By Carl Hanson
William Francis Gragg (1810-1864) was one of Bedford’s most remarkable Civil War veterans with a historic career in the U.S. Navy. The Gragg family consisted of William and his wife Maria, two sons, William Jr. and George, and two daughters, Mary and Maria. They are listed in both the 1855 and 1860 Bedford census, but until now it remained a mystery where they lived.
More on that later, but who was William F. Gragg? And why was he so remarkable?
Gragg’s Navy Career
During the time the Gragg family lived in Bedford, William served two stints in the Navy. The first was on the U.S.S. Mississippi (Commodore Perry’s flagship) for its voyage to China and Japan between 1857 and 1860. The second was during the Civil War between 1862 and 1864 on board three ships involved in supplying Union troops, conveying wounded soldiers to hospitals, and transporting prisoners as part of the blockade of the coast of the Confederate states. In all cases he served as “Surgeons Steward,” a fairly senior Petty Officer who supervised supplies, provisions and hospital stores for the sick and wounded. One of his ships, the Housatonic, was torpedoed and sunk by a Confederate submarine! He contracted typhoid fever while serving on the Navy ship “Circassian” and died on Christmas Eve, 1864. He is buried along with several members of the family in Shawsheen Cemetery.
William’s service on the U.S.S. Mississippi was remarkable in that he kept a detailed log of the entire voyage. Rather than the customary language of a daily log, his diary was extremely well written and provided insight into the life of the crew on a mid-nineteenth century Navy cruise. He described such historic events as the English and French assaults on Chinese forts during the Second Opium War, the installation of the first U.S. Minister to Japan, and his personal experience of being among the first Westerners allowed to spend a night in Tokyo’s imperial district.
His log was published in 1860 as A Cruise in the U.S. Steam Frigate Mississippi. An original copy resides in Harvard College Library noted as a “Gift of Richard Henry Dana” (author of Two Years Before the Mast). Bedford Historical Society and Bedford Public Library have copies. Reprints are available from the usual internet marketplace sources.
Where Gragg Lived in Bedford – 82 Springs Road
More information about William F. Gragg and his Navy career can be found in the September 2012 issue of the newsletter of Bedford Historical Society, “The Preservationist.” In that article, there is the line, “Where the family lived in Bedford is the subject of continuing research.” Now the “research” has come to fruition due to the efforts of Don Corey, President of Bedford Historical Society and Member of Bedford’s Historic Preservation Commission. They lived in the house at 82 Springs Road.
How Don made this discovery is interesting. For a long time he has been documenting Civil War histories of those who served from Bedford. One of his correspondents, former Bedford resident Brian Oulighan, sent him a list of Civil War participants from Bedford along with dates and some commentary. One soldier, Charles Frederick Robinson, was reported at the age of 15 in 1860 to be living with (parents) Charles and Sophia Robinson next to Wm. F. Gragg (age 49) in Bedford. Don confirmed from the 1860 census that Wm. F. Gragg and family were listed next to the Robinsons. He then located the Robinson house on Springs Road. He determined that the census taker visited each house with a named owner in order moving down Springs Road toward the center of town. The house at what is now 82 Springs Road was next in order, and it listed the members of the Gragg family. Mystery solved!
This house has had an interesting history other than now being recognized as the home of one of Bedford’s most famous military families. (Both sons served in the Navy and played key roles during the Civil War.)
In the recent Bedford Historical Society publication, Historic Properties and Neighborhoods of Bedford, Massachusetts, Third Edition, 2015, the house at 82 Springs Road is identified as the “Johnson-Edgeston House.” It was a rental property during ownership by Obadiah Johnson, Phineas Chamberlin and others. Because the Gragg name does not appear as one of the owners, the family apparently rented it during the time they lived in Bedford, certainly in 1860 as shown on the census roles. In 1872, the property was purchased by Judson Edgeston, a freed slave. It is not clear how long he lived in the house. A later owner was Bedford historian Abram English Brown, although his residence was 44 Springs Road.
For the past 50 years, the owner/occupier was Richard Welt and his family. Mr. Welt passed away in 2014 and the property was sold to a developer who intends to demolish the house.