Hidden Nearby: Bethlehem’s War of 1812 Monument

Most New England towns have a monument to their Civil War veterans.  Many also honor their sons who fought in World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam.  Bethlehem, Connecticut, is one of the few towns to honor its War or 1812 veterans.

This year marks the bicentennial of the War of 1812.  While the anniversary has been largely overshadowed by the Civil War sesquicentennial, the War of 1812 was an important event in the history of the young American republic.  For the second time in 35 years Americans had stood up to the British, the world’s great power, and had held their own.  The end of the war, followed by the American success at the Battle of New Orleans (word of the treaty reached Louisiana too late to prevent the battle) led to a surge in American nationalism and a spirit of political unity known as the Era of Good Feelings.

The Old State House, site of the Hartford Convention, 1814-15

Still, the war was quite unpopular in Connecticut.  As much of the state’s economy was tied to trade with Great Britain, the state suffered financially from the decision to go to war.  Connecticut’s entire Congressional delegation voted against the war.  Many of Connecticut’s Federalist politicians supported the call for the Hartford Convention, an assembly of leading New Englanders concerned, among other things, with ending the war.  Seven Connecticut representatives, including Nathaniel Smith of nearby Woodbury, attended the Convention, where calls were made for the secession of New England states from the Union.  The end of the war and the results from New Orleans made fools of these men, most of whom saw their political careers ruined.

Residents of Stonington work on fortifications for their town, 1814.

Connecticut’s opposition to the war was manifested in other ways, as well.  While some 10,000 Connecticut men turned out for the war, the state government refused to allow the members of the Connecticut militia to leave the state.  There was little military action in the state.  An contingent of ships was trapped by the British at New London, but the appearance of a large group of state militia allowed the American sailors to escape.  In 1814, a British fleet bombarded Stonington for three days, while $200,000 worth of damage was done to shipping concerns at Essex.

With hindsight, we know that the war had a minimal impact on Litchfield County.  Statewide, there were 233 casualties as a result of the war.  Few families of Litchfield would have felt the effects of the war.  Still, the men of Bethlehem who enlisted to serve knew none of this.  They joined the war effort with the belief that they would be thrust into action against the British, and were willing to make this sacrifice.  It is this patriotic spirit that the town of Bethlehem commemorated with this monument.

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Some thoughts on Litchfield’s clocks

While driving along West Street in Litchfield one may catch a glimpse of the time from the clock of the Congregational Church, or in the tower of the Litchfield County Court House.  Subconsciously, the driver is forced to think back to his or her student days to convert the Roman numerals on the face of the clock to Arabic numerals.  This is all done very quickly, and without much thought.

Out on foot to explore his surroundings, however, one may recognize that the faces of these two clocks do not properly correspond to traditional Roman numerals.  Instead of using “IV” for four o’clock, both of these clocks use “IIII.”

London’s Big Ben

They are not alone.  It is customary for clockmakers to substitute “IIII” for “IV” on their works.  There are notable exceptions – Big Ben, the famed London clock whose tower was renamed for Elizabeth II this year in honor of her diamond jubilee, sports the numeral “IV.”  As with so many traditions, there are conjectures as to their origin, but no definitive explanations.

Some speculate that the use of “IIII” provides symmetry to the clock face.  One through four o’clock, only make use of the numeral “I” while the next four hours utilize “V” and “I” and the final four use “X” and “I”.

Does this clock face demonstrate a lack of balance or symmetry?

Others say that the explanation is that the numeral “IIII” provides a better balance to its counterpart “VIII” than “IV” would.  Don’t tell Big Ben.

Jupiter (IVPITER), also known as Jove (IOVI)

Still others hold that the tradition dates back to the Romans, who never used “IV” on their clocks because the letters “IV” were the first two letters of their spelling of the god Jupiter (IVPITER), and they didn’t wish to tempt fate.  This explanation would make for a good story if the Romans actually used clocks.  Does the numeral “IV” appear on sundials?

Those pessimistic about the nature of mankind argue that it is easier to count by adding I’s than it is to subtract I from V, an argument that does not take into account that 9 is “IX” and not VIIII.

The Wells Cathedral Clock

As this blog celebrates history, let’s accept that the tradition follows the lead of the oldest extant public clock, the Wells Cathedral Clock.  This clock, found in the west of England, proudly displays four o’clock as “IIII”, and has since its installation, which was – at the latest – in 1392.

The present Litchfield Congregational Church was built in 1829; however, when a new church was built in 1873, the structure was used for a variety of purposes, including as a movie theater and roller skating rink.  It was restored to its original use in 1930, as part of the town’s Colonial Revival makeover.  The clock would have served important purposes, not only calling residents to worship, but also pealing to announce important news or of fire.

The Litchfield County Court House boasts a Seth Thomas clock tower.  This was installed in 1890 as part of the rebuilding of the court house following an 1886 fire.  When the court house was remodeled in 1913-14 – again, to make the structure fit with its Colonial Revival surroundings – the clock tower was retained.

These two clocks don’t display the exact same time, and as such are vestiges of a bygone era, when passersby didn’t need a digital device connected to satellites to provide them with the precise time.  Most still relied upon sundials and hour glasses to tell time; perhaps in a rapidly changing world, the numeral “IIII” grounded them in ancient traditions.