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Monuments honor Harvard citizens who served and died in three centuries of conflict

Harvard has a long tradition of honoring those who fought and those who died in service to the country and of expressing lasting gratitude by erecting monuments on the town Common. While cities and towns across Massachusetts have paid similar tribute, Harvard may be unusual in having three war memorials in one location.

The Civil War Memorial featuring the statue Memory. (Photos by Lisa Aciukewicz

In 1864, even before the Civil War was over, a group of citizens formed an organization to raise $300 for a memorial. Even though different groups in town made contributions, reaching the goal remained far off. In the beginning, there was no funding from the town, probably because of the cost of the war.

When the Civil War split the nation apart, Harvard did its part, sending its quota of men to battle every year and taking care of their families at home. According to  Henry Nourse in his “History of Harvard, Mass. 1732–1893,” a Town Meeting on April 29, 1861, voted to appropriate the sum of $4,000 to pay bounties over and above payment from state or national government to those soldiers who volunteered their services, to compensate volunteers for their time drilling at home preparatory to active duty, and to provide for needy families of those who joined the Army. Because of this generous support, at the end of the war the town found itself in debt for the first time since its founding.

When Decoration Day became a national holiday in 1868 as a tribute to the Union and Confederate soldiers who had died in the Civil War, the town began to appropriate $25 to $50 annually toward the memorial fund. Still, raising the money was difficult, and it was not until 1888 that the Soldiers’ Monument was commissioned, at a cost of $1,200. At first the memorial was to be placed in the cemetery, but a later decision sited it on the Common, across from what was then the public library.

The female figure, draped in white marble, head bent downward, atop a polished granite pedestal, represents Memory in the act of strewing flowers upon the names of the 15 soldiers inscribed below. Such a figure is unusual for a war monument; most others in Massachusetts, erected shortly after the war, are obelisks or a soldier figure representing all who fought. In 2013, Ivan Myjer, a conservationist working on the monument, remarked, “I haven’t seen one quite like it.” Memory is impressive in her uniqueness, and she speaks poignantly of both the sorrow of the war and the lasting tribute to the dead soldiers.

On the south side of the base are the words: “Harvard erects this monument in grateful remembrance of the soldiers who gave their lives in the war for the defence of the Union.” Below these words are crossed swords above the dates 1861 to 1865. On the three other faces of the base are the names of the men who died in action. On two stone tablets, originally hung in the library and now in upper Town Hall, are the names of the 134 volunteers who served.

Over time, the name of the May 30 holiday evolved from Decoration Day to Memorial Day, and in 1919 and 1920, newspapers began to advocate commemoration of those killed in the Great War—and eventually all wars.

The World War I memorial was restored and rededicated in 2018.

Town drained of young men

World War I drained Harvard of its young men, with 63 of them entering the service, mostly the Army, and two-thirds of them drafted. They entered the service in the spring through summer of 1917 and were discharged sometime after November 1918. The vast majority were 25 years old or younger, with seven in their late teens. While some had graduated from college and entered a profession, for the majority, their education ended at high school graduation. One was a station master in Harvard, four of them listed chauffeur as their occupation, and many were sales clerks, mechanics, or factory workers in Ayer or Hudson. Twelve of the young men entered the service while they were working on a farm.

Edward Enoch Thomas was the only casualty of all the young men of Harvard who went off to war. He was wounded in battle and died at a hospital two days later. He was 21.

The Annual Meeting of Feb. 2, 1920, voted to raise and appropriate $1,500 for a World War I memorial. Gifts from Clara Endicott Sears and two others were added to this amount. There is no clear explanation for why it was more than a year later that the moderator, at a Special Town Meeting, appointed a committee of three to carry on the work of a Soldiers’ Memorial. The committee reported on Feb. 6, 1922, that the cost of the memorial was $1,455.13.

The memorial was erected at the southwest corner of the Common, with a granite base and a flagpole of steel. On the north side is a bronze tablet inscribed with the names of those in service from Harvard, and on the south side another bronze tablet memorializes Edward Enoch Thomas.

the monument for veterans of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam sits at the corner of the Common and was restored in 2021

World War II monument

The monument first dedicated to those in service in World War II has expanded to include other wars since then. In 1944 the Boy Scouts made a wooden marker listing the names of those who served in World War II and placed it at the southeast corner of the Common where Ayer and Still River roads intersect. The marker gradually deteriorated and was removed in the 1970s, but in 1952 a granite domed monument had been erected showing the dates of World War II. The dates of the Korean and Vietnam wars were later added.

In 2018 the town’s War Monument Restoration Committee funded the repair of the World War I monument, and it then turned its attention to the expanded World War II monument. Members wanted to return to the idea of honoring each veteran as well as paying tribute to those who’d lost their lives in service. The original 1952 monument remains and is flanked by two memorial stones, the three forming a semicircle. The stone on the left has a bronze plaque listing veterans from World War II, and the matching stone on the right lists those who fought in the Korean, Vietnam, and Gulf wars. Those who died in service have a star by their name.

The monuments are durable testimony of the gratitude of Harvard citizens to those who served and those who died in the armed services. As Walt Harris, a town historian of the past century, wrote: “Gratitude is one of the noblest attributes of man, who by being grateful ennobles himself and all those who are enriched by his appreciation.” 


Remembering those who died

Seven Harvard men lost their lives serving their country in post-Civil War conflicts.

Pvt. Lucius Chilson Barry, Spanish-American War

When the Spanish-American War began in 1898, Barry left Syracuse University, where he was studying architecture, to enlist in the Army. During training, he became one of the many victims of the typhoid fever epidemic that spread throughout the overcrowded camp he was assigned to in Virginia. He died two weeks after the armistice that ended that short-lived war was signed.

Pvt. Edward Enoch Thomas, World War I

Thomas, who worked in a rubber company in Hudson, enlisted in the Army in 1917 at the age of 21. A year later he was wounded at the battle of Château-Thierry in France and died in a hospital from loss of blood.

Merchant Mariner John Edward Stephens, World War II

Stephens was 42 years old when he enlisted in the Merchant Marine, the service that ships troops, food, and equipment to overseas locations, in 1943. He was assigned to the SS Henry R. Mallory. On his first trip out to sea, his ship was torpedoed and sank into the Atlantic Ocean. He was declared missing in action, and his body was never recovered.

2nd Lt. James Lincoln Williams, World War II

In 1943, Williams left Harvard University at the age of 19 to enlist in the Army Air Forces. A year later, during a routine training flight in Arizona, Williams’ P-38 fighter plane crashed into the Colorado River about 20 miles north of Yuma, killing him.

Sgt. David Richard Reinhart, World War II

In 1944, while Reinhart was a student in an Army training program at Norwich University, the Army needed more soldiers. It ended the training program and Reinhart was sent to Europe, where he joined General George Patton’s Third Army just as it was about to enter Germany. He was killed in action in Germany on Feb. 28, 1945, five months before the war ended.

Pvt. Robert Austin Brown, World War II

Brown was a resident of New York when he enlisted in the Army in 1940 at the age of 18. In 1941, while still a soldier, he married Harvard resident Elizabeth Anderson, whose father ran the Oak Hill Observatory. He was killed in action in Tunisia in 1943. It is unclear if he ever lived in Harvard, but his wife lived here during his time in the service.

Cpl. Roger Belmont Skillings, Korean War

Skillings enlisted in the Army in 1948 at the age of 18 and was sent to Korea when that war began two years later. His older brother Leroy, who had reenlisted to find Roger, managed to get transferred close enough to meet up with him briefly in South Korea. Shortly after their meeting, Roger was killed in the Battle of Yongdong.

—Joan Eliyesil

Editor’s Note: A version of this article, also by Joan Eliyesil, first appeared in a 2016 issue of the Press.

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