- Historic Sites
The Old Vets
Year by year the ranks of the G.A.R. grew thinner —but until the last old soldier was gone, Decoration Day in a New England town was a moving memorial to “the War”
April 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 3
In the afternoon and evening before Decoration Day the wives arid daughters of the Veterans, who constituted the ladies’ auxiliary of the post, assembled in the G.A.R. headquarters to make bouquets with which to decorate the graves of the fallen in the ancient town cemetery. People who raised flowers contributed them in great quantities. No doubt the local florists also donated generously as a matter of patriotism and good will. We children brought bunches of wildflowers, hoping to be rewarded with one of the homemade doughnuts that, with coffee, were provided for the workers. The members of the auxiliary corps made the flowers into bouquets and stacked them in wooden washtubs half filled with water, to keep them fresh until the morrow.
On the morning of Decoration Day, which seldom failed to be sunny, the members of the Grand Army post assembled on the steps of Memorial Hall for their photograph. I have before me, as I write, a reproduction of one of these taken about the turn of the century, with about four-score Veterans in the picture. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about it is the disparity in their ages. Some look surprisingly young for men of at least middle age. These must have gone into the War when it was about over, or at an early age—drummer boys were accepted in their mid teens.
These youthful drummer boys were ready-made heroes for the tide of juvenile War fiction that followed the cessation of hostilities. By the time I had learned to read, they were well on their way out of fashion; but such books, tattered and dog-eared, were still to be borrowed at the public library. I believe I read every one there available and derived from them such inspiration that, when our war with Spain came along, I was greatly disappointed that drummer boys were no longer a part of the military.
Of the older Veterans, some look frail and shrunken; others, among whom are many with patriarchal beards or other whiskers, look hail and hearty despite their advanced years. Those intending to march in the parade to the cemetery wear military caps with visors or their soft black felt hats with the Grand Army insignia. The officers are wearing belts and swords. All wear their medals.
After the taking of the photograph the Veterans fell in behind the local fife and drum corps and marched with muffled drums to the cemetery. Those who had become too feeble to march or who suffered from old wounds rode in horsedrawn hacks with tops down, behind the ranks of their sturdier comrades. At the cemetery the Veterans and the women and children placed flowers and new flags on the graves of the former comrades-in-arms. A cast-iron G.A.R. emblem marked each grave permanently. At the plot reserved by the town, on which a monument had been erected “to the memory of soldiers sleeping in unknown graves,” there was a brief service, with the customary three volleys by a firing squad and taps. Then the Veterans marched back to headquarters to the lively tune of “The Girl I Left Behind Me” or “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”
There was a supper that evening in Grand Army Hall, prepared and served by the ladies’ auxiliary, at which the comrades who hadn’t seen one another for the past twelvemonth got together and recalled almost-forgotten events. It had been their day.
By the time I was old enough to remember, the Veterans had long since become re-established in their respective vocations and were not distinguishable from the rest of the citizenry except on those occasions when they wore their old uniforms. Some, like Henry Childs, who for many years had operated a bookbindery, had retired. Mr. Childs was a regular customer at my father’s tavern; so regular, in fact, that my father had placed a small wooden box in a nook inside the front entrance, where, after his mile walk downtown, the old man might sit and rest and watch the passers-by on Main Street. He was there almost every day for his one toddy; and when I came along with my little toy gun, he seldom failed to put me through the manual of arms.
Many Veterans had become storekeepers, like Alvin Rust, who had had erected on Main Street a three-story brick building, in the ground floor of which he kept a grocery store. But of all these Main Street establishments run by Veterans, the most interesting was the Clark & Parsons drugstore.
George Dexter Clark, whom I knew well in his old age, was a Veteran, as was, I believe, his partner, Mr. Parsons. The latter was in appearance a Victorian gentleman of business, carefully dressed in cutaway and high stiff collar, and dignified in manner. Mr. Clark dressed more casually, wore a stubbly, short red beard, and was of a friendly disposition. Their pharmacy was next door to the Mansion House, the town’s leading hotel. The store had an entrance between two show windows, in each of which was a huge glass globe of colored water, one red, the other blue—the signs of a drugstore in the nineteenth century.
Within on the left was a handsome pink marble soda fountain, with half a dozen high stools before it. Except for this concession to the times the store was devoted to the proper business of pharmacy. It was entirely free of the innumerable articles that clutter the modern drugstore. There was not even a rack for magazines or picture post cards.