Tuesday, May 06, 2014

'A careful, industrious boy': Robert Watt, killed at Cold Harbor

Private Robert Watt of the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery 
was killed at Cold Harbor  on June 1, 1864. 
(Photo courtesy Lester Larrabee)
A "careful, industrious boy," Robert Watt did what he could to support his widowed mother, Mary, who reared three children in their small house on a quarter-acre plot in Litchfield, Conn., about 35 miles west of Hartford. Born in Ireland, Robert and his family immigrated to the United States after his father, Robert Sr., died from a fall from a horse on  June 27, 1847. To help his mother, Watt frequently purchased flour, tea, sugar and molasses in town at the stores of Charles Bishop and Frederick D. McNeel, and in the winters of 1859-1861, he paid for the fuel to heat the family home.

Lester Larrabee of Bristol, Conn., pictured with his wife Nancy, 
holds CDVs of Robert Watt and Gideon Barnes. Watt, killed
 at Cold Harbor, and  Barnes, mortally wounded at Antietam,
 are Nancy's ancestors.
On Aug. 25, 1862, Watt enlisted in the Union army before mustering into the 19th Connecticut Infantry, which trained at Camp Dutton, two miles from the center of town. Mary Watt even may have visited her son there as discipline initially was lax in the regiment, which was largely comprised of men from Litchfield and other Litchfield County towns.

"The interest and pride in the county in its own regiment was naturally of the strongest," Dudley Landon Vaill, the son of a regiment veteran, wrote in 1908. "The family that had no son or brother or cousin in its ranks almost seemed the exception, and Camp Dutton became at once the goal of a ceaseless stream of visitors from near and far, somewhat to the prejudice of those principles of military order and discipline which had now to be acquired." Lieutenant colonel Elisha Kellogg, the veteran soldier who instilled military discipline in the citizen-soldiers, reportedly said "if there were 900 men in camp, there were certainly nine thousand women most of the time."

         Site of Camp Dutton, where the 19th Connecticut trained in August-September 1862.

Marker near site of Camp Dutton erected in 1912
by survivors of the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artllery.
To the cheers of citizens, Private Watt and his 19th Connecticut comrades assembled on the Litchfield green on Sept. 15, 1862, and then headed south by train for Washington, arriving in the capital two days later -- the same day thousands were killed 75 miles northwest at the Battle of Antietam. For nearly 18 months, the regiment served away from major fighting, first in Alexandria, Va., and later in defenses south of the capital. On Nov. 23, 1863, the 19th Connecticut was re-designated the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery, but the duty in garrisons near the capital apparently was so mundane that Vaill noted the period "was not marked by incidents of any note."

On June 1, 1864, that dramatically, and tragically, changed.

In the midst of his bloody Overland Campaign, Ulysses Grant had pulled the "Heavies" from the defenses of Washington in mid-May and designated them to be used as infantry. Formed in three lines to attack well-entrenched Rebels on the second day of the Battle of Cold Harbor, 10 miles northeast of Richmond, the regiment moved at the double-quick through an open field, past an abandoned rifle pit and through a piney wood, encountering only scattered fire. As a battalion of four companies of Connecticut soldiers drew within 20 yards of the enemy's breastworks in a small hollow, a "sheet of flame, sudden as lightning, red as blood, and so near that it singed men's faces" erupted. Most of the shots were high, according to a regimental history, and few of the "Heavies" were hit.

Moments later, however, a long line of unseen Rebels opened fire on the regiment's left, pinning the Yankees to the ground and causing horrific casualties. "No human valor could withstand (the fire)," a regimental historian noted. "and which no pen can adequately describe. ... It was the work of almost a single minute. The air was filled with sulphurous smoke, and the shrieks and howls of more than two hundred and fifty mangled men rose above the yells of triumphant rebels and the roar of their musketry."

"About face!" shouted Colonel Kellogg, who soon afterward was shot in the head and killed. Astride a large bay horse whose bowels were torn apart by rifle fire, brigade commander Emory Upton frantically told his men to lie down. Many of those who could simply scattered.

On June 6, 1864, the Hartford Courant headlines trumpeted that the 
Rebels had been whipped at Cold Harbor five days earlier. 
The reality was much different. 
Struck in the breast, Watt was killed, one of 326 casualties in the regiment and 14 men from Litchfield who were killed or mortally wounded. Lyman Smith, a 22-year-old private from Litchfield, was shot in the head and killed instantly. In a letter home to his father on June 2, 1864, Private Lewis Bissell of Company A mentioned both dead comrades.

"I have not seen his body but some of the boys have and attached his name," Bissell wrote about his cousin, Lyman. "Robert Watt lies near him. Tell his mother that I have his Bible. I shall send it home if possible. If not, will keep it until I can."

Today, near the edge of a wood in East Cemetery in Litchfield, a weathered, slate-gray tombstone marks Watt's final resting place. He was only 25 years old when he killed.


Bissell, Lewis, The Civil War Letters of Lewis Bissell: A History and Literature Curriculum, Page 267

Vaill, Dudley Landon, The County Regiment, Litchfield, Conn., Litchfield County University Club, 1908

Robert Watt "widow's" pension file, fold3.com

Vaill, Theodore F, History of the Second Connecticut Volunteer Heavy Artillery, Winsted, Conn., Winsted Printing Co., 1868

Watt family correpondence

Marker for Robert Watts in East Cemetery in Litchfield, Conn.  Robert's 
last name was often spelled with an "s" in records. 
(Photo courtesy Lester Larrabee)

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