Friday, April 15, 2011

The First to Fall in Defense of the Union?

One of the exhilarating--and sometimes frustrating--aspects of history is that there are times when there are no definitive answers, only opinions, theories, interpretations, and reasoned debates. In that respect, it can be very similar to being a sports fan. Quick, who's the greatest athlete of all-time? Who invented baseball? Good luck coming to a consensus.

Well, with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War upon us, the question has been raised: Who was the first casualty of the Civil War? Who was the first to shed his blood for his country? The answer can be subject to interpretation. No soldiers were killed during the actual bombardment of Fort Sumter, but Private Daniel Hough, an Irish immigrant, was ironically felled during the formal surrender ceremony as a cannon misfired in the middle of a 100-gun salute as the United States flag was lowered. Some consider Daniel Hough the first casualty, albeit not at the hands of an enemy combatant.

A week after the guns blazed in Charleston Harbor, the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment was marching through the streets of Baltimore when they were attacked by a secessionist mob on April 19, 1861 (the 86th anniversary of the opening shots of the Revolution at Lexington and Concord), in what is commonly known as the Pratt Street Riot. This weekend, Baltimore will be holding a commemoration of the event. Along with approximately a dozen civilians, four soldiers were among the dead. While not killed on the battlefield, some historians consider these the opening casualties of the war.

The dead soldiers were all from my neck of the woods in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts, and here they rest today. For years, I drove by an obelisk in front of Lowell City Hall and never gave it a thought, situated as it is in the middle of a large intersection, seemingly a giant traffic island. Now I'm embarrassed at my oversight. The obelisk marks the graves of three of the victims of the Pratt Street Riot:  Luther Ladd, Addison Whitney, and Charles Taylor. When the obelisk was dedicated in 1865, Ladd and Whitney were interred there, so their names are inscribed on the base of the obelisk, which is often referred to as the "Ladd and Whitney Monument." Taylor was originally buried in Baltimore, but I've read some accounts that he was subsequently interred at the site in the early 1900s. There is a plaque in his honor, which calls him "The First to Fall in Defence of the Union." Fact? I don't think we'll ever know definitively.

As I said, the monument and gravesite are a bit lost in the hustle and bustle of today's car traffic. Check out this antique stereograph view of the monument. It was fenced off and surrounded by cannons, which gave it some context. The New York Public Library's digital collection has other terrific stereographs of commemorations at the obelisk, which to me seem drenched in the Victorian maudlin of the time. A massive arch in one of the stereographs says, "We strew with flowers the graves of our honored dead." Boy do they. Today, there is interpretive signage about the Baltimore riots, but it is caddy corner across Dutton and Merrimack Streets at Lowell National Historical Park, a little out of the way.

The fourth soldier to die was Sumner Needham. He passed away more than a week later from his wounds, so we can definitively say he was not the first to die for the Union. His body rests in Bellevue Cemetery in Lawrence. I tried unsuccessfully to find his grave marker, so I'll have to make another go of it.

This weekend in Massachusetts we will be commemorating Patriots Day and the start of the American Revolution with various ceremonies and re-enactments. Unfortunately, I haven't come across any commemorations in honor of this other band of American patriots who sacrificed their lives on an April 19. If anyone know of any that are planned, please pass along the information.

More photos of the Ladd and Whitney Monument here.

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