Sunday, June 26, 2011

Civil War under my nose: Avon, Connecticut


The 16th Connecticut, including 15 men from Avon, fought in this field on the Otto Farm  at
Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862.  The 16th Connecticut monument is in the distance.

 Robert Hawley, a private in the 16th
Connecticut  from Avon, Conn., was mortally
wounded at Antietam. 
 This is
his marker at West Avon Cemetery. 

After walking a Civil War battlefield, I always come away with a renewed respect -- heck, make that awe -- for the common soldiers.

How did they do it?

What kind of courage did it take for soldiers to blast away at each other with rifled muskets from 75 yards?

How could they march, sometimes barefoot, 10 or more miles in a woolen uniform on a hot summer day?

What kind of fortitude did it take to subsist on green apples, hardtack and corn?

Incredible.

At the Battle of South Mountain, near Boonsboro, Md., on Sept. 14, 1862, soldiers killed and maimed each other fighting over tremendously difficult, rocky terrain. Three days later, at nearby Sharpsburg, Md., barely trained troops of the 16th Connecticut Infantry fought on terrain that, while not as imposing as South Mountain, was nonetheless trying. I've walked that same ground on a warm spring day, and it's a haul.
Private Newton Evans of Avon, Conn., was
wounded  at Antietam and later died at
Andersonville prison in Georgia.

The John Otto Farm at Antietam includes gulleys, ridges and  a 40-acre cornfield that was the scene of terror for the 16th Connecticut. After finally slugging their way across Antietam Creek at the Rohrbach Bridge, Union troops briefly re-grouped on the Otto property. As they pursued the Rebels on the afternoon of Sept. 17, 1862, the Federal army was in sight of the village of Sharpsburg. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was in desperate straits.

Part of Ambrose Burnside's left flank in the Army of the Potomac at Antietam, the 16th Connecticut formed in Hartford on Aug. 24. 1862. It was comprised of men from towns in Hartford County, including the small farming community of Avon, where I live now. In 1860, 1,059 people lived in Avon, and at least 84 men from the town served in the Union army during the Civil War. (1)

The 16th Connecticut, which included 15 men from Avon, was green. None of the Connecticut boys had even fired a weapon in battle before Antietam. Could they be counted on? Or would they, like some rookie soldiers in the 14th Connecticut in fighting at the Roulette Farm at Antietam, "shut their eyes" and fire their muskets in the air? (2)

Corporal Henry Evans of Avon, Conn.,
was killed at Antietam. This marker is in West
Avon Cemetery, but Evans is actually buried
in the national cemetery in Sharpsburg, Md.
Before navigating a hill to reach the 40-acre cornfield on the Otto Farm, the 16th Connecticut came under heavy fire.

"The air was filled with bullets and fiendish missiles," Bernard Blakeslee, a lieutenant in the 16th Connecticut from Hartford recounted in a memoir published 10 years after the war. "Hundreds of cannon were now aimed at us; grape and cannister, marbles and railroad iron were showered down like rain. The crest of the hill was a great protection to the Sixteenth, and only about a dozen were disabled. A battery was ordered up to engage the enemy, but it was whirled back in less than five minutes, losing every officer, seven men, and five horses. To see those men stand there and be shot down till they received orders to retire was a fearful sight." (3)

Eventually, the 4th Rhode Island and the 16th Connecticut made their way up a ridge and reached the head-high corn in the 40-acre cornfield, where they were blasted in the left flank and scattered by troops from A.P. Hill's division, which had marched 17 miles from Harpers Ferry. Hill's division saved Lee at Antietam.
Sign for second-most infamous
cornfield at Antietam.

"General Rodman observed that the rebels were about to flank us and get in our rear, and ordered the Fourth Rhode Island, and Sixteenth Connecticut to swing to the left that we might face them, but at that particular moment the rustling of cornstalks warned us that the rebels were on us," Blakeslee wrote. "Colonel Beach gave the order 'Attention!' While this order was being executed a terrible volley was fired into us. Volley after volley in quick succession was hurled into our midst. The Sixteenth sprang up and returned the fire with good effect; some fixed bayonets, advanced, and were captured. The most helpless confusion ensued. Our men fell by scores on every side." (4)

Out of 779 engaged, the 16th Connecticut lost 43 killed, 161 wounded and 204 captured or missing. Corporal Henry D. Evans of Avon was killed and three of his fellow townsmen -- privates Newton Evans, Wallace Woodford and Robert Hawley were wounded. Hawley died eight days later. (Woodford and Evans later became prisoners of war; Evans died in Andersonvile on Sept. 9, 1864, and Woodford died at home on Jan 10, 1865)
Wallace Woodford, a private from Avon in the 16th Connecticut,
was  wounded at Antietam. As this marker in West Avon
Cemetery notes, he was "eight months a sufferer
in Rebel prisons." He died at home on  Jan. 10, 1865.

Woodford is buried in West Avon Cemetery, about three miles from my house, under a large brownstone family memorial that notes he was "eight months a suffererer in Rebel prisons."

There are markers for Evans and Hawley in the West Avon Cemetery, but neither is buried there. Evans' final resting place is the national cemetery in Sharpsburg, gravesite No. 1,084. Hawley's final resting place is unknown.

(1) American Civil War Research Database.
(2) Mr. Dunn's Experiences in the Army: The Civil War Letters of Samuel W. Fiske, Pages 8-9, edited by Stephen W. Sears, 1998.
(3) History of the Sixteenth Connecticut Volunteers, B.F. Blakeslee, 1875
(4) Ibid.
Flags and Grand Army of the Republic markers by headstones in West Avon
(Conn.) Cemetery. At least 84 men from Avon served in the Union army during the Civil War. 

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

outstanding blog....really enjoy the stories

Tracy Tomaselli said...

Robert A. Hawley has a cemetery stone in Alderbrook Cemetery, Guilford, CT
you can see a photo on www.findagrave.com