Mary Fish in love and war

I’ve always wanted to write about Mary Fish, whose experiences during the Revolution were made into an acclaimed TV movie. Since this column is nominally about the people behind local street names, I tried to connect the Fish family of Fishtown Road in Mystic with Mary’s family in North Stonington. I think they were cousins from Leicestershire, England, but I’m not positive.

Mary’s story stayed on my back burner until last summer, when I read that the Stonington Historical Society had received an exceptional gift: the over-skirt Mary wore when she married General Gold Selleck Silliman in 1775. The bride was a 39-year-old widow who’d given birth to five children, yet on this special day she must have felt young and giddy because she was passionately in love.

After the death of her first husband, Mary had been courted by several men, but as she wrote her parents, only Gold was “exactly agreeable to my taste.” Judging by the warmth of their correspondence, the groom, a 43-year-old widower with a teenage son, shared her feelings. They were married just a month after Lexington and Concord. Hardships lay ahead.

The couple lived in Fairfield, where Gold commanded local militiamen protecting the Connecticut border against incursions by the British from New York. When a raiding party advanced on Danbury to seize the munitions stored there, Gold called out the militia and joined generals Benedict Arnold and David Wooster in the effort to repel them.

The British retreated, but General Wooster was killed in the encounter, demonstrating vividly just how dangerous Gold’s military responsibilities were. During her husband’s frequent absences, Mary threw herself into caring for their family, overseeing the farm, and managing their finances, but worry was never far away.

Nothing could have prepared her for a night in 1779 when a band of Tories with torches forced their way into the Sillimans’ home, smashing windows and searching the house for valuables. They overlooked a set of church silver that the Sillimans had brought home to polish but had quickly hidden beneath some bed linens. (Today I believe that this communion service is in its rightful place at the First Church Congregational, Fairfield.) Worst of all, the intruders kidnapped Gold and took him as a prisoner to Long Island. You can feel how terrifying this must have been for Mary (who was pregnant at the time with her seventh child) by watching a clip of “Mary Silliman’s War” on YouTube.

Mary immediately mounted a letter-writing campaign to engage Connecticut leaders in efforts to free her husband. In July, just a few months after his capture, Mary (now nine months pregnant) fled briefly to North Stratford when British troops attacked Fairfield and burned much of it to the ground. A year later, Mary, with help from influential Patriots, successfully obtained Gold’s release as part of a prisoner exchange. He was overjoyed to be reunited with “the Dearest and most affectionate of Women,” but from that time forward, his life was plagued by failing health and intractable financial problems.

After Gold’s death in 1790, Mary remarried but was widowed yet a third time. When she died in 1818, she was buried - on July 4th - in North Stonington’s Great Plain Cemetery. Her epitaph memorializes the “cheerful piety (that) graced her life.” Her son, Benjamin, wrote, “She walked with God…”

When I went to see Mary’s over-skirt at the Stonington Historical Society, I thought the garment would be fragile and frayed. It isn’t. The silk-taffeta cream-colored skirt, embroidered with peach and rose floral designs, looks lovely yet strong and durable, like the woman who wore it. It’s stored under environmentally controlled conditions, but will be on display at the SHS’s Woolworth Library April 9 through 30. Check the museum website for library hours. This beautiful treasure brings history to life in a tangible and moving way.



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