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More in Community
First Civil War casualty
On Monday, we will observe our national Memorial Day, to honor specifically those who fell in our nation’s wars. It was previously known as “Decoration Day,” the time when people attended the graves of their relatives, veterans or not. After the Civil War, however, it gradually became more specifically associated with those who fell in that conflict, and those which followed it.
Now, at the 150th anniversary of that war’s start, it would seem appropriate to recall the sacrifice made by Corporal Needham of Bethel, who was killed on April 10, 1861, barely a week after the southerners fired on Fort Sumpter, a U.S. Army facility on an island in the harbor of Charleston, SC. There was only one Federal soldier killed at the fort, by an accidental explosion after it was surrounded. The first Union soldiers killed by hostile action were slain in the “Baltimore Riot.”
In the wake of the Fort Sumpter fracas, men on both sides of the Mason Dixon Line volunteered to serve in the army. Usually, they joined regiments or companies that were formed in or around where they lived and given local names. The Norway Light Infantry, the Bethel Rifles, for example. These were not a National Guard as we know it today, but ad hoc bodies of troops who elected their own officers.
The units from Maine were still not assembled, let alone equipped or trained, by the time troops were called for to help the very small regular army defend Washington, DC, from either attack or being taken over by resident southern “traitors.” Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania did have some partially- and hastily-trained troops to offer the federal government and these were quickly sent toward the capitol by the fastest possible means — railroad trains.
But at Baltimore, MD, there were some problems. The trains from the north came into one railroad station, trains departing for the south left from another, several city blocks away. The troops had to march from one depot to the other, which wouldn’t have been so bad if it weren't for the citizens of the city. Many Baltimoreans were pro-secession and in later years they would be called “Confederates” or “rebels,” but in those days, in the north, they were usually described as “traitors” or “secesh.”
These unfriendly southern sympathizers determined to prevent the troops from changing trains by blocking their route between train stations. On April 19, into this confused situation, went the Sixth Massachusetts Volunteer Militia and with it, Corporal Sumner H. Needham of Lowell, MA, but formerly of Bethel.
Like many young people of his era, young Needham sought work in the “big city,” to working a farm in Maine. The lure of the mills in and around Lowell, MA, were great and once there, he met a girl, married and took up residence and a job until the war came and he quickly enlisted.
Colonel Edward F. Jones, commanding the regiment describes the chaotic trip across town when the regiment tried to move through Baltimore. According to him, a rain of bricks, cobblestones and pistol shots greeted the soldiers, who had been told to expect violence but firmly ordered to not shoot, no matter what the provocation. Jones’ report indicates that he thought the lack of response by the soldiers egged the crowd on, until one of the soldiers was killed, several wounded and he ordered his men to fire. It is not clear how many civilians were injured, but four of the Union soldiers died — Needham among them.
The Oxford Democrat carried the following account of his funeral.
Funeral Obsequies of Corporal Needham
The bodies of the Massachusetts dead have been forwarded to their homes, and were buried, with touching ceremonies, on Saturday. Two of them belonged to Lowell, and were buried there. Corporal Needham, a native of Bethel, was carried to Lawrence, where his wife resides.
On Saturday morning his funeral obsequies were commenced at an early hour with a prayer, with remarks by Rev. G. B. Weaver. The body was then escorted by past members of the companies, arching with arms reversed, to the City Hall. Here he lay in state, until one o’clock. A Guard of Honor was detailed, and the public permitted to enter, to behold the corpse. The Hall was elaborately and tastefully decorated in a style peculiarly fitting the occasion, the ensign of the soldier blending with the sable drapery and symbolizing the national character of the event. At the head of the hall was elevated a golden eagle, on either side of which was suspended American flags. Pilasters of alternate black and white drapery were formed between the windows, and from the cornice depended festoons of black and white, associated.
From and American shield in the centre of the ceiling radiated a canopy of pennants and streamers, alternating with eight festoons of dark and white drapery. The altar was shrouded in black, and upon the frost of the dais was displayed a spread eagle, whose talons clutched an olive branch, and upon either side of which was placed the national ensign. The face of the dais was draped in black, and the front of the gallery of the opposite end of the hall also bore the sombre emblems of sorrow.
The hall being darkened, jets of gas were placed near the head of the casket, casting a light over the face.
At one, the mourners entered, while the bands played dirges, until they reached their places. Bodies of military, the city government, firemen and spectators filled the hall.
Prayer was offered by Rev. H. F. Lance, and a sermon preached by Rev. Mr. Weaver, from Hebrews 11:4 — “He being dead, yet speaketh.” The sermon was an eloquent tribute to the faithfulness and loyalty of the deceased, “who, being dead, he yet speaks to us to be loyal to our country, and to be ready like him to sacrifice life, it it need be, upon the altar of her good. He has given us an example of loyalty worthy of all imitation. He left his pleasant home, his dearest friends, his delightful social, business and church relations, at the call of his country, under the imperious sense of duty nourished by his New England education. Not vain glory, not excitement, nor love of novelty, nor military parade, nor an adventurous spirit, but the voice of a loyal heart, led him to offer the sacrifice of his personal labors and exposures at the call of the chief magistrate of the nation. He was the true spirit of the olden time, which counts a free republican county as a thing of inestimable value, for which every personal sacrifice should be made.”
The procession was then formed, the cortege consisting of twenty-three carriages, with a large body of firemen, military exempts, and citizens. The military and firemen drew up in line, the mourners passing between. The natural amphitheater around was packed with a dense mass of people. As the casket was placed in the tomb, the Episcopal burial service was read, then volleys fired, and the people slowly dispersed.
It is the intention of the city authorities soon to remove the remains, and erect a suitable monument to the memory of the deceased.
It would be appropriate Monday, if Needham’s sacrifice is recalled, along with those of so many of our fallen, in so many conflicts before and since.