BRISTOL - It’s unusual for a memorial service to be held for a Civil War hero these days, at least in Connecticut.
It’s been over 150 years since Bristol native Aretas Culver fought in the Battle of Antietam, was imprisoned in the infamous Andersonville and Millen POW camp and died from illnesses he developed there. Descendants of Culver gathered in West Cemetery Sunday to dedicate his newly-erected headstone and honor his service.
The ceremony was a collaboration between the Bristol Historical Society, the Veterans Strong Community Center, local volunteers and Culver’s family.
Folk musician Andrew McKnight was the day’s living honored guest, as the newly-discovered great-great-great grandson of Culver and grandson of late Bristol historian Madeline McKnight. He performed songs from his new album, including one entitled, “Aretas Culver” at the Bristol Historical Society later that night.
“This marks the end of my five-year journey with my great-great-great grandfather,” McKnight told about 25 people who attended the cemetery gathering. “I can’t help but think my grandmother Madeline would be really pleased and proud that we have done this thing collectively here today.”
He first encountered a photograph of Culver in 2014 from an exhibition at the Connecticut State Library, featured on Connecticut Public Radio’s webpage. That birthed a journey into learning about his ancestor, who before that day was simply a mysterious scribbled name on his family tree.
As it turned out, Culver was a member of Connecticut’s 16th Volunteer Infantry regiment, which played an unusual and much-disputed role in the war.
“Newton Manross from Forestville organized Company K in 1862,” Historical society 2nd Vice President Tom Laporte said. “The majority who joined were Bristol men.”
They trained for less than a month before being thrust into the bloodiest battle in Civil War history in September 1862. Culver, a 42-year-old mechanic, had just enrolled that July and was mustered in August. Although many of his fellow servicemen were killed during the battle, he was captured and spent time in the prison camp. He died from scurvy and related health problems on Feb. 9, 1865 and was buried in his hometown of Bristol.
“It’s hard to describe what these men went through,” Laporte said. “It was a bloody, brutal war.”
At the end, Bristol’s 3,000 residents pooled together their money to build the large Civil War monument in West Cemetery, featuring the names of the city’s 54 men who fought and died in the war. Culver’s headstone is located on the hill below the monument.
Historian Bob Montgomery shed some light into his background.
“He was a true hero in my opinion,” Montgomery said, speaking of the great suffering Culver must have faced. “I thank the family here today. You should be very proud. This is fantastic that you’ve decided to do this.”
McKnight was grateful to those who came to the cemetery, including his relatives.
“We got sucked into our grandmother’s passion for history,” he said, sharing a bonding moment with his cousin Marjorie McKnight, of Bristol.
Donna Dognin, director of the Veterans Strong Community Center, was able to secure the replacement headstone from Connecticut’s Department of Veterans Affairs. She adorned it with plants commonly used to memorialize Civil War-era veterans, including evergreen and a single rose. She also recited the poem, “The Unknown Dead” at the ceremony.
McKnight described the song he wrote to memorialize his ancestor as a narrative of sorts. Family and friends heard it live Sunday night.
“It’s told from a deathbed retrospective,” he explained. “It includes the trauma of war, not being able to escape the dreams and the irony of it being called a civil war.”
The musician lives just an hour away from the battlefield at Antietam, and comes up to Bristol to see family every now and then.
This weekend’s visit was appropriately timed around Veterans Day.
Erica Drzewiecki can be reached at 860-801-5097 or email@example.com.