Hidden Nearby: New Milford Public Library’s Memorial Hall

2013-11-29 12.46.47New Milford’s first library was established in 1796.  Housed in the homes of five different “public spirited citizens” it was ironically known as the Union Library.  The library was open only five days a year, and consisted of 350 books.  A century later, the New Milford Library Association was founded and the collection was relocated to the town hall.

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In 1893, the General Assembly of Connecticut passed a bill “authorizing the Town of New Milford to erect a library building and memorial hall,” honoring the 267 soldiers and sailors from New Milford who served in the Civil War. The legislation further specified that the structure was “also to contain the tablets, emblems, and inscriptions commemorative of those soldiers who enlisted from said New Milford, and for meetings of the Grand Army and for other literary, patriotic, and historical purposes such as the town may prescribe.”

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The “Grand Army” was the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization comprised of veterans of the Union Army.  Founded in Decatur, Illinois in 1866, the GAR became among the first – and arguably one of the most successful – lobbying organizations.  At its peak it consisted of 490,000 Civil War veterans.  The GAR supported voting rights for African American veterans, furthered the careers of Republican politicians, and pushed for Congress to establish veterans pensions. (The GAR was so successful in this last endeavor that as of 2013, one pension is still being paid – $876 a year to the daughter of a Civil War veteran born around 1930!)

General Emory Upton, for whom New Milford's GAR post was named.

General Emory Upton, for whom New Milford’s GAR post was named.

Egbert Marsh, a prominent citizen, offered the town a lot on Main Street and $10,000 toward the construction of a new building, with individuals contributing the balance. Marsh donated additional money to purchase books for the collection. The library building was erected in 1897.  The reading room opened in January 1898, and the circulation of books began two months later. The second story of the building served sat the headquarters of the GAR’s Upton Post, which was organized in 1882 with 26 charter members.

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Egbert Marsh’s grave, Center Cemetery, New Milford

Egbert Marsh died in 1896 and never saw the completed structure.  The second story of the library, devoted to public lectures and meetings, is still called Memorial Hall, however, and its walls are decorated with prominent images and documents from the Civil War.

Hidden Nearby: John Sedgwick’s Grave and Monumenthttp://youtu.be/PVDBNIzGi6ghttp://youtu.be/PVDBNIzGi6gPVDBNIzGi6ghttp://youtu.be/PVDBNIzGi6g

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Author’s note:  See a related video about Litchfield and the Civil War done in cooperation with litchfield.bz here:   http://youtu.be/PVDBNlzGi6g

Along Route 43 in Cornwall Hollow lies the grave of one of the highest-ranking Union generals killed 150 years ago in the Civil War, Major General John Sedgwick.

The battles of the Mexican War in which John Sedgwick participated, from the monument in Cornwall Hollow.

The battles of the Mexican War in which John Sedgwick participated, from the monument in Cornwall Hollow.

Sedgwick was born in Cornwall Hollow on September 13, 1813. From a military family, he enrolled at the United States Military Academy after attending Sharon’s one-room schoolhouse. Graduating from West Point in 1837 he fought in the Seminole War and the Mexican War. While serving on the Kansas plains in the 1850s he received word that his family’s Cornwall Hollow home had been destroyed in a fire. He took leave from the army to build the house that still stands near his grave.

Major General John Sedgwick

Major General John Sedgwick

Sedgwick’s star rose rapidly after the firing on Fort Sumter. He was commissioned a brigadier general, then was promoted to command a division and ultimately the Sixth Corps of the Army of the Potomac. He was beloved by his men, who called him “Uncle John.” One of his soldiers described him as “an old bachelor with oddities, an addiction to practical jokes and endless games of solitaire.” He fought at some of the war’s most famous battles: Antietam (where he was wounded three times), Chancellorsville, Gettysburg.

"The Death of General Sedgwick, Spotsylvania, May 9, 1864" by Julian Scott.

“The Death of General Sedgwick, Spotsylvania, May 9, 1864” by Julian Scott.

Commanding his corps at Spotsylvania Court House on May 9, 1864, Sedgwick was surprised to see his men dodging the fire of a distant sharpshooter. “What, what!” he proclaimed. “Men dodging this way for a single bullet? What will you do when they open fire along the whole line. I am ashamed of you.” Laughing, Sedgwick announced, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Almost instantly a bullet struck “Uncle John” just under the left eye. His lifeless body fell into the arms of his chief of staff.

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Sedgwick’s body was taken to Washington, DC, where a military procession was held. Another procession was held in New York City. More than 2,000 people turned out for the Cornwall Hollow funeral. In 1892, the Grand Army of the Republic marked the grave with an obelisk bearing the Greek Cross, symbol of Sedgwick’s beloved Sixth Corps. In 1900, Mr. and Mrs. Carl Stoeckel, friends of the general’s sister, erected the monument across the street, which bears the names of the Mexican and Civil War battles in which the general fought, and the inscription “the fittest place where man can die is where man fights for man.”

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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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.

Northfield’s Civil War Monument

northfield monumentIn the center of Northfield’s small triangular green sits the borough’s Civil War monument.  While notable for the beautiful flame finial at its top, what really makes this monument remarkable is the story of its origin.

names 2Looking to memorialize the men from Northfield who died during the war, a committee was chosen from a public meeting held at Northfield’s center schoolhouse on January 16, 1866.

names 3This was only nine months after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, making this one of the oldest Civil War monuments in the country.

flame finialThe site was chosen because it the Episcopal church had recently moved.  Nelson Bolles of Marbledale executed a design for a brownstone obelisk, and a team of thirteen oxen driven by Northfield resident Joel Thorpe brought the monument to Northfield.  Julius Grover, a sculptor whose niece lived in Northfield, carved the remarkable flame finial, which perhaps serves as an eternal flame, reminding future generations of the sacrifices of Northfield’s men in the Civil War.

lincolnThe names of the dead are carved on three sides of the monument, and are joined by the name “LINCOLN”, whose assassination was still fresh in people’s minds.  Also carved on the monument are the words “That the generations to come might know them,” taken from Psalm 78.

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The men listed on the Northfield monument are:
Morton Castle, died of wounds received at the Battle of Antietam
Charles Castle, died in a Virginia hospital
Horace Hubbard, killed at Winchester
Hiram Cooley, killed at Winchester
David Wooster, killed at Fisher’s Hill
Walter Hale, killed at Chancellorsville
Joseph Camp, killed at Cold Harbor
Henry Miner, died in a Virginia hospital
Apollos Morse, killed at Cold Harbor

flame finialWhile the committee hoped the monument would be in place by July 4th, 1866 (the nation’s 90th birthday), delays postponed the dedication until September.    Still, Northfield’s monument was dedicated eight years before Litchfield’s Civil War monument, and twenty years ahead of the nationwide movement to memorialize its Civil War dead.

(NOTE:  The Civil War monument in Berlin, Connecticut, erected in July 1863, is believed to be the oldest in the country.  See The Hartford Courant, March 24, 2013.)

Hidden Nearby: John Brown’s Torrington Birthplace

These ruins are all that remain of the birthplace of one of the transformative figures in American history, John Brown.  The house was built in 1785 and was purchased by Brown’s father, Owen Brown, in 1799.

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John Brown in 1856

John Brown was named for his grandfather, who died when Owen Brown – one of eleven children – was five.  With the family in dire financial straits, Owen was sent to live with various relatives and friends; ultimately, Owen Brown was sent to work at a young age.  He was trained as a cobbler and worked farming local fields in the summer and making shoes over the winter.

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John Brown’s birthplace, in a colorized postcard.

As a teenager he met and married Ruth Mills.  Their first child died before turning two.  They soon after moved to this saltbox-style home in the rocky countryside of Litchfield County.  Here, on May 9th, 1800, John Brown was born.   Of the child’s birth, Owen wrote that there was “nothing very uncommon.”

It doesn’t require too much imagination to speculate that Brown received his military spirit from his namesake grandfather, a Revolutionary War officer.  His religious fervor was likely acquired from his maternal grandfather, a preacher.  The combination of these inherited traits would set Brown on the path to his raid on Harper’s Ferry.

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Connecticut’s Western Reserve

 The Browns left the rocky soil of Connecticut for the more fertile fields of Ohio when John was five.  The Browns were joined in this migration to Ohio by thousands of other families.  Known as Connecticut’s Western Reserve – or even New Connecticut – much of the land of Northeastern Ohio was owned by the Connecticut Land Company.  So many Connecticut residents moved to Ohio that the Hartford Courant published an article wondering who would care for the cemeteries of Litchfield County when all the residents had left.  The Browns would have been familiar with the names of many of the places in their new home state – nearby were Litchfield and Kent, Ohio.  The Browns settled in the small community of Hudson.

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The James Morris School, site of the Morris Academy. Sounds like a future post!

Even with the move, success continued to elude the Browns.  Owen opened a tannery in Ohio, which prospered for a time.  He thrived enough to send Brown back to Connecticut to be educated – at the Morris Academy, in Litchfield.  He hoped to be a Congregational minister, but money ran out and he returned to Ohio and the family tannery.  Here he developed his abolitionist ideals.

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“John Brown’s Fort” in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia

 John Brown would move often in his life, and often struggled financially.  By the 1850s, his abolitionist ideals became militant and he gained notoriety for his actions in “Bleeding Kansas.”  On October 16, 1859, Brown led 18 men in an attack on the federal arsenal and armory in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (today West Virginia).  In Brown’s mind, this was the opening action of a campaign to free the nation’s slaves and create an independent slave republic.  Two days later, U.S. Marines under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee stormed the town’s engine house, which Brown had commandeered as a fort.  Most of Brown’s men were killed or captured.  Brown was wounded in the assault, captured, tried for treason and convicted.  On December 2, 1859, Brown was executed in Charles Town, Virginia (today West Virginia).

His birthplace, meanwhile, was restored in 1901 and opened as a historic house museum, one of the first in Connecticut.  In 1918, however, the house was destroyed by fire.  Still, the forest has been kept from swallowing up the ruins, and in 1932 a granite monument was erected.  In 1997 the site became a part of the Connecticut African American Freedom Trail, and in 2000 the site was acquired by the Torrington Historical Society.

Plans are in the works to improve the visitor experience at the site and to construct interpretive trails on the property.  While these seem to be appropriate actions to commemorate the birthplace of the man whom Herman Melville called the “meteor” of the Civil War, it is certainly a challenge to present the story of a man whom some consider a martyr for a great moral crusade and others a terrorist.

One Hundred Fifty Years Ago This Month …

Marker identifying the location of the recruiting tent for the 19th Connecticut Infantry on the Litchfield Green.

On April 15, 1861 – within days of learning of the Confederate firing on Fort Sumter – President Abraham Lincoln issued issued a call for 75,000 volunteers to serve for 90 days in order to put down the rebellion.  Much has been made of this as evidence that Lincoln perhaps had his head in the sand or was ignorant about the realities of the manpower needed to win the Civil War; however, under the existing Militia Act, the 75,000 men were all that Lincoln was legally allowed to call out.  Regardless of the technicalities of the law, Northern enlistment offices were overrun by volunteers – in fact, some men were actually sent home.

The battles at Bull Run, Shiloh, and on the Virginia peninsula made it clear that significantly more Union troops would be necessary to vanquish the Confederacy.  Therefore, in July 1862, Lincoln issued a call for 300,000 additional volunteers to serve for three years.


Lincoln’s call inspired James Sloan Gibbons to write the war hymn, “We are Coming, Father Abraham”:

We are coming, Father Abraham, 300,000 more

From Mississippi’s winding stream and from New England’s shore.

We leave our plows and workshops, our wives and children dear,

With hearts too full for utterance, with but a silent tear,

We dare not look behind us but steadfastly before.

We are coming, Father Abraham, 300,000 more!

 

We are coming, we are coming, our Union to restore,

We are coming Father Abraham, 300,000 more!

As patriotic songs alone did not ensure the volunteers the Union army needed, the Lincoln Administration assigned each state a quota for the number of volunteers to be raised.   Connecticut was thus required to raise 7,153 men for the Union cause.  The state in turn assigned quotas to each town based upon population and number of men already in the service; if these quotas weren’t met, a state draft would follow.  Based upon the calculations, Litchfield needed to raise 48 men in August 1862.

A “grand convention” of citizens from all over Litchfield County met on July 22nd at the Litchfield court house to discuss how to best meet the quotas, at which it was decided to raise a County Regiment comprised of volunteers from across Litchfield County.  Leverett Wessels, “one of the best and most popular men of the county”, was selected to be the colonel of the regiment.  The convention also recommended that each town offer its volunteers a bounty of $100 for enlisting, a sizeable increase over the $7 bounty that 1861 volunteers received! A town meeting in Litchfield ratified this recommendation on July 25th, and it was reported that “the utmost enthusiasm and good feeling prevailed.”  (All told, the town of Litchfield would award more than $50,000 in bounties over the course of the war; a dollar in 1860 would be worth more than $25 today. And these bounties were in addition to bounties offered by the state and federal governments.)

A recruiting tent in New York’s City Hall Park.

Almost immediately, a recruiting tent appeared on the Litchfield green, with A. B. Shumway supervising the operation from an office at the Litchfield Enquirer.  By July 25th, Shumway could state that he had “already enlisted several men, and expects to enlist many more before the regiment goes into camp.”  The newspaper reported on August 7th that “Litchfield will fill up its quota during this week.  The work goes bravely on, and the Regiment will be full, we trust, before the 20th of August.”  Another article stated that “recruiting is going on briskly in Litchfield.  Our people are becoming aroused to the true appreciation of their duty in these times.  The prospect of an early draft creates excitement.  (Draftees received no bonus)  We shall take our full town quota in the regiment into camp as soon as it is formed.”  The paper went a step further, predicting that Litchfield and Goshen alone would fill an entire company of 100 men.

The enlistees from Litchfield and across the county reported to Camp Dutton on Litchfield’s Chestnut Hill (a site that will be explored in a later post).  Whether its citizens were motivated by patriotism, financial incentive, or fear of being drafted, Litchfield exceeded its quota, sending nearly 70 men off to war in the summer of 1862, nearly all of them in the 19th Connecticut Infantry, which would gain fame on fields including Cold Harbor as the Second Connecticut Heavy Artillery.

Questions remain about this marker.  It appears that at one time something was attached to the top of this marker.  What was it?  When was this marker erected?  Who put it up – the Village Improvement Society?  The 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery Veterans’ Association?  More research is needed/  Stay tuned!