Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The alarming decay of Old North Cemetery

Nathaniel Peabody Rogers edited the Herald of Freedom, Concord's abolitionist newspaper.
My wife and I had guests during Memorial Day weekend and did not make it to a cemetery. We thus took a long walk this past weekend in Concord’s Old North Cemetery, stopping before the flagged graves and others. We have been there many times. Franklin Pierce is buried there, as are Concord’s first families – enough Walkers, Stickneys, Eastmans and Abbots to fill the city auditorium.

It is distressing to visit the cemetery. Many of the stones have fallen or are falling. Some are broken. The few words carved on others can no longer be read.

Like the Old North, many cemeteries in New England stopped taking new dead years ago. Few that I have visited are as bad as Concord’s. As much as we New Englanders revere our history, its remnants are fading and disappearing at the Old North.

And there is so much history.

I never go there without visiting the grave of Nathaniel Peabody Rogers, editor of the Herald of Freedom, Concord’s abolitionist newspaper. The gravestone reads:


The implication of “all that could die” strikes me as profound. I don’t read it as a reference to the human soul in a religious sense. It means, I think, that although Rogers threw off his mortal coil, the important part of him – his ideas and the way he expressed and fought for them – endured. This was certainly true in his case, as slavery was indeed abolished, though at great cost.

Rogers was buried on a Sunday, two days after his death, during an early snow. He had requested that no stone be placed on his grave as long as slavery remained in the land. This wish was granted, and the stone you see today was not laid until after his life’s mission was accomplished.

Rogers lies near President Pierce. Their stones are back-to-back, with Pierce on the higher ground and a fence separating them. This is appropriate: Pierce was Peabody’s polar opposite, a so-called Doughface, a northerner with southern leanings. At Concord’s town meeting in 1844, the two squared off over slavery. As good a speaker as Pierce was, Peabody’s argument carried the day.

The main reason we went to the cemetery was to visit Civil War soldier graves. Most veterans of the World Wars, Korea and Vietnam from Concord are at Blossom Hill or Calvary. Old North’s old soldiers date back to the French and Indian Wars.

I know about some of the Civil War men from my research. It is easy to find them now because they – most of them anyway – have flags on their graves.

We found William Hannagan, an Irishman who enlisted in 1861 from Lebanon, N.H., at the age of 34. He was wounded at Fredericksburg and discharged a few months later. In 1864, for a good bonus no doubt, he joined the Veterans Reserve Corps.

At 44, Edward Gerald of Concord was even older than Hannagan when he joined the nine-month 16th New Hampshire in 1862. He was discharged disabled, probably from sickness contracted in the Louisiana bayous. Gerald joined the Veterans Reserve Corps, too – and deserted.

Private Charles C. Fulton, born in Concord, signed up for the 3rd New Hampshire in 1862 and almost made it home alive. He enlisted at the 19. Three years later, on Feb. 19, 1865, he was shot not in battle but in a camp accident. He died the next day and now lies at the Old North.

Thomas C. Weeks, who was 29, joined the 4th New Hampshire in the summer of 1861, survived most of his three-year hitch and re-enlisted in early 1864. Wounded at Deep Bottom, Va., on Aug. 16 of that year, he died six weeks later. Weeks’s stone lies face up, and the elements are eroding the little information about him on it.

On this tour of Old North we at last found the gravestone of Lt. Charles W. Walker. 
A couple of years ago, when I was finishing the manuscript of Our War, Monique and I walked the cemetery many times looking for the grave of Charles W. Walker. He was a lieutenant from Concord and the first man from the city killed in the war. An early chapter in the book is about his elaborate funeral.

We could not find the stone, and I wrote in the Concord Monitor and in the book’s epilogue that it was gone.

This was an error. Some months ago, a student of the war sent me a photo of the stone. This past weekend, we found it at last. It wasn’t easy. It is a small stone in a curbed plot near the tall tree stump on the southern edge of the cemetery. The stone faces east.

Although a modern camera can take a picture of it on which the words are legible, they are difficult to read with the naked eye. It would be good to replace it before it is smooth and completely blackened.

But the Old North is a large cemetery filled with many such disappearing artifacts. Of course, they are not just artifacts; they are also the final resting places of those who went before us. I often think of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town when I go there. Most who lie there probably expected posterity to look after their graves and gravestones.

It might have been a reasonable expectation, but neglect and the elements are slowly canceling it.

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