Monday, July 16, 2012

Chasing ghosts: Why I do this stuff

Here's an excerpt from a piece I wrote for Bryna O'Sullivan over at her Explorations in Connecticut Genealogy blog. It explains why I blog about the Civil War and includes some of my favorite research resources. (Pardon the "air was thick as hominy grits" line. I blame that on the brain transplant.) Of course, there are several folks whose help is invaluable to me in telling stories of Connecticut Civil War soldiers. My list includes Connecticut Civil War reenactor Tad Sattler, Connecticut researcher Mary Falvey and New England Civil War Museum executive director Matt Reardon.

Remains of trenches at the Cold Harbor battlefield.
It was a scorching hot summer evening and the air was thick as hominy grits as I slowly drove around Cold Harbor National Battlefield, near Richmond, Va., two summers ago. Much of the great battlefield where men in blue and gray killed and maimed each other in June 1864 is in private hands, but the National Park Service-owned sliver, still pockmarked with trenches dug by soldiers nearly 150 years ago, is very much hallowed ground.

It was at Cold Harbor that the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery, men from towns such as Litchfield, Waterbury, Goshen and Norwich, discovered a hell on earth. On June 1, 1864, the regiment suffered 85 killed and 221 wounded in an ill-advised assault on Confederate breastworks. "You cannot conceive the horrors and awfulness of a battle," wrote Chaplain Winthrop Phelps of the regiment's first major battle. "I never wish to hear another much less see it. I went out to see this but found myself in such danger I soon fled ... Pray for me. I cannot write -- am not in a fit state of mind." (1)

I can still recall the first time I saw the monument at Cold Harbor to honor the memory of those men from Connecticut. As I walked ground that was heavily contested by both armies, I came upon a small clearing where I discovered three blocks of light gray granite. Mounted to the front of that 2nd Connecticut monument is a bronze plaque that includes names of Connecticut men killed at Cold Harbor. When I read the names aloud, hair on my neck stood up and goose bumps covered my arms.

2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery monument at Cold Harbor.

Like most Civil War battlefields, Cold Harbor holds a special sway over the those like me who still hear the guns.

As darkness settled over the Virginia battlefield that summer day in 2010, I met a local couple on a walk with their large dog. They said they often walked the battlefield to enjoy the now-peaceful setting.

"This was an awfully bloody place," the man said matter-of-factly. The woman nodded and then glanced at their dog.

"He often goes into the woods," she said, "to chase the ghosts."

This photo of Confederate dead near Dunker Church after the Battle of Antietam was
taken by famed Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner.
(Library of Congress collection)
Chasing ghosts.

In an odd way, that’s an apt description of what I have been doing the past 18 months.

My passion is the Battle of Antietam, where four regiments of men and boys from Connecticut fought in woodlots and farm fields in Sharpsburg, Md., on Sept. 17, 1862. Scores of soldiers from the 8th, 11th, 14th and 16th Connecticut regiments were killed or mortally wounded during that battle -- the bloodiest day in American history. In the days and weeks after Antietam, funerals for Connecticut soldiers were common in the state.

Soldiers from Connecticut who were killed or
 mortally wounded at Antietam.
"It is seldom that we are called upon to bury so many braves in so short a space of time," the Hartford Courant reported nearly a month after the battle.

Many of the stories of Connecticut soldiers who fought at Antietam have never been told. Crisscrossing Connecticut -- from Brooklyn in the east to Bristol in the west to Madison in the south -- I have mined information, including many primary sources, at historical societies, libraries and cemeteries for Connecticut Antietam stories. Resources such as the Connecticut Historical Society's Civil War Manuscript Project and collections at the Connecticut State Library are invaluable. Google has digitized many regimental histories (i.e. 14th Connecticut), making previously hard-to-access resources available only a couple clicks away on the Internet. Find A Grave is also a terrific starting point for information on soldier graves. The research department at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Md., proved helpful in uncovering the casebook of surgeons who treated 16th Connecticut soldiers at a small Sharpsburg church. And many Connecticut libraries provide digital access dating to 1724 for the Hartford Courant. I have found excellent accounts of funerals by tapping into that resource.

Of course, there’s no substitute for boots-on-the-ground reporting at cemeteries. (Hmmmm, sounds a little strange, doesn’t?) For posts on my blog, I often come up with good color by checking out graveyards and gravestones myself.

I didn't mention in the piece another resource that also is invaluable:, a premium web site for military documents. It includes access to Civil War widows' pension records, which can be hugely valuable. (I used to report stories on 16th Connecticut private Gideon Barnes and 16th Connecticut sergeant Rufus Chamberlain.) has saved me a trip or two or three to the National Archives in D.C. The results of some of my reporting can be found by clicking the links below. Enjoy.

(1) "Not War But Murder," Ernest B. Furguson, 2000, Page 102

From left, graves of Connecticut soldiers killed or mortally wounded at Antietam:
Captain John Griswold of Lyme; Private Henry Aldrich of Bristol; 

and Captain Jarvis Blinn of New Britain.

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