Museum joins Civil War 150th anniversary commemoration
By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Windham - posted Thu., Jul. 28, 2011
“Our state, in fact our whole country, is starting a four-year commemoration of the Civil War,” said Bev York, education director of the Windham Textile and History Museum, as she introduced the museum’s new Civil War exhibit at a reception on July 22. The Civil War officially began in April of 1861. Most thought the war would be over quickly. They were wrong. The war lasted until 1865, and resulted in the loss of 620,000 soldiers. “More than all of the other wars combined,” said York of the loss of life. The vast majority of the deaths resulted from disease and other hardships, not enemy fire.
But the focus of the museum exhibit is less on artillery and battle strategy, more on humanity. “This is not really a military exhibit,” said York. Reflecting the mill town history of Windham, “There’s a lot about cotton,” said York. “Every community had a real stake in this war. This is not just about soldiers and weapons. It’s a family story.”
Hands-on activities for children include Civil War-era costumes to try on. There are diary entries and letters. Sitting atop a display case is a hand-sewn shirt with a note pinned to the chest. “This is one of the things that the women did,” said York, pointing to the note. “This would have been put into a big basket and taken into the field.”
Among the diseases that plagued Civil War soldiers was scurvy, a disease resulting from a deficiency of vitamin C. “There was a scurvy epidemic,” said York. One of the ways that children got involved was by assisting in the collection of onions and potatoes to help combat the deficiency.
On a bulletin board in one corner of the museum are dozens of photos of gravestones. The photos, collected by Collections Manager Dr. Jamie Eves, represent just a few of the Civil War graves that exist in Windham. “It was unbelievable to me how many there were,” said Eves. “These are artifacts that people can go to. They’re free.”
Alongside the photos are the stories of some of the local Civil War soldiers, including Caesar Hall, an African American soldier from Hampton. In 1863, following the Emancipation Proclamation, Black men were permitted to enlist. Altogether, more than 178,000 Black men served during the war—a combination of free men from the North and freed slaves from the South.
Also represented are James and Francis Long, a father and son from Willimantic who both served during the war. Both men left their jobs in the cotton mills to fight the Confederate army. James survived the war, but his son did not. Captain Francis S. Long died in combat on July 30, 1864, at Petersburg, Virginia. “We just picked a few to put in here,” said Eves. “Every one of these soldiers is a story just waiting to be researched.”
Another detail that has piqued Eves’ interest (he is a professor of history at Eastern Connecticut State University) is the documented abundance of anti-slavery support in the Windham area. “Slavery created jobs, it created wealth up here,” said Eves. But research shows that eastern Connecticut mill towns like Windham exhibited a higher level of anti-slavery activity than did metal industry towns in other parts of the state. “It’s counterintuitive,” said Eves. “You would think that the economic connection would make people less likely to oppose slavery. But that was not the case. What we found amazed us. I cannot explain it. There’s lots of interesting research to be done.”
Eves credits York with the bulk of the exhibit. “She put a tremendous amount of time and work into it, and she did a tremendous job,” he said. Partly because of that work, the exhibit will remain on display for at least a year. “It’s open-ended right now,” said Eves. “We’re going to keep it up, maybe bringing in new things as we see what comes up from further research.”
The Windham Textile and History Museum is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. There are numerous activities and events planned in connection with the Civil War exhibit. For more information, go to the museum’s website at www.millmuseum.org.
Bev York dedicated the exhibit opening to Brooke Shannon.