Leicester

Leicester Memorial Tablets (Worcester County)

Location: In Town Hall, 3 Washburn Square, Leicester
Coordinates: 42°14’48.7″N 71°54’21.5″W
Date dedicated: December 23, 1872
Architect/designer/manufacturer: Unknown

Leicester’s former Town House was built in 1855 primarily to house the town’s fire engine. In 1872, the building was remodeled and enlarged to include a new fire station extending off the back, additional town rooms, and a “Memorial Hall”. This room was dedicated to the memory of those from the town who died in the Civil War.[1] According to a brief newspaper report of the dedication, which took place on December 23, 1872, the hall was “handsomely frescoed, and bearing the coat of arms of the Union and its various states. The sides of the room bear the names of the battles in which the soldiers of the town took part, while at the rear are marble tablets with the names of those who died, as well as the manner of their death.”[2] Originally, Memorial Hall doubled as space for the town’s library. The hall was eventually given over as meeting space for the local Grand Army of the Republic Post.

Capt. John D. Cogswell

During the dedication, Capt. John D. Cogswell, chairman of the building committee, commander of the local Grand Army of the Republic Post, and formerly commander of Company F, 42nd Massachusetts Infantry, gave an address. He recounted the history of the effort to create a soldiers’ memorial, referring to disagreements but observing that the hall represented a compromise “which has harmonized the conflicting elements and given satisfaction to all parties.”[3] Disagreements over the form of memorialization were common in many communities with some preferring freestanding monuments in prominent places and others preferring more pragmatic use of funds that combined a memorial with a town hall or library. Veterans often objected to Memorial Halls as they typically became the site of dances, entertainments and other events perceived as inappropriate for a memorial space (see Middleborough, for example).

In the early morning of February 7, 1933, the old Town Hall was destroyed by fire. Officials believed it was the result of a discarded cigarette left to smolder. Firemen saved the ballot boxes which contained the results of a local election held just the day before. The intense blaze could be seen for miles and threatened the adjacent Baptist Church and Leicester Academy.[4] The destruction was total…except for the marble memorial tablets which somehow survived. These were preserved, and when the new Town Hall on the same ground was finished in 1939, the tablets were installed in the foyer where they remain today.

Old Town House (left) which contained Memorial Hall

The tablets are surmounted with a compelling inscription, “When your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, ‘what mean these stones,’ then ye shall let your children know that when treason raised its head to destroy the government, these men gave their lives that the Union might be preserved, with justice to all.”

Shortly after the outbreak of war, Leicester held its first “war meeting” to raise recruits on April 22, 1861. About fifty men responded and began to regularly drill on the town common.[5] They ended up serving in a variety of different regiments including the 15th and 21st Massachusetts Infantries, both of which were made up mostly of men from Worcester County. The largest group of Leicester men to sign up with a given unit were 39 volunteers who enlisted with the 25th Massachusetts Infantry, another Worcester County regiment. This unit saw combat primarily in North Carolina but was temporarily transferred to Virginia and took part in the Battle of Cold Harbor and the Siege of Petersburg. Thirteen out of the 37 Leicester casualties listed on the memorial tablets were with the 25th Massachusetts.

[1] A. H. Coolidge, A Brief History of Leicester, Massachusetts, (Leicester: unknown publisher, 1890), 68.
[2] National Aegis, December 28, 1872, 1.
[3] Massachusetts Spy, December 27, 1872, 2.
[4] “Leicester Town Hall Destroyed,” The Evening Gazette (Worcester), February 7, 1933, 1 and 8.
[5] Coolidge, 39.

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