The Grave of Willis Carter

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The grave of Jeph Africa, a Revolutionary War veteran, in the East Cemetery.

In the southeast corner of Litchfield’s East Cemetery is a section of graves of African Americans who lived in the 19th century.  Several government-issued graves mark the final resting places of men who served in the 29th Connecticut Infantry, the state’s African American regiment.

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Less noticeable is a simple white grave, half buried.  Was it originally installed like this, or has it slowly sunk into the ground over the decades?  When the leaves are removed, the words jump out at the explorer:

WILLIS CARTER

BORN A SLAVE IN

TENNESSEE

A Civil War veteran’s marker stands next to Carter’s grave but no other immediate information is available.  Does his gravestone contain information about what unit he served in, when he was born, or when he died?  To find out would require disturbing the soil containing his remains.

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Some information is available in Census reports.  The 1870 census identifies Willis Carter as a Torrington resident, born in Tennessee around 1847. The 1880 census provides slightly more information.  We learn that Carter was then living in Litchfield, and was married to Ellen.  His birth year was then estimated to be 1848; both his parents were born in Tennessee.

The 29th Connecticut Infantry

The 29th Connecticut Infantry

Willis Carter’s name does not appear on the roster of men in the 29th Connecticut Infantry.  The records of this unit, however, are hardly definitive.  Still, it is perhaps more likely that he joined a unit of the United States Colored Troops forming in his native Tennessee, and found his way north after the war.  Either way, Willis Carter’s sunken gravestone provides testimony to a remarkable period in American history, when one born a slave in Tennessee became personally involved in a war that secured his freedom, and who afterward found himself living and working in a small New England town.


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West Cemetery’s Civil War Effigy Graves

IMG_3402Memorial Day is an appropriate time to reflect on the staggering statistic that forty percent of all Union dead in the Civil War were unidentified.  While this was a marked improvement from the Mexican War fifteen years earlier – in which 100% of the American dead were buried in unmarked graves – it nonetheless posed a particular problem for Americans.

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The Death of George Washington – a classic representation of the idea of the “good death.”

Death held a central place in the culture of Victorian America.  Society dictated that there was such a thing as a “good death,” in which the deceased expired in his own home, surrounded by loved ones.  To such a religious society, the dying individual was closer to God, and therefore his final words were dutifully recorded as being of great importance.

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A Civil War embalmer

The deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in the prime of their lives at great distances from their homes and families was therefore at variance with the notion of the “good death.”  While thousands of dollars were spent on embalming bodies to return them home for burial,  many families were left without even a place to mourn their fallen soldiers.

IMG_3403A solution was the effigy grave, a memorial stone for a victim whose body – because it was unidentifiable or for financial reasons – was unable to be returned home.  The Civil War graves grouped together in Litchfield’s West Cemetery (with a monument of a drum labeled “Mustered Out) are a good representation of these graves.

IMG_3405These men fought on some of the most famous battlefields of the Civil War.

IMG_3406Others suffered through unimaginable horrors in prisoner of war camps.

Perhaps these memorials gave some comfort to the families of these soldiers in the aftermath of the war.  One hundred and fifty years later, the stones continue to remind passersby of these soldiers’ service to our nation.