by Erin McGough, Collections Manager
December 2011 saw the momentous return of U.S. soldiers after nearly 9 years of war in Iraq. And as we continue to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, it seems a particularly appropriate moment to reflect on what life was like for returning veterans in the 1860s.
Civil War soldiers returned home in an era before the advent of modern therapy, rehabilitation, or diagnoses of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but there is evidence, aside from common sense, to suggest that the Civil War was a particularly traumatic experience. Soldiers in the Civil War were often relatively young at enlistment, they were readily able to identify with their enemy, and battles were fought at close range. Upon their return home, what kind of reception did they receive? Did the memories of the war stay fresh in their memories, and if so, how did they return to normal life, making sense of what they had seen? Was there value in retaining the relationships they experienced with other soldiers, even in subsequent years or decades?
The Duxbury Rural and Historical Society has a commemorative flag in its collection that helps to illustrate some of these questions. It was one of those presented in 1863 to the men from Duxbury who served in the 4th Massachusetts Infantry, Company I, “at the reception given to the Company on their return from the war of the rebellion, at the expiration of their term of enlistment, by their friends and fellow-citizens, as a slight token of our appreciation of their services and loyalty to the Government, and devotion to the Union.” This flag is the only known surviving example of these gifts and was owned by John S. Loring, who was present at the town reception to welcome back the Duxbury soldiers.
Originally a three-month regiment, the 4th was re-organized in September 1862 as a nine-month regiment in Lakeville, and it was in the latter incarnation of the regiment that the men from Duxbury served. The 4th Massachusetts was sent to Baton Rouge, Louisiana and joined General Nathaniel Banks’s XXIX Corps. They participated in the Siege of Port Hudson from May 22 to July 9, 1863, when Union Army troops assaulted and then surrounded the town of Port Hudson, Louisiana, a crucial move to secure one of the final Confederate strongholds on the Mississippi River. The 4th Massachusetts returned to Boston and mustered out on August 28, 1863. During its nine months of service, the regiment lost 20 men in battle and an additional 131 to disease or accident; in total, 52 men from Duxbury served in the regiment and of those, 11 died in service.
This flag was donated by the Loring family after the war to The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a national fraternal organization for Civil War veterans of the Union Army. The GAR initially focused on support for returned veterans, linking men through their common experiences of the war, providing a social outlet, and creating collections of objects meant to memorialize these experiences. The GAR was founded in 1866 and at its peak in 1890, it boasted a membership of nearly 500,000 people – a considerable number when one considers that about 2 million people served the Union Army in total, and about 360,000 of those did not survive the war.
Such an impressive membership illustrates the importance that the organization played in facilitating the soldiers’ return to non-military life in the decades after the war. Eventually, the organization also became an early advocacy group in American politics, supporting causes including voting rights for black veterans and the establishment of veterans’ pensions, as well as supporting Republican political candidates. The organization closed in 1956, when its last member died. At the dissolution of the national organization, the Duxbury GAR chapter donated all its collection and its building to the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society. Included in the donation was this flag, whose history was made richer through its use by the GAR in preserving wartime memories.
In 2011, the flag was included in the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society’s “Adopt an Artifact” program, and due to the generosity of donors Bob and Lyddy Hale, it is currently undergoing conservation treatment to remove it from its acidic backing paper and properly frame it. Such conservation treatment dramatically increases the life expectancy of this evocative object.