The shell from the Confederate mortar, its red fuse glowing “like the wings of a firefly,’’ according to one observer, hung briefly before beginning its descent and exploding directly over Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor.
That first shot, at 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, ignited the greatest, most decisive war in American history. By the time the guns fell silent four years later, slavery was abolished, the national union was preserved and a staggering 620,000 men had died.
The Civil War left an indelible mark on America’s soul. Its pivotal place in the nation’s history is beyond dispute.
“Modern America as we know it was born in 1865,’’ said James I. “Bud” Robertson Jr., one of the country’s most esteemed historians of a conflict that remains enveloped in myth and misunderstanding, not just in the defeated South, but in the North, even after 150 years and the passage of several generations.
Connecticut — where the outbreak of the war will be commemorated by the firing of a ceremonial cannon Tuesday firing April 12 on the north lawn of the state Capitol — is no exception.
The contribution the state made to the Union’s victory was immeasurable. About 55,000 men, 12 percent of the state’s population, served in the war and 5,354 of them perished.
Connecticut factories and shipyards supplied the Union’s armies and navy with huge quantities of guns, ammunition and materiel, while the state’s wives, sisters and mothers took the lead in the care and provisioning of its troops.
More than 130 war monuments and memorials across the state attest to the wartime sacrifice and dedication of Connecticut citizens.
It’s a stirring narrative, to be sure, but one that glosses over some rather unpleasant realities.
While Connecticut was staunchly pro-Union and its residents largely opposed to the spread of slavery, it was also virulently anti-black — the “Georgia of New England,’’ in the words of Massachusetts abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison — and home to an active, vociferous peace movement that came perilously close in the spring of 1863 to toppling the Republican state administration.
In 1864, fueled by a string of Union successes, President Abraham Lincoln was re-elected in a landslide, yet squeaked by in Connecticut, his 2,405-vote margin of victory secured by a change in the state’s constitution that extended voting rights to soldiers serving in the field.
In October 1865, just months after the guns had been stilled, Connecticut voters soundly rejected a state constitutional amendment that would have given blacks the right to vote.
These striking contradictions about how and why Connecticut fought the war and their legacy are examined in “Connecticut in the American Civil War: Slavery, Sacrifice & Survival” (Wesleyan University Press, 2011), the first in-depth look at the state’s Civil War experience published in 46 years.
The book’s author, Matthew Warshauer, a history professor at Central Connecticut State University, said residents today would be surprised to learn of “the intense anti-black racism that existed and that Connecticut didn’t line up” and fully support the war effort.
A co-chairman of the Connecticut Civil War Commemoration Commission, Warshauer, like other historians of the period, believes that the war’s 150th anniversary provides an opportunity for a fresh, more balanced and nuanced look at the conflict. It’s a chance, he said, to examine what it resolved — the end of slavery and the claimed right of state secession — and what it did not — racial and political equality and the limits of federal power, topics that are still hotly contested today.
“History is about understanding the themes that extend across generations,’’ Warshauer said.
“And The War Came’’
On April 15, 1861, in response to the attack on Fort Sumter, Lincoln asked for 75,000 troops to help put down the rebellion.
Connecticut’s governor, William A. Buckingham, a Republican, immediately called for volunteers. Within days, the 1st Regiment of the Connecticut Volunteer Infantry was formed in Hartford and the 2nd Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment was mustered in New Haven a few days later.
They were the first in what grew to a total of 30 infantry regiments, including the 29th Colored Volunteers, artillery and cavalry units that the state supplied to the Union armies.
Nearly half — 47 percent — of Connecticut males between the ages of 15 and 50 served in the war.
The men left family farms and factories and gave up comfortable professions to take up arms against a rebellion that had erupted in places most of them had never been.
Why did they do it?
The traditional answer — to preserve the Union — fails to convey the passion and depth of feeling that animated those alive during the 1840s and 1850s, when the issue of slavery dominated national politics.
Northern states, reliant on free labor and with a highly visible abolition movement, growing industrial might and expanding financial and mercantile interests, believed that the country was being held hostage by “the slave power’’ — Southern plantation owners who viewed slave labor as a right protected under the U.S. Constitution that could be extended anywhere legitimately.
The tie that bound these competing, contrasting economic systems was the production of slave-dependent cotton, “and both the South and the North became seduced by its economic power and turned away from a morality that they knew was challenged and troubling,” Warshauer said.
Those fighting for the Union cause believed that slaveholding secessionists “sought to undo the work of the founding generation by dismantling a government that afforded white citizens wide economic and political opportunities and stood as a democratic example to the world,’’ concluded Gary W. Gallagher, the John L. Nau III Professor in the History of American Civil War at the University of Virginia.
Slavery had ended in Connecticut just 13 years before the state marched to war. Free blacks accounted for but 8,227 of the state’s 460,147 residents, according to the 1860 Census, and a rising tide of European immigrants, principally from Ireland and Germany, had swelled its labor force. The abolition movement, by comparison with neighboring Massachusetts, remained modest.
Beginning with the First Battle of Bull Run, in July 1861, Connecticut troops saw action in all the theaters of the conflict and participated in its most ferocious battles, notably Antietam, Fredericksburg, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor and the Seven Days.
On the home front, Connecticut women organized groups to produce uniforms, knapsacks, flags, bandages and other essentials. A network of 70 local aid societies under the direction of the Hartford Soldiers Aid Society tended to the physical, medical and emotional needs of the state’s troops.
Mystic shipyards built ships for the Union blockade and Connecticut was transformed, in Warshauer’s phrase, into “a virtual arsenal unto itself,’’ with well-known gunmakers like Colt, Eli Whitney Jr., Sharps and Savage Arms producing rifles and revolvers; Hazard Powder Co. manufacturing gun powder; and the Collins Co. churning out bayonets and cutting tools.
Not everyone was swept up in the patriotic wave.
From the onset, there were Connecticut citizens opposed to war with the Confederacy. Peace flags flew around the state and in June 1861, a near riot erupted in Goshen after one resident raised the secession banner.
The peace wing of the state Democratic Party found its champion in Thomas H. Seymour, a Mexican War hero who in April 1863 challenged Gov. Buckingham in a bitter, highly contested campaign.
By that time, the Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect, ending slavery in the Confederate states, and Connecticut’s highly partisan newspapers provided the forum to debate the war’s proper aims: restoring the union as it existed in 1860 or ending slavery.
Impassioned pleas were published from soldiers in the field and key furloughs allowed some units to return home to vote, swinging the election in Buckingham’s favor. Connecticut soldiers fully understood that emancipation deprived the Confederacy of the forced labor it needed to restock its depleted white military.
One soldier, Fred Lucas of the 19th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, explained in a letter to his mother his anger at Seymour and his supporters:
“We can have some little respect for an armed traitor in the enemy’s rank, but for those who sympathisecq with treason at home we have none but for them we have the greatest and deepest disgust.”
The vitriol of Connecticut Democrats over emancipation and black equality reached a fever pitch in the 1864 campaign. “The core of the Democratic message was racially motivated, in the hope that the continued ridicule of blacks and abolitionists would successfully sway white voters,’’ concluded Warshauer.
The strategy failed. Lincoln was re-elected, and the war ended six months later.
The War Remembered
The Connecticut Civil War Commemoration Commission, created by executive order last September, is one of more than 20 state commissions or committees formed to recognize the war’s 150th anniversary.
Unlike the Civil War Centennial of the 1960s, there is no national commission, so individual states are left to decide how much — or how little — to devote to the commemoration.
Virginia, home to the Confederate capital and scene of 60 percent of the war’s battles, occupies one end of the spectrum. The Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission has received a state appropriation of $2 million annually since 2008, according to its executive director, Cheryl Jackson, and is currently sponsoring a major exhibit at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond funded by a $950,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant.
Connecticut’s commission, like those in most other states, operates on a shoestring, with no direct state support, subsisting on small donations, some money from CCSU and larger grants from the Connecticut Humanities Council and The Travelers, whose founder, James Batterson, was a leading supporter of Lincoln and Buckingham.
The commission’s mission — to increase public understanding of the Civil War and its legacy — comes at a time when, as Warshauer points out, the study of history and social studies “is under siege” in public schools because of budget-cutting.
A recent story in Newsweek magazine, focusing on the public’s ignorance of American history and government, said 38 percent of 1,000 American citizens given the U.S. citizenship test failed.
James Robertson, whose lectures on the Civil War at Virginia Tech and on National Public Radio have riveted generations of students, advises Connecticut teachers to use diaries, letters, telling anecdotes and human details to bring the story of the nation’s greatest trial to life.
“Teach the human aspect of the war, the emotional aspect of the war. One of my axioms of a half-century of college teaching is if you don’t understand the emotional aspect of the war, you don’t understand the war,’’ he said.
Booker DeVaughn, the retired president of Three Rivers Community College and co-chairman of the Connecticut commission, has an avid interest in local and state history.
An African American, he has served on the board of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, researched the accomplishments of the 29th Colored Infantry and said that one legacy of the war is that society can change for the better.
“How you incorporate black people, African Americans, into the life of America has been an ongoing issue,” he said.
“We are moving toward a time when the ideals of the American Revolution — “we the people” — really mean all the people. We continue to progress. This commemoration recognizes where we were
“Young people may not be confident they can change things. But society can be changed. You go from the Emancipation Proclamation to the election of Barack Obama.”Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times