Samuel Brown wasn't so different from the young people who go to war today, willing to put their lives on hold and risk everything for their country. A Bowdoin graduate, he was soon made captain and on Sept. 17, 1862, led his Massachusetts regiment in the bloodiest day of battle in American history.
The men who fought with him came back with stories of how cool he was amid the carnage at Antietam, Md. He called out, "Now boys, load and fire." As far as anyone knows, those were his last words. Brown took minie balls in the neck and hip and died at age 26.
An elementary school in Peabody still carries his name.
Mayor Michael Bonfanti, a veteran himself, thinks this is a good time to remember Brown and all those who gave so much. The year 2011 marks 150 years since the United States Civil War, by far the worst conflict in our history.
Local municipalities and history organizations expect to observe the sesquicentennial with exhibits and lectures likely to carry on throughout the four years mirroring the war.
By this time 150 years ago, with Abraham Lincoln elected and poised to take office, South Carolina had already seceded from the Union. Mississippi would be the second Southern state to join the rebellion on Jan. 9. Open war did not begin until April 12 when Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.
This region was already a hotbed of abolition with much of the opposition to slavery centered in Boston. But the most powerful speaker against human bondage was probably the escaped slave Frederick Douglass, who lectured in Salem and lived in nearby Lynn. He was joined on the speaking circuit by another black crusader for freedom, Salem resident Charles Lenox Remond.
David Goss of the Museum of Salem plans a talk on Salem in the Civil War on Feb. 3 at the Old Town House. The Marblehead Historical Society is hoping to spotlight its wonderfully preserved GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) room, on the top floor of the Town House and left exactly as it was when the last Civil War veteran attended the last meeting.
The Beverly Historical Society will feature, at various times, a treasure trove of artifacts and documents passed down by the families of veterans and the women who supported them at the home front. In Peabody, Bonfanti suggests a school project where a child takes the name of one of the city's many Civil War soldiers and researches him.
Indeed, the story of the Civil War locally is one of individuals. The area responded remarkably to the call for troops. Hannah Rantoul, from one of Beverly's most prominent families, pitched in raising money and more for the Sanitary Commission, which treated the wounded on both sides. Salem, Goss said, contributed 3 percent of all the fighting men sent from Massachusetts.
Brig. Gen. Arthur Forrester Devereux, a Salem native, may have been the key to winning the entire war, Goss said. At the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 during Pickett's Charge, the Confederacy reached its "high water mark" as Southern soldiers breached the Union line in one place. Advised by Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock to "go get them," Devereux led the Massachusetts 19th Infantry in plugging that breach and turning back the Confederate advance.
In Marblehead, when the call went out for volunteers, the town responded at once. According to tradition, Knott Martin, who was slaughtering a pig, simply left the carcass where it was and hurried on down to sign up. He led the regiment, which departed from South Station and spent its first weeks camped beneath the unfinished, open-air rotunda of the Capitol building.
Local historian Don Doliber has a letter from one of those Marblehead soldiers on congressional stationery. The regiment means a lot to him because when Martin departed to recruit more soldiers, Doliber's great-great-grandfather, Samuel Chapman Graves, took over for him.
Graves came home and lived until 1911, telling his stories of the war to local schoolchildren.
The Civil War resonates today, not only because of the deaths that seemed to touch every town and every house. "Danvers," local historian Dick Trask estimated, "lost about 3 percent of its population in the war." But it was also the war that ended slavery in the United States and both the taint of slavery and the sacrifices borne in eliminating it continue to impact the nation.
Trask keeps photos of his ancestors, the Witheys. In his 40s, John Withey went to war to keep an eye on a 16-year-old son who enlisted the moment he was eligible. The son survived, but John did not. Once, Trask said, every family had photos of fathers and sons posing in Union uniforms.
With the end of the war, as the years passed, came parades and monuments in every town. Then books. In the 20th and 21st century, the war continues to be remembered in films, both theatrical and documentary.
"The Civil War," Trask said, "is ever with us."