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Home » ARTS AND CULTURE » CONNECTICUT » Letters from the Battlefield: Stories of Washington’s Civil War Soldiers
Letters from the Battlefield: Stories of Washington’s Civil War Soldiers

Exhibit Review: The Gunn Historical Museum, Washington, Connecticut

By Mark B. Oliver | May 03, 2011

Previous Article in this Series

Crowds had gathered last Sunday for the opening of the Gunn Historical Museum’s latest exhibit, ‘Letters from the Battlefield: Stories of Washington’s Civil War Soldiers.’

The wonderfully warm, sunny morning was a counterpoint to the subject matter which while never graphic was deeply affecting.   As you enter the museum, the visitor can read about Washington in the years before the war.

A Journal on Display

This small town was largely unconcerned with the issue of slavery and the Fugitive Slave Laws of 1793 and 1850 had little impact, until residents John Gunn, Lewis Garfield and David Platt, felt their religious faith compelled them to speak out against slavery.

Many believed that the bible sanctioned slavery and Gunn was excommunicated for his views.   This did not deter the men however, and David Platt’s home became a safe house for the underground railway which ferried escaped slaves to freedom in Canada.

John Gunn’s younger brother, Frederick, was also a staunch supporter of the abolitionist movement, and in 1850 he founded The Gunnery, a school that borders Washington to this day.

In the intervening years before the start of the Civil War, Frederick Gunn used his influence to educate and inform.   When the first shots were fired on April 12, 1861 at Fort Sumter in South Carolina, by confederate batteries against a federal garrison, the men of the town, friends and neighbors all, stood ready to fight for the Union.   A total of 132 men went to war from Washington - eight percent of the town's population of just 1,695.   Tragically twenty-seven of these men died in combat and from disease.

Soldiers at War

The museum has amassed a vast array of journals and letters from these soldiers, and it is through these written personal accounts that the story of the war unfolds.

These letters were transcribed by the Eighth Grade Social Studies Classes of Shepaug Valley Middle School, many of whom were in attendance at the opening.   Elise Briody, co-editor of a compilation of these letters, talked knowledgeably about the conflict and the insights gleaned from these historical documents.

Next to photos of each soldier, are quotes from the letters, a biography of the man in question, together with personal artifacts that have remained in the possession of their descendants.

One of the soldiers was Leonard Van Cott, a graduate of The Gunnery, who went to war aged just 16 years.   He died of typhoid less than three months later.

Alfred Hatch on January 10, 1863 wrote,

“Half of them were drunk when we went into battle on James Island.
The fact is they had not the courage to go into battle sober.”

Calvin B. Hatch, was 21 when he enlisted on August 7, 1962.   In the two letters in the museum’s collection he displays a keen sense of humor and refers to his twelve year old brother Virgil, as the “U.S. Senator from Conn.” He was declared Missing in Action on June 1, 1864, at Cold Harbor, VA, aged 23.

A Soldier's Flask

The letters trace the thread of each soldier’s experiences which weave together to provide a deeply personal, intimate, view of the war.

In addition to the items and letters belonging to Washington’s soldiers, numerous artifacts have been loaned to the museum by Thomas Zanavich. The truly astonishing collection includes everything from clothing and muskets to a water flask.

The Gunn Historical Museum’s latest exhibit is both timely and moving as it explores the impact of the Civil War on individual soldiers and their families.

Further details are available at the museum’s website.   This moving exhibit will be on display until October 30, 2011, and is highly recommended.


The Gunn Historical Museum

5 Wykeham Road, Washington, CT 06793

(860) 868-7756


Opening Hours:

Thu - Sat: 10AM - 4PM

Sun: 12PM - 4 PM

Entry to the museum is free but donations are of course welcome.

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