Saturday, November 26, 2011

Faces of the Civil War: The Bingham brothers

The Bingham brothers of East Haddam, Conn.  Teen-age privates in Company H of the
16th Connecticut,  John (left) was killed at Antietam and Wells survived  the war. 

 (Photos courtesy Military and Historical Image Bank)
UPDATE: The Antietam secretary mentioned in this post was exposed in 2018 as a forgery.

Just teenagers when they joined the Union army, the Bingham brothers fought at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862. One brother was killed. The other survived, and 14 years later, he received a unique gift in memory of his dead brother: a piece of folk art that may hold a rare Civil War relic from the bloodiest day in American history.

The story of this secretary, recently purchased by a New England antiques dealer, starts with the Bingham boys, John and Wells. From East Haddam, Conn., about 30 miles southeast of Hartford, they enlisted as privates on Aug. 7, 1862. Seventeen days later, John, 17, and Wells, barely 16, were mustered into Company H of the 16th Connecticut Infantry. (1)

The secretary was given to Wells Bingham by friends in 1876
 to honor the memory  of his brother, John, who was killed 
at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862.
The physical and mental burden of having two teenage sons in the army undoubtedly took a toll on Elisha and Martha Bingham, who had seven other children ranging in age from 3 to 24 by August 1862.  Elisha, who married Martha in 1857 after his first wife died, supported his large family as a farmer, and his sons were likely an integral part of the farm. By August 1864, four other Bingham sons were in the Union army: Eliphalet,  21; Charles, 22; William. 24; and Alonzo, 26. (2)

Like most Civil War soldiers, the Bingham boys probably knew little of the rigors of army life before the war. In fact, before the 16th Connecticut shipped off for New York on Aug. 29, 1862, en route to its final destination in Washington, they probably never had traveled far from East Haddam. Barely trained and unfamiliar with how to use weapons, the Bingham brothers' rookie regiment found out soon enough about the horrors of the Civil War.

In early September 1862, John and Wells marched with the 16th Connecticut from their camp at Fort Ward outside the capital to join the Army of the Potomac in Maryland. The regiment was under sporadic artillery fire at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, until it was ordered to attack the Confederates left flank late that Wednesday afternoon.

The result was disastrous.

After marching 17 miles from Harper's Ferry, A.P. Hill's veterans struck the raw 16th Connecticut in the left flank in the 40-acre cornfield of a farmer named John Otto. In the massive confusion of their first battle, many Connecticut soldiers broke and ran, a stigma the regiment never erased. Out of 779 men and boys, the 16th Connecticut suffered 43 killed, 161 wounded and 204 captured or missing.

The clock on top of the secretary includes
the words "The Union Preserved."
Among the dead was a farmer's son, 17-year-old Private John F. Bingham. (He is buried East Haddam, Conn.)

Although the memory of the death of his brother and many other comrades probably was seared into his brain the remainder of his life, Wells Bingham apparently escaped physically uninjured.

Fast forward to April 20, 1864.

Part of a hugely outnumbered Union garrison at Plymouth, N.C., most of the 16th Connecticut men surrendered and were sent to the notorious Confederate prisoner-of-war camp in Andersonville, Ga. But just before they waved the white flag that Wednesday, Professor Lesley Gordon wrote in a terrific account, "Lt. Col. (John) Burnham ordered the regimental flags destroyed, and the poles buried. It was one thing to have an entire regiment captured; but to have one’s colors seized was especially dishonorable. Burnham dispatched Color Cpl. Ira Forbes and Color Sgt. Frank Latimer to tear the flags into shreds and distribute them to the men."

The Connecticut men who survived kept the pieces of flag throughout their imprisonment in Andersonville.

Fast forward again to the end of the war.

In a huge stroke of luck, Wells Bingham escaped the hell of imprisonment in the South because he had returned to Connecticut to recruit soldiers and was not in Plymouth when the 16th was captured.  "Could not have been happier or more envied if I had been chosen to be a Major General," he wrote in a post-war assessment of that period. Wells was discharged from the army on July 8, 1865. His older brother, Eliphalet, wasn't as lucky. According to one account, he died in Arlington Heights, Va., on May 1, 1864. (Another account indicates he died in Fredericksburg.)

In a post-war assessment of his Civil War service, Wells Bingham expressed his happiness
at avoiding capture at Plymouth, N.C. (CLICK TO ENLARGE.)

On July 4, 1876, a little more than 11 years after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, friends of Wells Bingham presented the Civil War veteran with a one-of-a-kind gift in memory of his dead brother, John. Evidently sparing no expense, the handcrafted 8-foot secretary is made predominantly of walnut and oak. Spelled out in cattle bone on the ornate front are the words "Antietam" and "Sept. 17, 1862," as well as John F. Bingham's name. A Ninth Corps badge is mounted between the "18" and "76." The knobs are bird's-eye maple with bone inset circles. A clock, crowned with an eagle and including the words "The Union Preserved" near the base, is mounted on top. When the inside right front door is opened, "Yankee Doodle Dandy" plays on a music box.

And on the plaque just below the bookshelf are these words:

Is this a piece of the 16th Connecticut regimental
flag that was carried at Antietam? This star on a
cloth is encased in a tin on the front of the secretary.
"Presented to Wells A. Bingham by his friends. The secretary a rememberance of his brother John F. Bingham who offered up his life at Antietam, Maryland Sept. 17, 1862. The encased star a remnant of the colors carried that day by the 16th Infantry. The memory plaque made from a shard of his knife."

After the war, the remaining pieces of the 16th Connecticut's regimental flag were reassembled by Andersonville survivors. That flag, now on display in the Hall of Flags at the State Capitol building in Hartford, is missing stars. Could the star from the secretary be one of the stars missing from the cherished flag that was carried through the smoke of battle at Antietam? Or does it belong to another flag?

It merits further research ... or it could remain one of history's small mysteries.

A footnote: Wells A. Bingham died on Aug. 16, 1904. He was 58.

His death was ruled a suicide. (3)

(1) American Civil War Research Database
(2) Some Account Of The Cone Family in America: Principally Of The Descendants, William Whitney Cone, 1903, Page 111
(3) New York Times, Aug. 17, 1904

A plaque on the front of the secretary notes that John F. Bingham "offered up his life at Antietam."
Detail of the front of the secretary, including images of Lincoln and Washington.
John F. Bingham's name is prominent on the front of the secretary.

1 comment:

  1. Patricia Kitto8:46 PM

    This is an amazing story - both about the brothers who died in the Civil War and the friends of one of the surviving brothers who created such an incredible and generous memorial. So much meaning put into a piece of furniture. I found the clock with the words "The Union Preserved" on it especially touching. And the piece of the regimental flag is intriguing to be sure.

    Do you know who owns the secretary now? Has it been passed down through the family? I'll admit to hoping it is in the care of someone who truly appreciates the care that went into making it!

    Thank you for your excellent blog. I so enjoy reading about the soldier's stories. Thank you for doing your part lest we never forget.