Editor’s note: This is another in an occasional series on Vermont in the Civil War.
MIDDLEBURY — In between dodging Rebel bullets and bayonets during the bloody Civil War battles of Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Petersburg and Cedar Creek, George Howe of Shoreham somehow found time to tenderly court the love of his life, Lorette Wolcott, through letters sent home.
“Dear Lorette, you take a different view of my being a soldier for life than I thought you would,” Howe, a soldier with the 11th Regiment, Vermont Volunteers, wrote to Wolcott on Jan. 17, 1864.
“You talk as though I’ll never see Shoreham again. Thank you for ‘the kiss’ and here are lots in return. I suppose it is the only way you will let me kiss you now, as I cannot spare any mistakes. Remember me to all the good people.”
Howe’s tender words, and those reciprocated by his future wife, have reposed for more than a century within the considerable archives of the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History.
But those words — and others written by more than a half-dozen Addison County residents whose lives were affected by the great war between the states — will soon be given voice anew. The words form the script of a new play, titled “Remember me to all Good Folks,” that will be staged at the Town Hall Theater on Sept. 9 and 10.
Sheldon Museum Executive Director Jan Albers started thinking early this year about using the museum’s Civil War archive as fodder for a play. What better way to bring the material into public view than via the stage, during what is the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War?
“The thing that I love about history is its stories, and the stories really happened — they are real,” Albers said. “You’ve got all the drama of fiction and theater, but the stories are real. Playwrights are trying to create in fiction something that feels like fact. But if you’ve got fact, it adds a whole other dimension. These are real people who lived here, and this is what it would have felt like if you had been alive. This is what people were talking about; this is what people were writing about if you had been alive in this part of Vermont during the Civil War.”
Museum Education Coordinator Sue Peden — a Civil War re-enactor — dutifully plucked the right material from the archives.
“She knew where the bodies were buried,” Albers said with a chuckle.
But with the day-to-day tasks of running a museum, Albers didn’t have time to put her dramatic idea into motion.
“I didn’t see any way I was going to be able to write a script, though I would love to have had a crack at it,” she said.
Fortunately, Albers found just the right person willing to take on the task.
Joan Robinson, a playwright and associate director for children’s programs at Burlington’s Flynn Theater, took an immediate shine to the proposition of poring through stacks of letters, diaries, songs and newspaper articles to piece together a compelling, real-life story that delivers all the ingredients of successful theater: Love, anxiety, intrigue, joy and tragedy.
“I was kind of like an architect,” Robinson said of her role during a phone interview. “I am a lover of history, and one of the things I like to get from history is that personal, emotional connection.”
Robinson said she felt that connection throughout her reading of the Sheldon’s Civil War material.
“It was instant — this was my ‘True North,’” Robinson said.
Robinson worked on the project over the course of six months, releasing an initial script in mid-May. It’s a script that features a cast of six main characters with some ancillary voices mixed in to provide context, according to Robinson. All of the characters and their words are real, plucked from the documents they left behind.
Those characters include Howe; Wolcott; Middlebury resident Mary Ann Swift; two other local soldiers, Dunham Clark and Walter Hurd; and Mary Winchester, the wife of a local minister.
At the heart of the emotional story are Wolcott and Howe. Albers explained that Howe had become smitten with Wolcott while working on her dad’s farm in Shoreham prior to the war. He would profess his love from the battlefield after enlisting.
“We have a real series of their letters, and you can see them fall in love over the course of the war,” Albers said. “At first she is kind of coy … and a little wary. As the war goes on, their feelings are growing. That is a very moving part of the play.”
Meanwhile, Clark is also writing from the battlefield — though his chief concern is his elderly mother, who is quite poor. His letters express worry about her well-being and her ability to survive if he is killed in the war.
Fellow soldier and Addison County resident Walter Hurd is clearly focused on the war effort. Albers described him as a “gung-ho” soldier who describes to his family the guns and other equipment the Union troops are marshalling against the Confederates.
Mary Winchester’s correspondence is to her husband, a chaplain assigned to the Union army. She is at first concerned about her husband’s fate and the progress of the war. Winchester and their four young children (who are talented young singers) ultimately join her husband when he is stationed at a soldiers’ hospital in Washington, D.C. It is at this point that their lives take a tragic turn.
Back in Middlebury, a young, affluent Mary Ann Swift is enjoying the finer things of life — but her brother, Fred, is not as fortunate. He is off fighting the war.
“(Mary Ann) is rolling bandages, worrying about her brother and finally giving the local reaction to (Confederate Gen. Robert E.) Lee’s surrender at Appomattox,” Albers said. “It’s fun to see what Addison County people do when they hear the news the war has ended.”
A TAPESTRY OF VOICES
Other, smaller voices come in every once in a while to add to the atmosphere of the one-act play, which runs around 80 minutes. Albers described “Remember me to all Good Folks” as a “tapestry” of stories that provide an emotional history of what it was like to live through the Civil War, both for the people fought it and the people who stayed behind.
The respective fates of the real-life characters will be revealed during the course of the play.
“Joan Robinson has done a wonderful job making this a piece of art,” Albers said of the play.
The play, to be directed by Champlain Valley Union High School drama teacher Robin Fawcett, will be sprinkled with images, including period photographs that will be displayed in the stage background.
Fawcett and Robinson have conducted a first round of auditions, but are looking for more actors. Albers said young women and men, in their late teens and early 20s, are in particular demand for this production. Anyone interested in trying out should call Albers at the museum at 388-2117.
Further details about the play, including show times, will be published in the Addison Independent later this summer.
Robinson has great expectations for the play.
“I hope (audiences) find ways to make a connection with what was a very powerful event in this country’s history and are able to make an emotional connection with the people involved,” she said. “I would like them to say, ‘I know these people.’”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]