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A Folk Art Desk Mourns the US Civil War’s Bloodiest Day

Bingham Family Civil War Memorial Secretary (1876) (photo by Gavin Ashworth, courtesy of Allan Katz Americana)
Detail of the Bingham Family Civil War Memorial Secretary (1876) acquired by the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art (all photos by Gavin Ashworth, courtesy of Allan Katz Americana)

The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, announced this week the acquisition of a curious memorial from the US Civil War that stands eight feet tall and is embedded with bone. The 1876 Bingham Family Civil War Memorial Secretary combines folk art and furniture making in a moving tribute to a brother lost in battle.

Bingham Family Civil War Memorial Secretary (1876) (photo by Gavin Ashworth, courtesy of Allan Katz Americana)
Bingham Family Civil War Memorial Secretary (1876) (click to enlarge)

The secretary, purchased from Allan Katz Americana in nearby Woodbridge, Connecticut, is something of an anomaly. Such elaborate mourning rituals and objects had prevailed during the Victorian age, but were mostly dropped in the face of the overwhelming death counts of the US Civil War. It’s an ornate example of late 19th-century craft traditions and American iconography. From top to bottom it’s decked out with details of fan shapes and what look like tiny eyes in bone, horn, and abalone. A plaque on the oak, walnut, and maple desk relays the reason for the ornamentation:

Presented to Wells A. Bingham by his friends. The secretary a remembrance of his brother John F. Bingham who offered up his life at Antietam, Maryland Sept. 17, 1862. The encased star a remnant of the colors carried that day by the 16th Infantry. The memory plaque made from a shard of his knife. July 4, 1876.

Antietam, where a total of more than 22,000 from the Union and Confederate sides were killed, wounded, or never found, is considered the bloodiest day not just of the Civil War, but of all US military history. Above the plaque are two glass doors that open and trigger a music box that plays “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” At the very top of the secretary, an eagle sits over a clock, a chain winding down from its beak with 16 balls, likely symbolizing the 16th Connecticut Infantry, in which Bingham was a member.

His fellow infantrymen made the secretary over a decade after the battle for Bingham’s brother, who survived Antietam but was hit hard by his family’s loss. Despite its somber origins, the secretary conveys a spirit of triumph. Below the clock text reads “The Union Preserved,” and underneath that the Latin phrase Annuit cœptis — meaning, roughly, “providence favors our undertakings” — appears. (You can also find these words above the pyramid on the US dollar bill.) The Bingham secretary, which goes on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum this summer, is a rare example of a Civil War mourning rite and 1870s folk art merging in one beautiful object.

Bingham Family Civil War Memorial Secretary (1876) (photo by Gavin Ashworth, courtesy of Allan Katz Americana)
Bingham Family Civil War Memorial Secretary (1876)
Bingham Family Civil War Memorial Secretary (1876) (photo by Gavin Ashworth, courtesy of Allan Katz Americana)
Bingham Family Civil War Memorial Secretary (1876)
Bingham Family Civil War Memorial Secretary (1876) (photo by Gavin Ashworth, courtesy of Allan Katz Americana)
Bingham Family Civil War Memorial Secretary (1876)

The Bingham Family Civil War Memorial Secretary goes on view this summer at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art (600 Main Street, Hartford, Connecticut).

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