Westminster Soldiers’ Monument (Worcester County)

WestminsterLocation: In front First Congregational Church, 138 Main Street, Westminster
Coordinates: 42°32’42.1″N 71°54’39.6″W
Date dedicated: July 4, 1868
Architect/sculptor/manufacturer: Unknown
Number of names: 34 men who died in the war

An obelisk made of Fitchburg granite featuring plaques made from Vermont marble, the Westminster monument lists 34 men from that town who died in the war. The first name listed is Lt. Col. Joseph Rice of the 21st Massachusetts Infantry. He was born, lived in, and was buried in neighboring Ashburnham, so his presence on this monument is a bit of a mystery. Rice was killed during the battle of Chantilly on September 1, 1862. The worst engagement the 21st Massachusetts faced, Chantilly is sad example of the manner in which the fog of war can lead to extreme casualties.

Rice, Joseph P
Lt. Col. Joseph P. Rice

The Battle of Chantilly, an aftershock of Second Bull Run, was fought in a blinding thunderstorm as General Stonewall Jackson attempted to get around the Union flank and cut off their retreat to Washington. At the height of the storm, the 21st Massachusetts was ordered to advance into dense woods in support of the 51st New York. In the torrential rain and near darkness, the two regiments lost track of one another. When the 21st Massachusetts finally found a body of troops in their front, they assumed it was the New Yorkers and set about reforming their lines. Just as some men began to mutter, “those are rebels,” the Confederates opened fire. As the regimental historian described, it seemed in the “anguish and despair” of the moment that the entire regiment lay on the ground. Lt. Col. Rice was among the many killed in the woods. He was shot just as he was advancing alone towards the body of men in an attempt to determine who they were. A long-time officer in the pre-war militia, he was referred to as an outstanding drill master, a man of “iron-will,” and his death a terrible loss to the regiment.[1]

The dedication of the Westminster monument took place on July 4, 1868. A correspondent to the Boston Journal wrote an uncharacteristically effusive account of the exercises. This is perhaps related to the chronological proximity to the war. He dwelt on the beauty and solemnity of the day, the procession and the speakers saying he had never attended an occasion marked by such “perfect order and sobriety.” After prayers and services at the monument, about 2000 proceeded to a grove about a half mile away where seating had been set up. Rev. Joseph Peckham of Kingston, Massachusetts gave a “model oration.” General John Kimball of Fitchburg “made a very touching address.” The day would be remembered, according to the correspondent, “as proof to all coming generations that their fathers were not unmindful of the gift bestowed in the redemption of a nation by the sacrifice of their own brothers and sons.”[2]

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[1] Charles F. Wolcott, History of the Twenty-first Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteers, in the War for the Preservation of the Union, 1861-1865, (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1882), 162-168.
[2] “Letter from Westminster Westminster,” Boston Journal, July 08, 1868, 4.

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