Exhibit idea leads back to own back story

August 30, 2012|By Susan Coppage Parker | Special to The Herald-Mail
  • Susan Coppage Parker's "Final Retreat" is part of "Back Stories of the Civil War" exhibit opening today at the Mansion House in Hagerstown's City Park. Searching for her own Civil War back story, Parker discovered that her late mother had a letter from Joseph Quaintance, one of the soldiers' graves she painted in Mercersburg, Pa.
Submitted photo

Editor's note: The Valley Art Association, in recognition of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, will host an exhibit at the Mansion House Art Center called "Back Stories of the Civil War."  The exhibit will run Friday, Aug. 31, through Sunday, Oct. 28, at the Mansion House, 501 Highland Drive in Hagerstown's City Park. Hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

In the spring of 2011, the last year of my term as president of the Valley Art Association, I suggested to the board that in 2012 we mount an exhibit of paintings of lesser-known aspects of the Civil War and call it "Back Stories of the Civil War." I had no idea that with that decision an interesting back story of my own would unfold.

In an effort to generate interest among our artists, I began identifying sites that might serve as subjects for these paintings. When I mentioned this to a friend, Wally Lee, director of development at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, he said locations in the Mercersburg, Pa., area, where he grew up, offered some possibilities. He offered to show them to me.

In May of 2011, Wally took me to several sites including two graveyards in Mercersburg. In one, Zion Union Cemetery, are the graves of 12 members of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the black unit featured in the movie, "Glory." The second one, Fairview Cemetery, contained three graves of Confederate soldiers who died after the Battle of Gettysburg.

In these adjoining graves in Fairview are the remains of John W. Alban, 12th Virginia Cavalry, Pvt. M. Locklin of the 3rd Georgia Regiment and William H. Quaintance, "Va. Sharp Shooters of Culp. Courthouse." I commented to Wally Lee that my father was from Culpeper, Va. In fact, when I got home, I checked the family genealogy, to see if I might be related to Quaintance. No mention of any Quaintance, so no back story there, I thought.

I painted a watercolor of the three graves and continued to try to find out something about these soldiers. Wally put me in touch with Joan McCulloh, who lives in Mercersburg, knows its history  and attends the church where Quaintance (whose real name is Joseph W. Quaintance) was treated after he was wounded on June 30, 1863, and subsequently captured on July 5.

I contacted Joan and learned that Quaintance, who didn't die until Aug. 28, 1863, had initially been taken to the First United Methodist Church in Mercersburg, but, given his serious condition, was then removed to the home of a family named Leidy, where he was cared for until his death. Joan offered to send me transcriptions of two letters written to Joseph Quaintance's father informing him of his son's death.

I received the letters last August. With these letters in hand, I checked the Internet for a genealogy on the Quaintance family, still looking to expand this back story. I found a list of the descendants of William Quaintance III, and it mentioned Joseph W. Quaintance and his wife, Fenton House. House was a name I recognized.

When my mother died in 2002, I found a box of old papers in her attic. Apparently, when my father, who died in 1968, was gathering information in Culpeper in the 1940s to help form the Coppage Family Association, he somehow acquired an accumulation of 19th-century documents on the House family. I was pretty sure I still had them. I wondered if there might be something in there.

After some digging, I found the box in the basement and settled in to look through the papers. As I paged through the estate sale receipts, tiny account books, and property tax receipts, I came to one page that took my breath away. There in front of me was an original letter from Joseph W. Quaintance to his wife, Fenton, dated June 5, 1863, three weeks before he was mortally wounded. I had found my back story.

Further research unearthed other interesting aspects of this soldier's story. His letter and other information will be on display with this and other Civil War-related paintings at the Mansion House Art Center during September and October.

Susan Coppage Parker of Hedgesville, W.Va., is past president of the Valley Art Association.

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