FRAMINGHAM, Mass. — The grave site of a Union Army major general sits largely forgotten in a small cemetery along the Massachusetts Turnpike.
A piece of the coat worn by President Abraham Lincoln when he was assassinated rests quietly in a library attic in a Boston suburb. It’s shown upon request, a rare occurrence.
A monument honoring one of the first official Civil War black units stands in a busy intersection in front of the Massachusetts Statehouse, barely gaining notice from the hustle of tourists and workers who pass by each day.
As the nation marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, states in the old South — the side that lost — are hosting elaborate re-enactments, intricate memorials, even formal galas highlighting the war’s persistent legacy in the region. But for many states in the North — the side that won — only scant, smaller events are planned in an area of the nation that helped sparked the conflict but now, historians say, struggles to acknowledge it.
“It’s almost like it never happened,” said Annie Murphy, executive director of the Framingham History Center in Framingham, Mass. “But all you have to do is look around and see evidence that it did. It’s just that people aren’t looking here.”
Massachusetts, a state that sent more than 150,000 men to battle and was home to some of the nation’s most radical abolitionists, created a Civil War commemoration commission just earlier this month. Aging monuments stand unattended, sometimes even vandalized. Sites of major historical events related to the war remain largely unknown and often compete with the more regionally popular American Revolution attractions.
Meanwhile, states such as Arkansas, Virginia, North Carolina and Missouri not only established commissions months, if not years ago, but also have ambitious plans for remembrance around well-known tourist sites and events. In South Carolina, for example, 300 Civil War re-enactors participated last week in well-organized staged battles to mark the beginning of the war.
To be sure, some Northern states have Civil War events planned and have formed commemoration commissions. Connecticut’s 150th Civil War Commemoration was set up in 2008 and has scheduled a number of events and exhibits until 2015. Vermont, the first state to outlaw slavery, started a similar commission last year to coordinate activities statewide and in towns.
And some Massachusetts small nonprofit and historic groups are trying to spark interest through research, planned tours and town events.
But observers say those events pale in comparison to those in the South.
That difference highlights Northern states’ long struggle with how to remember a war that was largely fought on Southern soil, said Steven Mintz, a Columbia University history professor and author of “Moralists and Modernizers: America’s Pre-Civil War Reformers.” For Northern states like Massachusetts, Mintz said revisiting the Civil War also means revisiting their own unsolved, uncomfortable issues such as racial inequality after slavery.
“We’ve spent a century and a half turning [the war] into a gigantic North-South football game in which everybody was a hero,” Mintz said. “In other words, we depoliticized the whole meaning of the war. And insofar as it was captured, it was captured by the descendants of the Confederates.”
Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group open to male descendants of veterans who served in the Confederate armed forces, boasts 30,000 members across the Old South.
The Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War has 6,000 members.
Kevin Tucker, Massachusetts department commander for the Sons of the Union Veterans, said some Northern descendants don’t even know they’re related to Union veterans. “I found out after my father did some research and discovered that my great-great-grandfather had collected a Union pension,” said Tucker, of Wakefield. “Until then, I had no idea.”
Mark Simpson, 57, South Carolina commander of Sons of Confederate Veterans, said his family knew for generations about his great-great-grandfather’s service in the Confederacy. “I visit his grave site every year and put a flag down,” Simpson said. “He is real to me.”
Mintz said the North has another factor affecting its Civil War memory: immigration from Italy and Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century. He said those populations, and more recent immigrants, sometimes struggle to identify with that war compared to more contemporary ones.
Then, Mintz said, after the Civil War a number of Northerners moved West — and to the South.
History buffs with the Framingham History Center in Framingham, Mass., a town where residents say “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” first was sung, said they are using the sesquicentennial to bring attention to long-forgotten local Civil War sites and personalities. Included in a planned event is a celebration at Harmony Grove, site of many anti-slavery rallies where abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison famously burned a copy of the U.S. Constitution and called it a “pact with the Devil.”
Today, only a small plaque in front of a house announces the historic site now surrounded by industrial lots, train tracks and a motorcycle shop.
Volunteers also hope to raise around $1 million for Framingham’s dilapidated Civil War memorial building to repair its cracked walls and leaky ceiling. The building houses a memorial honoring Framingham soldiers killed in the war and an American flag that flew over the Battles of Gettysburg and Antietam. (Murphy said the flag was discovered in the 1990s after being forgotten in a case for 90 years.)
Fred Wallace, the town’s historian, said that more importantly, volunteers wanted to bring attention to General George H. Gordon, a long-forgotten Union hero from Framingham who was a prolific writer and organizer of the 2nd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. “I don’t understand how this man was lost to history,” said Wallace, who has researched Gordon’s life and is now writing a biography on him. “He was in the middle of everything.”
During a recent afternoon, Murphy took a reporter and photographer to Gordon’s grave site, which she said would be included in a planned walking tour. But Murphy couldn’t locate the site and a cemetery official needed to comb through maps to find it.
Murphy said putting the pieces together of Gordon’s life is part of the fun, even when it surprises residents.
“When I was told that I lived in what used to be a barn of Gen. Gordon’s horse,” 81-year-old Ellen Shaw said, “I was like … General who?”
Since then Shaw has joined history buffs in searching for what they believe is a marker announcing the grave site of Ashby, Gordon’s horse in many battles. She hasn’t located it on her property.
“I hope I find it one day when I’m just walking around outside,” Shaw said. “Then I can say, ‘Glad to meet you. Sorry we forgot about you.’”