Saturday, July 26, 2014

Family Day Photos: The Civil War Experience

Our thanks to Company F, 14th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, for putting together a fantastic program, and to the Town of Cornwall for letting us use the Green. We estimated at least 80 people attended the event throughout the course of the day, coming from near and as far as Manchester and Old Saybrook. Everyone had a great time, fully engaged with history, learning about different aspects of the Civil War experience.

Here are some photos of the day's activities, from military demonstrations to camp cooking and medical presentations to a game of 19th-century baseball.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Intern Update: A Visit to Alabama in 1851

Our intern, Ryan Bachman, has been spending the summer transferring our historic documents to archival folders and boxes, improving their storage and making them more accessible for research. This is the second in a series of blog posts he is writing about some of the interesting or surprising documents he finds in our vault.

This week, I originally planned to continue writing about the biography of James Douglas. However, in keeping with the Civil War exhibit, I recently found an interesting letter from 1851 written by a Connecticut traveler who journeyed from the Nutmeg State to Alabama. The letter was written to a woman named Jane, and sent by someone known only as “your friend”, who was originally from Hartford. The mysterious letter gives insight into the views of a Northerner on life in the Southern states in the years prior to the Civil War.

According to the letter’s author, the trip began with a train ride from Hartford to New York City, where the traveler met up with a man known as “Mr. Savage.” After cross-checking with census records, “Mr. Savage” appears to have been Henry Jamin Savage, a Connecticut-native who removed to Wilcox County, Alabama where he worked as a successful businessman. Savage would later serve in the Third Alabama Cavalry and the Fourth Alabama Volunteer Militia during the Civil War. The traveler toured New York City for several days, taking in the sights and seeing a play, before continuing on to Washington, D.C., by way of rail through Philadelphia and Baltimore. When they reached the nation’s capital, the traveler related that Savage took them on a detour to Richmond. According to the traveler, one the pair reached the city:
“…he stopped to buy slaves; I had a very pleasant time there and went all round the city. It don’t look much like I thought it did. It looks as black as the Negroes that live there. More than half of the people are black that live there. There was an auction the day I was there, they sold 300 Negroes. They was put aboard the cars to the South, they looked like a drove of sheep...” 
 In the margins next to this anecdote, the traveler scrawled, “Don’t let anybody see this but you. Burn it up.” Even though the letter’s author treated the slave auction in a somewhat casual manner, this note suggests that at the same time, they were worried about the knowledge of Savage’s purchase of slaves being known in Connecticut. The people purchased at the auction were evidently put on trains and sent to plantations in the Deep South, which is where Savage and the traveler continued on to, as well. From Richmond, the two Connecticut-natives traveled back to the coast, and made their way through the Carolinas to Georgia, and then overland to Wilcox County, Alabama. Once at the Savage home, the traveler related to their friend Jane their observations on life in the rural South:
“I like the people very much, they are all so kind. I can’t help it, but they are so different from the North. I don’t know how to act. They shake hands when they meet and when they part, they can’t talk a bit like me—they laugh to hear me talk and I laugh to hear them. They never say “I guess”, but say “I reckoned so”, and “a heap of folks”, “that mighty good”; all of these words, they are as common as dirt and sound very queer to me. They live on sweet potatoes, cornbread, and chickens all the time. They don’t have any pies and cake, they don’t know how to make them. Their bread is nothing; cornmeal and hot water and a little suet, put it on a board and set it in the ashes to bake. I have plenty of buttermilk, and I am as fat as a pig.” 
This letter, written ten years before the start of the Civil War, gives a great deal of information about national attitudes in the antebellum United States. One clue as to the writer’s identity may be found in the 1860 US Census—at that time, there was a man from Connecticut named Fred Hickox living in the Savage household. Hickox later went on to serve in the Third Alabama Cavalry alongside his fellow Nutmegger Henry Jamin Savage.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Intern Update: James Douglas

Our intern, Ryan Bachman, has been spending the summer transferring our historic documents to archival folders and boxes, improving their storage and making them more accessible for research. This is the first in a series of blog posts he'll be writing about some of the interesting or surprising documents he finds in our vault.

The archives at the Cornwall Historical Society are full of obscure, interesting, and sometimes downright strange stories from the town’s past that are oftentimes forgotten or unknown. One of those tales that was recently discovered was a short biography written about one of the town’s earliest settlers, James Douglas. From Cornwall historians, such as Rev. Edward C. Starr, several facts about Douglas are known. Douglas and his family were some of the first settlers to live on Cream Hill, and he and his wife worked as schoolteachers in the community—one of Douglas’ students was a young Ethan Allen, who allegedly played an elaborate prank on his teacher that involved hoisting him into the rafters of a building as he slept. The biography found in the archives gives new details into Douglas’ early days in Cornwall, and into the history of the town’s settlement in general.

Unfortunately, the biography of James Douglas is undated and unsigned. However, due to references made by the author, it is possible to date the document to the first two decades of the 1800s. According to Douglas’ anonymous biographer, he and his young family arrived at Cream Hill during the early summer of 1739. The Douglas clan moved to Cornwall from Plainfield, but James had lived in that community only for a brief time after originally emigrating from Scotland. Once on their newly purchased home lot, James and his sons began to build a log house and clear farmland with a horse and team of oxen that they had brought along with them.

Douglas had originally planned to return his livestock to Plainfield in the fall, due to the fact that he had no hay stockpiled to feed the animals through the winter. However, Douglas soon found out that winters in Connecticut’s Northwest Corner are rarely predictable. An early snowfall dropped so much snow on the community that he was unable to safely drive any of his livestock through the narrow pathways that served as roads in Cornwall at that time. When the weather failed to warm back up, Douglas was faced with the harsh reality that his farm animals were snowed-in on Cream Hill for the winter with no food. Douglas contemplated his predicament and remembered that he had noticed a large amount of moss growing on the trees on the north side of Cream Hill. He took his farm tools and set about scraping and collecting the thick moss. To his relief, he found that the oxen loved eating the moss, but he was disappointed to find that his horse would have none of it.

Douglas had been hunting the plentiful deer in the area for months, and desperate to find something his horse would eat, he concocted another plan. As his biographer told it decades later, “he then manufactured a soup from the venison, this the horse took well.” While Douglas was excited that his horse ate the venison soup, he was still worried that it had no solid food to eat, so again in the words of his biographer, Douglas also fed his horse, “the hair taken from the hides of the deer.” As strange as it sounds that James Douglas fed his livestock a diet of moss, venison, and fur for an entire winter, all three of the animals survived the season in good health, “and it is said that Mr. Douglas was often heard to remark in after years that he never wintered stock that passed through in better conditions.”

Next week: James Douglas’ fort on Cream Hill

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Family Day: The Civil War Experience

The Cornwall Historical Society will be hosting a Family Day program on the Green at the corner of Pine Street and Bolton Hill Road in Cornwall on Saturday, July 26, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The program will be run by Company F, 14th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, a living history and preservation organization.

The day’s events will include presentations on the camp life of Union soldiers, a military drill and firing demonstration, exhibits of Civil War weapons, and presentations on the role of women and battlefield medicine. Visitors will also be invited to join in a game of 19th century baseball (weather permitting).

Members of Company F, 14th C.V.I.

Children of all ages are welcome to attend the Cornwall Historical Society’s Family Day, which is being held in conjunction with the Society’s current exhibit, Cornwall and the Civil War.

Company F, 14th C.V.I.

Company F is unique in offering both the military and civilian aspects of the Civil War Era. In addition to presenting the life of the common soldier, a retired pastry chef portrays a company cook, who demonstrates period cooking over an open fire. Its civilian re-enactors present the contributions of the U.S. Christian Commission, Civil War medicine and those on the home front, to the success of the Union armies. As part of its presentation, the company provides many exhibits for the public to view. Company F is actively engaged in battlefield preservation as a “Civil War Trust Regimental Color Bearer” donor with donations of over $7,500 since Co. F’s inception in 2011. The Company’s website is

The Cornwall and the Civil War exhibit and related programs are supported by grants from Connecticut Humanities, Mohawk Mountain Ski Area, National Iron Bank, and Torrington Savings Bank.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Curator's Talk

Join us this Sunday, July 13, 2 p.m., at the Cornwall Town Hall for a special lecture by Raechel Guest, Curator of our new exhibit, Cornwall and the Civil War, and Executive Director of the Cornwall Historical Society.

Ms. Guest will give an overview of Cornwall’s involvement in the Civil War and will highlight some of the surprising and little-known stories she discovered during her research for the exhibit. Her talk will be illustrated by slides of historic photographs and artifacts.

William H. Cogswell, the first Native American in Connecticut to enlist during the Civil War.
Collection of Cornwall Historical Society.

Refreshments will be served. There is no charge for the program, but donations are welcome.