The Civil War Connecticut 29th Colored Regiment
History is not static. Our understanding of it grows and the picture of the past can shift as we do more research and dig deeper. “It’s like peeling back the layers of an onion, one thin strip of membrane after the other, the deeper layers of the bulb reveal themselves to the light of day,” Donna Dufresne, education consultant and historian, said to me the other day. It describes her research into the lives of the men from Connecticut who enlisted into the Connecticut 29th Colored Regiment to fight the Confederacy and help preserve the Union.
Military records show 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. What is not well known (due to scant primary source documents of the era), is who were these men of Connecticut? Where were they from? What was their life like before enlisting? What happened to them following the war?
These are some of the questions Dufresne and 10th-graders from Killingly High School and ACT (EASTCONN) Magnet School in Willimantic are trying to answer in an expanded curriculum project funded by The Last Green Valley called “Out of the Shadows.” Dufresne had pitched the idea to the schools, which then applied for our competitive Youth Engagement Grant.
The project unveils the hidden past of African Americans in Northeast Connecticut with the students researching the soldiers of the CT 29th who lived and worked in their towns.
The project is already showing how research can reveal missing aspects of history. In my May 30 Bulletin column for Memorial Day, I wrote about one soldier of the 29th, Charles Webster from Eastford. He had enlisted into the CT 29th and was in Fairhaven when the regiment was formed, but he did not survive the war and was among the 152 men of the 29th who died of disease. That much, we knew about Charles Webster. But the research, using primary documents from the time, has helped Dufresne understand even more about Webster. In honor of Black History Month and the important work of telling the stories of all the people who shaped our nation, I would like to share some of what Dufresne has uncovered.
Charles Webster was descended from a family of enslaved people who had been owned by the Randall family of Pomfret. The Webster family was also part Native American with both his mother Hannah Lambert Webster and his father Chester Webster descended from members of the Nipmuc Tribe. Along with his fellow brothers in arms of the Connecticut 29th Regiment he was listed as Black, though it’s likely Charles was not the only soldier who could claim to be part Native American.
Charles never did see action in the war. When the 29th left New Haven on March 19 for the south he was too ill with typhoid and pneumonia and had been admitted to Knight Hospital in New Haven on March 10. Dufresne found his medical records from Knight Hospital detailing the diagnosis, condition, medical treatment and diet up to his discharge from service May 27, 1864. He passed away in Eastford on June 17 without ever having fought in a battle or witnessing the Union victory and emancipation of enslaved people in the south. Prior to this recent research by Dufresne, it was assumed that Charles had shipped out with the regiment and died in a field hospital of disease while in Beauford, South Carolina. His discharge papers were signed by his commanding officer in Beauford, but Webster was not there when it happened.
Following the Civil War, the U.S. Military sent to Eastford a gravestone for Charles Webster, as was customary for other deceased men from the war. It was placed within a small cemetery in Eastford that is now encompassed by Natchaug State Forest and is inscribed, Charles Webster, Co H 29th Regt. Conn Volunteers June 17. 1864 AE. 22. But for the lone Webster gravestone, the cemetery has no other headstones, though there appear to be several mounds with surface rocks.
Research by Dufresne has indicated this cemetery is near where the Webster family lived and where Charles worked at a nearby farm, sawmill, quarry and possibly a charcoal operation. Over the years this cemetery has been thought to contain relatives of the Lambert, Randall and Webster families, all descended from enslaved people who lived in the area. Almost 20 years ago Dufresne was part of a research team examining the cemetery. Ground penetrating radar used at the time did not indicate any evidence of burial there, yet she has found death certificates of relatives of Webster, Waity Brooks and Lucretia Lambert, that indicate they both were buried there.
The mystery continues into the whereabouts of Charles Webster. Is he actually buried under his grave marker or somewhere else in Eastford? More advanced ground penetrating radar technology is available from that used 20 years ago at the cemetery. Perhaps one day it can prove once and for all if Charles Webster is indeed located under that Civil War headstone.
The work of Dufresne and the students shows how history is an ongoing process of discovery and recovery of the truth. The “Out of the Shadows” project is opening our eyes to the lives of those who lived in our region and played important parts in our history, yet their stories have not been told. The lives and histories of our region’s African American and Native American people are just as important as those of European and English descent. It’s only when we work to, as Dufresne said, “peel back the layers of history” that we can truly understand and appreciate our region’s past. In some cases, written documentation is lacking, but through careful research, information can be revealed, and a clearer picture eventually emerges.
We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. I hope you’ll join me and other as we care for it, enjoy it and pass it on.
Information for this column was sourced from conversations with Donna Dufresne and ConnecticutHistory.org.
Bill Reid is the chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 30 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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