WOONSOCKET – Gregory Duhamel called to his youngest child as he stood on the other side of an overgrown area full of grass, poison ivy, and uneven hills that anyone would have a hard time walking through at the Woonsocket Historical Cemetery #9.
“I don’t want you to stay over there, I’m coming for you,” he said.
The old burial grounds are located between Logee and Grand Streets. A driver going by would likely just miss this plot of land, despite the small sign marking its location.
“Our main focus was to come here and locate all the veterans,” said Duhamel, of the Woonsocket Historical Cemetery Volunteers, as he stepped back next to William Merchant’s new gravestone that he said took him and other volunteer members three years to obtain.
His youngest child and his oldest play next to the stone as he recalls the struggle it’s been for him for the past couple of years to maintain the field.
“What we did when we first started coming here … we wanted to follow our plot map. We tried to measure out how far the cemetery would have gone,” he said, as he showed a drawn map of the entire space of the Woonsocket Historical Cemetery, also commonly known as St. James Cemetery and Bernon Cemetery, including plot numbers and specific measurements. Duhamel added that he and his team are preserving the graves as they do at the Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., using the same mortar and epoxy.
Duhamel stated that as well as locating the graves of veterans, he made sure to find out as much information as possible, including genealogical information, birthdays, and what the veterans did during their lifetime.
Merchant was a resident of Historic Bernon Village; he enlisted in the military in April of 1861 in Providence as a private. On May 2, 1861 he was mustered into Rhode Island 1st Infantry, Company K, also known as the Woonsocket Guards. Duhamel said he partook in the First Battle of Bull Run during July, 1861.
Newspaper articles stated that on March 2, 1865, Merchant died by his own hand after an accidental pistol shot, but did not elaborate further. He was 23 years old when he died.
Since 1865, William Merchant never had a gravestone, until May of this year.
“(It) took us three years of consistent emails to the Rhode Island Cemetery Association before the application that we filled out finally got sent to Veteran Affairs,” said Duhamel.
According to the Rhode Island Historical Commission, this Woonsocket cemetery has been vandalized repeatedly and has remained in poor condition through the multiple changes of ownership. The cemetery once belonged to St. James Episcopal Church, and last hosted burials until 1904. Duhamel and his team would eventually take over to restore it. The last known owner of the plot, according to records, was Franklin Associates.
Duhamel said when he and his group first came out to the cemetery a couple of years ago, a man was urinating on the grave of one of the first casualties of the Civil War.
Duhamel added that he and his team have put in nearly 50,000 hours of volunteer work. That dedication was honored by National Park Service for outstanding volunteer service.
“Most of the work we do is overlooked. Every email I send out, no acknowledgement or response,” said Duhamel. He said he’s never seen any city officials here, and he only wishes that the work he has done to maintain the property could receive backing from the city.
When an inquiry about condos to be built on the property was put forth to the city, Duhamel said officials rejected the idea as the land would remain a cemetery and be maintained as one, “but it’s clearly not,” he told The Breeze.
“Ninety-five percent of our volunteers are elderly and retired. I’m 30 years old and I work a full-time job, my fiancée works a full-time job,” so they can only do this on the weekend if they’re around, he said.
Duhamel says that recently he’s been out of work due to a foot injury, and will need surgery.
On Aug. 20 at 10 a.m., Duhamel and his team, along with Rev. Ken Postle of New Hope Baptist Church, will be hosting a ceremony to honor William Merchant and his new gravestone that now sits in the historical cemetery. The ceremony will also include a salute detail by the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery, taps and a wreath-laying, and some remarks will be made by representatives from the Department of Rhode Island Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
“On Aug. 20, we will give William Merchant what he has waited for 157 Years,” stated Duhamel, who called Merchant “one of the first responders to Abraham Lincoln’s call for help in 1861.” He was one of the first to see and partake in what would soon turn into a four-year war.
“His life and his legacy should not be forgotten, and he should be honored and remembered for his service to the United States of America,” said Duhamel.
Postle is cemetery coordinator for the Blackstone Valley Historical Society and coordinates numerous cemetery restoration efforts in the area. Duhamel has worked alongside Postle to spearhead many of the cemetery restoration efforts in Woonsocket.
On the way out of the cemetery last Friday, Duhamel pointed out the grave of the youngest person located in the cemetery, who lived only one hour. Next to it is an empty cardboard box of alcohol and other trash.
To help Gregory Duhamel and his team, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
This park is a hidden gem! Solomon Ballou is buried here. He wrote a very touching love letter to his wife the day before he was killed at Gettysburg.
Years ago there was talk of making this into a park with exhibits and more that would attrack people from all over the country. It would be great for Woonsocket and all of RI. Can someone get that idea moving?
His name was Sullivan Ballou...
Yes yo0 are right and it was at Bull Run. I realized that after I posted it but I dont see how a post can be changed..
This park is a well hidden gem! Solomon Ballou is buried here. He wrote that famous love letter to his wife just before being killed at Gettysburg..Years there was talk of making a national park here that would attract people from all over the nation with monuments and exhibits.. What happened to that? Can someone get it started? It would be great for Woonsocket and all of RI
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