By RUSSELL JONES
For more than 100 years young girls have laid flowers on Memorial Day around the war memorial on Brandon’s Green. The Memorial Day service is a tradition that celebrates the sacrifices of soldiers long passed, starting not long after the Civil War and now encompassing all wars.
The history of the flower girls in Brandon, however, springs from the death of one particular soldier in the Civil War, of the grieving widow left behind, and of her effort to honor his life and to uphold ideals that are still unfulfilled.
“The generation that fought in the Civil War never got over their dead,” town historian Kevin Thornton said in his video documentary, Death in the Wilderness. “Everything after, sprang from that sorrow.”
In his documentary, Thorton touches on the flower girls story by starting with the death of two Union soldiers from Brandon.
Captains Charlie Ormsbee and George Davenport were sent to the same regiment (5th Vermont Infantry), fought together for over three years, and died a week apart after being wounded on the same battlefield. By all accounts they were close friends.
Ormsbee, 24, was shot three times and died on May 5, 1864 in northern Virginia during the Battle of the Wilderness, the opening battle of General Grant’s sustained offensive. Davenport, 31, was shot in the head during the fighting, but held on for a week before succumbing to his injuries. By the time he died, the Army had moved on, chasing rebel soldiers further south.
Back in Brandon, word of her husband’s death reached his wife, Frances ‘Frankie’ Davenport, and for nearly a year, until the end of the war, she despaired over her loss.
“He was my all in this world,” the 26-year-old widow wrote in a letter to her brother. “Without him, I care not for my life.”
She desperately wanted her husband’s remains returned to Brandon so she could give him a proper burial. She researched and found the one hospital steward from the 63rd Pennsylvanian who knew where Davenport was buried. After the war ended, she traveled to Washington, D.C. and connected with stewardCharles Shrieves during the grand review held there in May of 1865. Together, with two coffins she had brought along, they went in search of her love’s remains through country that was still considered unsafe rebel territory.
A week after their trip began, she found the body of her husband; identified by his beard and the buttons on the shirt she had made him.
“We found a board marked George Davenport written in pencil over a grave no more than three feet deep,” Frankie’s letter to her brother said, as noted in Thornton’s movie. “It was certainly my darling’s bones.”
The next day they found the body of Charlie Ormsbee and returned both to Brandon where they held a dual funeral on June 5, 1865, carrying the bodies to the cemetery side-by-side in a wagon with a single flag draped atop.
Ebenezer Jolls Ormsbee, Charlie’s brother, was widowed in 1866, and lost his only child, whom he had named Charlie after his brother, to dysentery in 1867. Only 10 days later, he and Frankie were married. He later went on to serve as Vermont’s 41st governor from 1886-88.
Memorial Day formerly began in 1868 and there were 54 men from Brandon who gave up their lives during the war. Their sacrifices were never forgotten. In 1886, 25 years after Brandon sent 311 soldiers to war, the memorial on the town square was dedicated. Over 700 people showed up to the dedication, more than twice the town’s population.
Frankie Davenport suffered a stroke in 1902 and was never the same, but that was also the same year she started a tradition of having flower girls lay flowers around the memorial.
“She not only got to see the first flower girls,” Thornton said, “she started it.”
Frankie Davenport died in 1916, Ormsbee followed in 1924, and his last public act was to write a letter urging people not to forget Memorial Day.
The town of Brandon never has.
The tradition of flower girls has carried on through the years, now under the direction of Ellen Knapp, a first grade teacher at Neshobe Elementary School. Knapp has been organizing the event for the past 34 years and this year’s ceremony had 29 girls in their white dresses circling the memorial and laying flowers after the parade.
Knapp has a closet full of white dresses to ensure that no child is ever left out of the ceremony simply because their parents may not be able to afford a dress.
“I have a collection of dresses, not a full closet, but probably 20 or 30 dresses that are available for girls to borrow,” Knapp said. “People who have seen the ceremony, it becomes a memory, especially after the documentary (Thornton’s), it has become such an important story.”
Knapp was a flower girl herself, years ago, and when she moved back to Brandon after college and teaching elsewhere for a few years, she was asked to take over the ceremony.
“Carolyn Memoe, who also grew up in Brandon, did the program for many years and she moved away,” Knapp said. “Before her Mary Huntley did it for a long time, so we’re talking all the way back to the ’50s or so.”
Though Knapp is just one of a few who have been in charge of coordinating the ceremony, the list of girls who have participated stretches nearly as long as the parade route.
“The girls were all really excited about it,” Knapp said of this year’s event. “They all have a family member that was a flower girl and they’ve all seen the parade.”
Before the ceremony, Knapp says she talks to the girls about the tradition and the long line of flower girls who have participated before them. She acknowledges that even if they don’t quite understand the significance when they’re that young, they do as they get older.
“I have girls that ask to help once they’re in the third or fourth grade,” she said. “They remember it as a positive part of the year. I do think that as time goes on and they get older they gain a deeper understanding; they understand they are showing their respect.”
The Civil War is long over, but we still gather every year to remember those who fell and what they were fighting for. “They fought to create a society of equals,” Thornton said. “The little girls remind us that finishing that work is our job.”