Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Furniture with Antietam tie purchased by Hartford museum

The "Antietam" secretary in Harold Gordon's living room.
The front of the secretary includes the word "Antietam" and the date of the battle.
John Bingham (left) was killed at Antietam. 
His brother, Wells,  survived. 
 (Photos courtesy Military Historical Image Bank)
UPDATE: The Antietam secretary in this post was exposed in 2018 as a forgery.

Three years ago, I visited a Massachusetts antiques dealer named Harold Gordon, who loved to talk about the Civil War and one of his recent purchases: a Victorian-era secretary with a direct tie to the Battle of Antietam. The unique piece of furniture was a gift from 16th Connecticut veterans to Wells Bingham in memory of his 17-year-old brother, John, a private in the regiment who was killed in the battle. Also a private in the 16th Connecticut, Wells survived Antietam unscathed physically.

In his cramped living room that day, Harold delighted in showing me details of the 8-foot antique secretary -- the beautiful clock atop it that includes the words "The Union Preserved" near the base; a small tin on the front that may have held a piece of the 16th Connecticut regimental flag that was at Antietam and a door that when opened played "Yankee Doodle Dandy" on a music box. Spelled out in cattle bone on the front of the one-of-a-kind gift are the words "Antietam" and "Sept. 17, 1862," as well as John F. Bingham's name.

Does this case on the front of the secretary
 hold a piece of the 16th Connecticut flag 
that was at Antietam? 

Only 16 at Antietam, Wells wrote of the news of his brother's death in a heart-rending, seven-page letter to his father that I discovered in the Antietam National Battlefield Library months after I visited with Harold. It was the first letter I saw in a stack of transcripts and other copies of letters from Connecticut soldiers about Antietam.  "John, poor, poor John, is no more," Wells wrote about his brother's death to Elisha Bingham in East Haddam, Conn. Added the teenager: "You can imagine my fealings [sic] better than I can describe them." I wrote about the Bingham brothers and the secretary in my book, Connecticut Yankees at Antietam.

Today, the story of the secretary came full circle for me when a reader of the blog pointed out that it had been purchased by Hartford's Wadsworth Atheneum Museum from a Woodbridge, Conn., antiques dealer, who had purchased it from Gordon. I have no idea what the museum, which plans to display the secretary this summer, paid for it, but the asking price at a winter antiques show in New York was $375,000. Not a bad chunk of change.  I've lost touch with Harold since we inspected the 16th Connecticut flag at the Hall of Flags at the State Capitol Building in Hartford nearly two years ago during our small-time investigative effort to solve the mystery of whether a piece of it really was in the tin on his secretary. (Don't descend into that deep rabbit hole.) I imagine that he's quite pleased that the amazing piece of folk art that once dominated his living room will soon be seen by a much wider audience in the state where the Bingham brothers' story began.

Harold Gordon (right) inspects the 16th Connecticut flag at the Hall of Flags
 at the State Capitol Building in Hartford.

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