The year 2007 saw Lewiston being named an “All-America City” as a proud moment in its history. As we near Memorial Day, I suggest that we take a hard look at something that tarnishes that image: the horrific ongoing damage from vandalism in Riverside Cemetery.
There are many places around Lewiston where some of the people of the city’s history have been laid to rest, but to me, Riverside encompasses more than two centuries of history and a wide cross-section of its people who created such a noble community.
As I walk through Riverside Cemetery, the history of a nation in crisis and in triumph unfolds before me. Founding citizens, industry tycoons, everyday people of the 1800s are most everywhere one would look.
For some, these names are family, with photos on their walls showing them with a new bride or a young son in uniform before he left for a war, perhaps never to return. They lived in a time of peace or when the power of a nation had to be extended to bring a hostile nation back into the realm of civilized countries. Their deeds are notable because most of the nation knows the names of where they triumphed, like Valley Forge or Yorktown. Others served in one or more of Maine’s 32 infantry regiments or in the cavalry. They faced death by gun and cannon fire and tainted food; and they endured disease and wounds and survived whole or with limbs torn away to return home, while men to their left or right fell and were buried on that distant field. They left loved ones at home to carry on alone.
In Riverside Cemetery is Charles Hill, a crewmember of the USS Kearsarge that sank the CSS Alabama — the most successful wartime commerce raider in all of maritime history — after pursuing it for thousands of miles around the world during our own Civil War.
Stephen L.T Mariner was with the 32nd Maine Infantry for only a short time before he and others were captured and placed in a Confederate prison at Salisbury, N.C., where he and about 203 Mainers died and still remain in unmarked graves, more than 800 miles from home. Others went to Andersonville, Ga., or Camp Ford, or a hundred other places. Some walked out of theses pits of disease and famine that were more painful and deadly than an infantry assault.
These precious reminders of our past are carved with names such as Pvt. Samuel Dwelley, who was killed at Gettysburg, and Capt William Ham, who died at the bloodiest battle of the war, Cold Harbor.
George Leland from Savannah, Ga., was a gunner on a Union monitor named USS Lehigh. Leland, along with Calais, Mainer, Horatio Young and three other sailors saved their ship from destruction after it ran aground under the guns of Fort Moultrie at the mouth of Charleston Harbor, S.C. These five men, plus another crewman and ship’s surgeon, risked their lives in rowboats to pull ropes to its sister ship, the USS Nahant, to get the Lehigh out of harm’s way.
They braved the continual assault of gunfire. There were 22 cannon shot hits on the ship that splintered wood on the deck and left many dents in the turret as the shot ricocheted dangerously at them. Men in wooden boats have no protection from such an onslaught, except the hand of God. Countless misses whistled by and landed nearby in the water as these men carried on for about an hour, until the Lehigh was under her own power again.
Medals of Honor were bestowed on five of the six wounded men for their action of gallantry under conditions we can barely comprehend or imagine.
Today, during a visit to Riverside to pay even casual respects to them by reading their names on weathered stones, we must tread through the indignity of dozens of damaged headstones, marker sections, stolen or broken bronze markers and smashed headstones, and American flags ripped or cut from broken staffs and thrown about the grounds.
Between the gates of Riverside, straight ahead and to the left and on to the river, I found 23 broken, cut and/or torn flags.
Who would do this? Most likely people living in Lewiston within easy walking distance to Riverside, with the low likelihood of being caught for a night of destructive and senseless entertainment.
Do these people possess any dignity or an ounce of respect? Do they have anything better to do than to display their big muscles for small-minded entertainment? How can they be so contemptible?
How can we hold our heads high with pride over this community when such an indignity has been levied?
What are we going to do to correct this and what will we do about preventing this scourge from continuing?
We need to take back the city from those who destroy by arson or mindless vandalism.
Larry W. Mayes of Lewiston is a retired Navy hospital corpsman and veteran of the Vietnam War.