People frequently ask me what’s my favorite item in the CHS collection. Frankly, that’s a tough one, not only because there are so many great items but also because different objects tell different stories in different ways. So when asked this question recently (appropriately enough while I was watching our town’s Memorial Day parade) I thought of an object that truly resonates with me.
It’s a simple, green wool “round hat”, a broad-brimmed type worn by farmers, tradesmen and militiamen in the American colonies. Think of it as the baseball cap of the 18th century and you’ll get the idea. Uncounted thousands of these hats were made and worn, yet only a handful of them survive. Surprised? Well, how many of your baseball caps will be around in a couple of hundred years?
What makes this particular hat special is that we know the owner; and his story, because that’s what history is really all about. His name was Phineas Meigs and he lived in the coastal town of East Guilford (now Madison), Connecticut. A militia captain in the middle of the century, by the time of the Revolution he was in his late 60s, roughly comparable to being in one’s 80s today, I suppose. Nonetheless, he again opted to serve in the militia, this time as a private, beginning in 1777. By May 19, 1782, when this story takes place, the war was clearly winding down and it looked as if Meigs’ days of service would end uneventfully. Not!
Down at the western end of Long Island Sound a merchant sloop from Fairfield found itself being chased by several armed British vessels that had been prowling those waters. Fearing capture, the sloop’s crew ran the vessel ashore at East Guilford and skedaddled. British troops from one of the pursuing craft landed on the beach to capture the vessel, an alarm was sounded, and local militiamen, including Meigs, responded. A brief skirmish ensued at the beach (which apparently included use of a small cannon by the militia!) and when it was over two lay dead—a British soldier and Phineas Meigs. Meigs was shot through the head, his round hat bearing graphic witness to his death.
Why this hat moves me has everything to do about understanding history. The American Revolution has become something of an abstract concept separated from us by time; a chapter in a textbook, somehow divorced from the real sacrifices that real men and women made. They bled, as the stains on Meigs’ hat testify, and they died. Really, they did. Meigs didn’t have to respond to the alarm; there were other, younger, men at hand. So at the age of 73 Meigs put it all on the line, dying within earshot of his home, the last man known to have died in action in Connecticut during the Revolution.
Memorial Day, established in the wake of the unprecedented carnage of the American Civil War, is by definition a time to remember; and particularly to recall those who served to defend the nation. For two generations the Meigs family retained the hat as a way to remember Phineas’ sacrifice. In 1850 his grandson presented the hat to CHS “as a memorial” for his sacrifice. I would like to think that over time the hat has become a remembrance not only of Meigs’ sacrifice but those of the thousands of others who served in the struggle for independence.