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.

 

 

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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: The Torrington Savings Bank

Alexander Hamilton (1755? to 1804), first United States Secretary of the Treasury

Alexander Hamilton’s envisioned an economic future for the United States in which the fledgling country would soon rival the great powers of Europe in industrial production. The introduction of factories to the new nation was dependent upon banks that could provide access to the money needed to fund such undertakings. The result was the Bank of the United States, which was chartered in 1791, and operated until its charter expired – and was not renewed – in 1811. Five years later the Second Bank of the United States was created by Congress and President James Madison. However, an extension of its charter was vetoed by Andrew Jackson in 1832, leading to the transfer of the Bank from federal to state control in 1836.

A political cartoon critical of Jackson’s 1832 veto of the charter of the Second Bank of the United States.

In the wake of the collapse of the Second Bank of the United States in 1836, banks across the country struggled with fraud, counterfeiting, and the lack of access to banks for many Americans. Banks were banned altogether in Wisconsin. In the states of the Northeast, where banking continued with few interruptions, industry thrived. This was not the case in other parts of the country. The National Banking Act of 1863 hoped to ensure consistent regulation of banks – and thus, consume confidence – across the country. This was especially important in the midst of the Civil War, as banks were the major purveyors of war bonds. With access to capital restored, American industry was poised to explode.

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This formed the backstory to the founding of the Torrington Savings Bank. Originally chartered as the Wolcottville Savings Bank in 1868, its first location was in the Granite Block, opposite today’s Warner Theatre. Francis Holley was the first president of the bank. In 1881, the bank changed its name to the Torrington Savings Bank. In 1938, the bank moved to its present headquarters, at the corner of Main Street and Mason Street, which had previously been the site of the George S. Weeks Grocery.

The Torrington Savings Bank, built 1938. Photo courtesy of Torrington Historical Society

The noted American architect Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) famously said that in architecture, “Form follows function.” This is evident in architect Carl Victor Johnson’s design, in which the sturdy brick and stone design is offset by colonial revival architecture, reminding passersby of the bank’s New England roots.

For more on the history of the Torrington Savings Bank building – and an excellent source for the history of Torrington – be sure to check out the Torrington Historical Society’s “Audio Walking Tour of Downtown Torrington.”

For more on the history of counterfeiting in Litchfield County, see my book, Wicked Litchfield County.

Litchfield County at Gettysburg

I’ve just returned from my annual trip to the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, which led me to think about Litchfield County’s role at the battle. Gettysburg was not Litchfield County’s battle; the majority of volunteers from the northwest hills served with the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery. Their day would come at the Battle of Cold Harbor, nearly a year after Gettysburg. Still, a glance at the casualty lists on Charles P. Hamblen’s Connecticut Yankees at Gettysburg reveals the sacrifices made by some residents of the county in the Civil War’s greatest battle.

Robert McCarrick of Lakeville was 19 when he left the state to serve the Union cause, enlisting as a private in the 20th New York State Militia (also known as the 80th New York  Infantry). He was captured by Confederates on July 1, 1863, the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. He returned to the Union army and served through 1864.

Allen Brady of Torrington served as the major of the 17th Connecticut, which was primarily a Fairfield County unit. When Lt. Colonel Fowler was killed on July 1, Brady assumed command of the regiment, which bravely repulse a Confederate assault on Cemetery Hill on July 2nd. In this action, Brady was wounded by a shell fragment and was discharged from the army for disability. He received an honorary promotion to colonel.  With Brady on Cemetery Hill was Private Daniel Hunt of Bethlehem. He was captured by Confederates on the morning of July 3rd. Paroled in August, he served through the rest of the war.

Charles Squires of Roxbury, a private in the 5th Connecticut Infantry, was captured in the fighitng on Culp’s Hill on July 2nd. He was paroled in August 1863, but was killed in fighting at the coincidentally-named Culp’s Farm in Georgia in 1864.

Nathan Abbott of Watertown, a sergeant in the 20th Connecticut, was wounded in the fighting on Culp’s Hill on July 3rd. He recovered from his wounds and was promoted to be an officer. He served through the remainder of the war, returning home in June 1865.

 

 

Litchfield County’s most famous Civil War soldier was John Sedgwick of Cornwall. A West Point graduate and a major general, Sedgwick commanded the Sixth Corps of the Union Army of the Potomac, at 18,000 men the largest corps in the army. He led his men on a famous 34-mile march to Gettysburg, arriving in time for some of his men to go into action on July 2nd and 3rd. Following the battle, Sedgwick was tasked with leading the pursuit of Robert E. Lee’s retreating Confederate army. Sedgwick was killed at the battle of Spotsylvania Court House in May 1864. He is buried in Cornwall, and monuments to his honor stand at West Point, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania, and in his hometown.

 

 

LHRR Series: The Sixth Mile: The West Cemetery

Microwave Mile (Courtesy of Janet Serra)

Entering the sixth mile of the Litchfield Hills Road Race, runners encounter what is known as the “Microwave Mile.” Here the shade of White Memorial forests is left behind, and in the open the sun of a hot June afternoon is brought fully to bear. The scene becomes more ominous to those runners who take note of the West Cemetery alongside the course.

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Here, some of the town’s earliest settlers were buried. Current burials continue in the adjacent Saint Anthony’s Cemetery (an annex is across the street). The historian, however, is drawn to effigy markers, gravestones without accompanying bodies. One of these is a memorial to Joseph Harris, the first original settler of the town to die. In 1723, Harris was killed by  a group of Native Americans while tending to his fields. Shot dead and scalped, his body was found by neighbors the next day, sitting on the ground with his head resting against a tree. This was in the area of town where Litchfield Ford now stands. That area became known as Harris Plains.

Harris’s burial location is no longer known, but in 1830, Litchfield residents erected a monument to their ancestor in the West Cemetery. It reads:

In Memory of Joseph Harris who was murdered by the Indians in the year 1721. While plowing in his Field in the vicinity of the Alms House, he was shot by the Indians concealed in Ambush. He was found dead Sitting on the Ground, his Head and Body reclining against the Trunk of a Tree. To record the first Death among the original Settlers of this Town & to perpetuate the Memory of a worthy but unfortunate Citizen this Monument is erected 1830 by the voluntary Benefactions of individual Subscribers

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Effigy graves in the West Cemetery

A second example of effigy graves is in the area of the cemetery reserved for Civil War veterans. Initially, this land was donated as a potters field for those soldiers who could not afford a grave plot. Over time, it became a place for families to erect markers to their sons and husbands whose bodies did not return home from the war. In Victorian America, the idea of a “good death,” in which the stricken died at home, in their bed, surrounded by loved ones, gave comfort in times of grief. The Civil War, with young men dying in brutal fashion in unfamiliar surroundings posed an obvious but serious threat to this notion. A solution was the effigy grave, a place on which where families could focus their grief and prayers.

For more information on the history of the Litchfield Hills Road Race, see Lou Pellegrino’s book A History of the Litchfield Hills Road Race: In Smallness there is Beauty (now available at the Litchfield Historical Society).

 

 

 

Litchfield Then and Now: The 150th Anniversary of the End of the Civil War

archarchmodernApril 9th, the anniversary of the Lee’s surrender to Grant, marks the culmination of the Civil War sesquicentennial. Litchfield County soldiers served with the 29th Connecticut Infantry, an African American unit that was the first Union regiment to enter the Confederate capital of Richmond, and the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery that pursued Lee’s army to the surrender at Appomattox Court House. While the war ended in the early spring, it was not until August 1865 that many of Litchfield County’s veterans returned home.  That month a great celebration in Litchfield honored returning veterans from the county. The village was decorated with enormous national flags while the smaller flags of a dozen army corps flew from the giant pole on the Green. A triumphal arch, made of papier-mâché, was erected on East Street, near where the Litchfield Historical Society now stands. It had the Sixth Corps flag in the center and two divisional flags on the side, commemorating the army units to which Litchfield’s soldiers belonged.  Below those flags were the names of the battles in which the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery fought.

The returning veterans – 300 to 400 strong – arrived in East Litchfield by rail, marched to the town, and paraded through the arch – soldiers on one side, civilians once again on the other.

Colonel Elisha Kellogg of the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery

Colonel Elisha Kellogg of the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery

The local newspaper reported that “The reception of the 19th in this town on Tuesday was a most gratifying success.”  Residents of neighboring towns began arriving in the early morning.  Reverend Richards gave a benediction, and Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Smith of Woodbury gave a welcoming speech:

I will not recount the list of your battles – they are known to all present – from that               first bloody day to the last unparalleled march of over 100 miles in 22 marching                   hours – ending in Lee’s surrender.  These things – memories to you – are glorious             wonders to us!  We look upon you with emotion!  With joy and gratitude, and bid                 you welcome!

Congressman Hubbard, who lived on South Street and was a favorite of Lincoln’s who referred to the representative as “Old Connecticut, also spoke:

Your hard fare, your toilsome marches and constant exposure to wounds                            and death have been crowned by the highest reward ever gained by men at                        arms.  The conspirators against a people’s government are in the dust and                          freedom is triumphant.

Major General John Sedgwick

Major General John Sedgwick

Thousands of people attended the festivities, which consisted of bands, food and drink, and performances.  An exhibit hall was set up with relics from the war, including the coat with the bullet hole that killed General John Sedgwick of Cornwall, captured swords, battlefield artifacts, paintings and photos of Henry Dutton (killed at Cedar Mountain, John Hubbard (the Congressman’s son), the three Wadhams brothers (killed at Fort Darling, the North Anna, and Cold Harbor), and Colonel Elisha Kellogg (killed at Cold Harbor).

At dark, an illumination allowed the festivities to continue until the lights went out at 10 p.m., when the crowd dispersed.

Hidden Nearby: New Milford’s Underground Railroad Monument

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Two leading figures of the abolitionist movement, John Brown and Harriet Beecher Stowe, were natives of Litchfield County. As such, they would likely have been pleased by the county’s role in the Underground Railroad.  While much of the history of this secret route by which fugitive slaves were ushered to Canada is clouded in myth and legend, there is substantial documentation for a route that passed from the coast to Waterbury, then to New Milford, Washington, Torrington, Winchester and Winsted before crossing into Massachusetts.

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New Milford’s Quaker Meetinghouse, at 300 Danbury Road (Rt. 7).

Quakers took the lead in operations in New Milford, and the Old Friends’ Meetinghouse, which still stands on Route 7 south of town, was a prominent center of activity. Two Centuries of New Milford, an early 20th century history, documented the role of other locations in town in the Underground Railroad:

In the later days of slavery in the South there were several stations of the Underground      Railroad in this vicinity. Mr. Charles Sabin’s house in Lanesville was one, and the                house of Mr. Augustine Thayer on Grove Street in this village was another. Mr. Thayer      and his good wife devoted their lives to the Abolition cause. They helped many poor            slaves on their way, rising from their beds in the night to feed and minister to them, and      secreting them till they could be taken under cover of darkness to Deacon Gerardus          Roberts’ house on Second Hill, from there to Mr. Daniel Platt’s in Washington, and so        on, by short stages, all the way until the Canadian border was reached.

A second prominent stop in Washington was at the home of Frederick Gunn, who established the Gunnery School in 1849.

As fugitive slaves reached Torrington, they likely sought refuge at the home of Isaiah Tuttle and his son, Uriel, who lived in the Torringford section of town. Uriel was president of the Litchfield County and the Connecticut Anti-Slavery Societies. Of his anti-slavery activities, Deacon Thomas Miller wrote, “His efforts and undying zeal in the cause of emancipation are too well known to the public in this state to need a delineation… His house was literally a place of refuge for the panting fugitive, and his purse and team were often employed to help him forward to a place of safety.”

Isaiah Tuttle House, on Torringford Street, Torrington. Courtesy of Connecticut Freedom Trail

Isaiah Tuttle House, on Torringford Street, Torrington. Courtesy of Connecticut Freedom Trail

Other reported stops on the Underground Railroad include the home of Joshua Bird, a deacon at the Bethlehem Congregational Church who lived on the town Green. Henry Terry, grandson of the clockmaker, lived on North Street in Plymouth. An ardent abolitionist, he allegedly had tunnels running from his cellar to an outbuilding to whisk slaves to safety. The presence of tunnels like these fed Southern fears about Northern complicity in helping slaves escape, and the belief that the election of Lincoln in 1860 would lead to legalization of the Underground Railroad were major factors in the decision of southern states to secede from the Union in the winter of 1860-61. Interestingly, when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued almost two years into the war, the number of fugitive slaves making their way to the north dropped precipitously, as they only needed to reach Union lines, not Canada, to achieve freedom.

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Looking to commemorate her town’s role in the Underground Railroad, New Milford resident Frances Smith conceived the idea of a monument at the head of the town green, in the shadow of the Civil War monument. Sculptor Ray Crawford provided the design, which depicts a broken chain, symbolizing the end of slavery. The monument was dedicated on November 17, 2013.