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Gold miner, soldier, survivor

In 1855, John and Matilda Morgan, and Matilda’s brother, Griswold Avery, crossed Panama on their way to the Gold Rush. They probably traveled aboard the world’s first and shortest transcontinental railway. The line was just 47 miles long, and each ticket cost $25 in gold. Still, it was worth it to cross the isthmus in a few hours rather than trekking through the jungle for weeks and risking death from malaria. As the little train chugged past exotic plants, colorful birds, and trees alive with monkeys, the trio from Waterford must have been fascinated. This was all so different from Connecticut.

They staked their claim near Sacramento. Their efforts were profitable, but after four years of backbreaking work, Griswold, at least, was considering going home. He’d gotten a letter from his father who needed help because the family farm on Lake Konomoc was in financial trouble. An even more important factor was the length of time he’d been away from his wife, who’d stayed in Waterford.

But everything changed for both men one day while they were working their claim and Matilda was doing chores back at camp. When John and Griswold returned, they found that Matilda had been fatally bitten by a rattlesnake. She was just 26 years old. Griswold had lost his only sibling, and John had lost a true partner, a woman who wasn’t afraid of hard work or primitive living conditions.

Griswold took his sister’s body home to be buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery. He had to use all the money he’d earned mining to bail his father out of debt. Little had been gained by those years in the West, except the experience and the memories. Griswold opened a livery service in New London, where he enjoyed a long, happy marriage with the faithful wife who’d waited.

John wrapped up affairs with the claim and then returned home, too. Grief-stricken and possibly temporarily indifferent to danger, he enlisted in the Connecticut Volunteers, 26th Regiment, Company H to serve in the Civil War. The 26th mustered out of Camp Russell in Norwich in November 1862 on a top secret mission to New Orleans. The men went by steamer from New York. The actual destination wasn’t revealed to them until they were at sea because the high stakes objective was to secure Union control of the entire Mississippi River.

From New Orleans, the regiment moved to Baton Rouge, where they took part in an assault on Port Hudson, a fortification high on a bluff above the Mississippi. The frontal attack was a disaster, and it quickly became apparent that this was going to be a siege, not a battle. The standoff lasted more than three months, but the Confederates finally surrendered when they heard that Vicksburg had fallen to Grant. The victory was costly. The 26th suffered over 300 casualties from bullets and disease. Luckily, John survived.

John came home with the remnants of his regiment on August 17, 1863. Norwich had a big celebration in the park. A huge crowd turned out to welcome the returning heroes. Many of the men were greeted by their wives or sweethearts, and the mayor gave a speech. The mayor’s oration may have been inspiring or perhaps infuriating, depending on the listener’s frame of mind and tolerance for dressing up an ugly war with pretty words. John must have wished he could talk with Matilda and share his war-time experiences with her. They’d done everything together in California, but now the sad reality may have hit him with a finality he hadn’t felt before. Those days were gone forever.

John returned to Waterford to recover his physical and emotional health and to start over. He eventually remarried, and shared a long partnership with his second wife, Louisa Chase. Louisa outlived John, which was probably a blessing because it meant he was never alone again.

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