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. In 2012, however, the Historical Society’s aspect in the Memorial Day Parade was greatly changed. Cromwell had lost at least four, maybe as many as nine, soldiers between 31 May 1862 and 30 May 1863. In order to remember these brave men, some of our marchers were in various stages of mourning.
This year, we will honor all of the men from Cromwell who died in the service of their country with 19 marchers in various stages of mourning.