Hidden Nearby: Terryville’s Dorence Atwater Monument

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This monument in Terryville’s Baldwin Park offers testimony to one of the great episodes in Litchfield County’s Civil War history.

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Dorence Atwater

Dorence Atwater was only 16 when he enlisted – lying about his age – in the Union army. He was serving as a courier, running messages for a cavalry unit, when he was captured during the Gettysburg Campaign in July 1863.

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Camp Sumter, Andersonville, Georgia

Initially imprisoned at Belle Island in Richmond, Atwater was soon transferred to the notorious Camp Sumter – better known as Andersonville.   He fell ill in March 1864, but recovered to become a record keeper. While this removed him from the regular prison population, Atwater’s task was a morbid one, recording the names of the men who died.   The young man from Terryville, still only 19 years old, was consumed with ensuring that, in the words of a Hartford Courant article, “family members would know the fate and final resting spot of their loved ones.”

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Clara Barton

Atwater was paroled from Andersonville in March 1865 and upon leaving, smuggled the camp’s roll out in a bag. The punishment, had he been caught, would have been extreme. After the war, Atwater returned to Andersonville with Clara Barton to locate and mark the graves.  In all, approximately 13,000 Union prisoners died at the prison camp. For his actions, Barton reported to family members, “for the record of your dead you are indebted to the forethought, courage, and perseverance of a 19-year-old soldier named Dorence Atwater.”

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Princess Moeta Salmon Atwater

Atwater’s continued efforts on behalf of the victims of Andersonville – in this case protecting the list of names from those who wished to use it for commercial purposes – resulted in his court martial. Barton, however, took Atwater’s case directly to President Andrew Johnson, who not only pardoned Atwater but appointed him US consul to the Seychelle Islands. He followed this by serving as US consul to Tahiti, where he met and married his wife, an island princess. He also engaged in several highly successful business enterprises, including establishing a shipping line.

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Atwater and his wife returned to Terryville in 1908 to view the monument the town had erected in his honor in Baldwin Park. The monument had been dedicated one year earlier, with his great friend Clara Barton in attendance.

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The Phelps Block and the Fire of 1886

DSC_0238  Litchfield’s great fire began at 1:30 a.m. on June 11, 1886 in Moore and Maddern’s General Store, which stood on West Street next to the Mansion House, a large hotel on the corner of West and South Streets.  A New York Times article reported that “the flames spread rapidly, there being no adequate means of fighting them.”  The fire, which burned both down South Street and West Street from its origin, was extinguished only when it had burned all the flammable structures it could reach.

Ruins of the Mansion House.

Ruins of the Mansion House.  The Litchfield Historical Society.

Guests at the hotel were able to escape with their possessions, but the structure itself burned to the ground.  The Times aptly reported, “it is fortunate that the blaze did not occur during the height of the season, when it certainly would have been accompanied by serious loss of life.”

West Street ablaze, 1886.  The Litchfield Historical Society.

West Street ablaze, 1886. The Litchfield Historical Society.

The court house was also destroyed, although the county records were saved.  Thirty feet west of the court house stood a brick building.  Here the westward progress of the flames were halted. The town’s business district was described as “simply cleaned out.”  Estimates of the cost of the destruction ranged between $60,000 and $200,000, an amount that, adjusted for inflation, would be in the tens of millions of dollars today.

DSC_0234The town received an ultimatum that the court house be rebuilt, otherwise judicial proceedings would be moved to New Milford or Winsted.  A new court house was constructed at a cost of $13,000.  Tragically that court house was destoyed twenty-six months later when another fire swept the town; this one began on the lower end of West Street and burned up to the court house.  Town fathers immediately revoked all building permits for wooden structures and rebuilt the business district.  The Mansion House was replaced by the Phelps Block, built by merchant and real estate developer Eugene Phelps.  With five shops on the ground floor and an opera house on the top, it was the crown jewel of the rebuilt town.  The stone carved “Phelps Block 1887” still bears witness to the town’s recovery from the fires.