Civil War widow’s story to be told on film
BRANDON — A little-known love story about a diminutive Brandon woman who retrieved her husband’s body from a Civil War battlefield will soon be a documentary film.
Brandon resident and history professor Kevin Thornton has already raised $8,855 on the Kickstarter crowdfunding website, surpassing his goal of $5,000, to fund his documentary “Death in the Wilderness: A Love Story.” The website features a riveting film trailer narrated by Thornton.
The next step: create an hour-long documentary that tells the tale of Mrs. Frankie Davenport, who traveled to a Civil War battlefield in Virginia to retrieve the body of her soldier husband, George Davenport, and brought him home to Brandon. Thornton is a scholar of Civil War history, especially the role that Vermonters played in the war, and the attitude with which they viewed the war and its aftermath.
STARTED WITH A DIARY
How Thornton came to learn the story of Frankie and George Davenport was purely accidental. He was first taken with Brandon’s long-standing tradition of the Flower Girls, first-grade girls in white dresses who march up Park Street each Memorial Day and lay flowers at the base of the Civil War monument.
The Flower Girls are also featured in Thornton’s documentary.
Then Thornton ran into his neighbor Phil Marks, who mentioned that his mother had found a diary of a woman whose husband was killed in the Battle of the Wilderness, and who traveled to Virginia and dug up his body.
Thornton paid a visit to Genevieve Marks at a senior home in Rutland in 2001 to get the details.
“Everything she said was accurate,” Thornton said. “She was sharp as a tack.”
It was a fateful meeting, as Marks died two months later.
Thornton then had the name of the woman who had owned and cleaned out the former Davenport home, Peg Thompson, but the trail ran cold. Thompson had moved out of Brandon in the mid-1950s and no one he spoke to knew where she went or even if she was still alive.
Then, another fateful turn. Thornton was a volunteer with the Brandon Historical Society and was helping to move and organize some boxes one day when he came across a Federal Express box with Peg Thompson’s name and address on it. He tracked her down to an assisted living facility in Springfield, Mass.
Thornton paid Thompson a visit, but for the most part, the meeting did not go very well.
“She didn’t remember anything,” Thornton recalled.
Then, just as he was about to leave, Thompson told Thornton that she had come across a letter that Frankie Davenport had written to her brother. She said she made a copy and gave it to the Brandon Free Public Library.
It wasn’t just any letter, and it was the break that Thornton was looking for.
Over the course of 20 pages written in June 1865, Frankie Davenport detailed her journey from Brandon to The Battle of the Wilderness battlefield, where against all odds, she located the site of her husband’s body, dug him up and returned to Brandon to bury him in Pine Hill Cemetery.
“It had everything in it,” Thornton said. “I know what she spent on meals, I know who helped her.”
Frankie Davenport stood all of 4 feet, 10 inches, but she was an extremely determined young woman. As she wrote to her brother, “You know I always do what I say I’m going to do.”
But Thornton’s goal with the documentary is not just to tell the story of Frankie Davenport, but also give the bigger picture of Vermont in the Civil War.
“I don’t think it’s a story about one person,” he said. “It’s a story of Vermont in the Civil War. I think Vermonters remember the Civil War in a very different way from the rest of the country.”
He said that while the documentaries of Ken Burns focus on sentimental stories of courage and sacrifice, Vermonters feel differently about their role in the war.
“It’s not just about courage,” Thornton said. “It’s about what that courage was in service of. It was critically important to distinguish who was right and who was wrong.”
It was the fight to end slavery, the victory in that fight, and the dismay over how race relations changed after the war that Vermonters were concerned about, Thornton said.
“The war was about freeing slaves, and Vermonters never backed away from that,” he said.
A TOWN AFFAIR
Thornton has the help of many Brandonites in the making of he documentary. Josh Hummel from Visual Learning Systems is his filmmaker, with support of VLS owners Brian and Stephanie Jerome, who have lent the use of editing equipment. Brandon filmmaker John Andrews is a consultant and script doctor on the project. Local musician and composer Gene Childers will work on resurrecting obscure Civil War-era songs for the score.
It’s also a family affair. Thornton’s brother-in-law Tony Rankin is a photographer who has gone on research trips to help document areas in the film. And Thornton’s brother Chris, who works for the BBC in Northern Ireland, will help produce the film as well.
Thornton said he is incredibly grateful for the help he has gotten on all fronts, particularly from those who have donated to the Kickstarter campaign.
“It’s been an incredible spur to me,” he said. “It’s been a solitary project for so long. It also gives me a sense of obligation to people. I owe it to them to finish this. I’m very grateful to everybody in Brandon that has supported this project in any way. I won’t be able to succeed without that support.”
To watch the trailer for Thornton’s film, go to www.kickstarter.com and search “Death in the Wilderness.”
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