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Reflections of the Civil War Sesquicentennial

The nation is mid-way through its sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War, a four-year span filled with museum exhibitions, educational seminars, concerts and other programs focused on that riveting period.

While there are no Civil War battlefields in Johnny Appleseed Country, the region — like so much of the nation — has links to that turning point in American history. Monuments grace the commons of many local communities, proclaiming the bravery and dedication of local residents who died during that bloody conflict.

According to census data from 1860 to 1870, at least 620,000 of the four million Union and Confederate soldiers and sailors who enlisted in the war effort died — either in battle or from sickness. And, as anyone who has seen the movie “Glory!” knows, the Bay State was home to one of the first African-American units, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry.

There is a Civil War Memorial dedicated to Oliver Hazard of the Massachusetts 54th at Carter Park in Leominster. It is Leominster’s second Civil War monument; the other is located in on the Common as “a tribute to the memory of those Soldiers who have filled the Town quota, and who have died in defence of Human Rights and the Suppression of the Southern Rebellion.” It lists the names of those lost at Gettysburg, Port Hudson, Knoxville and Balls Bluff.

The Civil War monument in downtown Fitchburg — appropriately placed in Monument Park — stands apart from many honoring those who fought in the war. Along with the traditional military statues, the memorial designed and sculpted by Martin Milmore of Boston features a bronze female figure designed to represent America. Standing above a large square granite base, the figure holds a myrtle wreath in each hand. At the sides of the base stand a Civil War soldier and a Civil War sailor, with plaques listing those who died: Fitchburg’s “brave sons who fell and in honor of all her loyal citizens who perilled their lives in the great struggle which secured the unity of the Republic and the freedom of an oppressed race.
 “For these are deeds,” the monument proclaims, “which should not pass away and names that must not wither.”

A tour of communities throughout Johnny Appleseed Country reveals an array of figures representing, and honoring, Civil War heroes. You can find these statues standing watch over commons from Townsend to Ashburnham, Clinton and Gardner, each of them reminding those who pass by of the sacrifices made by those who served. Westminster’s Great Rebellion Memorial, a break from the traditional statues, is an imposing obelisk with a plaque listing not just the names, but also the dates and locations of the volunteers’ deaths, along with their ages.

As part of Templeton’s celebration of its 250th anniversary, Civil War re-enactors staged a battle at Henshaw Farm in May, a grim reminder of just how devastating that conflict was. Cannons roared, shots rang out; soldiers fell on the grassy fields; not far away, a stack of amputated arms and legs lay outside the “doctor’s” tent.

Visitors interested in learning more about life during the Civil War can visit with re-enactors this fall during the Thanksgiving Harvest Fest at Red Apple Farm in Phillipston. Held the weekend before Thanksgiving (November 17-18), the festival also offers a reminder that many of the New Englanders who headed off to battle in the 1860s came from family farms — and the loss of so many men in those four devastating years was keenly felt in every community.

For a different look at the Civil War era, stop by the Lunenburg Historical Society on November 1 for a presentation on Mary Surratt, a Southern sympathizer whose son brought her into a conspiracy that ended in the assassination of President Lincoln. Was Mary complicit in those tragic events? Or was she — as she claimed — innocent of the charges for which she was hanged?

Visitors interested in the history of the communities in Johnny Appleseed Country, and the war between the states, will find this sesquicentennial commemoration a fitting time to learn more about, and reflect on, the period that so influenced the nation.

Want to know more? Plan to stop by the Leominster Public Library on the second Tuesday of each month, when the North Worcester County Civil War Round Table gathers. The round table is dedicated to learning about the Civil War and preserving its memory.  Each meeting, held at 7 pm, features a discussion of events and people of the war.

Who knows? You might want to join the ranks of re-enactors, and take a step back into history.