- 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
Beyond the cases, running across the store from wall to wall, was a wooden screen with opaque glass panels, behind which was the prescription counter. Beyond that was a rear room, in the center of which stood a potbelly stove surrounded with wooden armchairs and an occasional cuspidor. This back room became in time the unofficial gathering place of the Republican establishment of the community. Mr. Clark himself was a perennial member of the School Committee, a minor elective political office.
When he was a very old man, Mr. Clark told me that in the War he had contracted dysentery, from which he had suffered ever since. Many of the Veterans bore battle scars; some still carried in their bodies bullets that had not been removed. It was traditional, when the weather was about to get cold or stormy, that these wounds would ache.
Politics and the various forms of civil service attracted many of the returning soldiers. A Veteran had an advantage over a rival candidate who had not taken part in the War. When our town became a city in 1884, its first mayor was a Veteran, Benjamin Cook. On his return from the War he had gone into business as a junior partner with his father, a silversmith, jeweler, and mender of clocks and watches.
Egbert I. Clapp, one of those crippled in the War, was elected to the office of city clerk, to which he was re-elected unopposed year after year until he chose to retire. He walked with the assistance of a pair of handsome mahogany crutches that accorded with the fastidiousness of his dress. In their use he had become so adept that he skimmed over the ground faster than most men could walk.
Then there were those who had chosen to enter one or another form of civil service. Alfonso Witherell had shouldered one of the leather mailbags of the U.S. Post Office and twice a day trod his appointed round —altogether some ten miles. Luke Day had been made keeper of the lockup, outside of which in mild weather he usually sat at ease in his captain’s chair. John Mercier had become head farmer at the state hospital for the insane. Mr. Farr (I never knew his first name) had been made head janitor of the public schools.
At least three Veterans had returned from the War with the rank of captain (or “cap’n,” as we pronounced it): Cap’n Ed Clark, a slender, genteel man with white hair and beard who became president of the local street railway company; Cap’n Ed Hall, a large man with a luxuriant flowing blond mustache, the owner of a lumberyard in the very heart of the city; and Cap’n Hubbard Abbott, the registrar of probate. Their military titles clung helpfully to them throughout the rest of their lives.
Henry S. Cere had become the publisher of the Gazette , the local newspaper. Our neighbor Martin Van Buren Flagg had become a peripatetic optician, earning his living and that of his considerable family by peddling spectacles out of a satchel hung by a strap from his shoulder.
Last of all, I remember George Jackson, colored, who before the War was employed by my maternal grandfather, proprietor of the town’s largest livery stable. In 1863, when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts adopted legislation legalizing the recruiting of Negro regiments, George went off to the War. Some time after, his name appeared among those of men killed or missing in action. One evening my grandmother was sitting in the parlor of her Main Street home, thinking sadly of faithful George, of whom the family had been fond. The house stood but ten or fifteen feet back from the sidewalk with no hedge or fence between. As was customary, the shades were not drawn. Suddenly George’s face appeared at one of the windows. Taken by surprise, for a moment my grandmother did not know whether the face at the window was an apparition or that of the real George— which, of course, it was.
In the summer of 1910 the Western Massachusetts Grand Army Association held its eighteenth annual field day at the Mount Sugarloaf State Reservation in South Deerfield. Though the Veterans came from Springfield, Holyoke, Northampton, Greenfield, North Adams, Turners Falls, Shelburne Falls, Orange, Amherst, and many other western Massachusetts towns, there were present hardly more than two hundred. By this time the Veterans were being referred to, especially when assembled in a body, as the “Old Vets,” a term that was a combination of tolerance and affection.
By 1910 there were so few of the Old Vets in our city who could march the mile to the cemetery on Decoration Day, that they were provided with transportation in the open automobiles of the period. Their place behind the band that now led the procession was taken by those who in 1898 had fought in Cuba in the less glorious war with Spain.