Thursday, September 8, 2016

In Search of Mathew Brady

As an addendum to a month in upstate New York my husband and I went in search of the birthplace of Mathew Brady, the preeminent photographer of the Civil War. We found it, since it’s well-marked and in a location that doesn’t have to compete with other monuments. Or did we?

The marker is on the south side of NY 28 in Johnsburg, Warren County, a few miles beyond Warrensburg, maybe fifteen miles from Lake George Village.  Turn left at the wax museum and you’ll find it. (I made that part up. You actually have to head north out of Lake George and turn northwest).

Brady himself was apparently confused (or untruthful) about where he was actually born. He wasn’t entirely sure of the date either. Through most of his life he claimed to have been born in Warren County, in either 1822 or 1823. A few years ago local historians located the foundation of Brady’s supposed birthplace, on private property in the woods a few hundred yards in back of the marker site.

The story took a strange turn during the summer of 2015 when the metal marker, post and all, disappeared. It required a backhoe or other heavy equipment to dislodge, so the thief must have been looking for something more than the value of the scrap metal. Perhaps it was somebody to whom photography was really, really important. Or perhaps it was an Irish nationalist.

During the campaign to raise money to replace the sign and the discussions that surrounded it, a pesky little almost-fact emerged. There was no written evidence to support the idea that Mathew Brady was born in Johnsburg, just Brady’s repeated word for it, but there was some evidence that the famous photographer was actually born in Ireland. Brady himself included his Irish origin in his draft registration in 1863. The local historians compromised by noting that the foundation was of Brady’s childhood home. There’s no longer a statement on the birthplace.

There is a growing consensus that Brady fibbed for most of his adult life and that he really was Irish-born. It’s a surprising realization about the man who described his art as the “great and truthful medium of history.”

Thursday, March 3, 2016

William T. Sherman and Connecticut's Scorched Earth

William T. Sherman was well into his Carolinas campaign 151 years ago this week as his 60,000 men neared the end of a destructive march through South Carolina. Sherman’s ultimate goal was to destroy the one significant Confederate army still in the field when he got to northern North Carolina. When Sherman met and defeated Joseph Johnston in April the war was essentially over.

Sherman’s guiding principle in the initial march through Georgia during late 1864, and to a lesser extent in the Carolinas, was to wage war on everything except the very lives of civilians. It was scorched earth and total war and it earned Sherman a reputation that survives today.

Sherman’s ancestors actually had experience with scorched earth long before the Union general began his Civil War career. His grandfather Taylor Sherman and father Charles Sherman had left their homes in Norwalk. Connecticut, to move to Ohio, primarily to work on land claims in the Firelands. This 500,000 acre area in northern Ohio was also known as the Sufferers’ Lands and was the surviving part of millions of acres of land claimed by Connecticut, thanks to a 17th century royal patent. In exchange for the federal assumption of debt run up during the Revolutionary War the new state gave up most of the claims, retaining only the Western Reserve, a part of Ohio soon sold to a land company.

Connecticut did retain the half million acres of the so-called Firelands to compensate state residents for the losses of their homes, barns, shops, and other property burned by the British in several raids during the Revolution. Connecticut was never controlled by the British but it certainly was damaged. Four separate raids, each including several towns, occurred between April 1777 and September 1781. Nearly a thousand structures, mostly houses, were burned in Norwalk, Danbury, Ridgefield, Greenwich, Fairfield, New Haven, East Haven, New London, and Groton. Benedict Arnold, having turned coat, led the attack on the last two towns, near neighbors of his birthplace in Norwich.

Arnold's birthplace in Norwich was 15 miles
from the Groton Massacre
The purpose of the earlier raids was similar to that of William T. Sherman—to destroy supplies and provisions and to break the will of the civilians supporting the army. Few civilians died. In New London, Arnold proved a little more bloodthirsty. Although he wasn’t present, his subordinate in Groton ordered the massacre of 50 Connecticut militia members who had already surrendered. The Ohio Firelands were intended as recompense for the losses from the four British raids. Taylor Sherman went west to help survey the Firelands while Charles arrived in 1810 to prove title and do other legal work to help the eligible sufferers.  As it turned out, Charles found more lucrative work further south in Ohio, and his third son William Tecumseh was born there.

William was only ten when his father died and by then his grandfather was also gone, so he probably heard few first-hand stories of the British destruction in Connecticut. He mentions the Firelands only briefly in his memoir but was aware that scorched earth was responsible for his family being in Ohio.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

New Englander Joseph Hooker

Today marks another important Civil War anniversary for a son of New England. On January 26. 1863, Joseph Hooker of Hadley, Massachusetts, became commander of the Army of the Potomac. He succeeded Ambrose Burnside, born in Indiana but better known as the Rhode Island manufacturer of the Burnside Carbine. Burnside failed as an arms manufacturer and he also failed with the Army of the Potomac. The disaster at Fredericksburg in December 1862 led to Burnside’s replacement by Hooker.

Joseph Hooker descended from two famous names of early New England and, by extension, of Colonial America. He was probably distantly related (most likely through common ancestors in England) to Rev. Thomas Hooker, the founder of Hartford, Connecticut, and one of the earliest settlers of that state. The general was more closely related through his mother Mary Seymour to Thomas Seymour, one of Connecticut’s governors during the 1850s. That relationship was not particularly close, and that was probably a good thing for Joseph Hooker’s reputation, particularly in the latter part of the war. Thomas Seymour thought that there wasn’t anything particularly wrong with slavery (not an unique attitude in pre-war New England) and once the war started he was just one tiny step short of being a Connecticut Copperhead.

Gen. Joseph Hooker
Thomas Seymour thought enough of himself to run for governor in 1863 against Lincoln loyalist William Buckingham and, after failing there, to try to take the Democratic nomination for President away from George McClellan in 1864, failing there as well.

Joseph Hooker didn’t last long at the head of the Army of the Potomac. He was outmaneuvered by Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville three months after he took command and Chancellorsville proved to be an expensive defeat for his army. Hooker was replaced in the east but regained much of his reputation at Lookout Mountain and Chattanooga. He spent very little time in New England after the war, dividing his postwar years between Cincinnati and New York.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Connecticut's Confederate

Today marks the 110th anniversary of the death of Connecticut's own Confederate general, Joseph Wheeler. The cavalry commander had a somewhat mixed reputation in the Confederacy, having performed admirably at Chicamauga and during the defense of Atlanta but earning the wrath of civilians in Georgia and the Carolinas for the poor behavior of his troopers while unsuccessfully resisting William T. Sherman's March to the Sea in 1865.

Wheeler was born in Georgia and, when war came, decided he was a southerner, but he came from two hundred years of New England farmers, seamen, and businessmen and spent most of his formative years in Derby, Connecticut. Through his mother he was related to Revolutionary War hero General William Hull, War of 1812 hero Commodore Isaac Hull, and, more distantly, to Union Civil War hero Admiral Andrew Hull Foote.

Wheeler's family moved back to Connecticut within a few years of his birth in 1836 He became an orphan at the age of 12, moving in with relatives in Derby. His wealthy aunts enrolled him at Cheshire Academy in nearby Cheshire, Connecticut, the alma mater of many of his Hull relatives as well as of Gideon Welles, who became Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy. Wheeler was living with Connecticut relatives in New York City when he applied to West Point.

After the war Joe Wheeler he served a number of terms as a member of congress from Alabama and became renowned for his conciliatory politics. In 1898 he was made a major general of volunteers in the U.S. Army in the Spanish-American War and the subsequent Philippine Insurrection. He was one of a very small number of men to serve as officers in both the Confederate and United States armies in that order. He died in 1906 in New York.

Derby is well enough convinced that Joseph Wheeler belongs to the Housatonic Valley town that Wheeler was chosen to be among the original inductees into the city's Hall of Fame in 2007, along with Isaac Hull and David Humphreys, aide-de-camp to George Washington. Joe Wheeler's parents are buried right across the street from Humphrey's still-standing house.


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Grandsons of Connecticut and the end of the war

The four-plus years of 150th anniversaries of Civil War events are drawing to a close but there a few big ones to go. Today, March 4, is the sesquicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address,

It was, of course, one of the great speeches of human history, one in which he acknowledged the horrors of war but offered a roadmap to recovery.

Here are the most famous words of that famous address:

With malice toward none; with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God givesus to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation;s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all others. 

Lincoln was able to utter those words on that day thanks largely to two men who might be called “grandsons of Connecticut.”  Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman, who headed the largest Union armies in the field on March 4, 1865, were both Ohio-born. But each was the descendant of a famous old Connecticut family.

Grant was the grandson of Noah Grant of Tolland, Connecticut, himself the descendant of Matthew Grant, one of the first settlers in the state. Matthew Grant is particularly important in New England history. As town clerk of Windsor, Connecticut,  in the mid-17th century, he kept meticulous town records as well as a personal diary that gives us one of the best and most complete records of life in very early European America.

Sherman’s Connecticut connection was even closer. His father and mother were Connecticut-born, as was the general’s oldest brother, all coming from a very long line of New Englanders. The immigrant Sherman came to Massachusetts in the 1630’s.  General Sherman’s more immediate ancestors arrived in Connecticut a century later.

Another grandson of Connecticut was less revered by the closing weeks of the war. George B. McClellan  great grandfather was General Samuel McClellan of Woodstock, Connecticut, one of New England’s Revolutionary War heroes. “General Sam,” of whom George McClellan bragged, was born in Massachusetts but lived out his long life in Connecticut. His home still stands in South Woodstock. George McClellan is not remembered with the same reverence in New England.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


October 14th marks the anniversary of the battle of Bristoe Station, the 151st as I write this. The 14th Connecticut saw action in this battle, which, although bloody, was minor by comparison to many of the unit’s other battles.

There was probably no regiment on either side that saw much more significant action than the 14th during its period of service. After mustering in on August 25, 1862, the thousand men of the regiment left immediately for the Virginia front, just missing Second Bull Run. But it was there in plenty of time for Antietam in September, suffering 137 casualties, continuing on to Fredericksburg in December, where it lost 122 men and officers in killed, wounded and missing.

In 1863 the 14th was engaged at Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, at Bristoe Station on October 14, at Blackburn’s Ford on the 17th, and at Mine Run on November 20. In 1864, the regiment saw action at Morton’s Ford, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and the siege of Petersburg. What’s more, it was among the regiments involved in the final squeeze that forced Robert E. Lee to Appomattox Court House. The 14th Connecticut suffered nearly 800 casualties during its less than three years of existence.

As for Bristoe Station: on this date in 1863 the site just south of Manassas saw the first significant action between the armies of Generals Lee and George Meade after Gettysburg. The fighting resulted in another Union victory, but one with unsettling implications for each side. Generals A.P. Hill and Richard Ewell performed poorly for Lee, and Meade, although the winner, failed to follow up, allowing Lee to escape once again. That failure contributed to President Lincoln’s increasing determination to bring Ulysses Grant (the descendant of one of the founders of Connecticut) east the following year. The 14th Connecticut, in the heart of the battle, suffered 26 killed and wounded. This map of the action at Bristoe Station is the work of Confederate mapmaker Jed Hotchkiss, famous for his maps of the Shenandoah Valley for Stonewall Jackson.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Andersonville Anniversary

The sesquicentennials go on. Last week marked the 150th anniversary of the arrivals of the first prisoners at Camp Sumter at Andersonville, Georgia. Andersonville is one of those iconic names in history that enjoy (or suffer) a meaning wider than their individual realities. A Judas is a betrayer. A Benedict Aernold is a traitor. An Andersonville is a horror among prisons and POW camps. In reality, Andersonville was one of several camps, north and south, that saw thousands of prisoners die, mostly of disease, but also of starvation and occasionally of murder. It was not necessarily the worst (although it way have been) but it certainly was the best known.

Its infamy was partially due to a pair of New Englanders who arrived within a couple of months of its liberation. Dorence Atwater. a young cavalryman from the Terryville section of Plymouth, Connecticut, was captured late in 1863 and became among the first prisoners marched to Camp Sumter. Deaths came quickly in a wet and cold north Georgia winter, and camp officials chose Atwater, whose handwriting was excellent, to keep a record of the dead, both names and locations of burial. He became known as the “Clerk of the Dead” of Andersonville.

Although he was told to make two official copies, Atwater suspected rightly that neither list would survive intact. So he kept another list for himself. After the end of the war, with the assistance of others including Clara Barton of North Oxford, Massachusetts, he took his list and traveled to Andersonville.

Barton had already been inundated with requests from families to help track down missing Union prisoners. When she was contacted by Atwater she was eager to become part of the identification and recovery effort.

The party located and identified thousands of graves. Some were noted with markers. Other bodies were returned to families and towns. For example, the town of Norwich, Connecticut, sent a delegation south to recover the bodies of Andersonville dead from their town. The bodies were returned, reburied in the ancient Yantic cemetery, and marked by a Parrott rifle obtained from the U.S. government. It’s now known as the “Andersonville gun” and is a landmark in the town. Other war dead have been buried there since, but the site remains a monument to the victims of Andersonville.
The Andersonville Gun in Norwich, CT