Sunday, March 25, 2012

Antietam: Quirky pieces of history

Bela Burr of Farmington, Conn., was mustered into Company G of the 16th Connecticut as a
private on Aug. 24, 1862. Less than a month later, he suffered a wound in the left ankle
at the Battle of Antietam. Here are a circa 1890s X-ray of the ankle and the piece of lead removed.

Burr had this piece of flattened lead in his left ankle for decades before
 it was removed. Neither the piece of lead nor Burr's X-ray are currently
 on public display at the  New England Civil War Museum in Rockville, Conn.

Perhaps these two photos explain why Bela Burr looks a little cranky in the photo of old soldiers on the wall of the New England Civil War Museum in Rockville, Conn. For perhaps 45 years, the private in the 16th Connecticut carried a souvenir from the Battle of Antietam: a piece of buckshot or minie ball in his left ankle.

Burr was wounded during the 16th Connecticut's disastrous experience in farmer John Otto's 40-acre cornfield outside Sharpsburg. The piece of lead was surgically removed sometime early in the 20th century. An X-ray of Burr's ankle, apparently taken in the 1890s, and the piece of  lead are two of the quirkier items -- Dunkard Church shingle, anyone?  -- in the collection of the outstanding little museum about 20 miles northeast of Hartford.

Burr's tale is amazing and quite sad.

Francis W Burr, Bela's brother and also a private in Company G of the 16th Connecticut, was shot in the groin at Antietam and died in Locust Spring Hospital near the battlefield on Oct. 11, 1862. Bela Burr, who also suffered a gunshot wound to his right shin, astoundingly lay on the battlefield 48 hours near the body of Captain John L. Drake of the 16th Connecticut before he was discovered and taken to the nearby Otto barn for treatment. Burr was transferred to a hospital in Frederick, Md., before he was sent to Knight General Hospital in New Haven in March 1863. Burr, who lived in Farmington, Conn., before the war, was discharged from the Union army because of disability on Nov. 20, 1863 and eventually settled in Rockville. (1)

Burr was listed among the Antietam casualties in the Hartford Courant
on Sept. 26, 1862. His brother, Francis, also was wounded at Antietam.
 He died of his wounds on Oct. 11, 1862.
Burr sought a $30-a-month government pension in 1908, prompting the Hartford Courant to trumpet his cause.

"Read the simple story of his experience," the Courant wrote, "and ask yourself if you think $30 a month paid to him in his old age is a national extravagance. Money can never measure the debt we all owe to the true heroes of the great struggle, among whom the quiet and unassuming men like Burr are as truly entitled to be counted as the great generals whose names are part of history."

A longtime newspaper editor and publisher in Tolland (Conn.) County, Burr died April 29, 1908. It's unclear if he ever received his $30-a-month pension.

Why did the old soldier, a member of the Rockville G.A.R. post that eventually became the museum, save the piece of lead and X-ray? People collect stuff -- weird stuff like this, this and, quite sadly, this. It's only human nature.

(1) Hartford Courant, March 19, 1908, Page 8

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