Friday, June 8, 2012

Exeter's Civil War Monument

by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, June 8, 2012. 

This year for the first time, Exeter’s Memorial Day parade paused to place a wreath of remembrance on the steps of the Exeter Historical Society. A number of people were curious about this slight deviation from our usual parade route and have asked why the historical society was added to the commemorations. The simple answer is that the building is the town’s Civil War monument and, since the nation is now remembering the 150th anniversary of that conflict, it seemed appropriate to pause for a short time to honor those men from Exeter who participated in the war.

When looking at records and remembrances of the war closer to the time it occurred, it’s noticeable that it was not called the ‘Civil War.’ A dog tag in the collections of the historical society, made for a soldier named J.D. Pedrick in the 10th Regiment, is optimistically stamped, “War of 1861.” Governor Charles Bell, author of The History of the Town of Exeter, New Hampshire, called it ‘The War for the Union.’ When we research individuals involved in the war we turn to “The Register of Soldiers and Sailors of New Hampshire in the War of the Rebellion.”

The memorial plaques on the Exeter Historical Society similarly make no mention of the Civil War. The men listed are the ‘Roll of Honor 1861-1865.’ Nevertheless, it is a Civil War monument and it was intended to be a Civil War monument.

Monuments were expensive so Exeter, like many New England towns, chose to have it serve a dual function – library and monument. Civil War veterans had organized themselves into a local chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic and felt it was time, by 1894, to finally list all the men from town who had served during the war. Actually creating a list, however, proved to be far more difficult than anticipated. The nature of enlistment during the war created some immediate problems. After the first heady rush to volunteer, the Union Army found that enlistments were trailing off. Too many men, it seemed, had figured out that this was not to be a ‘war of 1861’ and would instead linger for years – increasing one’s chances of injury, illness or death. In response to the dwindling numbers a national draft was instituted in 1863.

The system worked by quota – each state was required to furnish a certain number of men and each state further broke it down to a specific number of men from each town. Some towns easily filled their quotas, but others had to recruit from other towns. So, sometimes men from somewhere else were credited to Exeter. To compound the problem, wealthier citizens could hire a substitute to serve in their place. These substitutes were frequently not from Exeter – many, in fact, were new immigrants to the United States.

So creating a list of men from Exeter who served in the Civil War was not an easy task. By 1894, when the library/monument was nearing completion, the list was still clumsy. The task of settling on a final list fell to George Gadd of the local G.A.R. post and Professor B.L. Cilley of the library committee. They compiled an extensive list and published it in the Exeter News-Letter with the admonition: “It is exceedingly desirable that the list should be complete and accurate, and all who can make additions or corrections are earnestly invited to confer.” Pared down, Gadd and Cilley added a few names and removed 72.

Those 72 missing names have long troubled anyone doing Civil War research in town. It seems somehow crass to not acknowledge those who served in such an awful conflict. There has been talk over the years, of adding a plaque – mentioning the names of those men who were removed from the list. What we seem to forget is that Gadd and Cilley had some pretty good reasons for removing those 72 names. Nearly half of the eliminated men didn’t fight in a New Hampshire regiment and seemed to have no clear connection to the town of Exeter. Why they were included on the original list is a mystery. A few men were from Exeter, but were ‘reduced in rank’ in the final months of the war. Perhaps these men were locally scorned for some untoward infraction. The remaining 35 men had one thing in common – they all deserted shortly after enlisting. Some were hired substitutes; many were Irish or Canadian. None of them seemed to be committed to the cause. Desertion could be perilous – if caught a soldier could face execution.

The complete list-including deserters, out-of-towners and desultory characters- can be found in the Exeter Historical Society’s basement Civil War exhibit. The memorial plaques on the outside of the building can be seen at any time.

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