Researched and Written by Jamie H. Eves & Beverly L. York


     In the summer of 2011, as part of Connecticut’s five-year observation of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War (1861-65), the Windham Textile and History Museum (also known as the Mill Museum of Connecticut) mounted a major exhibit titled The Civil War: Connecticut’s Cotton Connection. The exhibit remained open to the public until late 2012. The brainchild of Beverly L. York, the Museum’s Educational Consultant and a History instructor at Quinebaug Valley Community College, the purpose of the exhibit was to illustrate the strong links between the manufacture of cotton thread and cloth in industrial Connecticut, the production of raw cotton in the South, slavery, and the war. York became the exhibit’s lead curator, and Jamie H. Eves, the Museum’s Collections Manager and Executive Director and a History instructor at Eastern Connecticut State University, joined her as a research and curatorial assistant.

     The exhibit divided the topic into four main parts: the Cotton Connection (the rise of King Cotton and the emergence of Willimantic, CT, as a cotton manufacturing center in the early 1800s), Slavery and Antislavery in Connecticut (with a focus on the Willimantic area), Willimantic Area Soldiers, and the Connecticut Home Front. Our hypothesis was that, because Willimantic and other New England cotton mill towns were dependent on slave-picked cotton for their livelihoods, the residents of those communities may have been more sympathetic than other New Englanders to slavery and the South. While quite a bit of research had already been done on the first and fourth topics, we quickly realized that there was a scarcity of information on the second and third sections, forcing us to carry out our own research. Much of that research went into the exhibit itself, but — because of space limitations — much valuable information ended up being left “on the cutting room floor.”

     This article was originally written as a “companion” to the exhibit — to present in booklet form much of the research on the history of slavery and antislavery in the Willimantic area, and on the Willimantic-area soldiers who fought in the war. There remains much more research that could — and should — be done. But what we did find out surprised us. We discovered that slavery had a deeper history in the area than we had thought. But we also discovered that, contrary to our expectations, the men and women who lived in antebellum (pre-war) Willimantic and Connecticut’s other cotton mill towns had been more likely, not less, to oppose slavery than people living in agricultural communities or metal and machine manufacturing centers. We hope that this web article, like the exhibit itself, will inspire further research on the history of Northern cotton mill cities roles in the Cotton Kingdom and the Civil War.

I. King Cotton: The Rise of Willimantic, CT, a Cotton Mill Town

     In 1853 Frederick Law Olmsted, a 31-year-old journalist from Hartford, Connecticut, published The Cotton Kingdom, an account of his travels throughout the Southern United States. A best seller, The Cotton Kingdom made clear just how much the American South depended on cotton. While cotton had been a relatively unimportant crop in the South in the colonial period, shortly after the American Revolution two events combined to make it absolutely central to Southern life. First, in 1793 Samuel Slater (a transplanted English management trainee) and Moses Brown (a Rhode Island shipper and businessman) opened the first modern textile mill in the United States in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, launching the American Industrial Revolution. Second, that very same year Eli Whitney (a teacher educated at Yale) and Catherine Greene (a Rhode Island widow who owned a plantation in Georgia) co-invented the cotton gin, a simple, inexpensive machine that quickly and efficiently separated the fibers of the cotton plant from  the sticky seeds, making cotton a profitable crop. The South was transformed. Hundreds of thousands of acres were cleared and planted in cotton. Millions of enslaved African Americans were put to work planting, tending, picking, and ginning cotton. Slavery, which many thought might gradually disappear, instead expanded as, in the largest forced migration in American history, tens of thousands of slaves were “sold south” from the tobacco-growing sates of Virginia, Maryland, and Kentucky to the “cotton belt” of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, coastal Texas, and parts of Arkansas and Tennessee. By 1850 there were four million slaves in the South, as compared to only a half million free blacks in the entire United States. Many Southerners could not imagine how their economy and society could function without them.

     What is less understood today is that cotton was “king” in New England as well as in the South. Beginning with Slater’s Mill (which at first produced woolens, but switched to cotton as raw cotton became more available), cotton mills  by the scores sprang up along the rivers of Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, where the combination of abundant rainfall and hilly topography meant plenty of waterpower — and where shippers and merchants had sufficient surplus capital to invest in the risky new venture. By 1830, not only had raw cotton surpassed wheat  as America’s most important agricultural export, but cotton products had become the country’s leading manufactured export, as well. If King Cotton led to more slavery in the South, in New England it led to the expansion of what nineteenth-century people called “free labor,” or wage work. In both regions, increasingly larger proportions of the population worked for someone else, as opposed to being self-sufficient farmers or carftspeople. But unlike the South, which remained rural, in New England King Cotton led to rapid urbanization, with hundreds of growing, chuffing, cotton mill cities, small and large, scattered across the landscape. Cotton lay at the heart of the economies, societies, and cultures of both regions.

     Cotton created Willimantic, Connecticut. Located in a narrow, rocky ravine in the western part of the old colonial town of Windham in northeastern Connecticut, Willimantic was sparsely populated as late as 1820, a “scrub oak forest” that held only a handful of hardscrabble farms and preindustrial custom mills, a tavern, and two turnpikes. But the Willimantic River, winding through a range of steep, flinty hills, dropped more than 90 feet in less than a mile, creating plenty of potential waterpower. First a turnpike, and after 1849 a railroad, connected the gorge to the port city of Norwich, only 15 miles away. So, starting in the 1820s, a series of new, industrial cotton mills located at the gorge, towering edifices of granite surrounded by rows of company houses. Financed by capital from Providence, Hartford, and Boston, the mills expanded and grew. By the time of the Civil War in 1861, they had become the nuclei of a growing city of about 4,000 inhabitants — a home to mill workers, managers, and owners, and to merchants, engineers, shop clerks, lawyers, doctors, teamsters, carpenters, seamstresses, and others who, either directly or indirectly, depended on cotton for their livelihoods. 

II. The Methodist Melee on Main Street: Slavery in Antebellum Willimantic

Slavery in Connecticut

     Antebellum (pre-war) Willimantic was sharply divided on the issue of slavery. For one thing, slavery had a long history in Connecticut, which made it difficult to challenge. African slaves arrived in Connecticut in 1639, only a few years after the earliest English colonists, and slavery had remained largely intact for almost a century and a half, making it seem to many people like the natural order of things. Quite a few colonial Connecticut families owned slaves, although generally in small numbers. About one quarter of all colonial Connecticut ministers, lawyers, town officials, and farmers owned slaves. By the time of the Revolution in the late 1700s, Connecticut had more slaves than all the other New England colonies combined. Like indentured servants and apprentices, most enslaved people lived, worked, and ate alongside the family that owned them. Most male slaves were farm hands, skilled at working the land and caring for livestock. The majority of the female slaves performed domestic work, including child care, food production, washing and cleaning. Slaves also worked in the seaports, as laborers and sailors. They sometimes attended Congregational, Episcopal, or other religious meetings, and some owners felt obligated to Christianize them.

     After the Revolution, slavery in Connecticut declined gradually. In 1774, Connecticut had about 5,000 slaves, but almost half became free over the next two decades. The first U. S. Census, in 1790, found 2,648 slaves in Connecticut — still more than half of the slaves living in New England. Several dozen enslaved people lived in and around Windham and Willimantic. In 1790, 29 slaves lived in Windham, 51 in next-door Lebanon, 19 in Hebron, 10 in Brooklyn, seven in Coventry, seven in Ashford, five in Mansfield, and one each in Hampton and Willington. In 1784, influenced by the Revolution, the legislature provided for the gradual abolition of slavery in Connecticut, declaring that all slaves born after March 1 of that year were to be freed on their 25th birthdays. This kind of gradual abolition was agonizingly slow, however, and slavery did not completely end in Connecticut until 1848, only 13 years before the Civil War. When antislavery activity began to grow in Willimantic in the 1830s, it was not just a reaction to slavery in the far-away South, but occurred in a state where slavery still existed.

     Not surprisingly, the people of Willimantic had decidedly mixed feelings about slavery and abolition. On the one hand, almost nobody wanted to see slavery in Connecticut. As New Englanders, they were proud of their “free” (i.e., wage) labor system, which they regarded as more modern and economically advanced than slavery, indentured servitude, and other forms of bound labor. The city’s small African American minority, of course, opposed slavery in any form. But many whites, while opposing slavery in Connecticut, feared that challenging it in the South might create an irreparable breach between North and South, splinter the two national parties, the Democrats and Whigs, and perhaps result in secession or even civil war. There were also economic reasons for people in Willimantic to tolerate slavery in the South. Southern slaves planted, tended, and harvested most of the cotton that Willimantic’s busy mills manufactured into thread and cloth. Many feared that abolishing slavery nationwide might drive up the price of cotton (by increasing the cost of labor) and thereby imperil their own jobs and profits. Moreover, the majority of the white residents of Willimantic would have shared the insidious racial prejudice against African Americans that was so prevalent at the time. As Anne Farrow, Joel Lang, and Jennifer Frank of the Hartford Courant point out in their 2005 book, Complicity, Connecticutters were as complicit in American slavery as anyone else in the United States. A lot of them were willing to tolerate it, just so long as it remained in the South, safely out of sight.

 Adam Jackson: An Eastern Connecticut Slave

     Adam Jackson was the third generation of his family to be enslaved. He lived and worked in colonial New London, a bustling eastern Connecticut seaport. Jackson’s grandmother Maria (probably brought as a slave from the West Indies) and father John Jackson (Maria’s son) arrived in New London in the late 1680s on a West Indian trade ship. Adam was born in Connecticut. He became the slave of Joshua Hempstead (1678-1758), a prosperous New London farmer, shipwright, surveyor, and stonecutter. Hempstead was a community leader, holding multiple public offices, including justice of the peace, judge of probate, member of the colonial assembly, and selectman. After his wife died in childbirth, Hempstead raised nine children as a single parent. Like most New England slave holders, he owned one or two slaves, to help with the farming and housework. When Adam Jackson arrived at the Hempstead house in 1727,  the house held nine people, all sharing two chambers, a garret (attic space), and a kitchen. Adam Jackson and Joshua Hempstead worked closely together, performing numerous tasks that are well documented in Hempstead’s famous 47-year diary. Jackson is mentioned on at least 50 pages of the diary.

Orrin Robinson: Connecticut’s Thoreau

     We found the story of Orrin Robinson and the Methodist Melee on Main Street in an 1895 article in the Willimantic Journal, a long-defunct newspaper. The article was one of a series written by Lloyd Baldwin, an 85-year-old retired carpenter, builder, and contractor, about what Willimantic had been like before the Civil War, when Baldwin had been a young man first establishing himself in business. Baldwin had moved to Willimantic from Norwich in 1828 as an apprentice carpenter hired to work on the construction of one of the Thread City’s big, granite cotton mills, the Windham Cotton Manufacturing Company on Bridge Street. He stayed on to build scores of houses, churches, stores, theaters, and mills. Active in community affairs, he knew most of the city’s residents. Although himself an ardent Democrat — and therefore presumably not inclined towards abolitionism — Baldwin nevertheless admired the integrity of his abolitionist neighbor Orrin Robinson, a Willimantic farmer and member of the city’s new Methodist church.

     Methodists like Robinson formed the core of antislavery activity in antebellum Willimantic. In 1836 they built a new church on Main Street. According to Baldwin, they soon began inviting antislavery speakers to address their congregation. Consequently, in the spring of 1837, the Methodists invited “an abolition lecturer by the name of Phelps” to speak at the new church. No sooner had the lecture commenced, however, than a group of antiabolitionist “young hotheads, encouraged no doubt by older ones who should have known better,” attempted to disrupt the meeting. The Methodists fought back. A “rough and tumble scrimmage” broke out between the two sides that soon spilled onto Main Street. Someone notified the Deputy Sheriff, a fellow named Webb, who hurriedly arrived with at least one constable — and likely more — to break up the melee. After restoring order, the Deputy chewed out the combatants and — probably to ensure that the two sides didn’t start fighting again after he left — arrested and fined 15 or 20 of the leaders on both sides.

     All but one of those arrested paid their fines and went home. Standing on principle, however, Orrin Robinson, a “strong abolitionist,” announced that he would rather go to jail. So Robinson and “Constable Hosmer” — who may have been old Stephen Hosmer, a prosperous farmer with extensive fields on the edge of the city, or Stephen’s son, John, a respected merchant — set off (probably on horseback) for Brooklyn, CT, the Windham County seat and the site of the county jail. Apparently Hosmer was reluctant to put the old Methodist behind bars — the two families had known each other for years — and “making an excuse that he had forgotten his papers, … left Robinson in the road, supposing that would end it.” But Robinson seems to have had his gumption up, for he continued on towards Brooklyn on his own. Hosmer returned to Willimantic, picked up any paperwork that he may have left behind, and headed back towards Brooklyn. He overtook Robinson, accompanied him the rest of the way to Brooklyn, and “committed him to jail.”

     Thus Orrin Robinson of Willimantic, dedicated abolitionist, refused to pay a fine for the “crime” of defending an antislavery speaker’s right to speak — and his own and his fellow Methodists’ right to peaceably assemble — against an antiabolitionist mob. He also refused to take advantage of Hosmer’s implied offer to let him go home and forget the whole thing. Instead, he voluntarily went to jail, committing an act of antislavery civil disobedience about a decade before Henry David Thoreau’s more celebrated night in Concord jail for the similar offense of refusing to pay his poll tax because it supported a war — the Mexican-American War of the 1840s — that Thoreau believed was fought to acquire new land for slavery. Robinson died in 1864 at the age of 73, before the Civil War ended, but after the Emancipation Proclamation.

John Brown: Willimantic Conductor on the Underground Railroad 

     The story of Orrin Robinson and the Methodist Melee on Main Street made us wonder — if such staunch antislavery activists like Robinson lived in Willimantic, could the famous Underground Railroad have passed through the city? Did activists attempt to aid slaves who were escaping from bondage reach freedom in Canada or northern New England — itself an act of civil disobedience, for it was a violation of law — or did they limit themselves simply to attending abolitionist lectures? To find out, we turned to Horatio T. Strother’s The Underground Railroad in Connecticut, a scholarly account published in 1962. Strother’s chief source of information was the Siebert Collection, a trove of letters and other materials regarding the Underground Railroad that had been collected by Wilbur H. Siebert and stored at the Ohio State University Library.  According to Strother (citing pages in the Siebert Collection) the Underground Railroad did indeed run through Willimantic, and the three local conductors were John Brown, J. A. Conant, and J. A. Lewis.

     The Underground Railroad wasn’t a real railroad, of course. The term was a metaphor, and referred to a loosely organized (and illegal) system of escape routes (called “lines”) and safe houses (called “stations”) along which activists (called “conductors”) spirited escaped slaves to freedom. The Underground Railroad had three main or “trunk” lines in Connecticut. The most important entered the state at New Haven (most of the escaped slaves arriving in Connecticut came by ship), proceeded overland to Middletown, headed north to Hartford and Farmington (which was the “Grand Central Station” of the Underground Railroad in Connecticut), and then went on to Massachusetts, Vermont, and finally Canada. A western trunk line came overland from New York City and followed the Housatonic valley north to Vermont, while an eastern trunk line began either at New London or Westerly, Rhode Island, and then proceeded north through Norwich, Hanover, Putnam, and Worcester, Massachusetts. All three trunks had numerous “branches,” and the precise routes were changed constantly in order to confound the authorities. Willimantic was often a stop on the eastern route.

     To find out more about John Brown, we turned to the Windham town clerk’s office in Willimantic to check the land, birth, marriage, and death records. Not surprisingly, we found more than one John Brown, for it was a common name. (None of them, of course, was the John Brown, of Harper’s Ferry fame, who was born in 1800 in Torrington, CT, but left the state when he was five years old.) Of the Willimantic John Browns, one (John Brown I) married in 1763 and fathered four children, among them a second John Brown (John Brown II), who was born in 1769. John Brown II married Olive Martin in 1796, when he was 33. It is possible that he may also have had an earlier marriage: town records are often incomplete before 1840. According to town records, John Brown II and Olive had at least two children, Julia and Roswell — but according to Lloyd Baldwin, who knew him, John Brown II actually fathered seven sons and eight daughters, including John M. Brown (John Brown III), whose birth records we could not find, but who married Harriet Carey of Willimantic in 1846 and died in 1893. John Brown II outlived Olive and married  yet again, in 1839, when he was 70, to his neighbor Nancy Fitch. He probably died in 1842, when he was 73, for it was that year that Nancy sold her interest in the estate of her “beloved husband, John Brown, late of [Willimantic]. Deceased.” Nancy herself died of consumption in 1847, at the age of 64. Her death certificate, which we found, listed her as white, a farmer, and a resident of Willimantic. 

     The land records showed that John Brown II was a prosperous farmer with extensive holdings of about 300 acres on the northwestern outskirts of Willimantic, spanning the Windham-Mansfield town line. Lloyd Baldwin described John Brown II and his farm in one of his 1895 newspaper articles. The farmhouse, in a semi-secluded location on the “northerly side of the highway” (now West Main Street), was “an old landmark.” Most of the land was wooded, and provided much of the oak timber used to build the houses and stores of early Willimantic. John Brown II was, Baldwin asserted, “a substantial farmer and respected citizen.” One of his sons, Elias, lived across the road and, in 1849, served in the state legislature. Was it old farmer John Brown II or his son John M. Brown III, who was the conductor on the Underground Railroad? Was it the father or the brother of the state legislator? We could not be certain. Perhaps it was both. But the location of the Brown farm, in a semi-secluded spot on the outskirts of town, with plenty of land and woods to conceal activities, seemed like an ideal spot for a station on the Underground Railroad.

John Ashbel Conant: Mill Worker, Abolitionist, Radical Idealist

     J. A. Conant, the second Willimantic-based conductor on the Underground Railroad identified by Strother, was in many ways a typical New England abolitionist. Of humble origins and old Yankee stock, he was born in 1829 in the rural hamlet of Chaffeeville, in the town of Mansfield, a hilly agricultural community bordering Willimantic on the north. His father, Lucius, was a small farmer who, just a few years later, moved the family to the village of Gurleyville, also in Mansfield, to take a job as overseer in a small silk mill. The Conants had lived in Mansfield for generations. In later years, after he became a successful businessman, Conant (or his children, for he died two years before the book was published in 1920) gave his biography to Allen Lincoln, a Willimantic businessman, attorney, and amateur historian, for inclusion in Lincoln’s two-volume Modern History of Windham County, Connecticut. He provided detailed information about his family history, tracing his roots all the way back to 1620s colonists at Plymouth and Salem, Massachusetts. The deeply religious and highly principled Conant seems to have identified strongly with his Calvinist forebears, whom he likely saw as role models, dedicated zealots who had risked everything for their cause. They were the kind of people that he wanted to be, too.

     Despite his traditional Protestant Yankee background, Conant grew up during an age of great change and upheaval, a time when challenges to social and political norms were becoming commonplace. It was the 1830s and 1840s, the early years of the Industrial Revolution and the advent of Jacksonian democracy. While some New England farmers still struggled to wrest their living from the thin, worn-out soil of hillside farms that had been worked for too many generations, enterprising men with surplus capital to invest were building the nation’s first textile factories. Conant’s hometown of Mansfield figured prominently in these changes as the birthplace of America’s silk industry. Modernizing farmers planted mulberry trees and raised silk worms, and forward-thinking millers spun silk thread in several small, inexpensive-but-innovative, one-room millhouses. People Conant knew well — his father, his uncle Joseph Conant, several of his Gurleyville neighbors, and other members of his extended family — moved from traditional semi-subsistence farming to silk, including the related Hanks family that built America’s first silk mill. It was only natural that Conant would join them. As he moved haltingly towards adulthood, it would be silk, not farming, that became his career.

     Like many other marginal Yankees, Conant moved around a lot, living in several locations and with a number of different people. In 1839, when he was 10, and two years after Orrin Robinson took part in the Methodist Melee on Main Street, Conant was sent to live with his mother’s brother, a farmer in Tolland, CT, probably as an informal apprentice, a common arrangement. In 1843, when he was 14, he returned to his father’s house in Gurleyville, and the next year he went to work as a laborer in the silk mill where his father Lucius was overseer. In 1845 Conant left Gurleyville to work for O. S. Chaffee, a prosperous Mansfield farmer who also owned a silk mill, in Chaffeeville, where Conant had been born. Then, two years later, in 1847, he switched employers again, taking a job as a jack spinner in another small Mansfield silk mill. He didn’t stay long, returning to Chaffee’s mill in 1848. Then he moved again, later that year, to work in a small silk mill in Atwoodville, another Mansfield hamlet.

     Working in textile mills, even small ones like those in Mansfield, was physically demanding and potentially incapacitating, and in time the work caught up with Conant. He became chronically ill. In 1849, at the age of 20, he left Mansfield, a world of poor hilltop farms, extended Yankee families, and small mills, and traveled to the growing textile city of Rockville, to take work as a jack spinner at the large American Mill. For the first time in his life, Conant was exposed both to urban life and to the dangers of the larger mills. The silk industry was in depression, many of the small Mansfield mills that had opened two decades earlier were now closed, and Conant probably felt lucky just to have a job. But in 1851 he became sick. Nothing in the historical record identifies the illness, but it seems to have recurred several times during his life, on each occasion forcing him temporarily to quit mill work. Considering the era, his need for extended recuperation, and the fact that nineteenth-century textile mills were notorious for their choking clouds of lint and fabric dust, a good guess is that he had developed some sort of lung ailment. As Conant lived to the age of 89, it probably wasn’t tuberculosis. But it might have been brown lung, a typical disease for industrial spinners. Perhaps it was his recurring bouts of illness and convalescence that inclined Conant to deepen his religious faith, which became increasingly fervent with time.

     Far from affluent, in these years Conant lived on the margins of society. After recuperating for a few months, in 1852 Conant got married, and two years later his first child was born. Sick or not, he now had a family to support and he had to go back to work, first at a silk mill in Mansfield Hollow, then away from Mansfield as a spinner in Broad Brook. Once again his health failed, but after a short convalescence he was back at work in Gurleyville, this time as an overseer. After his son was born, Conant moved again, this time to Hartford, where he once more took up mill work. In 1865 he attempted to break away from the mills and purchased a farm in West Hartford, but he couldn’t make a go of it. In 1857 Conant moved yet again, to Waterford, CT, where he took a job as the manager of a marginal silk mill. When this mill went out of business in 1859 — the same year that his mother died — Conant remained in Waterford, finding work as an overseer in a hoop skirt factory. That job didn’t last long, either, and Conant soon moved on to mill jobs in Waterbury and Ellington.

     For the young Conant, the years 1843-60 were years of spiritual and political development. Somehow, he found the time to become involved in antislavery activity in Willimantic, where according to Strother, he became a conductor on the Underground Railroad, guiding escaped slaves from one station to the next on their way to freedom in northern New England or Canada. Like other conductors, Conant kept quiet about his activities, even in later years. Yet his involvement seems to have been real. Although Conant did not reside in Willimantic until after the Civil War, for eight crucial years — from 1843 to 1849 (when he was aged 14 through 20) and 1852 through 1854 (when he was aged 23 through 25), he lived only a few miles away in next-door Mansfield. Especially during the tumultuous years of 1852-54 — when Conant was married, returned to Mansfield, and fathered a son; and when the Compromise of 1850, Fugitive Slave Act, Kansas-Nebraska Act, and publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by former Connecticutter Harriet Beecher Stowe roiled the nation and inflamed many New Englanders — Conant might easily have traveled the few miles from Mansfield Hollow or Atwoodville to Willimantic to join in antislavery activity. Tellingly, it was precisely then, in 1852, that the 23-year-old Conant voted in his first Presidential election, casting his ballot for Free Soil Party candidate John Parker Hale, an antislavery United States Senator from New Hampshire.

     Conant continued to be associated with social and religious reform throughout the 1850s and the rest of his life. After voting for the Free Soil Party in 1852, he joined the fledgling Republican Party in the mid-1850s, attracted by its antislavery wing. But the Republicans, he thought, became increasingly hidebound as time went on, and he left the party in 1872, after the Civil War, to join the Prohibitionist Party. In 1884, although still a strong temperance advocate, he left the Prohibitionists for the reconstituted American Party, with its platform of nativism and opposition to Freemasonry and other secret organizations that, Conant believed, promoted “idolatry.” Although probably raised a Congregationalist, Conant was an early convert to Methodism, which was the antislavery church in Willimantic. Did he join the Willimantic Methodist church when he lived in Mansfield Hollow, only a few miles away? Perhaps. There was no Methodist church in Mansfield at the time, and the church in Willimantic was closest. He later reconverted to Congregationalism, and in 1881 helped found the First Berean Church of Willimantic, a radical Protestant church. Antislavery, temperance, nativism, antimasonry, and radical Protestantism were often linked in the tumultuous years before the Civil War. They seem to have been in Conant, too.

     Few of Conant’s friends and neighbors accepted his radical political and religious views. But many tolerated and respected him as a man of principle, even if his principles were sometimes a little hard to swallow. Allen Lincoln probably spoke for many when he eulogized Conant two years after his 1918 death: “He ever stood conspicuously for reform, progress and improvement, strongly opposing all those agencies or elements which he believed were detrimental to the best interests of the individual and of the country at large. Though men differed from him in opinion, they always respected his integrity and his loyalty to his honest convictions. Life was to him purposeful and earnest and every obligation was bravely met and faithfully performed.” Like many abolitionists, Conant was an idealist, a hard man to like and an even harder man to vote for, but an easy man to respect.

     Conant did not serve in the Union army when the Civil War began in 1861, probably because he was too busy supporting his family and possibly also because of his chronic illness. Instead, he continued to work a series of peripatetic jobs in silk mills — jobs that probably didn’t pay very much. His second son was born in 1861, but tragically died the next year. In 1863 his wife Caroline also died. The wandering Conant and his son returned to Mansfield, where he joined his brother David (who did go off to fight) in owning and operating a small silk mill. He remarried in 1864, to Marietta French Brown, a widow with a child of her own. When his and David’s mill failed, Conant took a job in yet another Mansfield silk mill. Then, in 1865, life changed forever for both Conant and the country. The Civil War ended, and Conant secured a job as an overseer with the large Holland Silk Company factory in Willimantic. He worked his way up in the company to superintendent. He fathered two more sons, in 1866 and 1869. No longer constantly inhaling the lint-filled air of the mill floor, his health stopped deteriorating. Conant retired from the Holland Company in 1907, when he was 78. He died in 1918, prosperous and respected.

Cotton, Slavery, and Politics in the 1850s

     Political divisions and discord in the United States, Connecticut, and Willimantic deepened in the 1850s, a period that historians have characterized as “the Crisis of Union.” Nationally, the Missouri Compromise was overturned and replaced by the Compromise of 1850, which no one liked. The Fugitive Slave Act infuriated New Englanders, while the addition of California as a free state (and the abolition of the slave trade in Washington, D. C.) disturbed Southerners. The Kansas-Nebraska Act led to violent conflict on the Great Plains between armed bands of pro– and antislavery settlers, a circumstance known as “Bleeding Kansas.” The Dred Scott decision, proclaimed by a pro-slavery Supreme Court, seemed to many New Englanders to open the door to the expansion of slavery into the West and North. Bleeding Kansas and the John Brown raid on Harper’s Ferry, VA, confirmed the beliefs of many that activists on the other side were out to kill them. The old pro-business Whig Party collapsed under the strain of sectional discord, to be replaced by the regional Republican Party, which existed only in the North. The old pro-farmer Democratic Party survived the turmoil, but only by temporarily splitting in two, with the Southern wing vociferously defending slavery and the Northern wing desperately looking for some sort compromise that would resolve the conflict and save the Union.

     Connecticut and Willimantic, too, were embroiled in the profound political conflict. The former two-party system of pro-farmer Democrats and pro-business Whigs convulsed, just as it did nationwide. In the early part of the decade, a new Free Soil Party arose on a platform of opposition to slavery. In 1854 the Free Soilers stunned observers by capturing a number of seats in the Connecticut legislature. Then, two years later, another new party appeared on the scene, the American Party, an anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant group also called the Know Nothings. The Know Nothings were even more successful than the Free Soilers; absorbing most of the state’s Free Soilers and Whigs, they actually won a majority in the legislature, as well as the governorship. But then they, too, fell apart, riven by internal discord, to be replaced by the end of the decade by the rising new Republican Party, a not-entirely-congenial combination of old pro-business Whigs, virulently nativist Know Nothings, anti-slavery Free Soilers, and renegade Democrats who bolted their old party because it still hoped to compromise on the issue of slavery. The Republicans became Connecticut’s new majority, supplanting the antebellum Democrats and winning control of the legislature and governorship for years to come.

     We approached our research on the 1850s with a hypothesis. Because Connecticut’s cotton industry relied on Southern, slave-picked cotton for its economic lifeblood, we expected that voters in cotton-mill towns would have been, overall, more likely than voters in non-cotton-mill towns to vote Democratic (the Democrats were the most strongly antiabolitionist of the state’s several political parties) and the least likely to vote Free Soil or Republican. To test this hypothesis, we constructed an experiment. We used data from the 1850 federal manufacturing census to divide Connecticut into manufacturing towns (those with several large mills, based on the number of employees), farm towns, and nonmanufacturing commercial towns. Then we further divided the manufacturing towns into cotton towns, other textile towns, foundry and metal-goods towns, and towns that had other manufactories, such as rubber mills or quarries. We discovered that the cotton mill towns were largely clustered in the eastern part of the state, especially the northeast. The foundry and metal-goods towns were clustered in the west, in the Naugatuck River valley. Then we examined voting patterns for the lower house of the state legislature (where every town had a least one representative, and the larger ones had two) in the 1850s, especially the 1854 state election (the high tide of the Free Soil Party) and the 1860 election (when the Republicans came to power).

     What we found surprised us. Rather than lean Democratic, as we had expected, the cotton mill towns were actually statistically more likely than other towns to vote Free Soil or Republican. The stronghold of the Free Soil Party in 1854 was Windham County, in the northeastern part of the state, where most of the cotton mills were located. The entire eastern half of the state was the Republican stronghold in 1860. Of course, not all Republican voters were antislavery, as we have seen, but the party was more closely associated with antislavery than the rival Democrats. The Democrats, for their part, were strongest in the foundry and metal-goods manufacturing towns. In 1860, the two parties split the farm towns fairly evenly, the Democrats won the foundry towns, while the Republicans won both the textile mill towns and the commercial port towns. We’re not sure why the cotton mill towns so often voted against their own economic interests. There are several possible explanations. Perhaps the idea of free labor, so central to industrializing New England, had taken such firm hold that it provided a new voting ideology. Perhaps, as some English historians have suggested about similar patterns in Britain, the cotton mill workers sympathized with the slaves as fellow members of an exploited class. More research needs to done to determine the true cause.

III. Among the Good and True: Willimantic-Area Soldiers

     Thousands of men from eastern Connecticut – including hundreds from the Willimantic area – joined the Union Army during the Civil War. Most were volunteers. They enlisted for a variety of reasons: to save the Union, to preserve democracy, to halt the spread of slavery, to abolish slavery, for personal glory, for soldiers’ pay, because it was their duty, and for many other reasons. Unlike most American wars (but similar to the Revolutionary War and World War II), few of these men were professional soldiers. Many were older than 25, married, and fathers. Almost all had civilian jobs.

     The dozens of Civil War gravestones we found in four Willimantic area cemeteries attest to the large number of men who served: the Windham Center Cemetery, the Old Willimantic Cemetery, the North Windham Cemetery, and St. Joseph’s Catholic Cemetery (where many of the Irish immigrant soldiers were buried). Most of the stones are official U. S. Armed Forces veteran’s markers – plain marble stones with smooth surfaces, block letters, and rounded tops.

Corporal William Smith of Willimantic: Irish Immigrant and Prisoner of War

     On August 19, 1861, just four months after the fall of Fort Sumter and less than a month after the first Battle of Bull Run, at Willimantic, CT, William Smith, an 18-year-old cotton-mill worker born in Ireland, joined Company H of the Seventh Regiment of the Connecticut Volunteer Infantry as a private. He didn’t have to do so. He was a volunteer, not a draftee. Indeed, he wasn’t even an American citizen. Smith served for the duration,  reenlisting on January 1, 1864. He was promoted to corporal on May 16, 1864, and was honorably discharged on June 19, 1865, almost four years after joining up. Considering all that he endured, it was a miracle that he survived. Not only did his unit suffer appallingly high casualties, Smith would be captured and imprisoned in the notorious Andersonville prison. He would serve in two important campaigns: the liberation of the Sea Islands and the Wilderness Campaign.

     That we know much of anything at all about Corporal Smith is itself also pretty much of a miracle. He was an ordinary man, the kind who didn’t publish memoirs, hold political office, or inspire biographies. He was literate, but didn’t write much. If he wrote any wartime letters home to his girlfriend, Maggie, none have survived. But in the fall of 2010, the Windham Textile and History Museum received a donation of two battered cardboard boxes stuffed with tattered, crumpled family papers, rescued from a trash heap. As it turned out, most the papers had belonged to the Smith family of Willimantic, descendants of William Smith. Among the items saved were the forms and letters that William Smith had submitted to the federal government in the late 1890s when, near death, he applied for a pension as an invalid veteran unable to work because of injuries sustained during the war. Combined with research we did in United States Census records, Willimantic street directories, and St. Joseph Cemetery, these papers recount the remarkable story of an immigrant who risked everything for his adopted country.

     Like many cotton workers, Smith was an immigrant, born in 1843 in Tipperary, Ireland. In some of the census records, he is recorded as having been born in New York — perhaps that meant that he had lived in New York before coming to Willimantic — but in other census reports and in his official paperwork, he is shown to have been born in Ireland. Indeed, among the papers that survived were his citizenship papers; in 1872, more than a decade after joining the Union army, Smith applied for, and was granted, U. S. citizenship. They declare that he was born in Ireland, a subject of Queen Victoria. (Thus Smith went from being a subject of a monarch to a citizen of a republic.) Little is known of Smith’s early life, of why he came to America, or even why he was in Willimantic in 1861. He does not appear in the city’s 1860 federal census, and his parents do not seem to have ever lived there. However, his future wife, Maggie Bradshaw, also an Irish immigrant, did live in Willimantic in 1860, in a rented company row house along with her parents, who worked for the Willimantic Linen Company. Perhaps Smith was in Willimantic courting Maggie when he decided to join up. 

     From Willimantic, Smith was sent to New Haven, where his regiment was officially organized. Like other regiments, the Seventh had 1,000 men divided into 10 companies of about 100 each. It was commanded by Colonel (later Major General) Alfred Terry of New Haven, a 34-year-old lawyer, Republican Party activist, and clerk of the New Haven County court who had helped raise and organize the regiment, after having fought earlier at First Bull Run. Terry remained in the army after the war, serving as military governor of the Dakota Territory. He negotiated the historically significant 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie with the Lakota (the treaty established the pattern for future U. S. relations with the western tribes), led the relief column that discovered Custer’s body after the Little Big Horn, crossed into Canada to negotiate with Sitting Bull, fought Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, and — in a later posting in Georgia — denounced the Ku Klux Klan. Terry died in New Haven in 1890. Second in command of the Seventh was Lt. Col. Joseph Roswell Hawley, a lawyer, ardent antislavery activist, and Free Soil and Republican Party politician from Hartford who, like Terry, had fought earlier at Bull Run. After the war, Hawley reentered politics and was elected governor of Connecticut and later United States Senator. He would also own and edit the Hartford Courant. The Seventh featured volunteers from throughout Connecticut, including Redding, Ridgefield, and Southington, as well as Willimantic, New Haven, and Hartford.

     Smith’s own Company H was comprised mostly of men from northeastern Connecticut. Its captain, John Dennis, was from Norwich, as were the two lieutenants, Theodore Burdick and Gorham Dennis. Two of the five sergeants were from Willimantic or Windham, Charles Wood and Charles Ripley. Other men from Willimantic or Windham included Corporal Charles Hooks and Privates David Cronan, Micheal Flynn, Frank Gallagher, Edmund Harvey, Benjamin Sanford, Jerome Snow, and John Walker. Smith was not the only Willimantic Irishman in the company.

     Tucked among the Smith family papers we found a half-size sheet of note paper from the office of Frank Fenton, the Windham Town Clerk, which contained a handwritten list of the “Engagements of the 7th Regiment C. V. I.” Perhaps Fenton or one his clerks had put the list together for Smith in the 1890s when he was applying for his pension, to aid his memory. The list is long, and corresponds to historical accounts of the regiment. The Connecticut Seventh — and presumably Smith along with it — first saw action in April of 1862, as part of the siege on Fort Pulaski, a Confederate stronghold in the Georgia Sea Islands — ironically, the source of some of the finest cotton that, before the war, had been processed into thread at the Willimantic mills where Smith had worked. After the fall of Fort Pulaski, the Seventh moved up the coast to the South Carolina Sea Islands, seeing combat at James Island in June and Porotaligo in October. The next year, in July of 1863, the Seventh fought at Morris Island, SC, before joining the deadly siege of Fort Wagner, SC, in October — best known as the fort assaulted by the 54th Massachusetts Regiment in the film Glory. The Union victories in the Sea Islands were important to the outcome of the war. The Union Navy used the Sea Islands as a key base in maintaining its blockade of the Confederacy, denying the South much-needed supplies and aid from overseas. The Seventh remained in the Deep South until early 1864, participating in the Battle of Olustee in Florida in February; just a few weeks earlier, Smith had reenlisted for the duration of the war.

     In the Spring of 1864 the Seventh was ordered north to Virginia to participate in the bloody Wilderness Campaign, the determined Union assault on the Confederate strongholds around Richmond. As part of the move, Smith was promoted to corporal. The Seventh saw action at Chester Station, VA, in May, and then fought three engagements at Bermuda Hundred. For Smith, the fighting at Bermuda Hundred was a turning point. On June 2 he was taken prisoner by Confederate forces and confined in the notorious Andersonville prison for nearly nine months, until he was paroled on February 28, 1865. Smith rejoined his old regiment, but by then, the fighting was over for the Seventh. The regiment saw no more combat. Smith was honorably discharged that summer, when the war finally ended. He was twenty-two.

     What impact did the war have on William Smith? On the one hand, he was lucky to be alive. He survived seven battles and a nine-month incarceration at Andersonville. During the war, the Seventh had had 11 officers and 157 enlisted men killed or mortally wounded, and another four officers and 192 enlisted men to disease, for a 36.4% casualty rate. The experience must have left scars, both physical and emotional. In 1890 Congress voted to provide pensions for disabled veterans, and in 1897 Smith applied, citing a “partial inability to earn a support by manual labor.” In 1899 his application was granted, when the Bureau of Pensions declared him an invalid.

     After the war, Smith returned to Willimantic and married Maggie Bradshaw. He took a job at the Willimantic Linen Company. His and Maggie’s first child, a daughter named Mary, was born in 1866. A son, William C., arrived in 1869. In 1872, Smith became a U. S. citizen. For a time, the family lived with Maggie’s parents. Then, sometime after 1870, Maggie died. Smith never remarried. The 1880 census found him and his children living in a tenement on Schoolhouse Hill. Later, when his son was grown, Smith moved in with him. Smith died in 1899, at the age of 54. His son, William C., grew up to become a barber with a shop of his own, an amateur actor (including roles in plays staged to raise money for the G. A. R., the Grand Army of the Republic, an association of Civil War veterans), a member of Catholic and Irish-American organizations, and later an overseer at the thread mill. Smith’s daughter, Mary Ann, married into the upwardly mobile Meehan family. Both remained in Willimantic. Two of Smith’s granddaughters attended the Willimantic Normal School and became teachers. His great-grandson would own and operate the Lake Compounce amusement park in Southington, CT. 

Casualties for Company H, 7th Regiment, C. V. I.

Captain Theodore Burdick, Norwich, killed

Lieutenant Charles A. Wood, Windham, killed

Sergeant Charles H. Ripley, Windham, killed

Corporal Henry A. Bottomly, Norwich, died

Corporal Charles H. Hooks, Windham, disabled

Musician Lewis Bradford, Sprague, died

Wagoner Francis Marsh, Norwich, disabled

Private Jared A. Abell, Bozrah, killed

Private Joseph A. Brown, Eastford, died of wounds

Private Theodore D. Bowers, Willington, died

Private Lorenzo S. Doolittle, New Haven, died

Private Patrick Donlan, Middletown, disabled

Private William S. English, New Haven, killed

Private Robert Erwin, Sprague, disabled

Private Michael Flynn, Windham, disabled

Private Allen Fry, Griswold, died

Private William J. Holland, Mansfield, disabled

Private Joab Jeffrey, New London, died

Private Lewis O. Palmer, Norwich, invalid

Private Arthur D. Pitcher, Norwich, disabled

Private Horace C. Rogers, Norwich, disabled

Private Benjamin Sanford, Windham, disabled

Private George Shay, Plainfield, disabled

Private George W. Smith, Norwich, disabled

Private Amos W. Taylor, Sprague, disabled

Private Perry Yerrington, Norwich, invalid

Captain Francis S. Long of Willimantic: Killed in Action

     Father James and son Francis (“Frank”) Long – 46 and 22 years old the year the war began – both joined the Union Army. James was a millworker and an immigrant; he had been born in England c. 1813, moved to Rhode Island (probably as a child), married Jane, an immigrant from Scotland, c. 1834, moved to Willimantic c. 1840, and worked as an operative in one of the city’s cotton mills. Frank grew up in Willimantic and worked as a mechanic, probably in the same mill. They joined different regiments, James the 18th and Frank the 21st. James survived. Frank did not. Captain Francis S. Long died in combat on July 30, 1864, at Petersburg, VA. The Willimantic chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic – an organization of Union Civil War veterans – was named after him.

     Frank Long enlisted in the 21st Regiment, Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, on August 2, 1862, a little more than a year after the war had begun and a year after William Smith joined the Seventh. Unlike Smith, Long entered the Army as an officer, appointed first lieutenant of Company D, which was comprised almost entirely of men from the Willimantic area. Company D’s first captain was Charles Southworth of Mansfield, who resigned his commission only a few months later, in November of 1862. Long, who as first lieutenant was second in command, was not immediately promoted, however; he became captain a year later, on July 31, 1863, when several other officers in the division were also promoted. Nevertheless, he seems to have been in command of the company after Southworth’s resignation. Long would have known many, if not most, of the men in Company D, even before it was formed. They were his neighbors. Most of the officers were from Mansfield, the town just north of Willimantic. One of the sergeants was David Conant, a silk worker and the brother of John A. Conant, the conductor on the Underground Railroad who we met in Chapter II.

     The 21st Connecticut was organized at Norwich in early September, 1862. It quickly traveled to Washington to join the Army of the Potomac. Almost immediately, the regiment found itself in the thick of things, taking part in the Battle of Fredericksburg in December, 1862, and the Mud March in January, 1863. In February, the 21st was moved to coastal Virginia, where it remained until February, 1864, when it was attached to Grant’s command in the bloody Wilderness Campaign — thus joining the Seventh in the all-out push to defeat Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. The 21st saw action at Cold Harbor, Petersburg, Richmond, Bermuda Hundred (where the Seventh also fought, and where William Smith was taken prisoner), New Market Heights, and Fair Oaks. It participated in the occupation of Richmond, VA, and Columbia, SC, before being mustered out in June of 1865. The 21st suffered fewer casualties than the Seventh: five officers and 55 enlisted men killed and mortally wounded, and one officer and 114 enlisted men felled by disease, for a 17.5% casualty rate — about half of the casualty rate of the Seventh. But several of the 21st’s casualties were from the Willimantic area. Frank Long was killed in action at Petersburg in July of 1864. Private Henry W. Thorne of Mansfield was killed in action near Drury’s Bluff, VA, in May, 1864.

Casualties for Company D, 21st Regiment, C. V. I.

Captain Francis S. Long, Windham, killed

Corporal John D. Gaylord, Ashford, disabled

Corporal Dwight P. Peck, Chaplin, died

Private John M. Brackett, Willington, died

Private Theodore F. Bennett, Mansfield, killed

Private George H. Crosby, Mansfield, died

Private Patrick Dunn, Windham, invalid

Private George Edgerton, Ashford, died

Private William Hulse, Mansfield, died

Private Eli Jackson, Lisbon, invalid

Private Elijah F. Owen, Ashford, died

Private William Robinson, Hampton, died

Private Henry W. Thorne, Mansfield, killed

Private Frank Tucker, Franklin, died

Private Whiting S. Wyllys, Mansfield, died

Private Jonathan Weeks, Eastford, disabled

Corporal Caesar Hall of Hampton: African American Soldier

     In 1863, following the Emancipation Proclamation, Congress agreed to permit African Americans to serve in the Union Army and Navy, although in segregated, all-black regiments led by white officers. Altogether, during the war more than 178,000 black men – a combination of free blacks and freed slaves, Northerners and Southerners – volunteered to fight for the Union (no black soldiers were drafted; all were volunteers) in 175 so-called “colored” regiments. Generally viewing the war as a crusade to end slavery, Northern black men volunteered in even greater proportions than Northern whites, and by the end of the war made up about 10% of the Union forces. The “colored” regiments suffered 2,751 combat casualties and 68,178 losses from all causes.

     On the 19th of November, 1863, the War Department authorized the Governor of Connecticut to raise a regiment to be designated as the “Twenty-ninth Regiment Connecticut Volunteers” (colored), to serve three years, or during the war; on the 23rd of November, in General Orders No. 17, the work of recruiting this regiment was officially begun at Hartford. This regiment made a splendid reputation, losing nineteen enlisted men killed, two officers wounded, one hundred and twenty-one enlisted men wounded, one enlisted man missing, making total casualties one hundred and forty-three.

            — George W. Williams, A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion (1888)

     One of the African American men who volunteered for service in the 29th Connecticut was Caesar Hall, Jr., a free black farm laborer from Hampton, Connecticut. In 1863 Hall was 34 years old, a husband, and a father of four. Like his father, Caesar Hall, Sr., he had been born in Connecticut. Caesar Hall, Jr., grew up in Hampton. He could read and write. According to the 1860 U. S. Census, his wife Julia was a stay-at-home mother and housewife, and his eldest child Nancy attended local schools. In 1864 Hall earned a promotion to Corporal when, on guard duty, he stopped a soldier from one of the all-white regiments from deserting.

     SAMUEL BOWERS, of New-York, a volunteer at the camp on Grapevine Point, attempted to desert on Friday night, by running the guard. CAESAR HALL, of Co. A [Hall was actually in Co. H], Twenty-ninth Connecticut Volunteers, (colored) on guard at the time, ordered him to halt, when BOWERS threw snuff in his eyes. HALL pursued and closed with the runaway; he bayoneted him badly through the arm, broke his gunstock over his head, and brought him back to camp. BOWERS was sent to the hospital, and will probably recover. HALL was, this morning, promoted to be corporal.

            — New York Times, 3 Jan. 1864

     After the war, Hall returned to his family in Hampton and continued to work as a farm laborer. He died in 1896 and is buried in the Old Willimantic Cemetery.

     The following African American men from the Windham, Connecticut, area joined the 29th Connecticut Volunteers, one of 175 all-black regiments that fought for the Union during the Civil War.

Company B

William Buell, musician, Columbia (deserted)

William Street, musician, Scotland

Pvt. William Burton, Scotland

Pvt. William Burris, Franklin

Pvt. William Carpenter, Franklin

Pvt. Richard Campbell, Scotland

Pvt. Charles Kane, Scotland

Pvt. Ganalvin Marr, Scotland

Pvt. John Nichols, Hampton

Pvt. George Rogers, Franklin

Pvt. Austin Seymour, Lebanon (deserted)

Pvt. John Williams, Franklin

Company C

Pvt. Henry Wood, Franklin

Company D

Pvt. Sam Francis, Franklin

Company E

Pvt. Joseph A. Davis, Windham

Company F

Pvt. Richard Anthony, Franklin

Pvt. George Johnson, Scotland

Pvt. John Randall, Franklin

Company H

Cpl. Caesar Hall, Hampton

Pvt. William H. Brown I, Plainfield

Pvt. William H. Brown II, Coventry

Pvt. Jer. A. Gardiner, Columbia

Company I

Pvt. Edmund H. Talbot, Mansfield

Company K

Pvt. William Anderson, Mansfield

Pvt. Samuel Burden, Mansfield

Pvt. Walter P. Coleman, Mansfield

Pvt. Benjamin Jackson, Columbia

Pvt. James P. Wooster, Mansfield


Pvt. John Q. A. Hall, Hampton

Pvt. Morris Holbert, Hampton

Pvt. Elisha Thomas, Mansfield

Private Henry W. Thorne of Willimantic: We Will Find You

     A large zinc monument in the Old Willimantic Cemetery marks the plot of the Thorne family. Civil War soldier Edwin M. Thorne (1846-1910) is among those buried there. The name of his older brother, Henry W. Thorne (c. 1837-64), is also on the monument, but his body lies elsewhere, probably buried somewhere near Drury’s Bluff, VA, where he died in battle on May 10, 1864. The clue is in the following poem, etched under his name on the family monument.

No more the bugle calls the weary one;

Rest, noble spirit, in the grave unknown.

We will find you, we will know you,

Among the good and true,

When the robe of white is given

For the faded coat of blue.

Sergeant William Hooper of Willimantic: Medal of Honor Recipient

     The Congressional Medal of Honor is America’s highest award for military valor.  It is bestowed only on those who have performed an act of such gallantry as to rise “above and beyond the call of duty.” One recipient was William Hooper, the son of  Willimantic cotton mill workers. Hooper, a Willimantic man, who enlisted with the New Jersey Cavalry, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1865.  According to the 1860  U.S. census, Hooper was one of three children born to mill operatives John and Mary Hooper.  He was awarded the citation for heading off the enemy at Chamberlain’s Creek and possibly shooting two color bearers (flag carriers) and saving the company and their horses. Hooper, a mariner, died in 1870 in Caldera, Chile, age 29. His official military gravestone is in the Old Willimantic Cemetery.

Congressional Medal of Honor Facts:

539 men earned certificates of honor in the Mexican-American War of the 1840s, before the Medal of Honor originated.

About 1500 Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded during the Civil War.

As of 1985, from the Civil War through the Viet Nam War, 3,394  Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded.  3,393 medals were awarded to men and one was awarded to a woman.

General Nathaniel Lyon of Eastford: Among the First to Die

     Nathaniel Lyon of Eastford, became the first Union General to die in battle during the Civil War. Lyon led his troops to St. Louis to protect a federal arsenal and to hold the city and the state of Missouri against the Confederates. On August 10, 1861, he fought at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek in Missouri. Lyon’s horse was shot out from under him, he was shot several times, and he died from his wounds. General Lyon’s body was returned home for burial. Some ten thousand people lined the route from the Willimantic railroad depot to the Eastford cemetery to pay their respects at his funeral and burial on September 5, 1861. 


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