By the time Abraham Lincoln entered the White House as the 16th President of the United States on March 4, 1861, the long-simmering tensions between northern states and southern states had been growing steadily hotter. Seven states in the South seceded before Lincoln took office. It wasn’t until the evening of April 12 that the Confederates launched the opening salvo of the war, shelling the Union-held Fort Sumter in the Charleston, S.C. harbor. The fort surrendered the next day, four more states joined the Confederacy, and the bloodiest conflict in U.S. history began.
Across the United States today, reenactors and historians and everyday citizens are commemorating the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. Edward Baker, executive director of the , said the diversity of New London and strong abolitionist presence here made the city a strong supporter of the Union cause.
“They didn’t have much of a draft here, because there were so many volunteers,” said Baker.
The first volunteer was Lt. Benjamin Perkins, who was born and lived in the Shaw Mansion, which now houses the historical society. Perkins, who became a lieutenant with the Tenth Connecticut Volunteers, was one of 35 New Londoners who died in the war. He fell on Dec. 14, 1862 in the First Battle of Kinston, in which Union troops attacked the railroad nexus in North Carolina.
According to Civil War Volunteer Sons of Connecticut by Blaikie Hines, a total of 576 men from New London served in the Civil War. Hines says that these men were distributed through 28 regiments, with the majority (138) serving in the 26th Connecticut Volunteers. Of the 576 volunteers, 109 were wounded (16 fatally), 18 were killed in action, 15 were captured (one died in captivity), and one went missing.
The first New London casualties occurred in the very first major conflict of the war. Two soldiers from the city, members of the 2nd Connecticut Volunteers, were captured in the First Battle of Bull Run in Virginia. Other well-known Civil War battles in which New London suffered casualties were Fredericksburg (six wounded, one fatally), Chancellorsville (one captured), Gettysburg (three wounded), and Wilderness (one killed, one wounded).
New London did not suffer a soldier killed in combat until the Battle of Roanoke Island on Feb. 8, 1862. Under Brigadier General Ambrose E. Burnside, Union troops successfully seized the North Carolina island and captured 2,500 Confederate troops. The Union suffered 37 killed, 214 wounded, and 13 missing in action, according to the National Parks Service. The New York Times detailed the New London casualties in its report of the action: Momus Goff, Dwight T. Lester, and Peter S. Slaine, “mortally wounded, since died;” Frederick C. Douglass, “bad wound in the shoulder;” William Ride, “bad wound above the knee;” Sgt. William M. Webb, “severely wounded in the knee;” Capt. Robert Leggett and George H. Brown, “flesh wound in the leg;” James Gaffney, “slight wound in the leg;” and John Gannon, “slightly wounded in the chin.” Hines reports a total of 12 injured New Londoners at Roanoke, including two of the fatally wounded.
Unfortunately, the casualties suffered by the New London volunteers at Roanoke Island were not the heaviest the city would suffer during a campaign. That would come during the siege of Port Hudson, La. between May 21 and July 9, 1863. The siege, part of the successful Union campaign to gain control of the Mississippi River, resulted in 5,000 Union casualties and 7,208 Confederate casualties, according to the National Parks Service. According to Hines, seven New Londoners were killed there and 21 wounded.
Erin Marchitto, researching for Central Connecticut State University, looked into the story of volunteer teenager George B. Stillman, a New London railroad ferry ticket agent who enlisted with the army shortly before the war began. Sent to the fetid swamps of Louisiana with the Thirteenth Connecticut Volunteers, Stillman soon fell ill. Disillusioned with the poor rations and other hardships of war, he also came to believe that the emancipation of slaves would be a mistake. “In my opinion, they are going to see the worst part of their life hence forward,” he wrote to his family.
Though Stillman’s health eventually improved, he felt he was underpaid and otherwise disillusioned with the military life and declined to re-enlist. He returned to Connecticut in 1865, and 20 years later won a four-dollar monthly pension from the United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Pensions for continuing health problems from the war. These included “malarial poisoning, disease of spleen and liver, chronic diarrhea and disease of the rectum.” Stillman argued that the pension was not enough compensation and managed to get it increased to $30 per month. He died in 1906 at the age of 62.
Far from the raging battlefields of the South and border states, New London had a significant amount of activity as well. Baker said was “pretty much the jumping off point for every Civil War soldier in Connecticut.” As a result, it had officers based at the site throughout the war and even attracted famous writer Mark Twain, who wrote about the scene there. In addition, the New London Ladies Soldiers’ Aid Society worked through the Sanitary Commission to provide soldiers with handmade bandoliers and care packages.
Connecticut’s recognition of the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War will include the firing of a cannonade at the State Capitol at 8 a.m. and a noon lecture at the Old State House. Baker said local recognition of the sesquicentennial of the war’s beginning will take place later in the year and include a program of Civil War music and an old-time game of baseball, a sport popularized by the mingling of different units during the war.
The information in this article was provided in part by the Connecticut Civil War Commemoration Commission. More information on the Connecticut Civil War 150th Anniversary Commission can be found at ccsu.edu/civilwar.