Fifteen decades since the Civil War, some things have not changed for Mainers, especially the way we honor our slain heroes.
On a sunny and warm Monday, May 7, 2018, hundreds of people gathered along Route 2 either side of the green-and-white Newport/Palmyra boundary sign to glimpse a passing hero. Twelve days ago, Corporal Eugene Cole of the Somerset County Sheriff’s Department had been shot and killed in the line of duty, the first Maine police officer lost in such manner in some 30 years.
After a well-attended Sunday, May 6 viewing at the Skowhegan Armory, Corporal Cole and his family headed east to Bangor on this fine, almost cloudless morning. West-bound earlier on Interstate 95, Susan and I saw many police vehicles, their blue lights flashing, trucking toward the Queen City, where some 4,000 people (including an estimated 3,600 police officers) would attend the noontime funeral for Cole at the Cross Insurance Center.
Standing on the Palmyra side of the MDOT sign, Susan and I waited as the Monday clock ticked past 11 a.m. The motorcade escorting Cole had left Skowhegan at 10 a.m., according to WABI-TV.
The parking lots adjacent to Route 2 filled from AutoZone east to the lot behind the Circle K at the Newport Triangle. While we waited, I watched the people waiting for Eugene Cole and thought about how Mainers honored their slain heroes during the Civil War.
Back then, steamships or trains usually transported the honored dead — recently killed in combat or lost to mortal wounds or infernal diseases or infections — to the seaport or railroad station nearest home. Incorporated just about in time for the Civil War, the Maine Central Railroad curved through Newport by 1860 or so. The Somerset & Kennebec Railroad got to Skowhegan in 1856.
The shipping lines and railroads required that the slain heroes be embalmed and their caskets placed inside sealed lead- or zinc-lined containers. From the port or railroad station, a cart, wagon, or horse-drawn hearse carried the lost soldier the last miles to his hometown.
Funerals usually occurred in private homes or churches, sometimes in public halls. Mourners circa-1863 could not imagine the spacious Cross Insurance Center nor rural residents of places like Canaan and Plymouth a smoothly paved highway extending into Newport.
Suddenly people stirred along Route 2; headlights topped the ridge well beyond the Palmyra Wal-Mart (it does not lie in Newport), and I told Susan, “They’re here.”
The similarities between honoring Corporal Cole in 2018 and honoring the hallowed dead in 1863, ’64, and ad infinitum lie not in the transportation mode, but in the respect and admiration extended by ordinary Mainers.
Two American flags rose above Route 2 in front of the Wal-Mart entrance: One flag hung from lift’s extended boom; the second and larger flag hung from the cable suspended between that fire engine and another parked across the road with its ladder raised skyward, too.
Another large flag spread across the windshield of an over-the-road tractor parked in the Circle K lot along Route 2.
During the war, flags and black bunting often adorned houses and businesses as a warrior returned home the last time. The hero’s home and his funeral location would be liberally shrouded in black.
Followed by the hearse, the Cole motorcade’s motorcycle vanguard passed beneath the suspended American flags and approached the Triangle. With some holding small American flags, people stood quietly and respectfully — some men saluted — as the hearse passed by, trailed by around 40-to-50 police vehicles (my rushed estimate), more motorcycles, and at least one fire truck.
Fifteen decades ago, local militiamen clad in their finest uniforms often met the fallen hero at the dock, the train station, or the town’s boundary and escorted him to where he might spend the night. Company A of the Maine State Guards formed up at the MCR station in Bangor at least several times to bring a soldier the last mile or two home during the Civil War. When not in Washington, D.C., Vice President Hannibal Hamlin often donned his uniform and marched with Company A on such escort duty.
Hamlin thought serving in the militia not beneath his vice presidential dignity.
A local band — there were far more in Maine then than now — and local dignitaries often escorted the casket, too. This noontime at the Cross Insurance Center, a police bagpipe band would play while marching inside to participate in Corporal Cole’s funeral; cornet or fife-and-drum bands sufficed more than 150 years ago.
The Cole motorcade went by all too soon on this beautiful May Monday. We witnessing its passage will never forget Corporal Eugene Cole and his sacrifice, just as Mainers witnessing the passage of a fallen soldier’s funeral cortege never forgot that hero and his sacrifice so long ago.
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.