Remembering the Untold Story of the Webster Brothers
Tomorrow is Memorial Day, a day we take time to celebrate those who gave their life for our country while serving in the armed forces. To honor the fallen we hold parades, set out graveside decorations, listen to speeches and remembrances by local dignitaries and take time to give thanks for those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.
Our region has sent many men and women to war, perhaps most notably the Civil War. Several of our cemeteries include the graves of soldiers killed during the war, which culminated in 1865. In my previous columns about Memorial Day, I have highlighted some of the more well-known soldiers who lost their lives during the Civil War, and today I bring to light brothers Charles and Daniel Webster, who are lesser known but worthy of our remembrance and celebration.
Their stories are often overlooked in comparison to one of our region’s most celebrated Civil War heroes, General Nathaniel Lyon of Eastford. Lyon was mortally wounded as he rallied his men in a valiant charge against a superior Confederate force at the battle of Wilson’s Creek, Missouri Aug. 10, 1861. He was the first Union general to die in battle and the news of Lyon’s heroic death gave the North a cause for honorable mourning. Thousands of people attended his burial and a book about his life was published within a year of his death.
Lyon’s grave is located in the Phoenixville Cemetery on General Lyon Road. Less than two miles as the crow flies from the final resting place of General Lyon is a single gravestone of a Civil War soldier who perished in service to his country. Located within Natchaug State Forest, the lonely marker is inscribed “Charles Webster, Co. H. 29th Regt. Conn Vols Died June 17, 1864 AE 22.” The abbreviations stand for Company H, 29th Regiment of the Connecticut Volunteers. He died at 22 years of age.
Charles and his brother, Daniel, both volunteered for the 29th Regiment. Established in 1863, it was the first African American regiment formed in Connecticut. The 29th fought bravely during the final year of the war, won a number of important battles, and was one of the first Union regiments to march through the Confederate Capital of Richmond. The regiment was honorably disbanded in November 1865 and its war record was seen even then as validation for racial equality and freedom.
I first learned about Charles Webster from TLGV Volunteer Ranger Dick Woodward. Dick is a former First Selectman of Eastford and has an active interest in our region’s history. He has organized Walktober walks in Natchaug Forest to look at several interesting stone features including an old quarry, a large geologic erratic and an old Yankee burial ground, as well as a visit to Webster’s grave marker. Dick’s Walktober hike “Stone, Stones and Stones” attracted more than 50 people in 2020, including my friend and Pomfret resident Donna Dufresne. Donna is a retired school teacher and local historian, and that day I learned about her research into the life of Charles Webster and his family. We met for coffee last week to discuss her continuing research and I learned a lot about the Websters.
Charles and Daniel Webster were descendants of a family of enslaved people who had been owned by the Randall family of Pomfret. The 1790 census shows Jonathan Randall owning three slaves, and they were among the approximately 5,000 slaves who lived in Connecticut during the revolutionary period (more than the other New England states). In 1784 Connecticut had passed a “gradual abolition” stating that children born into slavery after March 1, 1784 would be freed when they turned 25. As a result, slavery continued into Connecticut until 1848.
The Webster family was also part Native American with both their mother Hannah Lambert Webster and their father Chester Webster descended from members of the Nipmuc tribe. They along with their fellow brothers in arms of the Connecticut 29th Regiment were listed as black, though it’s likely Charles and Daniel were not the only soldiers who could claim to be part Native American.
So why is Charles Webster’s grave marker located by itself in the Natchaug Forest? From Donna’s research she believes Charles and his family lived in the area and probably worked on a nearby farm, sawmill, quarry and possibly charcoal operation. His gravestone is located within what is likely the Webster family plot – or what may have started as the Randall slave burial ground.
On my first visit to that site with Dick I noticed the tumbled down stonewall surrounding the area, as well as smaller natural stones just protruding from the ground. This did not look like a traditional New England Yankee burial ground.
Charles never did see action in the war. He died of disease in an Army hospital in South Carolina on June 17, 1864, before the 29th saw its first battle. His brother Daniel survived the battles of the 29th and would have been part of the regiment to enter Richmond. Tragically Daniel died of dysentery after the 29th had been moved to Texas in June of 1865. The Connecticut 29th lost 197 men during their service in the war including one officer and 44 enlisted men. An additional 152 enlisted men died of disease – Charles and Daniel Webster among them.
There is still a mystery, or perhaps a question, to be answered in the future. It is unknown if Charles is actually buried where his gravestone is located in Natchaug Forest. It is surmised that his remains are in a mass grave near where he died in South Carolina and the same may be true for Daniel in Texas. In the decade following the Civil war, gravestones were provided to the town and family of the deceased soldier, which could explain why Charles’ stone is located in what might be an old family burial ground.
During my conversation with Donna, she told me she is looking into the process of getting a stone for Daniel Webster. Perhaps someday in the future it can be installed near Charles’s stone. Donna continues to unravel the story of Charles and Daniel Webster, their extended family, and other African American and Native American residents of our region. She is already planning two Walktober walks to illuminate more of this previously hidden history.
During Memorial Day I like to visit one or more of our local cemeteries to visit the final resting places of our region’s war dead. Seeing the new flags waving in the wind is a humbling and silent reminder to honor the passing of the local people who gave their lives in service to the country. Each veteran has a story to tell. Some of those stories are marked in the history books, but many, like that of the Webster brothers, remain relatively unknown.
We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley. Thousands of our fellow residents went to war to defend our country and gave their lives so others may live free. I hope you will join me and together let us speak their names, and pass on their stories so future generations will never forget their sacrifice.
In addition to Donna Dufresne, information for this column was sourced from “Life of General Nathaniel Lyon,” by Ashbel Woodward, MD. and ConnecticutHistory.org.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He has lived in and explored the region for over 40 years and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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