Editor's note: This is another article in the series of submissions, part of a citizens initiative for Reading'd 375th Anniversary Historical Essay Project
by Autumn Hendrickson
Historians generally agree that the American Civil War set a definition for who the United States would be and who they would become moving forward. Although Reading was not a town where any fighting actually took place, it has an interesting story. This story of soldiers, industries, rebuilding, and revitalization is the story of Reading during the Civil War.
The Men That Fought
A total of 411 men from Reading--roughly 16% of the town’s population--I did the math using the 1860 Census figure of 2662 answered the call of war. These men fought with valor and the desire to prove themselves. As Mr. William Stevens noted in History of the Fiftieth Regiment of Infantry, “The men who fought the war for independence had passed, and, outside the pages of recorded history, their achievements were little more than fond traditions; the occasion arose, the summons came, and the descendants proved themselves worthy successors of their patriotic ancestors (Stevens et al. 2).” Among the notable men of Reading who fought in the Civil War were Milton G. Holt, a shoemaker aged 28 who died at Baton Rouge, LA on July 18, 1863, George H. Green, a sergeant, aged 28 who was buried at sea on January 10, 1863, Chester W. Eaton, a lawyer from Reading, aged 23 who became the editor and publisher of the Wakefield Citizen and Banner, and many more. If the role of Reading’s soldiers isn't already clear, among the fallen listed on the Civil War Memorial obelisk in Laurel Hill Cemetery are three men who all died during the month of October 1862 defending the path from the Confederate states to Washington DC. According to Horace Wadlin, the first Reading Volunteer to be killed was Thomas Hetler, who died at Bull Run 98 days into the war. His father, Adam Hetler, enlisted that year, and died in a hospital at Annapolis, aged 56. Reading had plenty of war heroes of all different ages, marital statuses and ranks and each of them served with the same honor as their peers, and they deserve the utmost respect from the generations that have followed.
Reading Soldiers: Dancing with Death
One of the most notable soldiers from Reading was Horace M. Warren, descendant of Moses Warren of Waltham who fought at Bunker Hill during the Revolutionary War. Warren enlisted in the Richardson Light Guard and fought in the first Battle of Bull Run. When his 90 day service term ended, he reenlisted in the 20th Massachusetts Regiment and found himself at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, described as a rather humiliating defeat for the Union. Sergeant Warren took command of his company on account of the loss of superior officers and was so severely wounded it was thought that he could not live. The surgeon at the time instructed his men to: “Put him one side, boys, he won’t live twenty minutes.” However, the boys did not give up hope, placing Warren in a boat and rowing him to the opposite shore. After twenty-four hours in the rain with no medical attention he was carried to a hospital at Poolsville and survived. Mr. Warren danced with death two more times before he finally fell at the Battle of Weldon Railroad on August 27 in the year 1864, “One cannot but think that had life been spared to him, the highest of honors might have been his reward (Eaton, 288).”
William H. Walker also served with great honor, in the Richardson Light Guard. Walker was one of the many men wounded at the Battle of Antietam, the deadliest single day in American history. Walker was “...seriously wounded through the left thigh” and nearly lost his leg. Shortly after his recovery, he was given the rank of first lieutenant of the 20th Massachusetts Volunteers. At the Battle of Gettysburg, Mr. Walker sustained two bullet wounds to each thigh, yet miraculously managed to survive. Around the year 1863, Walker was honorably discharged on account of wounds he had accumulated through his service.
The Reconstruction Era Reaches Reading
Historically during times of war, the women and men at home have been forced to install new industries and make work for themselves. Reading did just that shortly before, during, and directly after the Civil War. The railroad came to Reading in 1845, “—thanks to the three enterprising Reading businessmen who lobbied and convinced the Boston and Maine Railroad entrepreneurs to run their track through the town (At Wood End, 58).” One man who had a significant role in the decision to add Reading to the railroad route was Sylvester Harnden. Sylvester was a relatively successful businessman (who also enjoyed music and encouraged the teaching of said art) who, “...always had the future welfare of Reading in mind (Eaton, 312).” His achievement of securing a place for Reading along the rail line was something that many believed left Reading indebted to him for his perseverance.
Reading has historically been a town of shoemakers as well, “One historian reports that in 1822 nearly every family in town was binding and stitching shoes for many different shoemakers (117-18).” This is not surprising if one looks at the histories of nearby towns who also had a rich past full of shoemaking. Although 1822 was a good chunk of time before the Civil War began, in 1855 the Richardson Shoe Factory employed approximately 275 men and 150 women. Reading also was the home of a relatively small but lively clock manufacturing establishment that ran from 1832 to 1916, lasting through the Civil War without much trouble. During the war, Reading worked on as though it was mimicking the quiet ticking of a clock, but working nonetheless and thanks to the humble work of Reading’s citizens, coming home wasn’t as big a challenge for the veterans of the war in question, with plenty of jobs available to them and a strong economy to help support them and their families.
The Man Behind Parker Middle School
Reading has always been a tightly knit community, with citizens often coming to the aid of their fellow man. It comes as no surprise that in the antebellum years, Reading and its people rose to the challenge of picking up the pieces and rearranging themselves. One of the more prominent men who contributed to the post-war reconstruction was Walter S. Parker, who was something of a town legend. Mr. Parker was born on July 21, 1846 in Reading, MA. Walter's father, Henry F. Parker, assisted John Brown in Kansas during the period of time known as “Bleeding Kansas,” when the family moved out West. Henry was also a member of Colorado’s first state Senate. Walter, however, moved back to Reading in 1859 to go to school and begin working. He, like many other men from Reading, heeded the call to duty and enlisted on July 19, 1864. Mr. Parker went on to become a very well-known teacher, earning the modern-day equivalent of Superintendent of Boston Public Schools with absolutely no campaigning on his own part. Mr. Parker was unanimously selected to be president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association in 1895 after being treasurer for ten years. Walter was key in helping to revive Reading’s education system after the Civil War and was always quick to take on a leadership role within the town, “Mr. Parker has always shown deep interest in the affairs of his native town, and the citizens of Reading have frequently called him to fill many important positions of trust (Eaton, 20).”
Townspeople Worth Recognizing
Carroll Davidson Wright, who truthfully did not spend the majority of his time in Reading, is another figure that many people consider important to the post-war era as it occured in Reading. Mr. Wright was elected to be the first commander of the Reading Veterans Association in May of 1870. After the war, Wright found himself very closely engaged in political matters, serving as commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Labor for many years and lecturing at many highly respected universities on the subjects of statistics and social sciences. While not a Reading native he is among the more prominent national figures that were at least partially built into the great men they became by the streets and industries of Reading, where Col. Wright chose to be interred.
Mrs. Sarah Temple, born in 1805 and dying in 1889, also had quite a large impact on Reading and became known around town as Aunt Sarah, frequently offering up her time to those who required her assistance “...in sickness...” and, “her services were ever sought and freely rendered at births…” She participated in the first female anti-slavery society in the country which was formed in Reading. When her husband asked her why she joined, he said, “‘But you will never live to see it accomplished,’” and her response was, “‘Somebody will (Eaton, 162).’” Mrs. Temple was a friend to all and enemy to none, holding the wellbeing of others above her own many a time and it was those characteristics that made her so important to the people of Reading especially after such a vicious and divisive war.
Daniel Ford Pratt was a clockmaker who spent almost the entirety of his life in Reading, and although his pursuits were not necessarily humanitarian ones, his business brought life and vitality to Reading’s economy for many years. He served as Town Clerk for twenty-three years, as Selectman several terms and for two years as a Representative to the General Court.
The local Grand Army of the Republic Post had a great role in the post-Civil War era in Reading. For 29 years it was known as the Reading Veterans Association before being renamed the Grand Army of the Republic, Veterans Post 194, Walter S. Parker being its first commander. Furthermore, when the local G.A.R. turned its charter in to the State Archives and disbanded in 1933, there were only two veterans from the Civil War left living in Reading, so the state never listed the commander (or a name) as it did for almost all other posts.
The Civil War was a major historical event and Reading was, and still is, a very small town, but despite its size, the Civil War’s influence definitely reached the lives of the individuals living here. The war changed Reading itself more than Reading changed the war- the men who went off to fight did so with honor, the families back home continued with their work as best they could, and the men who picked up the pieces after returning home worked in tandem to create the town that Reading citizens live in today.
• Stevens, William, et al. History of the Fiftieth Regiment of Infantry, Massachusetts Volunteer Militia, in the Late War of the Rebellion. Griffith-Stillings Press, 1907.
• Reading 350th Book Committee. At Wood End. Yankee Systems, Inc. 1994.
• Eaton, Will. Proceedings of the 250th Anniversary of the Ancient Town of Redding. Edited by Chester W. Eaton and Warren E. Eaton. Boston, The Barta Press, 1896.
• Biographical Sketches of Representative Citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Graves & Steinbarger, 1901.
• “The Grand Army of the Republic and Kindred Societies” Department of Massachusetts: Post Names and Locations (105-210). https://www.loc.gov/rr/main/gar/appendix/mass2.html. Accessed 5/21/2018.
Autumn Hendrickson will be entering her senior year at RMHS in the fall. Autumn recently won the Christian Herter Scholarship. Ms Hendrickson particularly enjoys history and writing. She hopes to become a middle school English teacher as an adult and desires to remain a part of the Reading community throughout her college years and beyond. Autumn cites her 7th grade science teacher William MacIndewar, as her mentor, who has never failed to provide her love and support when she has needed it the most. Autumn also cites her 7th and 8th grade English teachers as her inspiration to become a middle school English teacher herself.