Coffin holds history

Souvenirs of 1871 Korean conflict honored throughout Annapolis

May 27, 2007|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,sun reporter

Not everybody would feel comfortable with a 100-year-old coffin in the basement.

But Elaine Underwood, who lives in a historic mid-18th-century home steps away from the Naval Academy, thinks that's just where it belongs.

The coffin was intended for Col. McLane Tilton, who led Marines in an 1871 amphibious assault in Korea and later moved to the house while he commanded the Marine Corps sentries guarding the naval college.

His children refused to use the battleship-gray pine box when he died in 1914, but Underwood was glad to acquire it five years ago from an antiques shop that was closing.

"I think it should stay with the house," she said. "We have done very little to change this house. Today, people aren't doing that anymore."

The coffin is among many vestiges of the Korea skirmish and its participants, which are scattered all over Annapolis and Maryland, kept by descendants, antiques dealers or museums.

Among those, one has recently attracted international interest. A flag seized in 1871 by Tilton's men brought a South Korean delegation last month to the Naval Academy museum, where the flag is being displayed. The delegation asked for its return, but academy officials have said it is not theirs to return and that returning it would probably require an act of Congress.

For Korea, the battle - during which the nation lost 350 men, compared with three American sailors and Marines - has come to symbolize a great victory, an example of an outmanned group of soldiers, "tiger hunters" and peasants who gave their lives, not unlike the small band of Texas fighters at the Alamo.

Despite sacking the forts, the Naval and Marine forces left Corea, as the nation was then known in English, a short time later, having failed in their mission to establish diplomatic relations with the country.

Jim Cheevers, curator of the Naval Academy Museum, said this month that the battle has many Maryland ties beyond Tilton.

Hugh Purvis, the Marine Corps private who won a Medal of Honor for seizing the flag, went on to run the Naval Academy's armory for 35 years and is buried in Annapolis.

A bronze bust in the State House honors Winfield Scott Schley, a Frederick native and 1860 academy graduate who led an assault on one of the Korean forts.

Hugh McKee, an 1866 academy graduate and one of the few who died in the assault, is memorialized with a plaque in the academy chapel.

And Havre de Grave native Rear Adm. John Rodgers, then commander of the military's Asiatic Squadron, was among those who originally decided to attack the Korean forts after his ships were fired upon.

Terry Purvis, Hugh Purvis' great-grandson, said he hopes the giant banner stays where it is.

"It's part of my family history and family lore, and it's part of Naval Academy and Marine Corps lore," said Purvis, who donated his great-grandfather's Medal of Honor - one of the first awarded for actions in a foreign conflict - to the academy about 15 years ago. "I was somewhat concerned that they wanted it back and that we might think about giving it back."

Purvis, who has nurtured what his son calls his obsession with his family's past, named his son after Hugh Purvis, for whom the Navy named a destroyer in 1944.

"When I was younger, I thought the name Hugh was cruel," said the younger Purvis. "No one could pronounce my name. But as I've grown older, it's really become an honor to be named after him, his ship and what he did in his life. I think I'll bestow the name on one of my children, as well."

No delegations have come to ask for the coffin, which looks more than a little out of place in Underwood's basement, upright and wedged in a corner next to an old cash machine and a closed-up Dutch oven.

Tilton used to store his clothes in the box and occasionally would entertain guests by getting in. According to a certificate written by Dennis Claude, the antiques dealer who held the coffin for so long, Tilton had "contracted with an old black man to bring his wagon, place him in it and bury him in St. Anne's Cemetery when he died.

"His children would have no part of this," the certificate says.

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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