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Marching into history

On May 28, 1909, The Day published an article, “The last resting places of heroes of the great civil conflict.” The piece lamented how rapidly local Civil War veterans were dying, and it listed the deceased — hundreds of them — by town and place of burial. It gave each man’s age, date of death, and the company in which he’d served. They came from New London, Waterford, Montville, and East Lyme, many from the area’s founding families. I picked out a few to learn more details.

I started with William A Dayton for no better reason than my grandmother, who taught at the Cohanzie School at the turn of the 20th century, had a high-spirited student named Herbert Dayton. (I don’t know how William and Herbert were related.)

William enlisted in the 14th Connecticut Infantry, Company H, in 1862, and fought at the Battles of Antietam and Fredericksburg. He survived the Fredericksburg bloodbath, but was discharged in 1863 with a medical disability. William died in 1867 at age 24. According to the 1909 newspaper account, he’s buried in Fog Plain Cemetery in Waterford. No burial site by that name exists today, but old maps show Crane Cemetery on Fog Plain Road, so William may be there.

John F. Caulkins served in the same infantry unit as William, but his fate was even worse. He was one of the 6,000 or more men killed on December 13, 1862, day three of a five-day engagement at Fredericksburg. John was 30 years old. His grave is in Cedar Grove Cemetery.

An enslaved man from Virginia, Dred Harding, had a much different experience. In 1865, he joined the 136th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Infantry, Company K. They were deployed to keep order in Georgia in the chaotic aftermath of the Confederacy’s collapse. It was a short but unpleasant assignment, as Union troops — especially black ones — were deeply resented if not despised. After Dred mustered out in 1866, he changed his surname to Ware and headed north. He died an old man after living 50 years in freedom. He’s interred in Flanders Cemetery in East Lyme. 

Every one of these veterans has a life story just waiting to be told, but for this narrative, we end with Navy Captain Alvin A. Fengar. During the war, he served on the gunboat U.S. Miami, which played critical roles in the Battle of New Orleans and the Siege of Vicksburg. Afterwards, he commanded a cutter in the Revenue Service (forerunner of the Coast Guard), spending the summers patrolling Alaskan waters looking for shipwrecked whalers and seal poachers. An article in The Day in 1882 announced his promotion within the Revenue Service and noted that “Capt. Fengar is an officer of marked ability and a thorough sailor. Some of the best and bravest officers in the service have graduated from his ship.” Alvin died in 1896 and lies in Cedar Grove Cemetery.

My mother remembered watching Civil War veterans marching in Memorial Day parades in New London. This was around 1915, so she was a little girl and the former soldiers were very elderly men. The memory was still vivid when she penned her memoir about growing up in New London. Here, in part, is what Mom wrote:

“Our household went to the cemetery to decorate the graves, and remained to watch the parade come marching up flag-bedecked Broad Street in the shade of the majestic elms which arched the way. It was a stunning sight with the beautiful horses, floats, and marching men in the uniforms of the various wars in which they served. A few of the venerable veterans of the Civil War also marched but most of the time they rode in open carriages. They were proudly attired in the blue uniforms of the Grand Army of the Republic, a living link to the past. Each year their ranks thinned and by Memorial Day 1940 they had marched off into history.”

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