Tuesday, January 6, 2009

"Our Sacred Dead"

Among the projects that the Historical Commission last night recommended for funding under the Community Preservation Act is the conservation and installation of the Civil War memorial tablets that once hung in Town Hall.

The six marble tablets--five large ones bearing the names of the veterans, and measuring approximately 56 by 73-78 inches, and one long and narrow dedicatory one--were a gift from the Grand Army of the Republic to the Town in 1893.  They have been relocated several times since their original installation.  Ever since the renovations to the interior of Town Hall in 1997, they have been relegated to a storage facility in Ruxton.

The tablets commemorate the more than 300 residents who fought in the Civil War--or "The War of the Rebellion"--as the dedicatory inscription put it.   Some of the names have become famous:  Amherst College professor William Smith Clark--who went on to become President of the Massachusetts Agricultural College (today, the University of Massachusetts)--and his adjutant, Frazar Stearns, who fell by his side at the battle of Newbern in 1862. The death of Stearns, son of the President of Amherst College, sent a shock through the town.  Famous for their deeds if not their names are the 21 African-American residents--five of whom fell in battle.  Fourteen served wit the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, and seven with the celebrated Massachusetts 54th Regiment, whose story was popularized in the film, "Glory."  Clark, Stearns, and many other Civil War veterans--including members of the 54th--are buried in Amherst's West Cemetery, whose restoration the Historical Commission has been supervising for several years.

The Commission endorsed expenditure of $ 45,000 for conservation of the tablets and study of the location that will most effectively but safely restore them to public view.  Town Manager Larry Shaffer has proposed that the tablets be mounted in the entry of Town Hall.  In 2000, a citizens' group pressed for an outdoor public display.  The choice is not easy. On the one hand, it may be difficult to find a single space in Town Hall able both to accommodate all the tablets and to provide them with the visibility they deserve. On the other hand, a more prominent outdoor display might run the risk of further damage to the fragile tablets, whether from vandalism or harsh weather.  The Commission will await the results of the professional analysis before making a recommendation.

No matter what the specific outcome, the Commission and Town are committed to returning the tablets to a public space in the year that Amherst marks its 250th anniversary.  Prompt restoration of the tablets seems all the more fitting in a year that also begins with the inauguration of Barack Obama.  The heritage of the Mass 54th will be doubly celebrated and represented there, first, by marching bands from the new 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment--as Governor Deval Patrick recently redesignated the ceremonial unit of the Massachusetts National Guard--and second, by groups of Civil War reenactors.

If the Community Preservation Act Committee approves the Historical Commission's recommendation, the issue will be submitted to Town Meeting for appropriation of funding in the spring.

[update: image added]

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