EAST BRIDGEWATER, Mass. — It’s part reenactment, part somber reflection of the sacrifices townspeople made in the “war between the states.”
On the East Bridgewater town common in early May, about two dozen men wearing blue Union Army uniforms gathered at a makeshift encampment. One tent served as a “recruitment station” where school children and other reenactors were given the name of one of the 370 men from town who had volunteered in the 1860s to join the fight.
One by one, the names of those who enlisted were called and their present-day representatives answered for them during the roll call. Then, the assembled troops heard words of encouragement from East Bridgewater resident Dale Julius, who stood in the shadow of a granite obelisk memorializing the townspeople who died in the war.
“On the monument, you’ll find the names of 50 people who made the ultimate sacrifice,” Julius told the ragtag militia. “Today, we’re honoring Frank Harlow and all of the other soldiers who went, those who fought, those who died. The families who waited behind, just because of the change it made in our town and our country.”
Julius is a Civil War buff who’s been organizing this gathering for nine years.
“It’s more of a tribute to all of the soldiers from East Bridgewater,” Julius said. “We sent close to 370. Almost 50 of them would die during the war. And those numbers are incredible when you think the population of the time was only 2,400 people.”
One of those soldiers has captured Julius’ imagination. East Bridgewater native Calvin Francis (Frank) Harlow died in the waning days of the war on March 27, 1865, at the battle of Fort Stedman in Virginia. As Harlow’s unit was surrounded, a rebel captain demanded his surrender. Harlow refused and ordered his men to fight on. Harlow and the rebel captain fired upon one another at the same time, mortally wounding each other. Harlow’s death was chronicled by poet Walt Whitman in his 1882 book, “Specimen Days and Collect.”
From the town common, Julius lead his gathered troops in a somber procession across the street to the Central Cemetery. Harlow is not buried here — his remains are interred near the Virginia Battlefield where he died — but his sacrifice is noted on the family tombstone tucked away toward the back of the old cemetery. There, Harlow and all the men from East Bridgewater who fought in the Civil War were honored with a 21-gun salute followed by a lone bugler playing taps.
The Rev. Don Olson of the Community Covenant Church, in the role of Union chaplain Hemstead, offered some graveside remarks including a reading of President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Olson said he’s been taking part for about eight years, and that this is the only time he dons a period uniform and becomes a reenactor. The Illinois native said he got emotional reading Lincoln’s words.
“If you hear those words, they’re still just so true today of what we’re still trying to live out, and try to understand what it means to live and treat each other equally,” Olson said.
Among the youngsters taking part was Olson’s 13-year-old son Eric.
“East Bridgewater isn’t a big town, not many people know about it, but it has a great history and that’s part of the reason why I do this,” the younger Olson said.
In a double line, the troops and spectators filed quietly through the cemetery, back to the town common where Julius dismissed them.
“I will call for the ranks to break and when I say ‘break ranks’ take one step backwards and let out the loudest ‘Huzzah’ that we might hear… Prepare to break ranks to the rear. Break ranks, march!” Julius bellowed.
And in unison, the troops let out a hardy “Huzzah!”