Saturday, December 17, 2011

A 'special bond' with a Connecticut soldier

Anita Marcotte is not related to Civil War soldier John Willard, but she feels a
special bond with him. She stands by his memorial marker in West Avon (Conn.) Cemetery

Although the last shots of the Civil War were fired 146 years ago, the most traumatic event in our nation's history still tugs at us.

Anita Marcotte, a 40-year resident of Avon, Conn., knows that feeling.
Close-up of John Willard's memorial in
 Avon, Conn.   He died of yellow fever in
 New Bern, N.C. on Oct. 3, 1864. 
He is buried in a national cemetery 
in New Bern.

A little more than three decades ago, Marcotte wandered through West Avon (Conn.) Cemetery after dropping off her young son at daycare at a church nearby. While there, she discovered the well-worn headstones of two brothers from Avon who served -- and died -- during the Civil War: James and John Willard.

Curious, she intently examined these beautifully  carved words on John's marker:

In the service of his Country
in Newbern, N.C.
Oct. 3, 1864
Aged 32
He is buried in that City.

"John's struck me as I am from Cherry Point, N.C.," said Marcotte, whose father served in the Marines during World War II, Korea and Vietnam.  "... I never had heard of any battles fought there, and I could not figure out how he died there.

"I tried to find his grave on one visit to New Bern, but the town hall had burned down and no records were available to me. They sent me to the town cemetery where Civil War soldiers were buried. A nice sexton showed us to the area where these graves were, but I had no luck. I finally told him that John Willard was a Northerner, to which he replied: 'We don't bury any Yankees here!'

Although she's not related to the Willards, Marcotte decided to do some digging -- and thus plunged into a search that wasn't completed until more than a decade after she first found the brothers' granite markers.
This document shows John Willard was 
discharged for physical disability on 
Feb. 9, 1864. The period from February to his
 death merits further research.
(Conn. Historical Society)


John Willard, a 28-year-old farmer, enlisted in the Union army on Oct. 23, 1861, six months after the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C. The oldest son of Julius and Damaris Willard was mustered into Company D of the 11th Connecticut Infantry a month later in Hartford. John, who stood 5-10 and had blue eyes, brown hair and a dark complexion, was a wagoner in the 11th Connecticut, transporting ammunition, medicine, food and other supplies to help keep the massive Union army running. (1)

With the 11th Connecticut, John saw his share of the horrors of the Civil War during battles at Antietam and Fredericksburg. But nearly a year before the war started, John and his wife, Cordelia, faced a personal tragedy. Their 3-year-old son, Frank, died. (2)

Like his brother, James was probably caught up in the patriotic fervor of the day. He enlisted on Aug. 20, 1861, and nearly a month later was mustered into Company A of the 7th Connecticut Infantry as a private. From October 1861 to July 1863, the 7th Connecticut fought in small engagements against Confederates in fortifications along the South Carolina coast.

On July 11, 1863, the 7th Connecticut was part of a rare night attack against Fort Wagner, near Charleston.  (A week later, in an attack made famous in the movie Glory, the black troops of the 54th Massachusetts were defeated after a fierce battle at Fort Wagner.) Greatly outnumbered, the Connecticut regiment suffered 105 killed, including the 20-year-old son of a physician from Avon. James' body, perhaps thrown into a burial trench by the rebels afterward, was never recovered.

"He sleeps where he fell," the memorial marker in West Avon Cemetery notes.

John Willard's occupation was listed as a farmer in the 1860 U.S. census. His
17-year-old brother James' occupation was listed a laborer.  John's 3-year-old

son,  Frank, died later that year. He is buried to the left of John's marker.

A little more than a year later, the Willards lost another son.

Yellow fever swept through the Union army in New Bern, N.C., in the late summer and early fall of 1864, killing many soldiers. "In the history of this rebellion, no city which has been captured and occupied by our forces, situated as far North as New Berne, North Carolina, has been visited by a sweeping pestilence so completely decimating as the late terrible scourge of yellow fever," wrote a Union doctor in a book on the epidemic published in 1865. (3)

Among the victims was John Willard, who had transferred to North Carolina in late winter 1864. Likely contracting the disease in late September, the farmer from Avon died Oct.  3, 1864. His body was not returned to Connecticut, perhaps because his family didn't have the means.

"After the epidemic had passed, there remained two trunks of gold and silver watches, and a safe containing thirty thousand dollars left by these poor victims, " according to a post-war history of Connecticut's Civil War service, (4)

Markers for the Willard brothers are adjacent to each other in West Avon (Conn.) Cemetery.
Neither brother, however, is buried in Connecticut.

Nearly 130 years later, Anita Marcotte finally discovered John Willard's final resting place in North Carolina. "I felt like he wanted to come home," said Marcotte, who sensed from her research that John was very homesick.

Before her visit to the tidy national cemetery in New Bern, Marcotte went back to West Avon Cemetery, grabbed a handful of dirt from near John Willard's marker and stored it away for a visit South.

After arriving at the national cemetery, Marcotte asked a caretaker for permission to honor the young man who died nearly 700 miles from home.

"The man at the cemetery said it was OK to put it on his grave," Marcotte said, "so I dug a little hole and placed the dirt there.

"I feel a special bond with him."

(1) John Willard's pay voucher certificate, Feb. 9, 1864, Connecticut Historical Society Civil War Manuscripts Collection.
(2) Letter from Virginia Willard, a descendant of the brothers, to Anita Marcotte.
(3) The Great Epidemic in New Berne and Vicinity, W.S. Benjamin, 1865, Page 3
(4) The Military and Civil History of Connecticut During the War of 1861-65, William Augustus Croffut, John Moses Morrism, 1869, Page 711

Several members of the Congregational Church of Avon who served in the Union army died
during the Civil War, including  John Willard of the 11th Connecticut and James Willard
of the 7th Connecticut. West Avon Cemetery is out of the photo to the right.

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