Don’t Burpee Here! It’s Civil!
Vernon (Google Maps location)
December 4, 2016
I was speaking with a friend just two days ago. He lives in Vernon. Aware of CTMQ and what I do, he asked if I’d been to the New England Civil War Museum and then laughed. I said yes.
He chuckled, “It’s… it’s not what I expected.” He meant that it was small and quiet and hyper-local I think. One room on the second floor of the Vernon Town Hall does not a Gettysburg make.
I retorted, “Yeah. But it’s actually pretty cool. I was impressed with their collection and the volunteers there are really, really into it.” I then told my friend that I could rattle off 200 museums in Connecticut that are as small or smaller and as “unexpected” as this place is.
Then I punched him.
Just kidding. That would be ridiculous. Of course to the uninitiated, the New England Civil War Museum is small. Personally, that hardly affects me anymore. And as longtime readers know, small is often way, way better anyway.
Vernon’s Town Hall is in downtown Rockville (which makes tons of sense to non-Nutmeggers.) It is a beautiful building, completed in 1890 to actually serve as the town hall. The building, known as The Memorial Building, was constructed by Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) veterans. There a poetry to that, as the second floor feature the GAR Hall. From its completion the GAR has met here making it the only one with its original contents in the state AND the longest continuously operated GAR hall.
Before I visited, “GAR” to me was a “gar” – a fish.
Hey, my degree is in biology, not US History. Sorry.
The ground floor of the Memorial Building houses all sorts of Vernon town departments, of course, but it also has a dedicated area to town here, Gene Pitney. I visited all the Pitney places in town for some reason.
Once I found the museum – it’s not hard – I entered and was immediately struck by the stained glass window across the large room. Now is the part of nearly every museum page on CTMQ wherein I apologize for not knowing all the details. I don’t take notes during visits; I merely try to absorb as much as possible.
I do know that the windows are original to the building and I’m guessing they are pretty darn unique to GAR halls and Civil War museums alike.
I was greeted by a friendly volunteer who asked all the usual questions before taking me on a guided tour. Mind you, the entire museum is one room, but his passion and pride for the collection were infectious.
He (I didn’t catch his name) was particularly excited about this picture:
And I’m the worst because I don’t remember why. I think it was because of the guy in the back and one you can barely see in back on the right were “early photoshop” efforts. Notice how their heads are huge? I do know that we shared a good laugh at whatever the reason and I told him, “Yeah! That’s the stuff I love! I’ll totally remember exactly what it is about this photo and I’ll take a terrible photo of your photo and tell the world!”
From that point on, we understood each other.
But what other stuff do they have here?
The museum displays original Civil War artifacts, including the Thomas F. Burpee Collection and the Hirst Brothers Collection.
Cool. But how did it all begin again? I’m confused.
The Memorial Building was constructed to serve as a monument to the over 350 local Civil War veterans. As part of the agreement with the town, the second floor of the building was given to the local Grand Army of the Republic Post to use for their meetings and other social functions.
The main hall, which now serves as part of the museum, served as their meeting room between late 1890-1934. Their former social room, now houses our library, which contains a wide variety of books and other printed materials related to the war and the various veteran organizations. The rooms also hosted several post war regimental reunions, including the 11th Connecticut, the 14th Connecticut, and the 25th Connecticut Volunteers.
Beginning what would be later become the New England Civil War Museum, members of the post began donating their personal wartime items as early as 1896. Then through diligent fundraising, the post purchased and installed the first display glass to showcase these items. Since that year, our collection has grown to become one of the largest collections in southern New England.
The museum collection contains all the usual suspects: the guns, the photos, the bullets that killed Vernonites, the uniforms, the drums, the maps, the dioramas, and the Chickamauga tree.
To my guide’s credit, he did waver a bit on the authenticity of a few of the items. The most questionable is, of course, the tree trunk with the cannonball in it. If you’ve been to the Connecticut State Capitol, you’ve seen… A Chickamauga Tree.
There are other Chickamauga trees around the northeast. The bloody battle (over 34,000 died) was fought along the Tennessee/Georgia border. It was awful. The story of how Chickamauga Trees came to be is wonderfully dissected by Connecticut History and casts a very dubious light on them.
Suffice it to say, some farmers in Tennessee made good money auguring out trees and inserting cannonballs.
The museum and library was originally founded by Burpee Post #71 in 1886. It was named in honor of local Civil War veteran Thomas Burpee. He joined the local militia at 19 and quickly rose through the ranks becoming Captain of the Rockville Company in 1859. In 1862, Burpee and his Company became Company D of the 14th Connecticut Regiment. But Burpee was commissioned a Major in the 21st Connecticut Regiment. He served with them at Fredericksburg, Suffolk, Drewry’s Bluff, and Cold Harbor, VA.
And that’s where he was shot and killed by a Confederate sharpshooter.
The museum also has Burpee’s sword at the time of his death.
There’s also some connection here to a Dr. Alden B. Skinner. The Rockville Sons of Union Veterans had (have?) a camp named in his honor. Skinner was nuts; a successful doctor and man of wealth and status in town, he enlisted and volunteered to serve his country at the age of 64 as a surgeon. He saw battle in Louisiana and I think he survived.
I should note that my guide called him crazy. I merely agree.
Back to my friend at the top of this page… this is a cool little museum. It does a good job of telling the story of Connecticut and Vernon Civil War veterans. The displays are as well done as one could expect at such a museum and the setting is unique and beautiful.
And it’s certainly Vernon’s “top” museum insofar as that goes.