Hidden Nearby: The Birthplace of General Benjamin Foulois

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Benjamin “Benny” Foulois, a pioneer of aviation in the American military, was born on December 9, 1879, in the white building on Route 47 in Washington Depot that once housed the Washington Pharmacy. (The building is across Route 47 from The Hickory Stick Bookshop.) His mother was a nurse and his father a pipe fitter who had emigrated from France. At eighteen he enlisted in the army to serve in the Spanish-American War, serving in Puerto Rico, and spent time with American occupation forces in Cuba and the Philippines.

Foulois and Orville Wright

Foulois and Orville Wright

While in the Philippines, Foulois was assigned to the Engineering Corps, where he was tasked with creating maps of the area. This led to an assignment at the army’s Signal School and an expertise in the use of dirigibles in reconnaissance. From this vantage point he predicted that airplanes would soon become the military’s main source of intelligence, a prediction which resulted in Foulois being appointed to the army’s aeronautical board. In this capacity, he was charged with evaluating aircraft for potential purchase by the army. He earned a spot in the record books by serving as the navigator for Orville Wright on a July 30, 1909, flight from Fort Myer, Virginia to Alexandria, which achieved unprecedented average speed (42.5 miles per hour), altitude (400 feet) and distance cross country (10 miles). The army soon after purchased the Wright Model A Military Flyer.

Foulois in the cockpit.

Foulois in the cockpit.

Between 1911 and 1916, Foulois served in Texas, assisting General John Pershing in his operations against the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. In March 1911, Foulois and a flying partner accidentally shut off an engine, and their plane crashed into the Rio Grande. They both escaped without injury. During these operations, Foulois became the first man to conduct military intelligence operations from a plane, and the first to do so over a foreign country.

Foulois (left) with General John J. Pershing, commander of American forces in World War I.

Foulois (left) with General John J. Pershing, commander of American forces in World War I.

Foulois essentially built the American air corps for World War I. With a French request for 4,500 pilots and 12,000 combat planes, Foulois oversaw the production, maintenance, organization and operations of aeronautical personnel and equipment in the United States. He ultimately oversaw a budget of $640 million and was promoted to Brigadier General. After the armistice, Foulois drafted the air clauses of the Treaty of Versailles.

Sent to Germany after the war, Foulois found himself frequently discussing the potentials of air power with Hermann Goering, future commander of the Nazi Luftwaffe. Goering invited Foulois to join top German aeronautical organizations, and Foulois took advantage of this to gather enormous amounts of intelligence, which he sent back to the American government. He eventually sounded warnings about German capabilities and intent.

Foulois in 1962

Foulois in 1962

In 1931, Foulois was promoted to Major General and named Chief of the Air Corps by Herbert Hoover, and he put into place the development of new aircraft that would eventually include the B-17 and B-24 bombers, which became the workhorses of American forces in World War II. A clash with army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur led to Foulois’s retirement in 1934. He offered to return to the skies for World War II if offered a combat command, but when none came he spent the war directing civil defense operations in New Jersey. In 1963, Foulois appeared on the popular television show I’ve Got a Secret, with the secret that he had once been the entire United States Air Force. He died in 1967, and is buried in his native Washington.

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East Cemetery: The Grave of Jeph Africa

Rev. Judah Champion (Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society)

Rev. Judah Champion (Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society)

Judah Champion was minister of Litchfield’s Congregational Church from 1753 to 1798. This was a prominent position, one that came with a commensurate salary. For Champion, moving to Litchfield came with a 2,000 pound bonus, an 800 pound salary, and 20 acres of land. Alain White, in his history of Litchfield, describes how only the most prominent of Litchfield were in a financial position to own slaves. This clearly included Champion who owned several slaves, including Samson, Kate, and Jeph.

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Jeph’s grave in the East Cemetery indicates he was a Revolutionary War veteran, but his name does not appear in the Roll of Honor of Litchfield County Revolutionary Soldiers. Jeph’s grave is interesting at several levels. It is an impressive stone, inscribed “Here lies the body of Jeph Africa servant of the Rev. Judah Champion, who died June the 5th 1793.” The text as well as the magnitude of the headstone suggest that it was paid for by the Champion family.

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Also interesting is the carving at the top of the stone. The modern explorer might associate it with a pinwheel, but pinwheels didn’t appear until the next century. The whirligig was a medieval predecessor of the pinwheel, but it seems unlikely that a toy would be carved on to an 18th century gravestone. Is it perhaps a representation of the rising sun, which carries both religious connotation and harkens to the continent of Africa? Or could it be a wheel, representative of divine power, prominently featured in Ezekiel 1: “Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures, with his four faces.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne

The grave is also notable as the inspiration for an 1838 writing of Nathaniel Hawthorne. In his American Notebooks, the author shared his observations of Litchfield, which include his reflections on Africa’s grave (although he incorrectly cites it as the grave of Julia Africa):

“In Connecticut, and also sometimes in Berkshire, the villages
are situated on the most elevated ground that can be found, so that
they are visible for miles around. Litchfield is a remarkable instance,
occupying a high plain, without the least shelter from the winds,
and with almost as wide an expanse of view as from a mountain-
top. The streets are very wide, two or three hundred feet, at
least, with wide, green margins, and sometimes there is a wide
green space between the two road tracks. Nothing can be neater
than the churches and houses. The graveyard is on the slope, and at
the foot of a swell, filled with old and new gravestones, some of
red freestone, some of grey granite, most of them of white marble,
and one of cast-iron with an inscription of raised letters. There
was one of the date of about 1776, on which was represented the
third-length, bas-relief portrait of a gentleman in a wig and other
costume of that day; and as a framework about this portrait was
wreathed a garland of vine-leaves and heavy clusters of grapes.
The deceased should have been a jolly bottleman; but the epitaph
indicated nothing of the kind.

“In a remote part of the graveyard, remote from the main body
of dead people, I noticed a humble, mossy stone, on which I traced
out ‘To the memory of Julia Africa, servant of Rev.’ somebody.
There were also the half obliterated traces of other graves, without
any monuments, in the vicinity of this one. Doubtless the slaves
here mingled their dark clay with the earth.”