Do we ever learn from history?

I am continually amazed by how history repeats itself, and not always for the better. We recently acquired a set of diaries kept by a young Waterbury man just prior to and during his study to become a doctor. James A. Root, Jr. was between college and medical school when he finally decided to keep a diary. His first entry was on August 20, 1939.

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Connecticut Wide-Awakes

In 1860, Republicans across the country were eager to have one of their own elected President of the United States. Those in Hartford and Waterbury, Connecticut were no exception. In both cities, clubs were formed to support this goal. Republicans in Waterbury first met on February 21, 1860, naming themselves the Red, White, and Blue Club. While cataloging today, I found their record book. It includes meeting minutes, their constitution, and a list of members. Some time later they decided to re-incorporate as a Wide-Awakes club. This required a new constitution, which is also included in the volume.

Preamble and Constitution

Preamble and portion of Waterbury Wide-Awakes Constitution, Waterbury Wide-Awakes records, 1860, Ms 53693. Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, CT

The Hartford Wide-Awakes group formed prior to the Waterbury group, as evidenced by the handwritten notes on the Hartford group’s constitution.

Preamble and Constitution-Hartford

Hartford Wide-Awakes preamble and constitution, Waterbury Wide-Awakes records, 1860, Ms 53693. Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, CT


Front and back covers of Hartford group's constitution, Waterbury Wide-Awakes records, 1860, Ms 53693. Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, CT

Sometime after the election, as people began to inquire about the history of the Wide-Awakes, the Hartford group published the following document.

Wide Awakes

Wide-Awakes history (p. 1 of 3), Waterbury Wide-Awakes records, 1860, Ms 53693. Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, CT

Wide-Awakes history

Wide-Awakes history (pp. 2-3 of 3), Waterbury Wide-Awakes records, Ms 53693. Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, CT

In addition to these manuscript holdings, CHS maintains several Wide-Awakes artifacts in the museum collections, including this banner:

Wide-Awakes banner

Wide Awakes banner, 1922.4.3, Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, CT

To learn more about the Wide-Awakes, study these and other collections, please visit!

More to the story

We have a very extensive and well known collection of Civil War-related diaries and correspondence, so we made the decision last year to collect selectively in this area. So, why did we recently add to the collection the correspondence of Joseph H. Cummings of Waterbury, Connecticut? What makes this particular set of letters exciting and worth acquiring is that it was accompanied by two photographic images. The first image is cased and shows Joseph in his Connecticut State Militia uniform, complete with epaulets and a busby (big furry hat). We assume that he wore  this uniform even after he enlisted in the army. No wonder he wrote to his Uncle William about getting new United States uniforms! The second photograph was taken while Joseph was serving with the 1st Regiment, Connecticut Heavy Artillery and shows him in a much less dramatic uniform, with some pistols in his belt, and a knit cap that the men frequently wore in camp.

The value of photographs to research on the Civil War led to our current volunteer project to match portraits of Civil War soldiers in our photograph collections with manuscript materials in the library and keep that information in a database. Reading about someone’s exploits in the war becomes much more meaningful when one can put a face to a name. This will be an invaluable research tool for our visitors.

The rest of the story of Joseph H. Cummings is that when he joined the army, he had been working as a clerk in his uncle’s grocery store. He proudly stated that his regiment was called the Double Quick because of their stamina on long marches.  Joseph rose through the ranks to Sargent, and also served as secretary and commissary for unit. Evidently he was well liked by his men, as evidenced in the letter written by his commander, informing Uncle William of Joseph’s death. He did not die from fighting, but from “malarial dysentery”. Such is the story of many young men who served during the Civil War.

You can access this collection at the CHS library by asking for Ms 100912.

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