AYER -- The Civil War monument at 99 Fitchburg Road was erected in memory of 950 members of the 53rd Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. They enlisted and trained at Camp Stevens in Groton and mustered Nov. 29, 1862, from this out-of-the-way and previously long-forsaken site off Shirley Road at the junction of Ayer and Groton.
A rededication ceremony was held Saturday morning, Nov. 2.
Camp Stevens was a temporary enclave of 13 buildings that took just 14 days for the Ames Plow Company of South Groton to erect. It was created after a state order was issued to train more troops in response to President Abraham Lincoln's request in 1861 for 300,000 soldiers for the Civil War effort. Captain Wesley Sawyer of Harvard was appointed commandant.
The camp was named in memory of Major General Isaac Ingalls Stevens, of Andover, a West Point graduate killed in the battle of Chantilly, Va., in 1862.
John Hazen, of Shirley, was instrumental in erecting the monument, with 11 members of the 53rd Regiment present at its original dedication in 1915.
Among the distinguished guests at the recent rededication ceremony were Ayer Selectman James Fay, Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand and Father Edmond Derosier, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Church in Shirley, who gave the closing prayer.
The color guard, Leominster Boy Scout Troop 477, led the assembly in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of the program.
Also in the crowd was a group from the Narragansett Historical Society in Templeton, one of whom, Virginia Strahan, is the great-granddaughter of a soldier in the 53rd regiment, John. W. Guile, a blacksmith from Baldwinsville, where Strahan lives.
The soldiers and officers who left from here on that long ago November day came from 48 cities and towns across Central Massachusetts, according to Camp Stevens records. They arrived in New York the next day. Delayed by an outbreak of sickness, they stayed until January, then boarded a steamer bound for Port Hudson.
Soldiers who signed on for a nine-month stretch were paid $100 for their service.
Of the original 950 who trained for six weeks at Camp Stevens, 710 came back after their term of duty was over. Some who did not return died in battle, others of diseases. They were farmers and tradesmen, fathers and husbands, young men and perhaps a woman named Mary Johnson, according to a historic sketch presented by speaker James Fay, who is a military veteran himself.
They were ordinary folks who had a lot to live for but were willing to risk their lives for the Union cause.
Pontbriand said some of the men from the 53rd regiment are buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Fitchburg, where he lives.
One of those men was John White Kimball, a city native who served 32 years in the U.S. Army and culminated his career as an honorary Brevet Brigadier General, nominated by President Andrew Johnson in 1867.
White was a lieutenant colonel when he arrived at Camp Stevens in 1862 to take command of the 53rd regiment. Wounded in the siege of Port Hudson in 1863, he served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives after his military career ended and went on to hold other government posts, including state auditor, U.S. pension agent and postmaster. He died in 1910.
At the muster site, part of Groton then, a simple stone with a three-sided rustic fence, brick walkway and swatches of manicured lawn on each side honors the memory of all 950 members of the 53rd regiment. The monument stands on private property now, but it belongs to the nation.
Obscured for years by wild growth, the memorial was nearly impossible to find until recently. Thanks to the combined efforts of the Ayer Historical Society and the town of Ayer, a state grant and the support and cooperation of many others, including state agencies, veterans organizations, local businesses and the property owners, the historic site has been rescued from obscurity, restored and made accessible to the public.
Barry Schwarzel, of the Historical Commission and author of the recently published "The History of Ayer," traced the genesis of the restoration project and grant-writing process. "The site was in deplorable condition," he said. "We thought it was a perfect candidate" for the grant.
The project took about three months, from the grant application in May to its acceptance in July to restoration work in August to clear and landscape the site and restore the stone.
General Grant speaks
The keynote speaker was General Ulysses S. Grant, as portrayed by Sam Grant, a living historian and motivational speaker from Townsend. Accompanying Grant, also dressed for the part in period costumes, were his wife, Julia and their 2-year-old daughter, Alexandretta.
Focusing on the Civil War's big, terrible picture to highlight the crucial role of the men of the 53rd regiment, Grant drew much of his brief speech from the real general's war book and some from President Lincoln's iconic Gettysburg address.
Outlining his campaign to open up the Mississippi River for commerce, "from the mouth to the headwaters," he called it "the Gibraltar of the West." Without the Mississippi and Ohio River trade routes restored, the split between states would have widened, he said. "The fate of the new world trembled in the balance."
"The men of the 53rd ... were very instrumental in that effort," Grant said.
In his closing prayer, Father Derosier drew inspiration from a past speech he was asked to give at Fort Devens about a military chaplain's role. Those duties were "strange" during the Civil War, which was the first "modern war" the world had seen, he said. "It shook the foundations of our faith."
What those Civil War veterans saw was "incomprehensible" to them, he said. Casualties, suffering, anger and hurt. Those harrowing experiences framed the mission of the modern Chaplain Corps, he said, which is dedicated to preserving the faith and spirit of troops.
He told an anecdote to highlight his point. On the day after the battle at Gettysburg, a chaplain was seen walking among the multitude of dead men lying across the field.
The man stopped at each one, mumbled a few words and moved on. What was he saying ... a prayer? The quote was this: "My God, what have we done?" Father Derosier said.
The men who left Camp Stevens to fight in the Civil War did so in the spirit of hope and service, he continued. But many came back broken in spirit. "I now offer a prayer for them and for those who serve us still," he concluded. "The connection is very real."
Historical Commission Chairman George Bacon said even though this monument was erected long after the Civil War ended, it was a "gateway" to events and experiences that should not be forgotten and are still enlightening today. "Those of us with a passion for history" are inspired to share it, he said, and the same goes for their own lives. Everyone should tell his or her story, "pass it along" to the next generation, he said.