The marker made by Deerfield Machine notes Atwood's service.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — John E. Atwood had a largely unremarkable life.
Born in North Adams in 1839, son of John and Sally, he would join the Union Army like many of his friends and neighbors and go off to war. He would return and live with his parents into his 30s, and work as a laborer, printer and bartender. At some point, he married Mary Holbrook and had a son, George, and a daughter, Bertha. Mary, also known as Fanny, died in 1894.
At the age of 50, he became a police officer in North Adams and spent five years raiding alcohol hideaways, investigating holdups, breaking up fights and walking a beat. He worked as a janitor until he died of cancer at Boston City Hospital in 1907 at the age of 67.
What sets Atwood apart from the many others lying next to him in Hill Side Cemetery are three remarkable minutes in his largely unremarkable life.
Atwood probably didn't think much of those three minutes at the time; most of his contemporaries didn't either. And even the individual who spoke during those three minutes thought "the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here."
On Saturday morning, Atwood's service as both Civil War veteran and North Adams police officer was remembered, as well as his presence at one the nation's most historic moments: President Lincoln giving the Gettysburg Address on Nov. 19, 1963, at the dedication of the national cemetery at Gettysburg.
Roger Eurbin, founder of the Hill Side Cemetery Restoration that's cleaned and restored more than 300 headstones at this point, was surprised that Atwood's grave in the historic cemetery had not reflected his service.
"When I started this work I was really impressed by the number of local men and women who served in the armed forces of this country," he said to the dozens of descendants, veterans and officers present at Saturday's dedication. "They served in every conflict the United States was in, starting with the French and Indian War up through World War II. We have representatives of all those services buried here. Their service and sacrifice were indicated by their gravestone and their plaque, in most cases save one.
"We've rectified that omission today."
A memorial plaque commissioned by the restoration group and produced by Michael Denault's Deerfield Machine & Tool Co. lists Atwood's service, including being wounded in action at Fair Oaks, his police service and as color bearer representing Massachusetts at the Gettysburg dedication.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Atwood was among the first in North Adams to join the volunteer Johnson Grays, named in honor of Sylvander Johnson who raised the funds to buy their guns and gray uniforms. The troop marched to Springfield to enlist, becoming Company B of the 10th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment.
The "Old Tenth" would see fighting as part of the Army of the Potomac, from the Peninsula Campaign to Petersburg. Atwood, by then a corporal, re-enlisted as of July 1, 1863, the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. The 10th marched in the blistering 80-degree heat — making 35 miles in 18 hours while dressed from head to toe in heavy woolen uniforms — to reach Gettysburg on the second day and be placed to support the positions on the Round Tops.
"As they were marching to battle at Gettysburg, he was overcome with sunstroke," explained Marino. "You may think this is a pretty wimpy way of getting out of fighting, but when you consider how much wool the men were wearing it was amazing they weren't just dropping like flies."
Atwood was hospitalized and the 10th moved on. When he was better, Marino said, he was pressed into service as a nurse.
When it was determined to create a national cemetery at Gettysburg, each of the Union governors selected a color guard to represent their state.
"Being a member of the color guard was an enormous honor even for purely ceremonial purposes," Marino said. "This is because it was the color guard who was most likely to get shot ... There was a deadly game of capture the flag going on."
The color guard was made up of three men: one to carry the colors and two soldiers to protect him.
The three men selected by Gov. Andrew, however, asked to be relieved, feeling that the honor should go to invalid soldiers. Atwood, still at the hospital, became the color bearer.
"This means that he was an eyewitness to President Lincoln's delivery of the Gettysburg Address and he also met the president that evening at a reception," Marino said. "Interesting enough, Mr. Atwood did not make a big fuss about having been there at Gettysburg and being only 15 feet from the podium, and meeting the president later on."
In his written memories of the war for the local Grand Army of the Republic sketchbook, the thing he was most grateful for was that he survived the war and came home, Marino said. "He mentioned the address in passing."
But as time went on, the president's three-minute speech came to have far more meaning than the three hours of oration by main speaker Edward Everett, whose name and address have long been forgotten by most.
Atwood, in 1905, gave the Gettysburg Address in North Adams himself, said Marino, likely right there at Hill Side.
On Saturday morning, Lily Marceau, who has been volunteering with the restoration, recited the address from memory. Richard A. Ruether Post 152 American Legion provided the honor guard and salute, with its chaplain, Kevin Hamel, reading a Civil War soldier's prayer.
A contingent from the North Adams Police Department placed a flag and memorial holder at the new memorial stone and Police Director Michael Cozzaglio thanked Atwood's great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren for allowing them to honor him.
"We didn't know he was a member of the North Adams Police Department," he said. "On behalf of the city of North Adams and the North Adams Police Department we want to thank Officer Atwood for his service to the country as a Civil War veteran and his service to the city of North Adams as a police officer."
The Rev. David Anderson lead the group in prayer, noting that they were surrounded by "hundreds and hundreds of stories."
"When we think about the complexity of that era of history of the Civil War what difference does one person make?" he asked, answering that the ocean is made up of billions of drops of water. "If we look at history in those terms, every single person becomes a part of the greater narrative."
Atwood's closes relative, his great-granddaughter Jean Waterman of Williamstown, thanked the group for honoring her ancestor. She was presented with the flag by Post 152.
"I'm proud of my great-grandfather. If my father, if he was here, he would be thrilled," she said of her father, Russell, son of George Atwood. "He'd be thrilled to death over this. You deserve a medal each one of you for what you've done.
northadams.com welcomes critical, respectful dialogue. Name-calling, personal attacks, libel, slander or foul language is not allowed. All comments are reviewed before posting and will be deleted or edited as necessary.