By Dave Rogers
---- — The thousands who took advantage of near flawless weather yesterday to attend Memorial Day ceremonies held throughout Greater Newburyport were once again reminded that to those who fought to defend this country, the holiday means so much more than another day of rest.
The Civil War, fought between 1861 and 1865 and directly leading to the adoption of Decoration Day, the precursor to Memorial Day, was very much on the minds of those attending Amesbury and Newburyport’s parades and services. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, considered to be the turning point in the war and the largest battle ever fought on American soil, fought July 1-3.
In Amesbury, a contingent of Confederate troop re-enactors joined the city’s parade that kicked off at 10 a.m. yesterday outside the Amesbury Fire Department on School Street and marched down Main Street before filing into Landry Memorial Stadium. At one point before the parade, a man dressed as a Union solider approached the Confederate re-enactors and shook hands with one of them. As the parade wound its way down Main Street, the Confederate troops began singing Civil War-era tunes.
At Landry Memorial Stadium, high school students read from a text authored by Gettysburg National Park ranger and Amesbury native Chris Gwinn about Amesbury soldiers’ contribution to the battle. After the ceremony, a Civil War living history demonstration was held at the stadium.
Amesbury Mayor Thatcher Kezer, wearing his Air Force National Guard dress uniform, told the crowd of several hundred of the city’s intention to spend $25,000 to spruce up its war memorials using free cash in the city’s budget. He also said plans are in the works to create a different fund with community activist Rosemary Werner to raise money to renovate the Doughboy statue outside Amesbury Middle School.
In Newburyport, Civil War historian William Hallett gave the keynote speech outside City Hall and spoke about Newburyporters who fought and died at Gettysburg and how the city first heard of the news. He also spoke about the lesser known but almost as consequential capture of Vicksburg, which gave Union forces complete control of the Mississippi River, splitting the Confederacy in two.
Before Gettysburg, the fate of the war was very much in question. A Confederate victory could have prompted President Abraham Lincoln to enter into peace talks with Confederate leaders and quite possibly split this nation into two forever, Hallett added.
Later, Nock Middle School students, who days earlier had placed American flags by the graves of those in cemeteries off Storey Avenue, read the Gettysburg Address as part of yesterday’s ceremony inside Veterans Cemetery off Pond Street.
Plenty of veterans took part in parades in both in Amesbury and Newburyport, a stark contrast to the North Shore city of Beverly, which canceled its parade over the weekend due to a dearth of veterans.
Newburyport Director of Veteran Services Kevin Hunt said he was saddened by the decision made by his peers in Beverly but pointed out that yesterday’s parade drew more veterans than in recent memory.
“I feel quite confident Newburyport won’t suffer the same problem,” Hunt said, during a small break in the parade.
Newburyport’s Memorial Day program began with its parade shortly after 10:45 a.m. on Pond Street and after a brief time on High Street, marched down State Street to City Hall. At City Hall, Mayor Donna Holaday read the names of veterans who had passed away since the last ceremony, her remarks interrupted several times by an ill-timed car alarm. Hunt then spent a few moments reminding residents what Memorial Day is all about.
“They (those who have served) have written a blank check to their country, payable to their lives,” Hunt said.
Upon the conclusion of remarks outside City Hall, the parade moved to the waterfront, where Coast Guard personnel aboard a 47-foot cutter tossed a wreath into the Merrimack River to honor those in the Navy, Merchant Marines and Coast Guard.
The parade continued up State Street to the Veterans’ Cemetery on the corner of Pond Street and Route 1, where Holaday laid a wreath at the Veterans Memorial.