A Tattered Flag
by David Corbin
Early last autumn I received a phone call from a member of Scituate’s newly created Community Preservation Committee regarding the town’s lesser known cemeteries, or, to be more specific, family graveyards. A complete survey of Scituate’s burial grounds has been proposed as a part of the Community Preservation Act, and the surveyors doing the preliminary work wanted to be sure that all such sites were cataloged.
Among the cemeteries mentioned during our conversation was the Clapp-Ford Cemetery located off the Driftway. Once easily visible from the main highway, the burial ground is now completely hidden by an overgrowth of black cherry trees, sumac, and poison ivy. A narrow sandy road wedged between the Driftway-South Medical Building and a boat storage lot leads from the highway to the cemetery, which was constructed on raised granite blocks.
Access is made by avoiding poison ivy vines and climbing a set of short but steep granite stairs. Curiously, just outside the cemetery wall are three or four slate gravestones dating from the 1790s that mark the final resting places of smallpox victims. It is widely believed that these unfortunate four succumbed to their illness at what is now our Maritime & Mossing Museum. This lonely spot just off the Driftway receives occasional visitors in the form of Driftway Animal Shelter volunteers walking their canine clients or a genealogist searching for clues. My own interest in the Clapp-Ford Cemetery came not by chance, but by the sight of a tattered flag.
I could just make it out through the sumac and unmowed grass. Bleached by sun and rain the flag stirred with the faint breeze coming over from the nearby North River.
Closer inspection revealed a crooked brass service marker with the engraving “Veteran 1861-1865.” Leaning over a small white marble headstone, I brushed away dewed cobwebs and brown grass clippings to reveal the name “Edward James,” and the fact that he had departed this life in 1877. Down below, though hardly legible, was the inscription “7th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Co. K.” As I walked away from the departed and toward my car I wondered who this fellow Edward James was and how his final resting place came to be off the beaten paths of Driftway. Having only just begun a listing of Scituate’s Civil War veterans, I was determined to find out as much as I could about Mr. James and his service during the Civil War.
My research consisted of a few weekend afternoons at the Little Red Schoolhouse tracing the James family genealogy as well as a written request to the National Archives in Washington D.C. for Edward James’ service and pension records. When all the information came together, the story of a man’s life in 19th century Scituate soon revealed itself.
Edward James was born in Scituate in 1817. The son of Elisha, Jr. and Lydia (Little), Edward was the grandson of Dr. Elisha James, a prominent physician in Scituate during the Revolutionary War. Dr. James’ house, located in Greenbush, still stands today on the edge of Old Oaken Bucket Pond. When Edward married Laura Sylvester in 1847 he had been working as a carpenter in Scituate and the surrounding communities.
In 1859 Laura succumbed to an undisclosed illness. The following year Edward married Serena Chubbuck.
When the Civil War began in 1861, Edward James was a 44 year old carpenter on a second marriage with a newborn baby girl who had entered the world earlier that July. By the standards of the day he was already past middle age when he enlisted as a private in the 7th Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Co. K at Taunton. Several Scituate boys who at the time were working in and around Taunton in the shoe and nail factories flocked to the national colors for adventure and a $100.00 bounty. Though most were ignorant of the hardships of war that awaited them, it’s hard to fathom what drove Edward James to leave his family and home for what would soon become the killing fields of Virginia.
By the winter of 1861 James and the 7th Massachusetts Volunteers found themselves encamped outside Washington near Georgetown. Sickness swept through the camps as the men huddled in drafty sibley tents and drilled ten hours a day. It was in this backdrop of suffering that Edward received word that his 7-month old daughter Laura died of complications brought on by a fever. With the arrival of spring the regiment joined the rest of the Army of the Potomac at Yorktown for the Peninsular Campaign. It was during this time that James was admitted to a field hospital at Fort Monroe with dysentery where he spent the next several weeks recovering. Returning to his regiment, James and the 7th Massachusetts moved into Maryland toward South Mountain and Antietam but did not participate in either battle. While on picket duty James collapsed from sunstroke and spent time in a field hospital. The following spring when the 7th Massachusetts was engaged at the Battle of Fredericksburg, James was shot twice in the right leg as his company assaulted a rebel position. Recovering from his wounds at a Washington hospital James was finally transferred to the Veterans Reserve Corps and in the summer of 1864 discharged from the service.
Returning to Scituate after almost three years, 47 year old Edward James began the process of putting back together his life. His health had greatly diminished to a point where he could not resume his trade as a carpenter. With the arrival of the railroad in Scituate in 1871, James accepted a position as a brakeman working at the Greenbush station. By a cruel twist of fate James was struck by a moving boxcar while he worked at the Greenbush yard. Sustaining fractured ribs and an elbow, James died on July 4,1877, eighteen years to the day his first wife Laura passed away. He was 60 years old.
Following his death, James’ wife Serena applied for a widow’s pension from the United States Government. After reviewing her husband’s war record the government awarded Serena James a monthly stipend of $7.00. Assisting in her endeavor to receive the pension was Scituate’s George W. Perry Post #31, Grand Army of the Republic.
Post members Charles Nott and John Towne, who was also James’s brother-in-law, attested to James’s honorable service and bravery under fire. Their sworn testimony taken in 1878 would later be filed with thousands of other such statements in the National Archives until my request summoned it back from the past in 1996.
Since learning the identity of the man who rests in the sandy soil of Driftway, I make a special trip out every Memorial Day to replace a tattered flag with a new one so that the colors can be seen, despite the encroaching overgrowth, and time itself.