This monument in Terryville’s Baldwin Park offers testimony to one of the great episodes in Litchfield County’s Civil War history.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.