Sunday, February 19, 2012

Canton's Henry Sexton: 'A martyr to his country'

Private Henry D. Sexton of Canton, Conn. died of disease in Annapolis, Md. on Jan. 7, 1862.
This is the marker for the 25-year-old soldier in Canton Center Cemetery.
Suffering from a severe case of jaundice, Henry Sexton frothed at the mouth and thrashed about aboard the schooner Recruit in Annapolis Harbor during the early morning hours of Jan. 6, 1862.

Just three weeks earlier, the private in the 8th Connecticut and two other comrades from Canton, Conn. had written a note home to Sophronia Barber thanking her for sending mittens and stockings to help them keep warm during a harsh winter.

Thank-you note Henry Sexton, Martin Wadhams and Issac Tuller of
Canton, Conn. sent to Sophronia Barber on Dec. 16, 1861. Barber
had sent them clothes. All three soldiers were dead nine months
later. (Connecticut Historical Society Civil War Manuscripts Project)
" we are engaged in helping to maintain the government and wear these to keep our bodies warm," the letter dated Dec. 16, 1862 read, "you may be assured that our hearts will warm toward those who have remembered the soldier in his need."

A teacher before the Civil War, Sexton was quite busy in the fall and winter of 1861. Ten days after he enlisted in the Union army on Sept. 9, Henry married Eliza Barbour, also a teacher from Canton, a small town about 20 miles northwest of Hartford. Six days later, he was mustered into Company A of the 8th Connecticut. And by mid-October, Sexton and the 8th Connecticut left the state for Annapolis, where the regiment prepared for a move to North Carolina as part of Burnside's Expeditionary Force in early January.

Sometime during late December and early January, Sexton became seriously ill. Nearly 72,000 cases of jaundice, often caused by the lack of  hygiene in camps, were reported by the Union army during the Civil War. (1)

Henry Sexton was listed as a teacher in the 1860 U.S. census.

"I thought that his mind wandered a little," his friend, Private Oliver Case of the 8th Connecticut, wrote in early January to his sister back in Simsbury, Conn. " I left him about two. In the morning, he was not conscious and repaired nearly all day in the stupid state." (Huge hat tip to John Rogers, who discovered Case's letters at the Simsbury Historical Society and regularly writes about Case's short life on his excellent blog.)

By Jan. 6, Sexton clearly was on his last legs.

Henry Sexton's marker in Canton Center Cemetery.
The soldier may be buried in an unmarked  grave
in Annapolis, Md.
"I had no control of him as he could handle me like a child," Case wrote. "...It was very difficult to get anyone to take hold of him as they seemed to be afraid of him. It took five of us to hold him and keep him from tearing his face with his hands."

A lack of medical care on the ship appalled Case, who noted: "I never saw anything so horrible in my life."

Upon receiving word that her husband was deathly ill, Eliza made the 350-mile journey to Annapolis. But it was a futile trip. Only 25 years old, Henry died on Jan. 7 and was hurriedly buried. His wife never found his grave. (2).

Twenty-eight years later, at age 57, Eliza died and was buried in Canton Center Cemetery, across the road from the beautiful white-washed First Congregational Church. A 7-foot white marble memorial marker for the woman with the "attractive personality" (3) and her husband stands surrounded by a low iron railing. At the top of the marker are these words:
Henry Sexton died a martyr to his country in Annapolis, Md.

Twenty paces away from that obelisk stands another marker, this one muddy brown, cracked and weathered by the elements for nearly 150 years. Sophronia Barber, the woman who sent mittens and stockings to Sexton and his two friends, died two years after the teacher-soldier. She was 58 when she passed away on April 1, 1865.

1) U.S. Army Medical Department, Office of Medical History

2) Reminiscences By Sylvester Barbour, A Native of Canton, Conn. and Fifty Years A Lawyer, Sylvester Barbour, 1908, Page 10

(3) Ibid
Sophronia Barber, the woman who sent Henry Sexton and his friends mittens and stockings
in December 1861, is buried 20 paces from the obelisk for the soldier and his wife.


  1. It is great to have so much information on the soldier. It puts me in mind of one buried in my church cemetery, John S. Stanton, Corporal, 25th Indiana Infantry. I only find he enlisted in August 1861, Died November 1861, age 20 and he was a farmer. I do not find any kin folk buried near by either. So many soldiers died without a paper trail and it is exciting to see stories like this.

  2. Great post and photos John. Thanks much for the hap tip. I have discovered that Henry's death had a profound effect on Oliver Case as he continued to refer to Sexton in his letters for many weeks thereafter.

  3. It was really neat to discover the grave of Sophronia Barber close by the marker for Henry. His death was especially sad, and the fact that his wife arrived in Annapolis too late makes it doubly so.