New Film Explores A Brandon Widow's Quest To Memorialize The Civil War In Vermont

Aug 23, 2017

A Civil War widow from Brandon, Vermont set out to find her husband's remains on a Virginia battlefield, and shaped the way her hometown remembered the Civil War. That's the subject of a new film, Death in the Wilderness.

Former UVM history lecturer and Brandon resident Kevin Thornton made the film. He spoke about it with VPR's All Things Considered.

Thornton found the letters of Frances Davenport, the widow who went looking for her husband, in the Brandon library. Thornton also became interested in his town's annual ritual to remember the Civil War.

Every Memorial Day in Brandon, a procession of first-grade girls in white dresses lays flowers at the base of the Civil War monument in the center of town. The tradition goes back to Frances Davenport, and her post-war efforts to make sure the Civil War was memorialized.

DITW Preview from Kevin Thornton on Vimeo.

Shortly after the war ended, Davenport traveled first to Washington D.C., then to rural Virginia to find and dig up her husband's body and return it to Vermont. Thornton says Davenport's dedication to her search was, in part, motivated by her being a Victorian.

"The memorialization of death is really important to the Victorians," Thornton says. "She felt that she couldn't rest until she knew her husband was lying in an appropriate place. And then there's the whole sense of duty that she had to him - the duty to do right by him, the duty to honor him." 

"Vermont's Civil War monuments are ignored, and they really shouldn't be... they're monuments to the suppression of a rebellion against liberty" — Vermont filmmaker Kevin Thornton

Davenport eventually married Ebenezer J. Ormsbee, who served as Governor of Vermont from 1886 to 1888. Ormsbee's brother also died in the war. In their later years, the couple made memorializing the Civil War and it's purpose a central part of their life.

"One of the things that's important to me in the film is to recapture that this issue was personally important to people, because people they loved had died and they never forgot that," Thornton says. "That sense of loss permeates Vermont, and it's critical to understanding the post-war years to remember that."

In light of recent debates and protests over the removal of Confederate monuments in the south, Thornton argues it's important for Vermonters to pay attention to the Civil War memorials in this state.

"Vermont's Civil War monuments or are ignored, and they really shouldn't be," he says. Thornton says the post-war generation that built the monuments were "extremely conscious" of what they were memorializing.

"They're monuments to the suppression of a rebellion against liberty," Thornton says. "This is a war of rebellion, and what Vermonters did was suppress a rebellion and free people and save a nation."

Kevin Thornton's film Death In The Wilderness will be screened Thursday, August 24th at the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival.

Disclosure: Kevin Thornton is an occasional commentator for VPR.