Thursday, September 20, 2012

Middlesex Historical Society Transports Visitors Back to 1862 With Annual Civil War Day

For most of the people milling around downtown, last Saturday was simply another beautiful weekend afternoon in 2012. But that was not the case for anyone who ventured to 151 Main Street. Visitors to the Gen. Joseph Mansfield House were transported back to the battlefields of the Civil War at The Middlesex County Historical Society’s s annual Civil War Day on Saturday from 10am-3pm.

Visitors were able to learn about military and civilian life in 1862 from a variety of organizations and presenters. The event primarily focused on the battle of Antietam and the time period surrounding it. September 17th is the 150th anniversary of Antietam. Antietam, which took place in Maryland, was the bloodiest single-day battle in American history, with roughly 23,000 casualties on both the Union and Confederate sides. Five Middletown soldiers perished in the battle, among them General Joseph K. Mansfield.

The central event of the day was a talk by Richard Slotkin, the Olin Professor of American Studies (Emiritus) at Wesleyan, on the subject of his recently published book The Long Road to Antietam: How the Civil War became a Revolution. Slotkin is well known for his highly regarded trilogy of books on the myth of the frontier of American cultural history: (Regeneration through Violence” (1973), “The Fatal Environment” (1985), and “Gunfighter Nation” (1992).

Slotkin’s talk focused on both the battle itself and the ruinous conflict between Union general-in-chief George B. McClellan and President Lincoln and his Cabinet. Slotkin discussed how McClellan was frequently derisive of and insubordinate to Lincoln and his advisors.1992). “McClellan assembled a large organization of loyalists around him,” he stated. “McClellan established a cult of personality around him and completely bought into it. He earned the nickname of “Little Napoleon” because of his huge ego.” McClellan’s sympathy toward the Confederate cause and desire to obtain a conclusive battlefield victory that would quickly end the war and lead to negotiations heavily contributed to his lack of aggressiveness as a general at Antietam.

Slotkin painted a vivid and detailed picture of the scene at Antietam. He discussed how Robert E. Lee was able to take advantage of McClellan’s cautiousness and gigantic overestimation of the Confederate forces leading up to the battle to advance north of the Potomac River and claim defensive positions at Antietam Creek. McClellan continued to overestimate the size of the Rebel army and eventually sent less than one-third of the army into the battle, with much of it being led by inexperienced and overwhelmed commanders. Lee, on the other hand, was forced to commit his entire forces. Antietam would be a series of bloody assaults and counterattacks. At its conclusion, 25% of the Federal forces and 31% of the Confederate forces experienced casualties. Though Lee was able to force McClellan’s troops into a standstill, the Con

federates had no choice but to retreat and move out of Maryland due to their losses. Slotkin explained how the retreat was a victory for the Union, the main reason being that it assured Washington would not be invaded by the Confederates. The victory was significant enough that it allowed Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, discouraging the British and French governments from recognizing the Confederacy.

Antietam also signaled a death knoll for McClellan. McClellan’s many mistakes there gave Lincoln all the reason for firing him two months later. Slotkin stated that McClellan’s dismissal freed the Union of a poor, treacherous commander. “With McClellan gone, the Union was better able to survive the largest political/military complex our nation has ever experienced,” he said. Slotkin stayed after his talk to sign copies of his book for the audience.

Though this talk may have been the central event of the day, visitors had a variety of opportunities to experience Civil War living history. There were presentations on the camp life of the Union soldier and throughout the day. Re-enactors from the 14th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, Company F, set up these camps and demonstrated everyday life for ordinary soldiers.

These demonstrations focused on how soldiers cooked their meals, the drills they practiced and how they fired their weapons. Company F’s re-enactors demonstrated to visitors the weapons soldiers used and the many ways soldiers were taught to march, hold these weapons and fire them (using paper bullets). This demonstration was led by Sgt. Lt. Paul Martinello of Somers. It was a very informative look at all the steps Civil War soldiers had to go through to be successful and survive while fighting, and it certainly made me more appreciative of the sacrifices soldiers willingly made at Antietam and other Civil War battles.

Company F thoroughly demonstrated how soldiers cooked the meals they regularly ate. Private Bill Mellow served as cook for the encampment and named his tent Hick’s Mess, after Sgt. Maj. William Bliss of Bridgeport. Mellow put together a beef and turnip stew with red bliss potatoes, baking soda biscuits and bread pudding.

After the presentation, I spoke to Irving Moy, who portrays Corporal Joseph Pierce, the highest ranking Civil War Chinese soldier, about how he became involved with Company F, and the organization’s mission as a nonprofit historic preservation and education organization. “I have always been a huge fan of Abraham Lincoln, and I got interested in living history through that,” Moy said when asked how he joined Company F. “I joined this Company when I found out a Chinese soldier served in it.” “I feel our mission is to educate people about the Civil War and to preserve its memory,” Moy stated. “Young people are not getting the history education they need nowadays, and these types of events allow us to reach out to this generation and help them.”

At Company F’s camp space, Julie Moy of Wallingford had set up a display of artifacts from the Christian Commission, a group of YMCA volunteers who tried to provide spiritual well-being for soldiers. These artifacts were representative of the type of care packages the Christian Commission would send out. The display included a Bible, stationary for the soldiers to write on, bandages, foods such as hardtack (which I tried and nearly choked on) and news from home.

Another re-enactor had laid out the contents of the first aid kits soldiers normally used. Two speakers at the event presented in addition to Prof. Slotkin’s. Jeff Lawrence held a discussion on military uniforms entitled “The Shako to the Forace Cap-Development of the Militia vs. Civil War Uniforms.”

Jen Eastman-Lawrence held a discussion on the music of the war entitled “Music of the Late Unpleasantness.” Finally, the musical group Backswamp Ensemble played songs by Middletown native Henry Clay Work throughout the day, as well as traditional love ballads like “Lorena” and “Shenandoah.”

The Mansfield House serves as the currently serves as the headquarters and museum of the Middlesex County Historical Society. You can learn more about the Historical Society by visiting its headquarters or online at

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