The Colvocoresses Oak

A small marker sits beneath a stately oak tree on the western portion of the Litchfield Green.  It is located in close proximity to the post office, restaurants, and the historical society, yet one wonders how many people stop to read its simple text:  “The Colvocoresses Oak.  A memorial of the Battle of Manila Bay.” Upon examination, the curious passerby asks why this small monument to a largely forgotten event of American history stands in the center of a small Connecticut town.

George Partridge Colvocoresses was born in Norwich, Vermont in 1847.  His father, also George Colvocoresses, was the son of a prominent Greek businessman.  At the age of six, he, along with other members of his family, was kidnapped by Turks.  While six of his his brothers were killed, George was sold into slavery.  His father was able to purchase his freedom, and the son was sent to America.  He was adopted by Alden Patridge, who founded the Norwich Military Academy in Vermont, from which George graduated in 1831.

The U.S.S. Supply, in left background.

The elder Colvocoresses enjoyed a distinguished career in the United States Navy, achieving some fame for his exploits on blockading duty during the Civil War.  While in command of the U.S.S. Supply, Colvocoresses was joined in the service by his son, George Patridge, named for the family’s American benefactor.  Following the war, the elder Colvocoresses was made captain and retired from the service, moving to Litchfield.  He was murdered in Bridgeport in 1872.

George Patridge returned to Norwich and graduated from the school in 1866.  He embarked on a distinguished naval career of his own, serving in many foreign ports, at the Naval Hydrographic Office, and as an instructor of drawing at the United States Naval Academy.  In that capacity he designed the monument to the crew of the U.S.S. Jeanette that stands in the Academy’s cemetery.

Colvocoresses’ crowded hour came at Manila Bay on May 1st, 1898.  While Congress declared the Spanish-American War on April 25th of that year, two months earlier Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt had sent a coded telegram to US Asiatic Fleet commander Commodore George Dewey to attack the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay should war be declared.  In seven hours of fighting, Dewey (who had opened the battle with the famous phrase, “You may fire when ready, Gridley!”), had secured the surrender of the Spanish fleet and Manila Bay, at the cost of ten American casualties and one damaged ship.  When the war ended, the Philippines became an American colony, which they remained until granted independence in 1946.

At the battle Colvocoresses served as the executive officer aboard the U.S.S. Concord, which sank the Spanish vessel Mindanao.  His actions were noted by a superior, who wrote, “Each and every one of my subordinates did his whole duty with an enthusiasm and zeal beyond all praise. I am particularly indebted to the executive officer, Lieut. Commander George P. Colvocoresses, for the cool, deliberate, and efficient manner with which he met each phase of the action, and for his hearty cooperation in my plans.” He was later transferred to the Olympia, Dewey’s flagship. For his service in the battle, Colvocoresses was awarded the Dewey medal.

The Dewey Medal

There is nothing on the small marker to indicate when it was erected.  However, the following appeared in the New York Times on November 11, 1899:

Alain White’s history of Litchfield indicates that Colvocoresses himself planted the tree using a silver trowel ordered for the occasion by Mary Quincy.  Perhaps the maker was erected in connection with this event as well.

Following the war, Colvocoresses served as the commandant of the United States Naval Academy.  He retired to Litchfield.  His children and grandchildren continued the family legacy of attending Norwich and serving in the United States military.  George Partridge Colvocoresses died on September 10, 1932, and is buried in Litchfield’s East Cemetery.  His services at Manila Bay live on, however, commemorated by a small marker and a stately oak tree on the Litchfield Green.

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Hidden in Plain Sight

Welcome to Hidden in Plain Sight.  In his wonderful book Outside Lies Magic, Harvard professor John Stilgoe writes,

“Learning to look around sparks curiosity, encourages serendipity.  Amazing connections get made that way; questions are raised — and somtimes answered — that would never be otherwise.  Any explorer sees things that reward not just a bit of scrutiny but a bit of thought, sometimes a lot of thought over years.  Put the things in spatial context or arrange them in time, and they acquire value immediately.  Moreover, even the most ordinary of things help make sense of others, even of great historical movement.  Noticing dates on cast-iron storm-drain grates and fire hydrants intoduces something of the shift of iron-founding from Worcester and Pittsburgh south to Chattanooga and Birmingham.  The storm-drain grate and the fire hydrant are touchable, direct links with largers concepts, portals into the past of industrialization.” 

This crystallizes the philosophy of this blog.  There are tales of the past all around us.  By opening our eyes and asking questions, they may emerge from the shadows of the decades or even centuries.  Hidden in Plain Sight hopes to reveal the history of one small town – Litchfield, Connecticut – by exploring its landscape for clues to its past.   This is a town with a rich history, some well known, some not.  Occasionally, sites beyond the borders of Litchfield will be visited.

Look for a new post every other week or so.