Civil War sesquicentennial fever is gripping Connecticut and is palpable across the nation. Tourists stream south to battlefields and home grown re-enactors make us proud at Antietam and other sites. Such pilgrimages should encouraged, but having been to the Wilderness, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Manassas, Petersburg and elsewhere multiple times, I know Connecticut travelers would best begin at home.
The war’s memory is deeply and visibly embedded in our landscape. In fact, in both word and deed, Connecticut may have lit the fuse igniting the powder keg of conflict. After all, Hartford’s Harriet Beecher Stowe inflamed abolitionist passions with her blockbuster novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, resulting in the popular apocrypha attributed to President Lincoln that she was “the little woman . . . that made this great war.” Torrington born John Brown’s attempt to incite a slave rebellion by raiding the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in 1859 was the violent prelude to war whipping wildfires of southern fear. Visiting the Stowe Center and house museum are essential for understanding the war, and foundation remains of Brown’s birthplace in a quiet, but developing area invite contemplation.
Connecticut residents took leadership roles and we have the dubious distinction of contributing both the first and highest ranking Union generals killed. His horse shot out from under him and wounded several times, Eastford’s General Nathaniel Lyon died August 10, 1861 at the battle of Wilson’s Creek, Missouri. Over 10,000 witnessed his burial in a bucolic hometown cemetery where a marble monument bears a relief of the hat waving general on horseback. In nearby Natchaug State Forest, a fieldstone chimney is all that remains of his house.
Popular with soldiers, highly valued by General Grant, Cornwall’s Major General John Sedgwick was a sniper victim at Spotsylvania immediately after reassuring his troops that Confederate sharpshooters “could not hit an elephant” at the distance from which they fired. Sedgwick’s grave in Cornwall Hollow Cemetery, near where he lived, is marked by a tall stone shaft. Across the street lies a formal monument with a cannon and low pyramids of cannon balls. Wide stone steps lead to a small plaza dominated by a large granite slab bearing a round bronze plaque with Sedgwick’s image.
Stone monuments on town greens and other public places remembering those who served are the most commonly encountered evidence of the war here and elsewhere, but a brownstone obelisk dedicated in 1863 in Kensington was the nation’s first. Encircled by a decorative iron fence, it stands on a shaded grassy island behind a church at a suburban intersection where visitors can pause and pay respects. Hartford’s awe inspiring 160-foot-tall gothic Sailors and Soldiers Arch in Bushnell Park features two round towers between which are elaborate friezes depicting nearly a hundred life-sized figures. The country’s first triumphal arch, it remains among the most impressive Civil War monuments ever built.
Arms and materiel were among Connecticut’s greatest contributions to the cause. Colt’s gold starred blue onion dome sitting atop the old armory in Hartford is probably the ultimate symbol of that effort. Although the structure dates to 1865, a similar dome adorned the previous factory that burned in 1864. Enfield’s Hazard Powder Company supplied much of the Union’s gunpowder. Of its many buildings along the Scantic River only few remain, including a large red barn, once stabling company horses. Repurposed today as a picturesque event hall, it memorializes a significant element of Connecticut’s war effort.
Uniforms and cloth were another important wartime industry and Rockville was among textile hotbeds. Among its finest woolen producers was the New England Company whose buildings along the Hockanum River are now residential. Among them is a low, grey stone structure active during the war. Lacking a sign, few people realize its role, but it’s just one of many ordinary places around Connecticut where the war was won far from any battlefield.
Connecticut’s places remembering the War are as unusual as Middletown’s bust of Henry Work Clay, composer of “Marching through Georgia,” one of the conflict’s most popular songs, and as recent as New Haven’s 2008 memorial to the Twenty-Ninth Colored Regiment. Honoring the memory of that time may include visiting far flung battlefields, but can begin just by looking at things we see daily.