Ought it Not To Be
A Merry Christmas?
Christmas in a Time of War
2013 Christmas Open House
Visit the Stevens-Frisbie House and explore the ways in which American soldiers and families kept Christmas during trouble times. Eight rooms of the house will be decorated to highlight Christmas observances during the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War One, World War Two and the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Our gift shop will be open offering gifts of seasonal and historical interest and a delectable refreshment buffet will be prepared in the dining room!
Saturday, December 7, 2013 from 1 to 4 AND 6 to 8
Sunday, December 8, 2013 from 1 to 4
395 Main Street in Cromwell
While admission is free, donations to benefit the work of the Cromwell Historical Society
are most appreciated!
By Rebecca Bayreuther Donohue
At the Cromwell Historical Society, we know that our future lies in remembering. If you remember, you can appreciate; you can build traditions; you can learn from experiences, whether they’re yours or someone else’s. Memorial Day is perhaps the perfect holiday in this regard because it is named for what you’re supposed to be doing – there’s literally no chance of forgetting to remember. And yet, in many ways, we do, remembering to observe the day but not always why we’re doing it. That’s why, before the public ceremonies begin on the 30th of May every year, the Historical Society distributes cards with the origin of Memorial Day on one side and a short description of one of the many lives Cromwell has given for the good of the nation on the other.
Memorial Day officially began in 1868 as Decoration Day, a day to decorate & maintain the graves of the thousands of Civil War dead. Other wars & other graves added their layers to Cromwell’s history, all of them equally worth remembering. But with the advent of the Sesquicentennial (150th Anniversary) of the American Civil War in 2011, the Historical Society seized the opportunity to pay homage to a war that no-one now living remembers but whose political, cultural, and economic effects reverberate through our past & present like cannon fire down a river valley.
Our plan was to remember the Cromwell soldiers who died in the War Between the States by representing a member of their families in each Memorial Day Parade throughout the Sesquicentennial. Identifying these soldiers was an obvious, but not necessarily simple, first step. We began with that delicious cold-case detective work called research! In his 1991 publication Cromwell, Connecticut, 1650-1990: The History of a River Port Town, Robert Owen Decker states that “[e]ighteen died during service” and that “[o]ne Civil War soldier born and lived elsewhere is buried in Cromwell Family plot (Wightman) (457).” The availability of digital primary and secondary sources in the twenty years since Decker’s book quickly expanded his initial estimate to more than twice that number. The more useful documents we continue to peruse include a file card index of veterans’ burial sites from our own research library; the Cromwell census records for 1860; John W. Storrs’s 1886 The “Twentieth Connecticut”: A Regimental History; the Connecticut War Record, published in 1865; Middletown’s Penny Press newspapers; and Morris & Croffut’s massive 1889 The Record of Service of Connecticut Men in the Army and Navy of the United States During the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865, along with some specific family genealogy websites. Since primary sources can sometimes be wrong – even government documents - it is extremely important to cross-reference every piece of information whenever possible. Our dedication to accuracy even found us tromping through Cromwell’s cemeteries to check gravestones at odd moments, day or night!
The current result of this body of research is a list of names & death dates, service records & family trees, not all of which are wholly conclusive. Still, it makes for a pretty impressive Excel spreadsheet and provides a great base line for future research. Best of all, it is accomplishing its essential goal: reminding us to be grateful for men like Theodore DeMars, who gave his 19-year-old life for us at Antietam Creek in September of 1862. But war is never only about battles, and so we also remember his parents Thomas & Lucy, who had to endure the news of their boy’s death, bring him home to be laid to rest in the Kelsey Cemetery, and then go on somehow with their own lives – just like thousands of military parents throughout the centuries. Spectators at Memorial Day Parades during the Sesquicentennial will see not soldiers but those they left behind them.
In 2011 – or, for Historical Society members, 30 May 1861 – the Memorial Day Parade was a festive and gaily patriotic event. Marchers dressed in their usual ensembles from the early 1860s, the men in their long frock coats and the women in flowered bonnets. Everyone smiled, waved tiny 34-star flags, and obligingly tossed root beer barrel candy to the children on the sidelines. The War may have started, but nobody was expecting it to last.
2012 wasn’t much different. President Lincoln’s call for more troops wouldn’t happen until July of 1862, and as far as our research could show, all of the Cromwell boys who had answered his first call were safe. This year, however, the Historical Society’s aspect in the Memorial Day Parade will be greatly changed. Cromwell had lost at least four, maybe as many as nine, soldiers between 31 May 1862 and 30 May 1863 (we continue to cross-check records). In order to remember these brave men, some of our marchers will be in various stages of mourning, which brings into play a whole separate aspect of research that has been ongoing for the past two years.
Mourning etiquette hit an all-time high during the latter half of the 19th century. The two main culprits in this mania for morbidity were Queen Victoria, who started things off internationally after the deaths of her mother & her husband in 1861, and the American Civil War, whose staggering casualties culminated in 1865 with the assassination of President Lincoln. Fashion periodicals & behavior manuals published volumes about what was appropriate mourning garb for a husband, an in-law, a child, a distant relation who had included you in his will; how long after the death you shouldn’t appear in public (never mind dance with another man at a ball, Scarlett!); after how many months you could mitigate your dull black with shiny black, or whites or greys or lavenders. Thus the task of our period clothing researchers was to separate the fashionable ideal from the documented reality, and then to reproduce it as accurately as possible for our Memorial Day marchers.
The assignment might not be easy, but for a fashion aficionado it sure is fun! We looked at formal cartes de visites; we rifled the digital collections of museums like the V&A and the Met; we combed the texts of Godey’s, Peterson’s, The Lady’s Friend, Arthur’s Home Magazine; we compiled engravings of bonnets, veils, collars, embroidered engageants, jewellery, and handkerchiefs. Susan W. Greene’s swatch workbook of Textiles for Early Victorian Clothing, 1850-1880 helped us determine the difference between bombazine (good for mourning) & grenadine (not) and crape (good) & gauze (not). The staff of The Merchant’s House Museum in New York City gave a fantastic presentation at the 2010 ALHFAM conference on the real-time delays amongst a 19th-century death, the funeral & burial, and the family’s acquisition of mourning attire – which makes us feel a whole lot better about the few corners we’ve been forced to cut due to time, budget, and availability of materials. The best conclusion our research brings is that people have always been people, and if they couldn’t afford to do over their entire wardrobe in lusterless parametta, they made do. At the Memorial Day Parade in 2013, therefore, you will observe a range of mourning clothing made up in as period-correct materials from as period-correct patterns & drawings with as period-correct techniques as we can possibly muster.
Even though the Civil War Sesquicentennial commemorations only last until 2015, we at the Cromwell Historical Society hope that the memories of those who lived during that time last much longer. And as the major anniversaries of other wars loom on the horizon – 2018 comes readily to mind, just five years away! – we hope that on each Memorial Day we will take time to remember, together.