It was November and cold, and Private George W. Harwood was homesick.
“This is the first Thanksgiving day that I ever spent away from home. I can picture in my mind how you looked sitting around the table,” he wrote in a letter to his family dated Nov. 27, 1862, from Camp Forbes in Falmouth, Va.
Harwood was waiting to fight for the Union Army in the Civil War battle of Fredericksburg. The Union would lose; the battlefield would become a graveyard.
“I keep a hoping and so time passes quickly by. It is noon before we know it and then night,” he wrote. “Please give my love to all the friends. I think of you all often and want to see you and have a good long talk. I should enjoy it so. Good Bye.”
Harwood survived Fredericksburg, although about 1,300 Union and 600 Confederate soldiers were killed. His letters — three years’ worth, chronicling his enlistment — are part of an exhibition, “Free Soil — Free Men: Needham and the Civil War, 1861-1865,’’ on display in the Needham Historical Society’s Upper Falls Schoolhouse, at 1147 Central Ave.
It is a collection of local memories of the young men who heeded President Lincoln’s call for volunteer soldiers, and the town they left behind.
Old posters blare calls to arms: “Needham Guards: Tiger Regiment! To go into camp at once!” The society has collected letters sent home by the soldiers, and arranged them chronologically, so the story of the war unfolds all over again.
Then there are the old photographs of young men before battle in borrowed jackets: Ezra Newell Fuller, 19 and a sophomore at Tufts, folds his arms across his chest to hide the sleeves that hang past his fingertips. Fuller would be the first of Needham’s Company C in the 44th Massachusetts Regiment to die.
“Our strength, as a local history organization, is in the small stories that make up the big stories,” said Gloria Greis, executive director of the society. “We can’t present the whole Civil War. What would be the point? We couldn’t do it well. We couldn’t do it comprehensively. What we can do well is, what’s our little part of it?”
Needham sent more than 200 young men to fight in the Civil War without ever having to resort to a draft, said Greis. Free Soil sentiment was strong in the farming town, which then had just 2,500 residents.
In 1851, Needham’s Town Meeting voted to refuse to comply with the Fugitive Slave Act, which required the return of escaped slaves to their masters even if they had made it to a free state. A tattered poster calls “free men” in Needham to attend a gathering of the Free Soil Party, which opposed the spread of slavery into the new territories. A broadside calls the return of a slave named Thomas Sims to his master a “crowning disgrace to the soil of Massachusetts.”
But the town’s young men who went to fight in the war write more about food than they do about the principles that led them there.
“They seem very boyish,” said Greis. “They do talk about being in battle, but it doesn’t ever seem to be with a sense of danger. . . They’re shocked, really. It’s completely unexpected when Ezra Fuller dies.”
He died of “camp fever” — most likely the measles. Fuller’s early letters home regale his family with stories of stealing honey from bee hives, and detail tough marches followed by hearty dinners.
“Sometimes it’s kind of heartbreaking,” Greis said. “You have this strong sense that they’re very young and they may not quite know what they’ve gotten themselves into.”
Harwood was an exception. He was not one of the Needham boys: Born in 1841 and living in North Brookfield, he enlisted just before his 21st birthday.
A distant cousin, lifelong Needham resident Jan (Lebourveau) Drake has had Harwood’s letters in her family for about 25 years, passed on by his grandniece. In March, she and her husband set out for Virginia, determined to follow Harwood’s path through various battlegrounds.
She has stood on the banks of the Rappahannock River where Harwood complained of the mud in his boots during picket duty, and visited the spot where he was camped waiting for battle. The soil there is clay, good for building, and in his letters, Harwood says he made a chimney out of it.
Drake’s hands swoop and flutter as she talks, as if drawing a map of his march in the air.
“I have a sense of the place. It’s like putting a puzzle together,” she said. “You feel, after a while, like you know him. And I like this guy. I feel privileged not just to know him. . . He’s part of my family.”
Harwood’s letters were an event when they reached his hometown. Friends and family gathered to hear them read.
“When he wrote, he wrote to the whole community,” said Drake. “We can read it as part of the community.”
He is through and through a farm boy: He talks about the countryside he had passed through, the horses, the price of milk, apples the size of a “hens egg.”
But his first battle leaves him despondent. Fredericksburg was a disaster for the Union — a bloody mess that ended in retreat. Most of Harwood’s letters avoid graphic details because he knows he is writing for a wide audience, but in the aftermath of Fredericksburg, which lasted from about Dec. 11 through Dec. 15 in 1862, he was deeply shaken.
“Times look dark, darker, every day and I fear that this war will never end until the last drop of blood has been shed, unless it be by the Great hand of the God Almighty. Little do you at the North know how this war is conducted, and the little sympathy a sick or wounded soldier gets, we may write to you but we cannot describe it,” he wrote on Dec. 22, 1862. “Many are the trials, the sorrows, the sufferings, the temptations, the privations, and the discouragements of a soldiers life. . . I hope that I may be spared to meet you all again and that not before long.”
Harwood made it through his enlistment, though he was wounded twice in later battles. He went on to work in insurance and banking. The war, he said, was his education.
In a 2 p.m. program Sunday at the Needham Historical Society, Drake will present the first year of Harwood’s enlistment, and one of the organizers of the exhibition, Claire Fusaro, will tell the story of Company C.
Said Gries, “This was the adventure of their lives.”