As the 150th anniversary festivities take place at the Togus VA Hospital in Chelsea this weekend (Sept. 16-18), modern patients and visitors can be forgiven for not knowing exactly why a veterans’ hospital was established at this remote (by mid-19th century standards) place in the first place.
The reasons — there actually are 5,373 — lie in the Togus National Cemetery, physically screened from the modern hospital by thick woods.
But the Veterans Administration does not apply the concept “out of sight, out of mind” in caring for the men whose lived out their last days in rural Chelsea. Whether sick or crippled by war wounds or peacetime injuries, these men lie in honor with their heads perpendicular to their white gravestones.
Of all the Civil War-related national cemeteries I have visited, Togus ranks with Culpeper (Va.) and Shiloh (Tenn.) as among the better maintained. Granted that most war-affiliated cemeteries are on or near battlefields, but Togus has a special distinction: long after the last shot was fired, heroes kept dying here.
We can indirectly credit President Abraham Lincoln for the creation of Togus National Cemetery, a natural consequence of his 1865 signing of the bill establishing the National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. Congress later replaced “Asylum” with “Home,” a softer connotation on what Togus and similar facilities would become for many veterans: a final home where they lived and died.
The Eastern Branch National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers opened in a failed Chelsea resort called Togus Springs, adapted from the Indian place name Worromongtogus, “mineral water.” The federal government paid $50,000 for the former resort, which included the 134-room Togus Springs Hotel.
Officially opened on Oct. 6, 1866, Togus (let’s use the facility’s modern name) accepted its first veteran, James A. Nickerson of the 19th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, on Nov. 10. Around 200 veterans lived at Togus by summer 1867; the facility’s population ballooned to about 3,000 veterans by 1880.
With so many ailing men living in one place, a cemetery would naturally be needed. The original cemetery (now called West Cemetery) opened in 1867 on rising ground west of the original Togus Springs Hotel. As indicated by their gravestones, many men were buried chronologically by their death dates; other gravestones only indicate the names and Civil War units of the interred.
West Cemetery closed in 1936, the same year that East Cemetery opened. Its access road blocked to motorized vehicles in late summer 2016, East Cemetery closed in 1961. West Cemetery remains accessible by foot and by vehicle.
The Veterans Administration had graciously arranged to open West Cemetery one last time for the planned Sept. 17 burial of Pvt. Jewett Williams. He will be buried in Hodgdon on Sept. 24, instead.
During my first West Cemetery visit, I walked a while among the heroes whose white stones run in neat rows from side to side and front to back. Many Civil War veterans lie near the gate closest to the modern Togus campus; as I explored farther afield, I met veterans from later wars.
Studying the terrain, I rubbed my chin and thought, “I’ve seen this type of ground somewhere else” — and not at another Maine cemetery.
Susan joined me during my next West Cemetery visit, and we explored farther afield than on my initial visit. We studied the death dates for the chronologically placed graves; a lot of men died here at Togus, sometimes a few on a particular date, sometimes a week or more spaced apart.
We walked amidst the men of the Spanish-American War and the Great War (the first of three world wars, if we count the ongoing war against worldwide terror), as well as the elderly Civil War vets who survived into the 20th century.
Togus is truly a national cemetery. For some reason, I had expected to find predominantly Maine boys buried here, but Civil War veterans from just about every loyal state (and perhaps all of them) lie at Togus and often outnumber the Maine veterans buried among them.
William R. McKinney from the 2nd California Cavalry rests beside Moses Brosso of the 4th California Infantry. How did these West Coasters get here?
Here lie men from the other five New England states, New York, New York, Pennsylvania, and even Michigan, at least in terms of the state units with which these heroes served. Did I pass a soldier from a West Virginia outfit?
I definitely saw graves for soldiers who had served in Indiana units.
There are more than a few sailors and possibly at least one black soldier, identified as James Speaks of Co. F, 25th U.S.C.T. (United States Colored Troops). Whatever his skin’s hue, he died at Togus on March 2, 1897.
And many regular Army soldiers lie buried among the volunteer soldiers for whom Togus was created. The contributions of “the regulars” are often overshadowed by the heroics of the 20th Maine and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, to name two volunteer regiments.
Late in our visit, I walked down (as the terrain flows) to Sections A/B, which are filled with Civil War veterans. Passing through the topographical separation between the “upper” sections of West Cemetery and Sections A/B, I suddenly realized where I had seen similar terrain and landscapes …
… at Gettysburg: out around Spangler’s Spring, in the woods near the Irish Brigade monument, along those sections of Little Round Top held by the 20th Maine and the 83rd Pennsylvania.
Perhaps I am incorrect in my assessment of the landscape between Sections A/B and the rest of West Cemetery. Stop by the Togus National Cemetery this weekend or any time, visit with all the heroes, and decide for yourself if there just might be a little bit of Gettysburg here in Chelsea.
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.