fb-pixel Skip to main content

For this Concord class, history unfolds right in the middle of their town

‘He wasn’t asked to join the war. He joined himself and tried to help the country… That was really cool.’

Sydney Holloman-Pressley with her students at the Willard School, where they conducted research that led to Concord's decision to honor George Washington Dugan, the town's sole Black Civil War soldier.Sydney Pressley/Willard School

CONCORD — As they sat at their fifth-grade desks here at Willard Elementary School, what struck these kids in this history-rich town was the essential unfairness of it all.

So, instead of turning the page, they decided to do something about it.

They learned about this man who grew up here, a Civil War soldier named George Washington Dugan, and the more they studied, the more they were determined to right what they knew to be wrong.

“I thought he was a cool person,” Molly told me when I visited her classroom via Zoom the other day. “He wasn’t asked to join the war, he joined himself and tried to help the country. He was the only Black person to fight from Concord so I thought that was really cool.”


Her classmate, Caroline, nodded her head in agreement.

“When we sent the letters, I didn’t think it was going to make an impact,” Caroline said. “But since it did, I was excited. I think we did make a change. And it was really a fun thing to do. I think we did the right thing.”

And now, these kids can take their own place in Concord’s history, a history that will now forever be preserved on a tablet at the base of Concord’s Civil War Monument honoring the man whose 19th century bravery has been championed by 21st century school kids.

Earlier this year, the Concord Select Board unanimously approved the installation of an 18-by-24-inch bronze tablet set on granite here on Monument Square to recognize a man who enlisted at the age of 44 in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

He then paid the supreme sacrifice after “the heroic assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina.”

Much of the credit for the memorial belongs to a group of bright-eyed school kids who seized on a piece of their local history — and then made some of their own.


Rick Frese, a local historian, and cemetery supervisor Tish Hopkins are leading efforts to install a tablet at the base of Concord's Civil War Monument to honor the service of George Washington Dugan.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Tish Hopkins, Concord’s cemetery supervisor, and Rick Frese, a local historian, gave a community history lesson at a recent meeting of the town’s Select Board, imploring local officials to create this new memorial, citing compelling evidence.

Dugan, they told the board, was born into a well-respected Concord farming family. His parents, Thomas and Jennie Dugan were so well-known a brook, a town well, and a road are now named for them. Their son was 44 when he saw an ad in the Boston Journal early in 1863. Then, he marched off to war.

“He was twice the age of most of the people in his unit,” Hopkins told the board. “He didn’t have to go. (He) was a farmer here in town with his own home and land. He chose to go.”

It’s that story of selfless courage and unwavering patriotism that captured the imagination of these modern-day school kids and propelled them to ensure the man and his heroism are not lost to the mists of time.

Sydney Holloman-Pressley, a Willard School fifth-grade teacher, had unsuccessfully tried a few years ago to formally recognize Dugan’s heroism. This time, it worked.

“We’re really excited that they could enact change,” Holloman-Pressley said. “And that they could see this happening (because) of their writing. They did a really great job.”

George Washington Dugan's service record as compiled in the 1908 Concord Soldiers and Sailors Report.

George Washington Dugan made the ultimate sacrifice in the summer of 1863 in South Carolina.


“The bodies of these men were placed in mass graves,” he said. “So that’s how we crafted the language for the tablet.”

The other day, as I talked with Frese and Tish Hopkins at the site where that tablet will be placed, red-white-and-blue bunting hung from the façade of the nearby store. Under sunny, cobalt-blue skies, an American flag waved in the gentle morning breeze.

They said compelling evidence and the school kids from Willard Elementary School had made all the difference — moving the proposal to the local historic district commission for its expected approval.

“I think any adult, receiving letters like that, it would absolutely get their attention," Frese told me as we stood at the base of the monument. “The letters from the kids really captured their attention. This has been sort of a slow-moving, incremental process for about seven years. But the kids were enormously helpful."

It’s the kind of effort that would enliven any classroom exercise. It’s the collective voice of young students who happen to live in a town where history lives just beyond the windows of their classroom.

Katie Vaudrain is the co-teacher of the class at Willard Elementary School that has become George Washington Dugan’s latest champion.

“We have a lot of important conversations about what it means to be an upstander instead of a bystander,” Vaudrain told me via Zoom. “So, when we notice injustice in the world around us: What can we do with our collective voice to make a change?


“And this presented a really unique opportunity for us in our local community to physically make something happen.”

That’s not the stuff that comes from some dusty chapter in a well-worn history textbook.

It’s the real and lively work of school kids who are now writing their own chapter in the history of their town that has already taught them so much.

Molly and her classmates are proud of that work. As they should be.

“When we first started learning about it, I thought it would be a little slow and boring,” she said. “And then we kind of went to writing letters and sending them to Concord. My mom and dad asked me: What did you learn?”

What did she and her classmates learn?

Study. Work hard. Fight for what you believe to be right.

In short, some of the essential lessons of life.

When I asked the school kids whether they were able to watch the Select Board’s action to approve the installation of Dugan’s tablet at the base of the Civil War Monument, there was a pause.

And then one girl told me: “I didn’t get to watch it. I think I was already in bed.”

But thankfully it’s all there, preserved on videotape, ready to help guide students eager to learn another piece of Concord’s storied history.

And now these Willard Elementary School kids will always be able to point to this chapter of Concord’s history.

And some day, a long time from now, they can take their own children to the soaring monument here, and point to the bronzed piece of it that they helped shape.


In that moment, the students will become teachers.

And then they can say: When I was a kid, my classmates and I did that.

You can look it up.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.