Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day in Canterbury

Today, my friend Mark Travis is giving the Memorial Day speech in his hometown of Canterbury. Together years ago, Mark and I wrote My Brave Boys, a history of the 5th New Hampshire under Col. Edward E. Cross. We also worked together in journalism for nearly 30 years.  

Mark Travis is on the right in this photo taken in 2001 before the Edward E.
Cross monument in Lancaster, N.H. The woman between Mark and me
is the late Faith Kent, granddaughter of Cross's best friend in Lancaster.
She was the town's historian and helped us research My Brave Boys.    
The Canterbury Memorial Day observance stars veterans from the town, including some who don their uniforms; the minister, the Boy Scouts and other young people, and the Belmont High School Band. Participants gather at the elementary school and proceed down the hill to a gazebo where the ceremony is held. The town cemetery, where several Civil War veterans are buried, is across the street. In past years children have decorated the veterans’ graves with lilacs.

Here is Marks talk:

The Memorial Day service in Canterbury is simple, and that’s fitting, given the simple purpose of the day: to remember those who sacrificed their lives for us in war. But today in addressing you I’m going to speak a little more broadly, not only about sacrifices, but also about choices and their consequences.

I want to talk with you about the young members of one Canterbury family and the choices they made at the time of the Civil War. They are the Morrill family, and most of what I know about them I learned from Sam Papps, a Belmont High student who is already a gifted historian.

It’s no exaggeration to say that without the Morrills, Canterbury would be a different place. They were among Canterbury’s first settlers, and they owned land up and down what’s called Morrill Road. The land upon which we are gathered this morning, the land where we are standing, was actually given to the town by a Morrill – the first of many contributions the family made to Canterbury over many generations.

This monument in the Canterbury cemetery was a gift from George Morrill.
So what about the choices the young members of the Morrill family made as the Civil War approached, about 150 years ago?

Let’s start with a girl named Sarah Morrill. Is anyone in the band, or the audience, 16? Well, when Sarah turned 16, in 1843, she left Morrill Road to work in the Manchester mills. She worked six days a week, up to 14 hours a day, shared her bed with another girl, and probably earned a few dollars a week. Not an hour, a week. How does that sound?

Sarah married at about 20, moved to the frontier of Minnesota, and then on to California in a covered wagon. She was a pioneer; it was a hard life. Her first husband died, and so did her second. But she lived a long time, becoming known as an agitator for women’s rights. She made it home only once, years after leaving Canterbury, but was loved by her nieces and nephews here for the wonderful letters she wrote.

So hers was a life of choices and consequences.

Sarah had a brother named George. Is anyone in the band 17? That’s how old George was when the war broke out. Instead of joining the army right away, George went west to Ohio. But in 1864, when he was 20, and it seemed the war would bleed the whole country dry, he enlisted in the army. He served in battles across the South until the fighting ended a year later.  He saved the life of another Canterbury man who had been shot in the groin and couldn’t move his legs, nursing him until he was strong enough for the journey home.

In time George came home, too, and took over the family sawmill at the base of what’s now called Morrill Pond. He was a big success. He built what’s still called New Road, which runs along wetlands for a mile and a half and made it easier for him to get the products he made to Penacook and Concord.

Do you see that Civil War monument at the edge of the cemetery? George paid for that. He also paid for an elaborate family plot in the cemetery, right inside the gap in the wall at the far end. And he paid for a bench at the back edge of the cemetery, creating a spot where he hoped townspeople would sit, look out over what were then fields, and reflect on family members who had spread across the country, like his sister Sarah.

So there was much to admire about George – but there was another side, too. After his first wife died, his second and third divorced him on grounds of extreme cruelty. He was remembered years later by some descendants not for his generosity or his contributions but for his mean spirit.

Choices, and consequences.

Charles W. Morrill
The final Morrill I’ll talk about, and the one whose story is closest to the essence of Memorial Day, was named Charles. He was several years older than George. Anyone in the band hope to go to college? Would anyone be the first in their family to go? Well, Charles was the first in his family.

Like George he left home at 17 for Ohio, but he went there to study. He returned to attend Dartmouth, and he graduated in 1863. Months later, he was drafted. By then the war was unpopular, and almost no one who was drafted actually served. Instead draftees hired substitutes, mainly recent immigrants, to fight in their place.

But not Charles. He did not hire a substitute. He set aside whatever plans he had for his life, and he answered the call. He went south to join the Eighth New Hampshire Volunteers, serving in Louisiana. Twice in battle the horse he was riding was shot and killed beneath him. And soon Charles, like many of the northern boys sent south, got sick. He contracted chronic diarrhea, was discharged, and died in Illinois, on his way home.

Choices, and consequences.

The death of someone so promising was a great blow to the family. When George paid for the marker over there, he made sure to note on it that Charles was a college graduate; in 1960, nearly a hundred years later, when their family home was sold, there was one family possession still hanging on the wall: Charles’s Dartmouth diploma.

In recent years, the young men and women of Canterbury and Belmont and from all around the country have been making choices like the Morrills did during the Civil War. As before, many thousands have served our country in a time of need, and as before, many among them have sacrificed their lives for the rest of us.

I hope before you leave today you’ll wander over to the cemetery and look for some of the markers I’ve described – and in so doing I hope you’ll reflect on the choices, the consequences and the sacrifices, past and present, that this day is all about.

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