Tuesday, December 20, 2011

History up close: In Willard brothers' footsteps

Civil War soldiers John and James Willard lived in this house in Avon, Conn.
I told the story last week of a woman from Avon, Conn., who honored Civil War soldier John Willard by putting a scoop of Connecticut dirt on his grave at the national cemetery in New Bern, N.C.

The Willard house dates to 1760.  Middle: The well-worn
front step  may be original to the house.  Bottom: 
Revolutionary War-era  buttons recently  discovered
 on the property by a local relic hunter.
Thanks to the generous current owners, I spent time this afternoon in the beautiful Avon house where John and his brother, James -- who also died during the Civil War -- lived with their mother. Jim and Maureen Dowse, who have lived in the 251-year-old house the past 10 years, also helped fill in gaps in the lives of both brothers and their family.

Damaris Williard, the matriarch of the family, endured her share of tragedy before and during the Civil War. Her husband Julius, a physician, died in September 1854, seven years before the start of the rebellion. Her youngest son, James, was only 20 when he was killed during the 7th Connecticut's rare nightime attack on Fort Wagner, near Charleston, S.C., on July 11, 1863.  James, a private in Company A, was originally reported to have been missing and taken prisoner, but his body was never recovered. (1)

Fifteen months later, Damaris lost her eldest son.

Thirty-two-year-old John Willard was a wagoner in the 11th Connecticut, transporting ammunition, medicine, food and other supplies to help keep the Union army running. In late September and early October 1864, a yellow fever epidemic ripped through the Union army in New Bern, N.C., killing many soldiers -- including John. A farmer before the war, he died on Oct. 3, 1864, and was buried in New Bern. Sadly, his mother probably didn't have the means to return his body to Connecticut.

Maureen Dowse obtained copies of some of the trove of documents on the Willard brothers at the Avon Free Public Library. They reveal a family probably not atypical of most during the Civil War.
1860 census: Widow Damaris Willard lived with her sons, John (top) and James Willard (bottom).
Fifty-four-year-old Widow Willard was dependent on John and James, so the enlistment of two sons in the army in 1861 undoubtedly was a hardship for her. But like any good sons, the brothers endeavored to help their mother while they were away at war. In notes to Damaris during the war, James wrote about sending money home and thoughts of not surviving the conflict: (2)
  • Jan. 14, 1862: "When we were at Hilton Island I sent fifteen dollars thinking you might need it."
  • June 10. 1862: "If I never get home, I wish you to have what property I have, and use what you need of that I send."
  • "I wish you to use what you want of the money that I send, and have sent, and if I never get home I wish you to have this, and what I have sent."
  • April 21, 1863: "I will send sixty dollars. Do what you think best with the money."
In the spring of 1863, John Willard, a wagoner
in the 11th Connecticut, sought a furlough to return home.

John, whose 3-year-old son Frank died five months before the war, also longed for home and his wife, Cordelia. In fact, in the spring of 1863 while he was in New Bern, he requested a furlough because "he was anxious to return home."  (3) There is no record in the file I examined whether the furlough was granted.

Because James left no widow or children, Damaris Willard applied for a Mother's Pension after his death, and Uncle Sam evidently provided her with an $8-a-month-pension for many years. Widow Willard was 89 years old when she died June 5, 1890. She is buried in West Avon Cemetery near her husband Julius and the memorial markers for her sons, whose remains were never returned to their native soil.

(1) Hartford Courant, Oct. 20, 1864
(2) Mother's Application for Pension document, Jan. 8, 1869.
(3) Furlough document, April 19, 1863

Damaris Willard's husband, Julius, died seven years before the start of the Civil War. Her sons,
John and James, died during the conflict. Widow Willard lived in this house for many years.

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