The Dead Named

by Allan Appel | May 25, 2009 4:09 PM |

IMG_6968.JPGMaybe it takes a grandmother from Moldova in the former Soviet Union to appreciate America’s Memorial Day.

And to help explain why the Elm City has eight separate Civil War memorials, a large number for a city of our size.

Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day. It was established specifically to memorialize the Union (though not Confederate) dead of the Civil War; it was expanded after World War Two to include all those killed in the country’s military actions.

Like many Westvillians, Sulomeya Salinikova, who now lives on Whalley Avenue, had many times walked by the Soldiers Memorial Gateway at the corner of Philip Street and Whalley and never quite noticed what it was: A small semicircular memorial to the Civil War veterans specifically of Westville who died during the War Between the States.

IMG_6975.JPGBuilt in 1915, it is often lost in plain sight as it also serves as a gateway to Beecher Park. Most people headed to the area drive to the Mitchell Branch Library at the far side of the small expanse of green. The memorial, though not in bad shape and on a promontory, still tends to elude the eye of today’s drivers, unless they happen to be stopped at the light and are not too occupied on a cell phone to look up.

On this Memorial Day Monday as she was promenading with her two talkative granddaughters, Sasha and Nika, Salinikova paused at a reporter’s request and noticed the names, 64 in all in four columns of 16 each, two per flanking tablets.

It was a lot of dead for one small hamlet to contribute to the Civil War.

As a Russian with the perspective of World War Two and the slaughter that conflict inflicted on Russia, she understood. “Yes,” she said, “but for America this war is not Afghanistan or Vietnam. This war was fought here in the states, on your soil.”

For that reason, in addition to the unexpected carnage, the need to memorialize arose, and it continues. The memorial to the 29th Colored Regiment was erected last year in Criscuolo Park, where the the blacks troops had drilled.

It represents the eighth Civil War memorial in New Haven, the most recent before that being Westivlle’s, which was erected back in 1915.

Others include: the Knight Hospital Memorial at Evergreen Cemetery (1870); Soldiers and Sailors in East Rock Park (1887); St. Bernard’s Cemetery (1889); the Soldier’s Monument in Bay View Park, City Point(1903); the Broadway, at Elm, Civil War Memorial(1905); and Woolsey Hall’s at Yale, built the same year as Westville’s.

IMG_6969.JPG“You know the names,” said Salinikova, as her 7 and 4 year-old granddaughters played nearby. “At least you have the names on this one.”

She explained that Russia’s World War Two monuments, which tend to be huge, rarely have individual names. “They just list the years, and maybe the numbers. They didn’t know many of them, individuals’ names. They signed up so fast, and then they were dead.”

So she liked the idea of names listed. “Their relatives knew them and that’s why they’re here. But just because, you know, they enlist here, they are buried where? Does anyone know?”

At St. Petersburg’s Peskarevska Cemetery, the military and the civilians are buried in adjoining sections, she noted. “So many civilians died too during the siege and war as a result of the military action, so they are there next to soldiers.”

IMG_6970.JPGThe Westville memorial was also hiding in plain sight from Gerald Gormany. A lifelong New Havener, Gormany worked many years at the Vespoli Company on Middletown Avenue, which fabricates shells for racing boats. He was recently laid off.

“I’ve ridden my bike past this at least 800 times,” he said, “and never stopped.”

He stopped now.

What struck Gormany among the 64 names was the Sperry family, with four dead, and the Davis family, also four dead. “This is amazing,” he said. Then he also began to recognize so many New Haven street names among them.

Indeed from Alden (Wm. H.) and Alling (Cosmo F.) and Beecher (Wm. K.), Bishop and Beers on the first plaque to the Sperrys and others on the second, you could evoke a city street map. “Did they name streets after them when they died?” Gormany wondered.

“And what about Henry S. Peck?”

Gormany and a reporter noticed that Peck, at the bottom of the second plaque, was out of alphabetical order.

“Was he special?”

IMG_6973.JPGMaybe. Or is a more likely explanation that, even in dealing with the revered fallen, the bureaucracy can blow it.

Regarding memorials for the fallen in current wars, Salinikova said she wasn’t aware of any in Russia for the recent debacles of her former country in Afghanistan and Chechneya. She expressed no strong feelings for what a memorial might look like in America for American dead in our ongoing Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

Except she said she likes what Westvillians did nearly 100 years ago. If the dead are known, name them.

For his part, Gormany said, “I love communication. Next time I walk by here with someone, I’m going to stop and tell them to look at all those Sperrys, and show them Henry Peck’s name too.”

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