By Karen Phillips Miller
I returned to my hometown of Granby, after being away for 39 years. Funny, it didn’t seem possible that I could have been gone that long, but I felt a yearning, a swell of homesickness that wouldn’t go away for months on end. So one day last year, I cancelled all my appointments, cleared my schedule completely, and got on an airplane in Jacksonville, Florida. Within a few hours, I was home again, in the town where I spent the first 18 years of my life.
In the center of Granby there is a park, which we referred to as the Granby Green when I was growing up. In the center of the park is a Civil War memorial, the heart of our community. As I pulled my rental car into a parking place, I was immediately drawn to the monument, a landmark I recall so well. I was awash with memories as I stood at its base; I remember eating ice cream cones there when I was a little girl, and flirting with boys there after curfew when I was a teenager. But I never knew anything about the monument itself, not even its name, nor how it came to be there.
I suppose I would consider myself a patriot. I played trumpet in the Granby Memorial High School marching band on Memorial Day, even performing “Taps” at the cemetery, just once, when another, better trumpet player became ill. I placed my hand over my heart when I said the Pledge of Allegiance, and I could recite the Gettysburg Address without faltering. But what did I know about the Civil War, other than the dates and battlefields we were forced to memorize in high school history class? What did I know about these soldiers whose names are on this monument? These Granby boys and men, who left their families and our safe little township to march into battle to preserve our Union? I knew nothing. If I had convinced myself that this monument was exactly as I had remembered, it’s because I had never really seen it before. Until that day, when I looked up into the sorrowful eyes of a Civil War soldier and felt ashamed.
The brownstone Granby Soldier’s Monument was the first figural Civil War monument erected in Connecticut. It was contracted with James G. Batterson, head of the New England Granite Works in Hartford. The base was designed by George Keller, the soldier figure by Charles Conrad. It was dedicated on July 4, 1868, and shortly thereafter a park was built around the monument, creating the town center. The unique features of the Soldier’s Monument are its impressive size and the contemplative, bearded soldier holding a rifle, his overcoat draped across his shoulder. He is exhausted, and looks down at visitors with the weariness of war.
There are nearly 50 names on the monument, and many of those surnames I’ve heard before—Holcomb, Messenger and Barlow; all recognizable Granby names. Also on the monument are the places where these men served or lost their lives—Sharpsburg, Cold Harbor, and Andersonville, the Confederate prisoner of war camp in South Georgia, which is located only a few short hours from my home in Florida. As I walked around the monument that day, reading the names and the engravings, “They shall hunger no more, neither thirst no more,” and “Death is swallowed up in victory,” I realized that I needed to do something to honor these soldiers. To find out who they were, and to tell others about them.
I chose the eight Granby soldiers from the Connecticut 16th Regiment. For some reason their names spoke to me as I stood at the base of that statue that day: Roswell Allen, Leland Barlow, Franklin Clark, Ebeneezer Emerson, Asher Holcomb, Lewis Holcomb, Alden Messenger, Robert Morgan. I wrote their names in my notebook, and started my search.
I began by using the Internet—blindly typing in names and battles, getting nowhere. Since I didn’t know much about the Civil War, I realized that I needed to read and study the war itself before I could learn anything about these soldiers. So I started at my public library in Florida, carrying armloads of books home every few days, holed up in my office for weeks on end, reading everything I could get my hands on about the Civil War. In particular, three of my Kindle acquisitions proved to be the most interesting in helping me understand the plight of a Union soldier Civil War in The Sixteenth Connecticut Volunteers, by B.F. Blakeslee, Connecticut Yankees at Antietam, by John Banks, and Andersonville: A Story of Rebel Military Prisons, by John McElroy. I also visited the Salmon Brook Historical Society in Granby, Andersonville National Historic Site near Americus, Georgia and watched numerous documentaries and films about the War Between the States.
The 16th Connecticut Infantry Regiment organized in Hartford on August 24, 1862. They were considered a “green” unit because most of the soldiers did not have any military experience, nor did they have much chance to train as they moved to Washington, DC, to join with the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Division, 9th Army Corps, and the Army of the Potomac. On September 17, commanded by Colonel Francis Beach, they marched into the battle of Antietam, in Sharpsburg, Maryland, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. The 16th fought at John Otto’s farm, in his 40-acre cornfield—out of the 779 of the 16th engaged, 43 were killed, 161 wounded, and 204 were captured or missing.
Robert Morgan was mortally wounded at Antietam, and later died of his wounds on September 24. Morgan died at the hospital that had been erected beneath the stone bridge at the battle site. He was married; his wife’s name was Marie, and he left behind two young children. Morgan is buried at Antietam National Cemetery, and a family memorial with his name can be found at Granby Cemetery, near the center of town.
Roswell Allen was just 17 years old when he fought at Antietam. His father, Dr. Francis Allen of Granby, succeeded in having his son discharged because of illness, but Roswell died in a hospital in Washington, DC on December 28. He is buried in Granby Cemetery and was the youngest of the eight soldiers I researched.
Regarding illness and the Civil War, in addition to mortal wounds, soldiers were destined to perish from numerous diseases, including dysentery, measles, small pox, viruses and bacterial infections, along with starvation and hypothermia. In the Federal Army three-fifths of the soldiers’ deaths were due to disease; for the Confederates, it was two-thirds.
The other soldiers I researched were captured by the Confederates on April 20, 1864. The battle of Plymouth in North Carolina, April 17 – 20, was the last major Confederate victory of the Civil War and the third largest battle fought in North Carolina. Most of the Union troops captured here were sent to the notorious Confederate prison in Andersonville, Georgia. Upon their arrival in prison they were dubbed “The Plymouth Pilgrims” and that’s where our other 16th Regiment Granby soldiers ended up.
The prison was opened in February of 1864, the largest of its kind. Over 45,000 federal prisoners of war entered its gates in its 14 months of operation, and over 13,000 of those prisoners never made it out, dying of diseases like scurvy and dysentery. In his book John McElroy wrote about his experience arriving at Andersonville: “Five hundred men moved silently toward the gates that would shut out life and hope for most of them forever. Quarter of a mile from the railroad we came into a massive palisade with great squared logs standing upright in the ground. Fires blazed up and showed us a section of these and two massive wooden gates with heavy iron hinges and bolts. They swung open as we stood there and we passed through into the space beyond. We were at Andersonville.”
I took several days late last year to visit the Andersonville National Historic Site; it has a comprehensive data base and also files on many of the soldiers who went through its gates. Today the prison site is dotted with monuments honoring soldiers from various states. Within the stockade there is an area that demonstrates the soldiers’ poor living conditions, featuring lean-tos, rustic tents and makeshift cook pots. But for many of the prisoners who lived at Andersonville, there was very little or no shelter from the elements. Prisoners dug trenches to protect themselves from the bitter cold and rain during the winter and the searing heat in the summer. Food was scarce and the water source was contaminated, which caused the deaths of many of the soldiers housed within the prison.
Within the National Historic Site, a national cemetery was established to provide a permanent place of honor for those who died in military service to our country. The initial interments, beginning in February 1864, were trench burials of the prisoners who died in the nearby military prison. In 14 months, nearly 13,000 soldiers were buried here. Today the cemetery contains nearly 20,000 graves. I was able to look up the Granby soldiers on the park’s data base and discovered that three were buried here: Leland Barlow, Alden Messenger and Asher Holcomb. Using a park map I drove through the cemetery, located their graves and photographed each one. All three had died of disease.
I was not able to find out very much information about Franklin Clark. I know that he enlisted in the 16th Connecticut Regiment on July 19, 1862 and died on March 29, 1865 at Camp Barry in Washington, DC, according to records I found at the Salmon Brook Historical Society, with the help of historian Carol Laun. I don’t know if he stayed with the 16th or was captured, or how he died. Because of his date of death he must have been to Andersonville along with the others, but I could not find any record of that. I don’t know where his grave site is at the time that I am writing this.
Ebeneezer Emerson, who was captured at the battle of Plymouth, died in Florence, South Carolina, on February 10, 1865, but I’m not sure about the cause of his death. Lewis M. Holcomb was a prisoner at Andersonville, but was paroled on February 28, 1865, and sent home to Granby. He was very ill at the time, but after his recovery he went back to join his unit. He died just a few months later at a camp in Alexandria, Virginia and is buried in the military cemetery there.
In 1998 Carol Laun wrote a book called The Holcomb Collection, in which she brings to light much of what of Granby soldiers went through during their time in the Civil War. Adelaide Holcomb, or “Addie,” was a young woman in Granby who kept a diary of events as they unfolded during the war. She also corresponded with her cousins Lewis and Henry Holcomb, and mentioned her friend Leland Barlow in her diary. On April 23, 1864, Addie writes, “We hear by the papers that the rebel ram has been smashing up the boats at Plymouth and the town is in rebel hands. All are anxious to hear who survives, but of course we cannot expect to know, as they are prisoners. All must endure this terrible suspense. Hope Henry and Lewis will come out all right, and the rest of the Granby boys.” Laun’s book is a fascinating read, and is available at the Salmon Brook Historical Society in Granby.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. From 1861 to 1865, brothers from the North and South fought against each other in the bloodiest conflict our country has ever endured. From the battlefields to those at home, the consequences of this war, including the continuing struggle for Americans’ civil rights, resound to this day. The last nine months of learning about the Civil War has brought me closer to the soldiers who left their little towns and their families and never came home. We need to recognize what they gave this country in order to preserve our Union. Can you imagine if things had turned out differently?
Karen Phillips Miller is a travel, food, and lifestyle writer living on Amelia Island, Florida. Her book, “Succotash Dreams…and Other Fond Food Memories” is available at Amazon.com.
Photos by Karen Phillips Miller