Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Antietam death: 'My painful duty to inform you...'

Henry Aldrich, a private in the 16th Connecticut, is buried in Antietam National Cemetery
in Sharpsburg, Md. He was killed at the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862.
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Four days after the Battle of Antietam, a lieutenant wrote a letter from a camp near Sharpsburg, Md., to break terrible news to the wife of a soldier back in Bristol, Conn.

"It becomes my painful duty to inform you that in the battle of 17th Sept. when our noble 16th regt. was literally cut to pieces, your husband fell at his post in the fight and was found dead where he fell," 1st Lieutenant Julian Pomeroy wrote to Sarah Peck Aldrich about her spouse, Henry. "He was buried where the rest of those who fell in battle of that day of our regiment. A board with his name cut in it marks the spot, which is on top of a grassy hill and his mortal remains will rest there as quietly as in New England.

Letter informing Sarah Aldrich of her husband's death 
at Antietam. "It becomes my painful duty...," it begins.
"He was a good soldier and all the company liked him," added Pomeroy, who also was from Bristol. "He was always ready to do his duty and in the battle he fought and fell like a brave man. None could do more. Many others did the same. I sympathize with you in your severe affliction as I should wish others to do for my family if I fall as I might."

At least 620,000 soldiers died during the Civil War, a figure one historian believes is way too low. That total doesn't include civilians and slaves who died, a number that probably will never be known. Far too often Civil War battles are boiled down to statistics of killed, wounded and missing in action, glossing over the profound effect the war had on families back home -- ordinary families such as the Aldriches of Bristol, Conn. Thousands of these stories have never been told.

Before the war, Henry Aldrich, a blacksmith, was employed by the Bristol Brass and Clock Company, a position he had held since August 1858. The industrial town of about 3,500 people, approximately 20 miles southwest of Hartford, was well known for its production of clocks. In fact, many of the country's top clockmakers set up business in Bristol, including the father of Newton Manross, the well-regarded captain of Aldrich's Company K of the 16th Connecticut, who also was killed at Antietam.

In 1860, the Federal census taker dutifully recorded six members of the Aldrich household, including Henry and Sarah, both 39; and their children, Aaron, 9, and Eliza, 7. Two other sons, Herbert, who was born after the census was taken in July 1860, and John, who apparently did not live at home, comprised the family when the Civil War began in April 1861. Two other individuals whose relationship to the Aldrich family is not known for certain also lived in the household: Arrett Tuttle, a 21-year-old toymaker, and Rebecca Peck, 63, probably Sarah's mother. By 1861, Henry and Sarah, whose first husband died in the late 1840s, had been married 12 years.

16th Connecticut monument at Antietam. The regiment
 suffered  43 killed during the battle on Sept. 17, 1862.
 Many others from the  regiment died in 
the days and weeks afterward.
Out of a sense of duty or perhaps because of the offer of a bounty, John Aldrich, in his late teens, enlisted in the Union army on Jan. 4, 1862. Four days later, he was mustered into the 13th Connecticut, which saw action mainly in the Deep South, near New Orleans. One can only imagine the strain on the Aldrich household, especially Sarah, when Henry decided to follow his son into the Union army by enlisting as a private in the 16th Connecticut on July 24, 1862.

After training in Hartford, the 16th Connecticut was sent to Washington in the last days of August and soon attached to the Army of the Potomac's 2nd Brigade, 3rd Division, 9th Corps. Comprised mainly of men from Hartford Country, the largely untrained 16th Connecticut soon marched off to western Maryland ... and disaster at Antietam on the afternoon of  Sept. 17, 1862.

After crossing Antietam Creek, the men of the 16th were ordered to attack the rebels' reeling right flank positioned on the outskirts of Sharpsburg, near Harpers Ferry Road. After maneuvering into the 40-acre cornfield of a 58-year-old farmer named John Otto that Wednesday afternoon, the 16th Connecticut was struck in the flank by veterans of A.P. Hill's division and routed. In the chaos of their first battle, many of the men ran as far as Antietam Creek, a stigma many in the regiment never erased.

"One thing I can tell you is there was some pretty tall running in the 16th," Private William Drake of  Company B wrote to his cousin, "and I guess that I made myself scarce rather fast."

On June 29, 1863, Sarah Aldrich wrote this letter to the Federal
government  pleading for her son John's discharge from 
the Union army.  "Relieve a Mothers hart and yo 
shall have  a mothers blessing,"  she wrote.
Scores of men in the regiment were wounded and 43 were killed, including a 41-year-old blacksmith from Bristol named Henry Aldrich. The evening after the battle, a long grave was prepared on Otto's farm for Aldrich and the rest of the dead of the 16th Connecticut, "the men of each company being laid side by side, and each grave marked so that the bodies could be recovered if desired."

Apparently without the means to bring Henry's remains home, the  family did not recover the body from the battlefield. Three months later, a grief-stricken Sarah applied for a Federal widows' pension to help support her three young children. Like today, the legal machinery of the day generated plenty of paperwork. Proof that she was indeed married to Henry, as well as proof of his death and other documentation, was required before the claim could be processed.

Months later, an apparently exasperated Sarah Aldrich had still not received assistance from the government. In a letter dated June 29, 1863, she made a plea to the powers-that-be.

Sarah Aldrich was dropped from the Civil War
pension rolls when she died on Aug. 9, 1904.
Dear Sir:

I have bore up under this trial in hopes of releaf but if there is none i pray God to take my children from misry as soon as he can. It is hard for families to lose thare provider and protector in the bloom of helth and be left with nothing but thre small children too sick the most of the time but God will not mine. My old son is in the army. Pray God use some influence to get his discharge and send him home to take care of his brothers and sister. ... Pray will you try to get his discharg from the army.

Think what a pleser it will be to have some one get food for my children. Think how a Mothers hart is broken to have her children criing for food when she hasnt any. ... my children that never new want when thare father was alive. I will now tell you where my son is. He is in the 13 regt. C.V. Sargt. John W. Aldrich. Co. H. General Banks Division New Orleans.

Relieve a Mothers hart and yo shall have a Mothers blessing. Both son and father went at thare contry's call to do thare duty as soldiers. the father has lost his life by it. ...

Yours resepectfully, Sarah Aldrich.

Sarah Aldrich was finally granted an $8-a-month widows' pension by the Federal government in 1863. Never remarried, she died Aug. 8, 1904. Her last widows' pension payment was $12 in June 1904.

John Aldrich survived the Civil War, but he was not discharged until Aug. 12, 1865.

Sometime in the years or months after the Civil War, Henry Aldrich's remains were disinterred and re-buried in Antietam National Cemetery. He lies today under a pearl-white marker, Grave No. 1,085, not far from the farm where he was killed nearly 150 years ago.

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


-- Connecticut Historical Society Civil War Manuscripts Project
-- Hartford Courant, Sept. 25, 1862.
-- Henry Aldrich widow's pension file, National Archives and Records Service, Washington, D.C., via

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