Although William Lowell Putnam has been in Poolesville for more than 150 years, few there have ever heard his name.
He was part of the largest population growth in the town’s history, and an ardent and public member of the abolitionist movement that helped spur the Civil War during his lifetime. However, the story of his life has remained untold and his grave unmarked since his death in 1861.
Now, one Germantown nonprofit is hoping to change that by uncovering his life story and the lives and deaths of the more than 50 Civil War soldiers and civilians listed as buried with them in a historic cemetery in Poolesville.
“To have these people buried there with almost no markings or commemoration to me is very sad,” said Peggy Erickson, executive director of Heritage Montgomery, the group doing the research. “Here you have a rich history.”
Heritage Montgomery is an arm of the Heritage Tourism Alliance of Montgomery County, which promotes historic sites in the county.
The cemetery itself, surrounding a historic Methodist church that operates as a thrift shop on West Willard Road in Poolesville, is nearly nonexistent. If it were not for a plaque listing the names of the soldiers, installed in 2002 by the town of Poolesville, and the small fragments of tombstones assembled nearby, it would be nearly impossible for a passerby to know that as many as 80 bodies are buried in the lush, green churchyard.
Poolesville was the site of several skirmishes during the Civil War, with both sides installing troops there at different times during the war, according to a local history of Poolesville, written by residents Dona Cuttler and Dorothy J. Elgin, and information from the tourism alliance. The 350-person town swelled to more than 15,000 with soliders stationed there, turning the church into a Union signal post, telegraph office and a hospital throughout the war.
The dead were buried around the Methodist cemetery in plots generally marked only by bare stones at the time, according to a short history of the cemetery complied by the historical group. The surviving headstones all belong to civilians.
Elgin, 92, of Poolesville said she remembers some scattered around the site when she was younger.
“At one point there were a few; not anymore, though,” she said.
The Town of Poolesville conducted an archaeological study of the land in 1995 when officials were considering expanding the church, then being used as a town hall. In the area around the building, 21 previously unknown graves were found, all unmarked.
Seven years later, the town decided to collect the headstones and compiled a list of who they believe is buried there, Town Manager Wade Yost said. Poolesville may someday turn the church into a museum, though no formal plans exist.
The list compiled by the town contains 51 names, some only surnames, which Erickson is working to complete and expound upon. She said she hopes to tell the stories behind each name, so each unknown soldier gets his due.
One of her first finds was Lowell, a former Harvard law student and abolitionist who joined the 20th Massachusetts Infantry as a second lieutenant when the war began, Erickson said.
Upon reading an article posted by Civil War author and history buff Patrick Browne, she discovered that Lowell had fought beside Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff in Virginia and died from a gunshot wound somewhere near Poolesville.
He was 21 years old.
“They were young, but they led interesting lives,” Erickson said.
Erickson said she plans to begin publishing excerpts from her research as it continues. Short backgrounds on 11 other soldiers can be found in her group’s seasonal newsletter, available on their website at www.heritagemontgomery.org.