Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Faces of the Civil War: George Bronson

George Bronson served as a hospital steward in the 11th Connecticut.
(Photo courtesy of Mary Lou Pavlik, Bronson's great-great granddaughter.)

Ever since she first read the Civil War letters of her great-great grandfather about 20 years ago, Mary Lou Pavlik has had an especially keen interest in The Great Rebellion. Today, she has a hard time checking out of the 19th century.

"I have strong passion for the Civil War," said Pavlik, a lifelong resident of Torrington, Conn.
Mary Lou Pavlik with famed Civil War historian
Ed  Bearss. (Photo courtesy Mary Lou Pavlik)

Dressed in period attire, Pavlik takes a step back in time by assuming the character of her great-great grandmother and reading aloud the letters of great-great grandfather George Bronson at Civil War living history demonstrations at least five times a year.

In 44 unpublished letters to his wife Mary Anne, Bronson wrote about patriotism, missing home back in Connecticut, the horrors of the battlefield, caring for the wounded and entering the rebel capital in the final days of the war. The often-eloquent letters of the physician from Berlin, Conn., are a fantastic window into the most tumultuous time in our nation's history.

Founded in 1785 and known for a thriving tinware industry, Berlin, about 15 miles from Hartford, was home for about 2,200 people in 1860, a year before South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union. Nearly 10 percent of Berlin's population, 216 men, fought for the Union army in places such as Reams Station and Cold Harbor, Va.; Pocotaligo, S.C., and Irish Bend, La. (1) At least 42 of them died, including Private Elijah Bacon, who earned the Medal of Honor for capturing a Rebel flag at Gettysburg and was killed 10 months later at the Wilderness.
Mary Anne, George Bronson's wife.
(Photo courtesy Mary Lou Pavlik)

Bronson married Mary Anne Lewis, a woman of high social standing in Berlin, on Sept. 5, 1861. Five weeks later, the 34-year-old newlywed was off to war, enlisting as a lowly private in Co. A in the 11th Connecticut Infantry. After drilling in nearby Hartford, Bronson and his comrades headed for New York, where the 11th Connecticut left by steamer on Dec. 17, 1861, bound for Annapolis, Md.

Bronson frequently wrote Mary Anne throughout the war and encouraged his wife to do the same.

"We find it much more comfortable in this latitude than at Hartford," he wrote Dec. 18, 1861, from aboard the steamer headed to Annapolis. "You must write me good long letters and as many of them as you can. The steamer has got the shakes so that I cannot write very well. ... I miss your society very much and hope to hear from you often. I will not attempt to write more as the vessel shakes so much."

Attached to Williams Brigade under General Ambrose Burnside's command, the 11th Connecticut served from January to July 1862 in North Carolina, where it suffered light casualties at the Battle of New Bern.

Bronson soon impressed his superiors and was promoted to hospital steward, an important role in caring for sick and wounded soldiers.

Union General Jesse Reno died at the Battle
  of  South Mountain on Sept. 14, 1862.
"A musket ball in the side ... passed obliquely
through his body and came out near
the stomach," Bronson wrote.
Library of Congress collection)
"The candidate for enlistment or appointment as hospital steward should be not less than eighteen nor more than thirty-five years of age," an 1862 Civil War manual states. "He must be able-bodied and free from disease. ... He should be of honest and upright character, of temperate habits, and good general intelligence. He must have a competent knowledge of the English language and be able to write legibly and spell correctly." (1)

Bronson's duties may have included assisting field surgeons in operations, supervising hospital cooks and nurses, and  prescribing drugs and even performing minor operations during emergencies.

By September 1862, Bronson undoubtedly heard word of a Rebel army under Robert E. Lee moving north. The Union army would move from its encampments around Washington for Maryland, where it fought Lee's army at the Battle of South Mountain, near Boonsboro, Md. At Fox's Gap on Sept. 14, 1862, Bronson witnessed the terrible cost of war, including the death of beloved Union General Jesse Reno.

"General Reno had but just given his orders when a party of the enemy suddenly opened fire and he received a musket ball in the side which passed obliquely through his body and came out near the stomach," Bronson wrote his wife on Sept. 14, 1862. "He immediately dismounted and said I am mortally wounded. He expired in half and hour conscious to the last, and uttering words of encouragement to his command.  He had lately succeeded to the command of Gen. McDowell's Corps.  We established our hospital in a house about 200 yards below the battery and worked hard all night. Every house and church for miles around were occupied as hospitals."

A day later, Bronson described the awful aftermath of the battle to Mary Anne.

"Language is inadequate to give a description of the scenes which met my view this morning as I went upon the Battlefield, five hundred and seventy-five dead bodies were picked up within 20 rods, the rebel dead lay scattered in every direction," he wrote. "Our own dead, which were few in proportion to those of the enemy, had been removed from the field soon after they fell."
The 11th Connecticut attacked at Burnside Bridge, called
Rohrbach Bridge by the locals before the Civil War, at
 Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862
. It suffered 139 casualties here.

Two days later, at a little stone arch bridge spanning a swift-moving creek outside the small farming community of Sharpsburg, Md., Bronson and the 11th Connecticut experienced the bloodiest day in American history. With a relatively small rebel force holding the strategic high ground across Antietam Creek, the 11th Connecticut was instructed to cross Rohrbach Bridge and make the first assault on the heights.

Probably later that night, Bronson described the scene in a letter to his wife.

"Dear Mary, Our Regt. was ordered to take the bridge and hold it so the division of Genl. Rodman could pass," Bronson wrote Sept. 17, 1862, the day of the Battle of Antietam. "They did do it and with what loss you can judge when you see the official report. General Rodman was wounded. Our Sec. Lieut., Col., and Major, and nearly one half of our Regt. was killed or wounded. I do not know the name of the creek, but I have named it the creek of death. Such slaughter I hope never to witness again. The fight was very severe."

Bronson worked tirelessly at a Union hospital at the Henry Rohrbach farm a short distance from the bridge.

"I took off my coat to dress wounds, and meet with a terrible loss," Bronson wrote in the Sept. 17 letter to his wife. "Some villain rifled my pockets of several packets of medicine, my fine tooth comb, and what I valued most my needle book, containing the little lock of hair you put in.  It was not the value but the giver that I cared for. Can you please replace it?"
Mary Lou Pavlik, dressed in Civil War period attire, at  her great-great
 grandfather's grave  in Danbury, Conn.
(Photo courtesy Mary Lou Pavlik)

General Isaac Rodman, whom Bronson mentioned in his letter, died Sept. 30 at a field hospital, one of three Union generals mortally wounded at Antietam. The 11th Connecticut suffered 36 dead and 103 wounded. Nearly 23,000 casualties, including 3,650 dead, were suffered on both sides.

The 11th Connecticut was involved in other major battles during the Civil War, including Fredericksburg, Cold Harbor and Drewry's Bluff, but none compared to Antietam.

The huge number of casualties overwhelmed both armies. Nearly every house, barn and church in the area was used as a hospital.

"337 wounded dressed in this hospital," Bronson wrote Mary Anne on Sept. 19, 1862. "3 of the men from our Reg. had their legs amputated. The last I do not think can long survive."

In 1864, Bronson developed pleurisy during the siege of  Petersburg, probably a result of treating wounded soldiers, and returned to Connecticut to recuperate. He rejoined the 11th Connecticut when he was well enough to travel.

In April 1865, as the Army of the Potomac battered Lee's army in the final days of the war, Bronson and the 11th Connecticut entered the Rebel capital of Richmond, Va.

"The negro troops were not the first to enter the city, as was stated in the paper, but the 1st Brigade of the 3rd division, which happens to be the one that I belong to," Bronson wrote Mary Anne on April 14, 1865. "The Negro Troops did actually arrive at the city first, but were not permitted to enter. There is much suffering among the inhabitance (sic) for all the necessaries of life, and they are evidently glad to change masters.”

Bronson was mustered out of the Union army on Dec. 21, 1865, at City Point, Va. Because of the pleurisy contracted near Petersburg, he was unable to practice medicine full time after the war. The Bronsons, who had one son, lived in New York, Florida and finally Connecticut in their remaining years. George died at age 72 on Oct. 31, 1898, a little more than four years after the monument to the 11th Connecticut was dedicated at Antietam.  His final resting place is Wooster Cemetery in Danbury, Conn.
Union graves at Burnside Bridge were photographed by famed Civil War photographer
Alexander Gardner. In his book on Antietam, William Frassanito wrote that the graves
were for soldiers of the 51st New York..  (Library of Congress collection)
(1) American Civil War Research Database
(2) The Hospital Steward's Manual, Page 20 (Philadelphia, 1862)


  1. Steve Dew7:31 PM

    Awesome write up, John. You made Mary Lou real proud, I'm sure.

    Steve Dew

  2. Great photos and narrative! John. This contributes new information to the South Mountain / Antietam record. Thanks for posting!

  3. Anonymous1:03 PM

    Hi - I am certainly happy to find this. great job!

  4. Message to Mary Lou: My great grandfather was George Bronson Hamilton, whose father was born in Danbury (where GB is buried). Stephen Hamilton must have had some relation to the Bronson family, but we don't know what it was! Can you perhaps tell more about George Bronson's family background? None of my relatives were in the 11th. The only relative I know who was in the Civil War died in a Richmond prison after a would at Cedar Creek. Can you shed light?