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

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Little Woman, the Great War, and Beginnings

Abraham Lincoln famously said to Harriet Beecher Stowe upon meeting her during the Civil War, "So you're the little woman who started this great war." To be honest, he may have not actually said this. And to be even more honest, the war would almost certainly have occurred even if Uncle Tom's Cabin had not been published.

But Stowe certainly played a role in giving voice to thoughts and giving courage to people who were thinking them. This year marks an anniversary for Stowe and her most famous book, and it's possible to see early traces of Uncle Tom's Cabin in the first work published under her own name. This month 180 years ago she was celebrating the news that she had won a $50 dollar prize and publication in Western Monthly Magazine for a story she had called "Uncle Lot." The magazine called it "A New England Sketch."

The story was about a prototypical New England farmer and was noted for its use of colloquial language--unusual for the time--and for putting dialect into the mouth of Uncle Lot. Both techniques were used nearly 20 years later for Uncle Tom. Slavery did not figure in the story although Stowe (then still Harriet Beecher) had taken the trip to Kentucky that showed her some of the sights and sounds of slavery the previous year.

Stowe wrote the story of Uncle Lot while living in Cincinnati with her father, but her most famous works were put to paper in New England, where several of the places connected to her life remain. Most of Uncle Tom's Cabin was written in Brunswick, Maine, where her husband Calvin Stowe was teaching at Bowdoin College. Their house still stands in Brunswick and is still a part of the college.

Litchfield, Connecticut, where she was born, retains several sites related to her and her famous family, although not her actual birthplace. The house was torn down several years ago (the pieces are supposedly in storage awaiting someone willing to pay for reassembly) but the site of the home is marked with a sign. You can see the church where the Puritan divine Lyman Beecher, Harriet's father, preached. There are several other monuments to the Beecher family in town as well.

In Guilford, Connecticut, there are several contemporary houses still standing in the Nut Plain section, where Harriet spent many months with her mother's family. It was at the grandfather's home in Guilford that she heard stories from an aunt who had married a planter from the Caribbean. The aunt was appalled at the reality of slavery and some of her stories found their way into Harriet Beecher Stowe's most famous work.

More information about these sites as well as directions to them are available in my book Connecticut's Civil war. More information is on the book's website www.ctcivilwar.com.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

What was the 77th New England?

The 77th New England didn’t exist, of course, since Union army volunteer regiments were identified by the states rather than the regions that produced them. The “77th New England” was a nickname for the 7th Connecticut and the 7th New Hampshire, two regiments usually brigaded together during the campaigns of 1862-1865 in the southeast,.

Today, February 20, 2014, is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Olustee in northern Florida, perhaps the least successful day in the history of the 77th New England. Earlier in February of 1864 Brigadier General Truman Seymour had arrived in Jacksonville, tasked with destroying Confederate supply routes and securing modest union influences in northern Florida. Otherwise, that part of the Confederacy was insignificant.

Seymour led his small 5,000-plus man expedition (including the 77th New England) westward along existing rail lines, expecting to meet nothing more than Florida militia, composed primarily of young boys and older men. Instead, on the afternoon of February 20, the force met up with 5,000 entrenched Confederate soldiers near the town of Olustee, just east of Lake City.

After hours of battle, the Union expedition was forced to retreat towards Jacksonvile, leaving the Confederates in control of the field. The 77th New England performed poory, particularly the 7th New Hampshire. The 7th Connecticut was never fully engaged. Both regiments were part of the brigade under the command of then-Colonel Joseph R. Hawley of Connecticut, who was enjoying (or not) his first command independent of General Alfred Howe Terry, also of Connecticut.

One regiment did perform admirably. The 54th Massachusetts, the regiment of black soldiers so honored in the 151 years since its glory in defeat at Battery Wagner near Charleston, played the key role in saving a broken down train carrying wounded Union soldiers back to Jacksonville.

Otherwise, the day was a disaster for the Union. With 1,800 men killed, wounded, or missing, the expedition suffered a 34 percent casualty rate—among the worst of any battle of the war.

News of the victory elated the South, for whom successful days were becoming fewer and fewer. The 77th New England left Florida for Virginia where the two regiments became part of the seige of Petersburg. Then,in January of 1865,they were sent to join Terry's Provisional Corps. They participated in the relentless move of Sherman’s Union army across the Carolinas to the real end of the war, which happened in North Carolina rather than at Appomattox.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Happy Anniversary Kansas-Nebraska Act

We are well into the Civil War 150th anniversaries. Last year: Chancellorsville and Gettysburg and Chicamauga. This year: the Wilderness and Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor and the seige of Petersburg. But there are other anniversaries to consider this year. This week marks the 160th anniversary of a milestone event, one that played a part in the inevitablity of war. And a man from Connecticut was watching closely to see what happened.

The milestone was the Kansas-Nebraska Act. On January 30, 1854, after months of negotiations, failed amendments, and succesful additions, debate opened in the Senate on the final version of the act. The bill passed the Senate in March and,after much further debate, got through the House of Representatives in May. President Franklin Pierce signed it into law the final week of May, 1854.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act effectively threw out the Missouri Compromise, which had kept slavery out of land above the 36 degree 30' parallel, with the exception of the new state of Missouri. The country had managed to avoid war over slavery for more than 30 years, thanks to the Compromise. But the new act permitted Kansas and Nebraska to come into the Union either slave or free, depending on the vote of white male settlers.

John Brown,a 54-year-old native of Torrington, Connecticut,was living--after a checkered personal and business career in the midwest--on a small farm in the rugged and cold Adirondack Mountains of New York. Not surprisingly, the farm was doing poorly, as was a settlement of free blacks that the ardent abolitionist supported in the area. When he heard that pro-slavery settlers were pouring into Kansas from slave-holding Missouri, Brown, his sons, and other supporters moved to Kansas to settle temporarily and to encourage anti-slavery sentiment. The Brown movement felt obligated to match violence on the part of pro-slavery settlers with equal violence of their own. Kansas became a bloody microcosm of national sentiment.

Later, Brown returned to the east where he traveled through New England, particularly Connecticut and Massachusetts, raising money for a new bold plan. That turned out to be his raid on the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, then in Virginia. The raid, in October 1859, failed, but Brown, who was hanged six weeks later, made himself into a martyr to the cause of the abolition of slavery. The war could not then be avoided.

The house where John Brown was born is long gone, but there is a state historic sign at the location, a few miles west of Torrington just off Route 4. There is also a haunting reminder of the man who started the Civil War (or at least who assured that it would start when it did). The stone front steps to the old house remain. John Brown left Torrington as a child of five in 1805, but he was certainly old enough to have walked up those steps hundreds of times. So, two days from now, remember the 160th anniversary of a event that a righteous and violent descendant of New England puritans used to force his country to reach a goal that he knew in his soul was right.