Dated March 31, 1899 were special orders from the Adjutant-General’s Office in Providence.
“The Brigade Commander is hereby directed to detail from Company B, 1st Regiment Infantry B.R.I.M. one commissioned officer and twenty enlisted men to proceed Sunday, April 2, 1899, via special electric car leaving Providence at 1:40 p.m. to Central Street in Pontiac, to act as escort at the funeral of Richard W. Bruce, Company M, 2nd Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers. The officer in charge of the detail is hereby authorized to employ a bugler to assist at the ceremonies. The muster and payrolls required by law will be forwarded to the Adjutant-General upon the completion of this tour of duty. By order of Elisha Dyer, Governor and Commander-in-Chief.”
Richard Wilhelm Bruce had grown up in Warwick. His father, Alexander, worked in a cotton mill, operating the machine that transformed the cotton into flat rolls. Richard’s older siblings had been working in the mills since childhood, spinning the cotton into threads.
He and his family had come to America from Sweden and he remained living in Warwick until he found work in Mass. at the age of 17. Then, duty called.
The 26-year-old enlisted as a Private with the Massachusetts Volunteers and shipped out to fight in the Spanish-American war. The battle, an armed conflict between America and Spain concerning Cuba’s independence, began on April 21, 1898 and ended on Aug. 13 of that year. Richard died in a hospital in Santiago, Cuba, of yellow fever, three days before the war drew to a close.
Seven days later, Richard’s brother Albert received the letter informing the family of the news. Richard was initially buried there in Santiago but, the following year, when the bodies of approximately 700 men who had died or been killed in the course of the war were exhumed, cremated and placed upon the funeral ship “Crook”, Richard was among them.
On the night of March 31, 1899, the ship arrived in Providence. Richard’s remains were then taken to Alexander and Maria’s home on King Street in Pontiac. Friends and neighbors assisted with the April 2nd funeral plans which resulted in a flag-draped casket set in the parlor of the Bruce home.
American flags were affixed around the room and a collection of mourning wreathes, floral pillows and bouquets multiplied around the casket. Perhaps the saddest offering was a bouquet of roses tied with a white satin ribbon. The attached card was signed with the name of Richard’s girlfriend.
Never in the history of Warwick had so many mourners paraded to a burial ground. After six men had carried the casket from the house to the waiting hearse, that vehicle made its way slowly down the road followed by a military escort, the Scandinavian Band of Pontiac, the carriages carrying members of the Bruce family, and thousands of villagers.
Once the procession arrived at St. Paul’s Swedish Lutheran Church cemetery, the band honored the fallen hero by playing the “National Tribute”. Along the quiet country roads of Pontiac, fifty flags stood at half-mast.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.
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