Hidden Nearby: John Brown’s Pikes

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John Brown

Few natives of Litchfield County are as closely associated with the Civil War as John Brown. Born in Torrington in 1800, Brown became achieved national notoriety for his actions during the Bloody Kansas crisis of the mid-1850s. This precursor to the Civil War pitted abolitionists and pro-slavery advocates against each other in a violent struggle to determine whether that territory would be admitted to the Union as a free or slave state. In the course of the conflict, Brown and his sons massacred five pro-slavery residents of Pottawattamie in 1856, and he commanded abolitionist forces at the battles of Black Jack and Osawatomie.

The Collinsville train station in an old postcard. The station is now the Crown & Hammer Restaurant & Pub, the crown and hammer being the symbols of the Collins Axe Company. (Photo courtesy of Jason Phillips)

In 1857, Brown used his new-found fame to launch a speaking tour of New England states, raising money to fund his abolitionist crusade in Kansas. While speaking in Collinsville, Connecticut, in 1857 Brown met Charles Blair, a forgemaster at that town’s Collins and Company, a manufacturer of iron products. Brown showed Blair a Bowie knife captured from a pro-slavery leader at the Battle of Black Jack, and asked what it would cost to replicate the knife, produce 1,000, and attach them to six-foot poles. Brown explained that the weapon would allow anti-slavery Kansas to protect themselves and their property from their pro-slavery neighbors. Brown, however, had another purpose. Well acquainted with military history, Brown knew that pikes were the weapon that was associated with the overthrow of the aristocracy. Could 1,000 pikes in the hands of anti-slavery forces in Kansas end the aristocracy of the slaveholding South?

Part of the Collins and Company complex, along the Farmington River Rail Trail in Collinsville

Blair was skeptical of Brown and his potential uses of the pikes and threw out what he thought was an astronomical number: a dollar a pike. Brown didn’t blink and ordered them on the spot. He would pay in installments. Brown made but two requests, that added to his intrigue: use the handles of common hoes for the pikes, and ship the handles separately from the blades.

This all seemed for naught when the Panic of 1857 hit and Brown’s fundraising tour dried up. Blair, who had made approximately 500 of the pikes, stopped production, fully expecting to never hear from Brown again.

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Gerrit Smith, one of the Secret Six. Charles Blair would later testify that some of the money Brown used to pay for the pikes came from a check from Smith.

Brown, however, was nothing if not determined. He turned to private sources of funding:  his famed “Secret Six,” the wealthy abolitionists Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Samuel Gridley Howe, Theodore Parker, Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, Gerrit Smith, and George Luther Stearns. Flush with cash from his wealthy benefactors, Brown, in 1859, unexpectedly appeared in Blair’s shop to pay for the pikes. Blair’s level of suspicion was increased, however, as the Kansas crisis had been settled. What would the pikes be used for, he queried Brown. Brown dodged the question by simply replying that the pikes might be useful to him if they were finished. He further added to the mystery by asking for the pikes to be shipped to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Blair carried out the order, crafting 954 pikes, each approximately 10 inches long with a double-edged blade, connected to an ash handle by a single screw.

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John Brown’s Pike #630, courtesy of Kansas Historical Society

From Chambersburg, friends of Brown secretly forwarded the pikes to the Kennedy Farm in rural Maryland, outside Harpers Ferry, Virginia (today West Virginia), site of a large government arsenal and armory. They would be central to Brown’s plan to raid that town as the first step in instigating a nationwide slave revolt. “Give a slave a pike,” Brown said, “and you make him a man.” Brown entrusted former slave Osborne Anderson with the task of distributing the pikes to those slaves who joined the revolt. When, on October 17, 1859, Brown and his supporters raided Harpers Ferry, between 25 and 50 slaves joined them. The pikes were used to guard hostages, in some cases, the masters of the revolting slaves.

The raid, of course, was doomed to failure, and Brown and his men were surrounded the next morning by United States Marines led by Colonel Robert E. Lee. With the uprising put down and Brown in captivity, Lee assigned cavalryman J.E.B. Stuart, another future prominent Confederate general the task of rounding up Brown’s materiel. At the Kennedy House, Stuart found maps, supplies, and hundreds of pikes, enough to equip a small army. A large group of souvenir hunters quickly appeared, and Stuart allowed each to take fifty pikes. These became hot items, some were cut into smaller pieces to serve as relics, and full pikes were sold at the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad station in Harpers Ferry.

 Charles Blair

Ultimately, the pikes became prized relics of both pro- and anti-slavery leaders. Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison considered one of the pikes to be one of his prized possessions. Ardent secessionist Edmund Ruffin sent a pike to each governor of a slave state to be displayed in their capitol building, a constant reminder of the threat to slavery posed by the North. And what of Blair, the Collinsville ironmaster who, perhaps, unwittingly had made it possible for Brown to arm an army of slaves? He was called before a committee of the United States Senate in 1860 to testify about what he knew about Brown’s plans, then returned to Collinsville, where he lived until his death in 1893.

For an excellent discussion of John Brown’s pikes, see this lecture by Professor Jason Phillips of West Virginia University.

 

 

Hidden Nearby: Tory’s Cave and the Other Side of the Fourth of July

Tory’s Cave in New Milford

The Fourth of July brings to mind a famous statement by John Adams, in writing to his wife Abigail about the adoption of the Declaration of Independence: “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” (That Adams was talking about July 2nd is a fun fact, but not important to our story.)

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John Adams

Another Adams observation is relevant as well. Adams is often quoted as saying that in the American Revolution, one-third of Americans were patriots, one-third were lukewarm to revolution, and one-third continued to support the king. This is a misquote; Adams was referring to hostilities that arose between Britain and France during his presidency. This does not, however, change the fact that substantial numbers of Americans were hostile to the cause of independence.

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A Revolutionary-era propaganda print depicting a tar and feathering, in this case over opposition to the Tea Act.

One study has estimated that 6% of Connecticut’s population were Loyalists (also known as Tories). These were concentrated in the western part of the state. Litchfield County’s Tories continued to support the king largely for religious reasons; for example, St. Michael’s Church (now Episcopal but during the war part of the King’s Church of England) repeatedly had its windows broken out of contempt for its Loyalist members. Occasionally, hostile feelings toward Litchfield County’s Loyalists turned violent. Parts of Harwinton and Plymouth were hotbeds for Toryism, and one Plymouth Tory was “hung up till almost dead” on the town green. New Milford, which still contains the topographical feature called Tory’s Cave, witnessed the sentencing of a Loyalist to having to carry a goose to Litchfield for his own tar and feathering.

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William Franklin, loyalist governor of New Jersey

The town of Litchfield, relatively safe from British incursions, was used to jail prominent Loyalists, including New Jersey governor William Franklin (son of the decidedly anti-Loyalist Benjamin) and David Matthews, mayor of New York City. Ultimately, most of Litchfield County’s Loyalists abandoned their property and fled to Canada. While our celebrations of the Fourth of July continue to make Adams’s prophecy about “bonfires and illuminations” come true, it is important to remember that American independence was neither guaranteed nor unanimously supported.

John H. Large and the Philippine-American War

John Hay, Secretary of State under William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, famously called the Spanish-American War a “splendid little war.” And since the war lasted barely three months, and an American empire was established at the cost of fewer than 500 killed, many at the time agreed with his description. However, within months of the Treaty of Paris, the United States was at war again, this time with the Philippine forces that had been their allies against Spain.

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American troops outside of Manila, 1898.

For the Filipinos, this action (referred to as the Philippine-American War, the Filipino Insurrection or sometimes the War of 1900) was a continuation of their quest for independence that began with an 1896 revolt against Spain. The Americans, however, treated it as an insurrection against their newly-established colonial rule. Serious fighting broke out with the February 4, 1899, Battle of Manila. Much of the fighting was done by irregular Filipino forces, fighting a guerilla war against the Americans. This led to often savage attacks and reprisals by both sides. For example, A. A. Barnes wrote the following home to his brother in 1899: “Last night one of our boys was found shot
and his stomach cut open. Immediately orders were received from Gen. Wheaton to burn the town and kill every native in sight, which was done to a finish. About 1,000 men, women, and children were reported killed.”

Over the three years of the conflict, more than 126,000 American servicemen would serve in the Philippines, with a field army of between 25,000 and 45,000 at all times. Filipino forces numbered between 80,000 and 100,000, divided between regular and guerilla units. The casualty lists were striking, especially in the wake of the Spanish-American War’s relatively minor losses. Over 1,000,000 Filipinos died, most of famine and cholera brought on by the war. Military losses among the Filipino forces numbered approximately 15,000. Approximately 5,000 Americans died in the Philippines, more than ten times the number who perished in the Spanish-American War, making the Filipino Insurrection truly the “forgotten war.”

Among those who died in the Philippines was John H. Large of Litchfield, who served with the Fifth United States Infantry. The Fifth United States saw distinguished service in the Civil War and in the Indian Wars, in which 42 of its members won the Medal of Honor. Befitting a forgotten war, little is known about Large’s (or his regiment’s) service. He died on September 5, 1902, two months after the official end of the insurrection. Guerilla fighting, however, continued on until 1915. Large is buried in Litchfield’s East Cemetery.

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

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”