STONINGTON'S FORGOTTEN HEROES OF 1861-1865
More than four hundred men went to fight in the Civil War;
one in five died
By James Boylan
(From Historical Footnotes, August 1999)
An earlier version of this article was delivered as part of the lecture series devoted to Stonington's 350th anniversary. The author is a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
If we look back over Stonington's wars of three and a half centuries--and there are at least a dozen, including one, the Pequot War, fought before there was a town of Stonington--what they most have in common is that they were fought mostly by amateurs, by short-timers. These were men who left the farm, shop, factory, or school and placed themselves "between their loved homes and the war's desolation"--those the eloquent words of the third verse of "The Star Spangled Banner."
Oddly, the Civil War, despite its crucial significance and its great costs to the town and the nation, has been almost left out of Stonington history. There is a Mystic memorial, rededicated in 1998. There is a little-known Stonington monument in the Evergreen (Stonington) cemetery, a granite block erected by the Women's Relief Corps--the auxiliary of the old Grand Army of the Republic veterans organization--in 1923.
Although there are nearly three hundred veterans' graves in our burial grounds, as far as I have been able to tell nobody has ever written about the Stonington veterans of the Civil War--certainly nothing on the scale of the fine account by Cindy Anderson Holman of the volunteers of North Stonington,Milltown Militia.
The Civil War has received only a fraction of the attention given by Stoningtonians to the War of 1812? Of course, the Civil War did not produce a Battle of Stonington, but it was fought on American ground, and was the bloodiest in America's history. It was also Stonington's bloodiest.
Nearly four hundred men, nine tenths of them volunteers, signed up from a town of, I estimate, only fifteen hundred households. Many served three-year enlistments and then, finding that the war was still going on, signed up again for the duration. Not only the young, but mature men leaving behind wives and children. Brothers, and even possibly even fathers and sons, enlisted.
What could have led so many to place themselves in harm's way, to fight against men who, until 1861, been their compatriots? Part of it was excitement; part of it was peer pressure. But as James McPherson makes clear in his new book, For Cause & Comrades, in which he scans twenty-five thousand letters home from soldiers of both sides, those who volunteered to fight on the Union side in the Civil War did so out of a sense of deep responsibility: "What really counted," McPherson writes, "were not social institutions, but one's own virtue, will, convictions of duty and honor, religious faith--in a word, one's character." These volunteers believed that they were fighting to save their nation, their heritage, the future of generations. The language was not always genteel, but the convictions came through clearly.
To my knowledge, Stonington produced no generals, but it provided officers up to the rank of colonel, dozens of non-commissioned officers, and hundreds of privates. Because the units formed at the start of the war came from individual counties and towns, a majority of the Stonington men were concentrated in three small units, individual companies in three different regiments.
The experience of these three companies was, I would guess, fairly typical of what happened to Connecticut volunteer units. Those who entered the service from Stonington had better than one chance in five being killed in action or dying from wounds, disease, or starvation, I should add, if one was taken prisoner. Many more were permanently disabled; still more had wounds from which they recovered.
Let me tell you a little about what happened with each of these companies, for each had its distinct experiences and together they give a capsulized view of the war:
The first to enter the ranks was Company G of the Eighth Regiment, Connecticut Volunteers Infantry. In response to President Lincoln's call to the states, the regiment was one of those organized in Hartford in the fall of 1861, a few months after the war began with the firing on Fort Sumter. The company initially had nearly eighty men from Stonington, under the command of Captain Hiram Appelman of Stonington, and with Stonington lieutenants Thomas Sheffield, Henry Morgan, and Andrew Morgan. Whether they elected these officers, as was the practice early in the war, I do not know. Nor do I know whether any of them, officers or men, had even a week of military experience. But after less than a month of training the regiment departed for North Carolina, where General Burnside was assembling a force to put the squeeze on the Confederate coastline. Somehow they learned to fight and won their first battles, at New Bern, North Carolina, and nearby Fort Macon, probably against troops as inexperienced as they were.
After two months of rest and training. the regiment was shipped back to Washington, and then hastily marched north and west to a Maryland town called Sharpsburg, the site of the Battle of Antietam, which produced the bloodiest single day of the Civil War, September 17, 1862. I have toured that battlefield, and even now the pall of death there is oppressive.
What happened at Antietam to the regiment containing Stonington's Company G is vividly described in an 1868 account of the actions of the Connecticut's volunteer units. The Eighth, including Stonington's Company G, had been sent to ford Antietam Creek at the left, or south, wing of the battlefield and at great cost won a little hill on the far side. But the other regiments left the Eighth exposed and alone in a Confederate counterattack:
Colonel Appelman [he had been promoted to regiment commander] tells the standard-bearer never to leave the colors. He responds firmly. One of the color-guard falls; two; three; four; the last, and the standard goes to the ground with him. Private Charles H. Walker [of Norwich] springs forward, and seizes it amid the storm of death; strikes the staff firmly in the ground; and shakes out the flag defiantly towards the advancing foe.
No re-inforcements come. Twenty men are falling every minute. Col. Appelman is borne to the rear. . . . Men grow frantic. The wounded prop themselves behind the rude stone fence, and hurl leaden vengeance at the foe. Even the chaplain snatches the rifle and cartridge-box of a dead man, and fights for life.
"We must fall back," says Major John E. Ward, now in command. Some protest againstwhat they feel is inevitable; and the hundred men still unscathed are faced tothe rear, and marched back in unbroken and still formidable column down the hill.No regiment of the 9th Corps has advanced so far, or held out so long, or retiredin formation so good.
The cost to the regiment in this great battle that had no real victor --Lincoln is said to have exclaimed, "What will I tell the country?"--was one hundred ninety-four killed, wounded, and missing, half of its strength. It is interesting to note that in many actions the number of those killed outright was relatively small, while the number wounded was often immense. The wounded then faced the hazards of battlefield surgery and the infection and disease that ran through the field hospitals.
The regiment had other battles--Fredericksburg, Cold Harbor, the siege of Petersburg, but never another day like September 17, 1862. The regiment's most disheartening later experience occurred at the relatively little known battle of Drewry's Bluff, Virginia, in May 1864, as union forces clawed their way toward Richmond and Petersburg. As the regiment lay facing Confederate fortifications on the James River south of Richmond, a dense fog settled in, disrupting communication, which in those days was largely visual. The enemy, knowing the ground well, poured into the Union breastworks. The Eighth held for an hour, but many soldiers were cut off from the main body and got lost in the fog. In Company G, seven men were taken prisoner; three were exchanged; three died in the hellish prison at Andersonville, Georgia; and one, Sergeant Henry G. Knowles of Stonington, escaped from Andersonville.
The company served to the end of the war and beyond before being mustered out in December 1865 after four years and two months of service. In that time, it suffered casualties approximately equal to its original strength. The tattered regimental colors were placed on display in the Capitol in Hartford.
The second large Stonington unit was Company E of the 21st Infantry Regiment, which was recruited in the summer of 1862 from eastern Connecticut. About seventy Stonington men served in Company E, under Captain Charles T. Stanton, Jr., of Stonington. Like Company G of the Eighth, this company became involved in the fogbound battle of Drewry's Bluff, in which Stanton was severely wounded, and the siege of Petersburg, where Captain Henry R. Jennings of Stonington was killed. Partly because its term of service was shorter, it suffered fewer casualties overall than the other Stonington units.
The third cluster of Stonington men was in Company H of the Twenty-Sixth regiment, different from the others in that its members signed on for only nine months and participated in only one major action. The Mystic Pioneer printed letters from a soldier in the Twenty-Sixth who signed himself only "G." After sailing down the coast and through the Gulf, his troopship anchored at New Orleans and he reported: "It was cheering to see the welcome we received from both white and black. The negroes seemed as if they could hardly find ways enough to evince their delight. It was quite laughable to see them run down to the bank as they see us coming and take off their hats and make a low bow. The women would take off their aprons and wave them till we got out of sight. Nor was this greeting confined to the blacks, for very often the planters with their wives and daughters would come down on the bank and cheer us by waving their handkerchiefs."
But grimmer work was ahead. The Connecticut troops camped briefly in Lafayette Square, New Orleans, before moving to a camp up river, then joined in the siege of the Confederate bastion at Port Hudson, which blocked Union access up and down the Mississippi. In this prolonged action, small Confederate forces inside fortifications inflicted huge losses on attacking Union troops. The casualties in the two Stonington companies were severe. The Twenty-Sixth Regiment suffered greater losses than any other unit in that action, 304 casualties altogether, more than a third of them during an ill-starred charge across an open field on May 27, 1863. Among the wounded was a Private Babcock of Stonington--I'm not sure which Babcock, there were two in the company. He was, in the historians' words, "shot through the body, and surgeons asserted positively that he must die. The prospect was doubtless rendered less bitter to him by the reflection that he had used the large bounty he had received to pay off the remainder of the debt upon his mother's house. He recovered and returned home." After Port Hudson surrendered on July 8, the Twenty-Sixth returned via steamer to a gala welcome at Norwich and was mustered out.
The other Connecticut regiment at Port Hudson, the Twelfth, which had two or three dozen Stonington men, was sent on to Virginia, and fought through the final chapters of the war, especially in small but ferocious actions at Winchester, Fisher's Hill, and Cedar Creek.
There were Stonington men scattered into other units as well. Charles P. Williams, Jr., son of Stonington's first millionaire, was among those who volunteered for the First Cavalry Regiment but died before he was mustered in, cause not given.
Many of those who served later in the war in other units were draftees or substitutes, paid for replacing somebody who chose not to serve. The group that most aroused my curiosity was a group of Stonington men drafted into the Fourteenth Infantry in 1863. Of these ten draftees, eight deserted, some after only days after reporting for duty.
Before making a hasty judgment about deserters, it is worth noting that the Civil War draft did not necessarily exempt or make adequate provision for men who were heads of families. Although the town chipped in $62,000 for enlistment bounties and support of families, that subsidy was not always sufficient. I know that in Deer Isle, Maine, draft resisters hid in caves when federal agents were on the island, and I assume that some Stonington deserters much have employed a similar strategy. (In all units, thirty-eight Stonington men deserted, nearly 10 percent of the total from our town.)
Although it was possible to execute deserters, fewer than three hundred out of between two and three hundred thousand were actually shot. However, two of these were from this same Fourteenth Regiment, which had a desertion rate obviously high enough to call for exemplary action. The chosen examples were a pair of bounty jumpers, who had been caught in the North and brought back to Virginia. (I have no way of telling, of course, whether from Stonington.) A contemporary witness wrote of the botch made of the execution, when the firing squad misfired and ultimately forced the Provost Marshal to dispatch both deserters with point-blank shots to the head.
A small number of Stonington men served in the Twenty-Ninth and Thirty-First Infantry, Connecticut's so-called "Colored" units, recruited late in the war. Some of these, I think, were experienced white officers transferred in from other units, but others were black men who lived in Stonington. Among them, I suspect that Manuel Antone was from the Azores. These units entered the war late, which meant that any past reluctance to use black troops in combat situations had vanished, and they suffered heavy casualties in the fighting in Virginia, especially because the Confederates made a practice of slaughtering black prisoners.
Counting the ultimate toll, we find that seventy-seven Stonington men in the Army died in the war, many from disease, but more than thirty were killed in action or mortally wounded, and a dozen or more as prisoners. The longer the war lasted, the heavier the casualties became. For a long time early in the conflict, Stonington was spared; the war was more than a year old before any Stonington man was killed in battle. But worse was to come. Four died from enemy action in 1862; six in 1863; and then more than thirty in 1864.
What a tremendous load of grief for one small town to bear--and yet this was a burden that fell all across the country, North and South. The only one who has come close to expressing its poignancy is our great national poet, Walt Whitman, who wrote many poems of the Civil War, which he saw as a nurse in the field hospitals. I read a few lines from his "Dirge for Two Veterans," which reflects the way the war came home to nearly every household:
For the son is brought with the father;
In the foremost ranks of the fierce assault they fell;
Two veterans, son and father, dropt together,
And the double grave awaits them . . . .
The moon gives you light,
And the bugles and drums give you music;
And my heart, O my soldiers, my veterans,
My heart gives you love.
The author relied primarily on the following sources: the excellent Civil War Research Database [firstname.lastname@example.org]; Record of Service of Connecticut Men in the Army and Navy of the United States During the War of the Rebellion (1889); Roster, Muster Roll and Chronological Record of the Twenty-Sixth Regiment, Connecticut Volunteers (1888); W.A. Croffut and John M. Morris, The Military and Civil History of Connecticut During the War of 1861-65 (1868); James M. McPherson,For Cause & Comrades: Why Men Fought in The Civil War (1997). The author also thanks Alan Marsh of the Andersonville National Historic Site, National Park Service, for his invaluable assistance.