion of the population served,” Keating said.
In 1860, a year before the Civil War broke out, the US Census listed Reading’s population as 2,662. Of those, about 730 were men between the ages of 18 and 60, and therefore eligible to serve. In all, 411 men enlisted in military service during the war and helped to fulfill Reading’s quota of Union soldiers.
In addition to the repair work, the town is applying to the US Department of Veterans Affairs for a granite marker for George W. Nelson of the 59th Regiment, who was killed July 4, 1864, at Petersburg, Va. His burial site currently has no gravestone.
Work on the gravestones comes as the town commemorates the war that tore apart the nation between 1861 and 1865. On Sept. 20, the Reading Antiquarian Society will host a Civil War living history encampment at which reenactors of the 15th Regiment will set up camp on the grounds of Parker Tavern. They will portray both civilian and military aspects of the wWar Between the States.
The eight soldiers whose gravestones will be preserved through the restoration project include George Bartlett, Asa Buck, and John Barnes, members of the 50th Regiment, which was formed at Camp Stanton in Boxford in the fall of 1862 and ordered to New Orleans. According to Blodgett’s research, they traveled by train to New York and then headed south by ship. Smallpox broke out on the ship and they were quarantined upon arrival for three months.
Four soldiers — Daniel Berry of the 14th Regiment, Charles L. Crouch of the 13th Regiment, Robert F. Nichols of the Fifth Regiment and First US Army Artillery, and John H. Weston of the 50th and Eighth regiments — served in various locations; all were discharged from their regiments for disability and died in Reading, Blodgett learned.
The last of the eight soldiers, Charles H. Stevens of the 15th Regiment, was wounded at Gettysburg, Pa., on July 2, 1863. Four months later, on Oct. 14, he was mortally wounded at Bristows’ Station, Va., and died the following day. The Grand Army of the Republic Post 53 in Leominster was named in his honor, Blodgett said.
She has given tours of the soldiers’ gravesites and is now developing a self-guided tour that will enable visitors to learn more about Reading’s role in the Civil War.
“I think as New Englanders we are so focused on the Revolutionary War that we don’t really think of the Civil War and the part we played in it,” said Blodgett. “I’m not a history fanatic, but when I looked into the Civil War, I was fascinated by the number of men who served and the impact their absence had on Reading. The sacrifices they made, it really was incredible.”
Tax-deductible donations for the Civil War preservation project may be sent to Veterans Memorial Trust Fund, c/o Frank Driscoll, Veterans Service Officer, 16 Lowell St., Reading, MA 01867.