Gone With The Winsted: 
The Civil War in The Litchfield Hills

President Lincoln by William Marsh, 1860.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gone With The Winsted: The Civil War in The Litchfield Hills

In 1861, following the election of Abraham Lincoln to the United States presidency on a platform to prohibit the legal slavery of African Americans, seven southern states seceded from the country, and the American Civil War began.

While no battles were fought on the soil of Connecticut, Peter C. Vermilyea has gone to lengths to detail the political climate of Northern communities and military recruitment efforts in the early years of the conflict in a new book from The History Press, “Litchfield County and The Civil War.” Vermilyea, a history teacher at Housatonic Valley Regional High School and the author of “Wicked Litchfield County” and “Hidden History of Litchfield County,” will appear at the David M. Hunt Library in Falls Village for a discussion Saturday, March 2, at 2 p.m.

At the time of Lincoln’s election, three local weekly newspapers served Litchfield County — The Litchfield Enquirer, The Winsted Herald, and The Housatonic Republican — and the area had entered a period of economic stagnation after the uptick in enterprise when the Salisbury Furnace produced the majority of cannons used in the American Revolutionary War. The region’s swampy meadows and rocky soil, Vermilyea points out, did not attract any swell in the population size following America’s independence, especially after the county’s iron mines and furnaces were acquired by the Barnum and Richardson Company.

Still, these underpopulated Northwest Connecticut towns wanted to be represented in the war and were resolute to have area men in prominent positions in the state’s regiment. Vermilyea writes that the average Litchfield County recruit for the 19th Connecticut Infantry Regiment, which served in the Union Army, was 27 years old, equally likely to be married or unmarried, and thanks to “the county’s long-standing support of public education… 95 percent of its men who marched off to war in the summer of 1862 were literate.” From a photo of the infantry preserved by the Litchfield Historical Society, we also know the majority were in possession of hefty, dark mustaches on their upper lips. Nearly half were farmers, and many were Irish, thanks to the efforts of Irish-born Michael Kelly, who worked to enlist the considerable immigrant population of the town of Sharon.

Litchfield’s Camp Dutton training ground, which has been the site of contemporary Civil War reenactments, was a place of maturation for the twentysomething-aged soldiers in more than one way — swaths of young women were regular visitors, the sight of fitted bodices and floor-skimming skirts as visible as any Prussian blue military coat. The era’s more cordial aspects of courtship had been evidently thrown out the window in wartime, leading to more lax views on a flirtatious brush of one’s lips on a soldier. Affection from these young women was perhaps seen as more permissible, considering the likelihood that these men would never return home. The Enquirer lamented that “the very flower and cream of our county — the best and dearest to many of us… we shall never see anymore.”

In one letter home, a soldier at Camp Dutton wrote that a certain Lieutenant Frederick Barry “spent this p.m. and evening with Miss Alice Marsh, the most beautiful lady that has visited our camp… I was quite fascinated by Miss Alice the very first time I saw her… and as I think Lieut Berry the finest looking man in our regiment, it is not strange to think that I should wish there might be a Mrs. Lieut B from New Milford before we go.”

In 1864, after the men of Camp Dutton had been stationed guarding the Washington capitol from Virginia for 20 long months, battling the threat of disease rather than the threat of Confederate violence, they joined The Battle of Cold Harbor near Mechanicsville. It was an unmatched battle for the Union soldiers, resulting in an unnecessary litter of corpses and the Union “suffering more than three hundred casualties in about an hour of fighting.”

“Litchfield had approximately 3,200 residents when the war began and sent 299 men off to war,” Vermilyea records. “27 were killed or mortally wounded, another 27 died of disease and five died in prisoner of war camps.” In many ways, Camp Dutton and the promise of valor had been the highest point of Litchfield County’s Civil War effort.

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