Heroes and a heroine for all time

indexDione Longley has written Heroes for All Time: Connecticut Civil War Soldiers Tell Their Stories by compiling their words from letters and diaries.  She quipped that writing this book took longer than the war.  But clearly she never lost the heart of the storytelling, as she shared with us at the New Haven Museum with her book signing.

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She recounts how Connecticut farmers, factory workers, and college students rallied as Citizen-Soldiers, as called upon by President Lincoln the day after the firing upon Fort Sumter.

Longley follows one fighting regiment in particular, through the painfully evocative writing of Nathan Taylor, a tinsmith, who described the rush to training camp, the inexperience of the recruits, and the details of battles throughout the war.  Unlike so many others, Taylor made it through the war with only one minor injury.

What Longley does in the book is bring familiar skeleton facts to life.  Taylor describes the fear he felt while on watch.  He heard a noise and was sure it came from a Confederate soldier.  Turned out to be a hog.  The next day, the battle at Bull Run began.  The juxtaposition between an ordinary experience and colossal chaos and fear become alive in the solder’s words.

It was a long war for the Connecticut troops.  The house painter Lucius Bidwell, from the Connecticut 14th, fought from 1862.  He was wounded at Fredricksburg, then went on to fight in 8, yes 8, more engagements before he died at Wilderness.

Captain John Griswold’s gravestone in Old Lyme, CT

From a different point in the soldier spectrum, Captain John Griswold came from a famous family and was a Yale grad.  When he was fatally shot at Antietam, he didn’t die right away.  A classicist and a gentleman, he apologized to those who had to care for him, “sorry to be a bother,” and spent his last hours quoting poetry with another officer.  He recalled the “flash of sunlight off Antietam Creek.”  Has anyone else capture that kind of remembrance of Antietam?

Henry Wing, in the 27th Color Guard, made clear how dangerous carrying a regimental flag could be.  In the noise and confusion and smoke of battle, when an order couldn’t be heard, the flag was essential for helping soldiers find their own.  The flags were huge, often 6′ x 9′, proudly displaying the regimental colors.  Consequently, they became a target.  On both sides, the ultimate pride came from capturing an enemy flag.

Wing wrote they’d all willingly die before giving up a flag.  That’s why 12 men were needed to carry 2 flags.  The death rate was appalling.  During one battle, he wrote, he was “proud for a minute” before the “murderous fire of rebel artillery” threatened the flag again.  After being shot in the leg, he crawled around looking for the flag, noting “ten of my fellows were dead.”  He wrote there’s “no romance, no glory.  Just disgust for those who planned such slaughter.”

Rev. Henry Clay Trumbull

Rev. Henry Clay Trumbull

I was completely surprised by the image this story makes.  Reverend Henry Clay Trumbull of the 10th Connecticut Regiment described the small pleasures of watermelon.  Not at camp, but in battle.  “What could be more refreshing under fire?”  He described officers “carrying slices, taking a bite between each command.”

The stories go on and on.  They are so terribly personal, while also sociological.  What kind of people are we that we fought this kind of war?  Toby Kellogg was captured and put at the notorious Andersonville prison, where the men had no shelter through the winter and were starved.  Meager rations were brought in on the same carts that carried out the dead.  He wrote, “it takes no great courage to die in battle, with fame undying and comrades to care and cheer for you,” while POWs “gain no sympathy” and “are dying by inches.”

And then there were the Wadham brothers from Litchfield County.  Headed toward a battle for Richmond, the three fought in different regiments, coming at the battle from three different directions.  Luman wrote of riding off to visit his brother Henry, only to learn he had just been killed.  Luman, Henry, and Edward all died within a two week period.  Imagine being that mother.

You’ve been waiting for me to mention women.  Longley only told us about one.  But oh what a story she had!  Harriet Ward Hawley, an abolitionist and cousin to Harriet Beecher Stowe, followed her husband Joseph Hawley after he joined up.


“I wish I could enlist,” she wrote.  She got on-the-job training as a nurse, tending the soldiers.  “They suffer terribly.  You do not dream of what these men undergo.”  Berating herself because she always considered herself good in an emergency, she fell into despair.  “45 dead today.  A piece of my life went with each one.”

After the war, her husband became governor of Connecticut.  And she had a bizarre cart accident with a recovery that involved staying in a darkened room for two years.  Now that would make you nuts.

But Hawley never forgot the soldiers.  She advocated for their pensions.  The wounded often could not work after the war and yet had no recompense for the devastating results from their service.  Hawley never stopped fighting for these men, even at the end of her life, when she was frail and walked with crutches.  When she died in 1886 at age 54, she received a “soldiers burial,” with a ritual flag-draped coffin and decorated headstone.

What soldiers they all were.  Ordinary, heroic.  To be remembered.



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