A sea of more than 37,000 American flags covers a gently rising slope on Boston Common this Memorial Day weekend, each flag representing a Massachusetts man or woman who has died in this country’s wars since the Revolution.
The flags bear no names, the ultimate sacrifice marked anonymously, row after row, for those who fell from Lexington to Afghanistan. Each of them someone’s child, a brother or sister, a father or mother, a friend.
Among them are two siblings, little known today, who left a comfortable life to fight for the Union and carry forward the legacy of their celebrated grandfather, Paul Revere. This weekend, the descendants of Colonel Paul Joseph Revere and First Lieutenant Edward H.R. Revere pause once again to reflect on their long-ago service.
“They certainly had a level of privilege, and I think they could have easily avoided the Civil War,” said Paul Revere III of Centerville, a direct descendant of the Revolutionary War patriot. “But their point was that, ‘it’s our country, and it’s our war, and we’re no better than anybody else, and we need to join.’”
Their sense of duty, articulated over and over in wartime letters and telegrams, continues to connect them with the other fallen commemorated on the Common, said Ben Edwards of Boston, whose ancestor married Paul Revere Jr., the patriot’s oldest son.
“It’s a powerful thing, and it’s emotional,” said Edwards, gazing over the blanket of small American flags on the Common as they were being planted last week. The sacrifice represented by those flags, he added, “is still having an impact on people.”
The Revere brothers volunteered in the early days of the war, serving together in the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the so-called Harvard Regiment, leaving behind young families. Paul had graduated from Harvard and entered as a major. Edward joined as an assistant surgeon with a degree from Harvard Medical School.
Danger found them quickly, and both were taken prisoner in October 1861 during a Confederate victory at Ball’s Bluff, Va., where Paul suffered a minor wound. They were released about six months later, rejoined their regiment after a few months in Massachusetts, and served with their comrades at the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, the deadliest one-day battle in American history.
Paul was wounded again, this time in the arm, and stayed on the battlefield for hours before finally leaving the fight. He asked about his brother’s safety, was told that Edward was well, and made his way back to Boston to convalesce.
But the news from the battlefield had been mistaken. Edward, 35, died instantly after being shot in the head while dressing a wounded soldier’s leg near the front lines.
Promoted to colonel, Paul returned to the regiment in April 1863. A letter written to his wife, Lucretia, showed the strong, conflicting emotions that pulled at the 30-year-old father of two small children, ages 3 and 1.
“My dearest wife, our relationship to each other was perhaps never so near, certainly never nearer, than during the last days of our being together,” Revere wrote in May 1863. “My feelings at leaving our dear children would, I am afraid, have proved too strong for my sense of duty had I remained much longer with them, dear little hearts.”
Several weeks later, Revere noted in a letter home that the regiment had marched to the rear of a small Pennsylvania town called Gettysburg.
“There seems a prospect of an engagement,” he wrote his wife. “In case one should occur, we all hope it should be a general one as, from the position of the armies, it seems it must prove decisive.”
Revere added that he had received a letter the previous day from his sister, who enclosed a photograph of his young son.
“He looks quite like a man and old enough to take care of his Mamma. Tell him I say so, and shall depend on his doing so,” he wrote.
Revere was mortally wounded July 2, 1863, as fighting raged during the second day of the climactic, three-day Battle of Gettysburg. He died on the Fourth of July in a military hospital in Maryland after sending a final telegram to his family in Boston.
“Am badly wounded at Westminster, come quickly,” the message read. His wife, brother, and sister learned of his death only after a hasty, anxious journey to Maryland.
The brothers’ sacrifice is commemorated on a Civil War memorial at King’s Chapel in Boston, where they worshipped. They are buried beside each other in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.
Mary Robbins Revere, their mother and Paul Revere’s daughter-in-law, wrote in her journal of “the high motives that led them to leave so much they had to live for at home, to give themselves for what they thought the benefit of mankind.”
“They knew the risk they ran ... but the conflict must be met,” she added. “It was their duty to aid in it. The claim on them was as strong as on any, and gallantly they answered it.”
That gallantry has long been an obscure footnote in Boston history, although the family, which built a thriving copper business that Paul Revere had founded in 1801, remained aware of the brothers’ Civil War saga. Many of the details survived because of the efforts of Paul Joseph Revere’s daughter, Pauline Revere Thayer, who republished a family memorial in 1913 to tell their story.
Thayer also played a key role in preserving the 17th-century Paul Revere House, which had been headed toward demolition and replacement by a North End tenement building in the early 1900s, Thayer, who was an infant when her father died, helped create the Paul Revere Memorial Association, which continues to operate the site.
“She knew the one chance she might have of saving the story of her father and uncle was by saving Paul Revere’s story,” said Nina Zannieri, executive director of the association. “She understood the power of memory.”
Those memories are important, Zannieri said, because Boston’s Civil War history can be overwhelmed by the city’s Revolutionary connection and landmarks.
“People don’t come to Boston for the Civil War story,” she said.
Edwards, an author who leads the Walking Boston history tours, said he mentions the slain brothers whenever he brings groups into King’s Chapel. He points to the Revere names, chiseled in marble, and tells of their sacrifice.
“When I think of history, I don’t think of places and dates. I think of the people and their stories,” he said. “There was that tradition of service for them, and what the legacy of their grandfather meant.”
That legacy is amplified by each of the 37,000 flags on the Common this weekend, he said.
“Memorial Day is a lot more than people getting time off and having barbecues and hot dogs,” Edwards said. “It has a special purpose. Contemplate the sacrifice made by those men and women. The torch needs to be passed on.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.