(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Summer 2011
For a little “cold warrior” such as myself, turned on to history by the centennial of the Civil War in the early 1960s, the prospect of another round of public remembrance beginning this year is exciting. As readers of the special spring issue learned, the War Between the States (1861-1865) was the biggest, the deadliest, and the most transformational event in American history, and one in which Connecticut played a surprisingly important role.
Connecticut has outstanding Civil War-related collections scattered among dozens of museums, public buildings, veterans’ halls, and libraries—places that preserve and present evidence of our involvement in the first great modern war. Here are four of my favorite destinations:
After you read the Spring 2011 issue’s story about Connecticut’s Civil War monuments, make the trek to Winsted to see three of the state’s best. One ornaments the town green; the second, surrounded by tablets marking veterans’ graves, is in Forest View Cemetery, and the third is on the knoll of the highest point in town—an elaborate multi-structure Soldiers Monument, as picturesque as any landmark in Connecticut.
The crown jewels of Winsted’s Civil War heritage are at the Winchester Historical Society’s Solomon Rockwell House. The collection contains weapons documented to individual soldiers exhibited alongside their carte de visite portraits. Dress uniforms, camp gear, photographs, reunion ephemera, muster rolls, epaulettes, medals, dress uniform buttons, a pike from John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry and a shingle from, and painted with, an image of his Torrington birthplace, plus an extraordinary collection of artifacts, instruments, sheet music, and memorabilia belonging to regimental drummer Charles Pine. Together these provide a layered and intimate sense of the war.
The Middlesex County Historical Society, housed in the General Joseph Mansfield house, has, since its founding in 1901, amassed collections related to the man, the town, and the Civil War. Middletown’s most decorated soldier, Mansfield lost his life at Antietam, the day of Connecticut’s greatest casualties.
The society has mounted “Hard & Stirring Times: Middletown and the Civil War,” an object-rich, state-of-the-art exhibition on view through 2018. Featuring hundreds of artifacts, documents, photographs, and period illustrations, the exhibition allows the visitor to enter the world of 1860s Middletown. The themes of abolition, industry, commemoration, and the everyday experiences of people on the home front and the battlefront are explored.
The New England Civil War Museum, housed on the second floor of Rockville’s glorious 1889 “Memorial Building”/town hall is one of the last and best of the many Grand Army of the Republic Post facilities that numbered in the dozens a century ago. These museum-like fraternal organizations provided a platform for collecting and preserving evidence of Connecticut’s participation in the war. The best, like this one, were elaborately ornamented with stained glass, custom-designed cases, libraries, smoking rooms, and collections.
During the 1980s, reenactor and Civil War impresario Ross Dent reconstituted the Burpee Post #71 GAR memorial rooms into the New England Civil War Museum. 21st Regiment Lt. Col. Thomas F. Burpee served with distinction before being mortally wounded at Cold Harbor in 1864. Among the museum’s many treasures are the buttons, stripes, and epaulettes from his uniform and the painted calligraphic “escutcheon” that tells the story of his service. It’s one of the most evocative historical environments in Connecticut. Don’t miss such relics as a cane carved by a soldier from Glastonbury at Libby Prison in Richmond, and the steel remains of an 1853, Hartford-made Sharps Carbine excavated from a battlefield a century after the war.
In addition to the Civil War Museum, Rockville’s Veterans Memorial tower at Fox Hill Park (1939) is worth a detour.
Connecticut’s capital city is so rich in Civil War-related collections and attractions that it’s hard to see them all in one day. Start at the State Capitol. Dedicated on the 17th anniversary of Antietam in 1879, with a pageant that doubled the city’s population that day, the capitol is a “memorial hall,” a then-innovative public-building genre that deliberately merged civic and memorial functions, incorporating art, artifacts, and galleries to museum-like effect at a time when museums were few and far between. The highlight is Battle Flag Hall (See re: Collections: Battle Flags, Spring 2011), where visitors will find the nation’s largest collection of regimental flags; a statue to War Governor William Buckingham, and a Gatling gun made at Colt’s Armory.
The Capitol is embellished with statues and bas-relief portraits honoring Connecticut war Generals Alfred Terry, John Sedgwick, and Joseph Hawley and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. The Capitol grounds features statues such as Bela Lyon Pratt’s “Andersonville Boy,” and a rare and monstrously destructive 13-inch seacoast mortar.
In nearby Bushnell Park is the tour-de-force of Hartford Civil War attractions—architect George Keller’s 1886 Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Arch. [See “Memorials to a Nation Preserved,” Spring 2011, for a detailed description.]
Across from the Capitol is the Museum of Connecticut History, home of the Colt’s Manufacturing Co. collection of firearms and Colt memorabilia, and a gallery brimming with Connecticut-made products, including dozens that provided an industrial backstop for the Civil War. The Hall of Governors Portraits includes key personalities associated with the war and the anti-slavery movement including William Ellsworth, Roger Sherman Baldwin, Isaac Toucey, Thomas Seymour, and William Buckingham.
Today, Civil War heritage tourism is a billion-dollar industry with more than 10 million annual visitor days spread across one hundred battlefield parks and theme museums nationwide. Despite the absence of battlefields, the evidence here lies in hundreds of monuments, veteran’s graves, and public collections. To explore, discover, and reflect is to grow in our sense of place, past, and community.
William Hosley is a historian, preservationist, writer, and principal of Terra Firma Northeast.
Winchester Historical Society, 225 Prospect Street, Winchester. For more information call (860) 379-8433.
Middlesex County Historical Society, 151 Main Street, Middletown. For more information visit middlesexhistory.org or call (860) 346-0746.
New England Civil War Museum, 14 Park Place, second floor, Rockville/Vernon. For more information call (860) 870-8563 or visit newenglandcivilwarmuseum.com.
State Capitol, 210 Capitol Avenue, Hartford. For more information visit wp.cga.ct.gov/CapitolTours/
Museum of Connecticut History, 231 Capitol Avenue, Hartford. For more information visit museumofcthistory.org.