Memorial Day: Remembering the 29th Connecticut

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The graves of Robert Lampman and William Elder stand side by side in Litchfield’s West Cemetery.

Memorial Day was originally Decoration Day, created in 1868 to lay flowers or wreaths on the graves those men who died in the Civil War. Tragically, that number was enormous; nearly 400,000 Union soldiers perished over the four years of the conflict. In setting aside May 30th, 1868, as the first Decoration Day, General John Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic (the North’s largest veteran’s organization) declared: “We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the Nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and found mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of a free and undivided republic.”

For decades, Logan’s call went unheeded for some Connecticut veterans. When the state put out a call for African American volunteers in 1863, over 1,600 responded. The first 1,200 formed the 29th Connecticut Infantry, while the other 400 became the 30th Connecticut. It is interesting to note that not all of these men were Connecticut residents; as Massachusetts was the only other northern state accepting African American enlistees at this time, volunteers joined the Connecticut regiments from across the Northeast.

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The volunteers that formed the 29th Connecticut trained in the Fair Haven section of New Haven and were mustered into the service of the United States in March 1864. Among these 1,200 were James Lampman and William Elder, who lived in Litchfield after the war; dozens of men from Litchfield County also enlisted in the regiment. In early April 1864, the unit was sent to Beaufort, South Carolina, where the above photograph was taken. For the next four months, the regiment drilled and served on picket duty before being sent to the Richmond theater in August. There it was involved in many engagements in the war’s final year. Thomas McKinley, a white officer serving in the regiment, was mortally wounded outside Richmond on September 24th. He is buried in Litchfield’s East Cemetery. The 29th suffered their most significant casualties at Kell House, near Richmond, on October 27, 1864, when 14 men were killed at 69 wounded. When Richmond fell to Union forces in early April 1865, the 29th Connecticut was the first Union infantry regiment to enter the Confederate capital. After Lee’s surrender, the men of the 29th dispatched to duty in Texas and Louisiana.

 

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The 29th Connecticut monument in New Haven

 

When the war ended, the survivors attempted to return to a normal life. Many, however, were disabled from debilitating wounds or sickness. Many widows of men from the 29th had difficulty getting pensions because the required paperwork – notably marriage certificates – were rare in the African American community. While there were integrated Grand Army of the Republic posts, many were segregated, while African American veterans were blackballed from membership in still other posts. And while monuments were constructed across Connecticut to the state’s white regiments, no monuments were built to honor the state’s African American veterans until one was erected in Danbury in 2007. The following year, the men of the 29th were honored with a monument in New Haven.

For more information on the 29th Connecticut, see ProjeCT29, a website built and maintained by my students: https://pvermilyea.wixsite.com/29thconnecticut

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Hidden Nearby: Roxbury’s Blue Star Highway

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Blue Star Highways across the United States pay tribute to members of the United States armed forces. Blue stars can be found on service flags, which emerged as banners hung in windows during World War I to indicate that a member of that household was in the military. A gold star flag indicates that a member of that household died in military service; Connecticut also honors gold star families on license plates.

In 1945, in the aftermath of World War II, the National Council of State Garden Clubs (now known as National Garden Clubs, Inc.), began marking highways to honor members of the military. The National Council of State Garden Clubs was established in 1929; today, the National Garden Clubs, Inc. has over 5,000 member garden clubs, comprised of over 165,000 individuals.

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There are at least 193 Blue Star Highways in the United States; of these eighty are in Louisiana, the most – by far – of any state. Connecticut has seventeen Blue Star Highways. The first, along Route 1 in Guilford, was dedicated in 1950. It wasn’t until 2003 when Exit 5 off of I-84 in Danbury became the state’s second Blue Star Highway. This marker, along Route 317 in Roxbury, is Connecticut’s second newest, dedicated by the Roxbury-Bridgewater Garden Club in 2018. Two days later, the Black Rock Garden Club of Bridgeport denoted a walkway in the St. Mary’s by the Sea park the state’s newest Blue Star Highway.

 

 

White Memorial: Japanese Tea House

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Remains of the Whites’ Japanese tea house

Many of the trails that wind through the White Memorial Conservation Center were originally constructed as carriage roads for Alain and May White. Great care was taken in building this network of roads, as evidenced by the many extant bridges, culverts, and drainage ditches. Carriage rides on roads carved out of forests was a popular leisure activity for wealthy Americans in the late 19th and early 20th century. The Rockefellers, for example, built 45 miles of carriage roads at Kykuit, their Tarrytown, New York, estate, eighteen miles or roads at their Forest Hill, Ohio, estate, and 57 miles in what is now Acadia National Park in Maine.

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Beaver Pond overlook, White Memorial Foundation

Alain White oversaw the construction of dozens of miles of roads at Whitehall, what is now White Memorial. From the 1870 carriage house, the Whites would drive their team of horses around their property. Approximately four miles from their home was Beaver Pond. High above the pond they constructed a pull off so that they could admire the vista from their carriage. And on the shore of the pond, White built a Japanese tea house. Here Alain and May could entertain friends before returning back home.

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Frederic Church, Twilight in the Wilderness, 1860

Wealthy Americans of this period were captivated by paintings by the likes of Frederic Church and Winslow Homer of the American wilderness and looked to have their own experiences in nature. And if that could be done by constructing a Japanese tea house on ground seemingly untouched by human hands, so much the better. At about the same time, Robert Pruyn, an Albany banker and businessman, constructed an entire estate with a Japanese theme on nearly 100,000 of Adirondack wilderness in Newcomb, New York. If on a smaller scale, Alain and May White were inspired by similar ideas in Litchfield and Morris.

Armistice Day in Litchfield

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The recent centennial of the end of World War I provides a timely opportunity to look back on how that occasion was marked in Litchfield. The following account of November 11, 1918, is from Alain White’s 1920 book, The History of the Town of Litchfield, Connecticut, 1720-1920:

“The Court House bell gave the local signal and soon all the church bells
joined in, ringing out the tidings in a perfect medley of noise.  The firemen manned the chemical engine, and started out on a procession all over the Borough, a crowd quickly gathered, and soon about 200 men, women and children were in line, headed by the Stars and Stripes. They marched down South Street, and at the invitation of the rector, Mr. Brewster, into St. Michael’s church, where the people with deep emotion, sang together the Doxology and the national anthem, and gave thanks with grateful hearts that the long terrible years of conflict were ended at last. Out again on the Green, a bonfire was built, and while it was burning brightly impromptu speeches were made. The day dawned, soft and mellow, as a November day sometimes is. About seven o’clock there was a little let up for breakfast, but the bells never quite ceased ringing. The dignified village of Litchfield had a disheveled look on that morning, very unlike its usual trim appearance. Papers, confetti, the remnants of the bonfire littered the center and plainly showed that the town had been up all night celebrating. Refreshed by breakfast, every one who could get there, hastened to Bantam to join the parade. A band, provided by the forethought of W. S. Rogers led the procession, which included about sixty automobiles. Another pause came for the noon-day meal, then came the Litchfield parade, in which Bantam joined. The marchers were headed by Frank H. Turkington, and the Home Guard, the D. A. R., the Red Cross, the fire departments, the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts, the service flag of St. Anthony’s carried by young women, and many automobiles were in line, a coffin dedicated to the Kaiser was a special feature.  Litchfield’s enthusiasm did not spend itself with these demonstrations, but finished the day with a patriotic “sing” on the Green in the evening, patriotic speeches and an appeal for the United War Work Campaign, which was then in progress.”

Amidst the understandable celebration, the town still mourned for its ten sons who died in the conflict. The sacrifices of these men were noted with a star next to their name on the town’s monument to its men who served in the World War. In many cases, those stars are now missing; in this centennial year of the Great War’s end, it seems appropriate for the town to repair this honor. But it is important to remember that these were men with lives and families, not just names on a plaque, deserving to be remembered for their sacrifices and experiences. They are:

Henry E. Cattey, who is often listed as being from the “Marsh District” of Northfield, but sometimes listed as being from Thomaston. He was a mechanic in Company I of the Sixth Infantry, and was killed in October 1918 while liberating the French town of Bois des Rappes in the first phase of the Meuse-Argonnes Offensive. 

Roy F. Cornwell, who enlisted as a member of the New York State Militia from his father’s residence in Ellenville, but had lived in Litchfield for some time. He died on the ship en route to France.

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Clayton Devines died of the Spanish Flu in November 1918 while at an army camp in Florida. Between 50 and 100 million people worldwide died of the epidemic.

Joseph Donohue – hometown unknown – was a student at the Connecticut Junior Republic who enlisted in the army and died in action on July 23, 1918, during a French and Americans advance on the Ourcq River. 

August Guinchi of the 56th Regiment Coast Artillery was gassed was driving a tank. In a weakened condition, he succumbed to typhoid fever October 31, 1918.

Robert Jeffries died of pneumonia on January 20, 2018, at Camp Gordon, Florida.

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Litchfield’s Morgan-Weir American Legion Post is named for Frank A. Morgan and James V. Weir, both of whom died in combat in World War I.

Frank A. Morgan was eager to enlist but was twice rejected from military service because he didn’t weigh enough. When the weight limit was lowered, Morgan became the first man from Litchfield to enlist. A corporal, he also became the first of Litchfield’s men to die in battle. His mother, Mrs. G. Durand Merriman, received a letter from her son’s commanding officer, providing details about his death: “Your son, Corporal Frank A. Morgan was killed June 20, 1918, near Mandres in the Toul sector. He was killed by the concussion of a shell; even though he died instantly, there was not a mark on him. . . . When we first went into the line he acted as a runner between the platoon and company headquarters and did his work so well that I proposed his name to the company commander as one to be made corporal at the first opportunity, and I am sure that had he lived he would have continued to win promotion. He is buried in an American Military Cemetery and the flag he fought for floats over his grave, while by his side are comrades who with him have paid the supreme price.”

Howard C. Sherry died of pneumonia on January 16, 1918, at Camp Johnston, Florida.

James V. Weir served in the 102nd Regiment alongside his brother, Thomas. Thomas provided the following account of his brother’s death at the Battle of Chateu Thierry:  “At the start of the Chateau Thierry drive they went over the top at 5:30 A.M. and went into woods the other side of the starting position. They relieved the Marines, with Marines on left and French on right; the position was in a horse shoe. The company went ahead and had to wait for the French. They went back and went ahead again without barrage. Co. H. was in the 2nd batallion. Enemy artillery fire was very heavy, 2nd battalion in support, 3rd battalion ahead and 1st in reserve. The company was in open field kneeling down in close formation, a German big shell came over and landed 200 yards away. A piece landed beside the two Weir boys and hit James between the eyes. Roy Hotchkiss helped to carry out and bandage James, who was taken to the 103rd Field Hospital at La Ferte and buried there”.

Of Pio Zavotti, little is known except that he was born in Italy and was killed in action fighting for his adopted country.  

                                     Calm fell. From Heaven distilled a clemency;
                                     There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky;
                                     Some could, some could not, shake off misery:
                                     The Sinister Spirit sneered: ‘It had to be!’
                                     And again the Spirit of Pity whispered, ‘Why?’
                                          – From Thomas Hardy, “And There Was a Great Calm”

St. Anthony’s Church: Original Cornerstone

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The earliest Catholics to arrive in Litchfield were Acadians, French inhabitants of eastern Canada expelled from their homeland by the British in 1755 during the French and Indian War. Technically prisoners of the British, over 11,000 were dispersed among Britain’s American colonies.  In 1759, the town of Litchfield authorized that its selectmen “may provide a house or some suitable place in the town, for the maintenance of the French.” There is little evidence of the presence of other Catholics in town until 1848, when Rev. John Smith, a visiting missionary, said the first recorded mass in Litchfield. It was noted that the second mass held in town was at the home of John Ryan on the west side of North Lake Street by Rev. Philip Gillick in 1853. There were twenty in attendance, and in the same year Gillick performed Litchfield’s first Catholic marriage.

In 1858, Julia Beers purchased a small house on South Street (that still forms part of the rectory) for use as a church. An altar was set up in the dining room and masses were said there until 1861 when increasing numbers necessitated a move to the courthouse.  Between 1861 and 1882, pastors from Winsted – beginning with Reverend Daniel Mullen –  also officiated at the Litchfield church. In 1882, Rev. M. Byrne became the town’s first resident priest.

In 1867, construction of a permanent church began and was the first service held there was that year’s Christmas mass.  This structure was a sign of the town’s growing population of Irish and Italian immigrants. In his bicentennial history of the Litchfield, Alain White wrote, “The building of St. Anthony’s Church in 1867 shows that they were by that time a well established part of the community. From that time on, in their growing prosperity in trade, in the fairs for the church, their minstrel shows and St. Patrick’s Day dances they have made their definite contribution to the community life.”

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A new church – shown above from an early 20th century postcard – was erected between 1885 and 1889 at a cost of $23,000. This was an ornate Gothic Revival structure, with buttresses and stained glass windows. In 1890, the parish’s Knights of Columbus chapter began, and in 1907 the Emma Deming Council No. 265 Catholic Women’s Benevolent Legion started. As a sign of the church becoming an established institution in the town, the St. Anthony’s service flag was prominently featured in Litchfield’s 1918 Armistice Day parade.

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A massive fire destroyed the church on October 5, 1944. Masses were held at the Congregational and Methodist churches for the next four years while a new structure was completed. With World War II raging, building materials were harder to come by, eliminating stained glass windows from the plan. A simpler design was the result, as seen in the postcard above.  The steeple and passageway to the rectory were added in later years, but at the back of the church is the cornerstone from the 1887 structure, salvaged from the ruins of the fire.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Victorian Fence Posts Along North Street

It’s been well documented that Litchfield, as much as any other town, is a shining example of the Colonial Revival. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Litchfield residents remade their town from one that featured many Victorian homes (with a few structures remaining from the Colonial Era) to an embodiment of Colonial architecture, with many homes painted in the classic white-with-black-shutters look.

Among the most notable examples of the Colonial Revival’s impact on the town’s appearance are the redesigned court house tower and the restored Congregational Church. There are still vestiges of the earlier Victorian design, even if they are small. The North Street fence shown above features a classic Colonial look. But a closer examination of the stone slabs reveals:

… the post holes from an earlier Victorian metal fence. A similar metal fence is visible in this c.1905 post card of North Street:

Many such holes and old stone posts are visible around town, reminders of the fact that the historic Colonial appearance of Litchfield was carefully crafted over decades, more than a hundred years removed from the Colonial Era.

Congregational Church Cornerstone

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Litchfield’s Congregational Church has been called “the most photographed church in New England.” It’s Greek Revival design and the simplicity of its black shutters and white paint seemingly epitomize colonial architecture. Its style is a perfect match to its setting.

Except that this is both Litchfield’s third and fifth Congregational Church, a story partly illuminated by this cornerstone.

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The first Congregational Church was erected between 1723 and 1726 in the intersection of the town’s major north/south and east/west roads, where today we would find the green. A largely square structure, it was sold in 1761 and the larger second Congregational Church was erected the following year.  By 1828, the church building had deteriorated so badly that one anonymous writer to the Litchfield County Post commented, “the shabby building pains the eye of every stranger.” The structure’s dilapidated condition – coupled with their era’s surge in desire to separate church and state, as manifested in Connecticut’s 1818 constitution – led to a decision to build a new Congregational Church off the green.

It is the construction of this church that is commemorated by the “1829” on the cornerstone. For its popularity and the rave architectural reviews the structure draws today, its design fell out of favor in the post-Civil War era. Of the building, Henry Ward Beecher, who had grown up in Litchfield, remarked “There is not a single line or feature in the old building suggesting taste or beauty.” With the popularity of Gothic Revival architecture, the third church was moved down the Torrington Road in 1873 and replaced by a wooden structure with dark stained glass windows and dark paneling and furniture, representative of the Victorian era.

The third church served as a gym, a roller skating rink, concert and dance hall, and movie theater, until the Colonial Revival swept the nation in the 1920s. At that time, Edgar Van Winkle, chairman of the Congregational Church’s building committee, termed the fourth church a “monstrosity” and, in 1929, hired noted architect Richard Henry Dana, Jr., to develop plans to move the third church back to a site opposite the green and restore it to its Greek Revival splendor (if not to its exact appearance, as several details were changed). This restoration is commemorated by the “1929” on the cornerstone.

The Congregational Church is an iconic symbol of Litchfield, but its foundation highlights the fact that this was not always the case.

For more on the architectural history of Litchfield’s Congregational Church, see Rachel Carley’s excellent book Litchfield: The Making of a New England Town (2011).