Hard & Stirring Times: Middletown & The Civil War

“Middletown I Think is the most beautifull Town of all.”
— John Adams, 1771

homefrontintro1Incorporated in 1784 but settled by Europeans approximately 150 years earlier, Middletown was initially a settlement based on agriculture and the port that developed along the Connecticut River. The city grew prosperous on a foundation of trade with the West Indies and the produce of farms wrested from the hills and forests.

While the majority of Middletown voters in the 1860 election were Democrats, the Republican party took advantage of their rival’s divisions, and campaigned hard to ensure Lincoln’s victory. South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860, swiftly followed by the other Southern states. The bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 1861 marked the beginning of armed hostilities between the United States of American and the Confederate States of America.

Main Street


Main St. looking South, c. 1860.


Main St. looking North, c. 1860.

Birdseye View


In 1861 Bundy photographed volunteers free of charge.


An Appeal to the Friends of Freedom

homefrontappeal1While many Middletown residents were sympathetic to the Democratic party’s emphasis on state and property rights, many believed in the cause of abolition. The first American abolition society was formed in 1775 in Philadelphia primarily by Quakers who opposed slavery on religious grounds. The Middletown Anti-Slavery Society was formed in 1834, but the attendees of the first meeting were met by an anti-abolitionist mob. The Society didn’t meet again for three years and didn’t last long thereafter.

While abolition in the South would be brought about in one stroke through the Emancipation Proclamation, in the North it was a gradual process that took over fifty years. Connecticut’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1784 stated that children born to slaves after March 1, 1784, could not be held in bondage after the age of 25. In 1848 all persons still slaves in the state were freed.

While the African-American community of Middletown may have been legally free, they were not equal with their white neighbors. In 1814, African Americans lost their right to vote at the same time universal white male suffrage was granted in Connecticut. Tied to low-skill, low-wage jobs, many African Americans in Middletown saw the most effective protest to social and legal racism through the acquisition of property, especially in the neighborhood known as “the Hill,” and through good works done through the church and moral reform groups such as temperance societies.

The American Free Produce Association was one of many early 19th century groups that sought to provide people with a way of purchasing goods that would today be called “fair trade.” The American Free Produce Association was in business from 1839 till around 1847. The Association oversaw the production of various cotton fabrics and cotton related products such as lamp wicks.

While the American Free Produce Association was based in Philadelphia, there were stores in major cities such as New York and Boston. At the time it seemed like the boycott of slave-produced goods might become a major force in the abolition movement as the demand for goods often exceeded supply. This particular association, and other similar groups, eventually disbanded due to a scarcity of products, high costs, and too limited a product range to satisfy customers.

A life full of years and honors

homefrontdouglasBenjamin Douglas (1816-1894) nobly served not only his family, but also his city and country. Born in Northford, Connecticut, he spent his first sixteen years working the family farm. With a limited education, he apprenticed himself to a machinist in Middletown in 1832. He joined his brother, William, in the operation of a machine shop and foundry in 1839. In 1842, the brothers invented a pump for use in factories and on farms. On the cornerstone of this invention, they created the W & B Douglas Company which was quite successful.

Douglas was very involved in his factory, church, and community. Between 1850 and 1862 he served as the Mayor of Middletown, a member of the General Assembly, a Presidential elector, and as Lieutenant Governor. During his time as mayor, Douglas publicly refused to comply with the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and most likely participated in the Underground Railroad’s activities in Middletown.

Rebecca, Augusta, Rosa & Fannie Virginia Casseopia Lawrence

homefrontgirlsWhile abolition was not the only cause for which the country went to war in 1861, it was a key issue in the conflict. On one side was the firm belief in property and state rights; on the other hand the need for a strong federal government to hold together the Union. Both sides used whatever tools they had at hand to bolster their argument; biblical verses, narratives of slave rebellions and their threat to public safety, and of course the newly emerging field of photography.

These photographs were taken in New York City and then distributed by photographers across the country. They were used not only to raise awareness about abolition and slavery, but also to raise funds for charities that assisted freed people. The fair skin and Caucasian features of the little girls would have been an indisputable illustration of the barbarity of slavery. Not only were children being held in bondage, but the images also played against the commonly held belief of slaves being “different” in that their skin was darker and their features not what Caucasians woke up to every morning. It is much easier not to care about someone who looks different then to hold in bondage someone who looks like a daughter, granddaughter, or the neighbor’s child.

The prospects for work

homefrontindustryBy the 1860s the city was moving away from its colonial occupations of coastal trade and agriculture and was firmly into the Industrial Revolution. Middletown’s factories tended towards the semi-skilled labor of the machine shop and the foundry. An 1850 review of the city’s manufactories lists locks, watches, machinery castings, firearms, powder, textiles, pumps, silverplate, boots, and sandpaper as all being produced in Middletown. By 1860, over 1,200 people out of a total population of 8,620 (or 14%) were working in the factories.

While the Starr family had made swords in years past, the arms manufacturers of Middletown in the 1860s were producing guns. The Savage Revolving Fire Arms Company was formed in 1859 and profited by the increased demand brought about by the war. Presumably the gun-making C. R. Alsop company followed the same trajectory. The D.C. Sage Company, formed in late 1861 or early 1862, would rise to become one of the largest private sector producers of combustible cartridges in the United States. In 1863 the company produced 920,000 cartridges of various types for the United States Army Ordnance Department.

With the end of the war, many of Middletown’s ordnance and firearm manufacturers closed, as the production of such goods moved into larger factories that took advantage of the economies of scale and mass production.

Guarding the Homefront

homefrontguardThe family of Elihu William Nathan Starr (1821-1891) had made swords and firearms in Middletown since the late 18th century. As a teenager, E.W.N. Starr attended the American, Literary, Scientific and Military Academy, which later became Wesleyan University, beginning a lifelong association with the military. While not a professional soldier, Starr was a key member in the state militia, beginning with his enlistment in 1830. In 1847 he organized the 7th Light Infantry Company of the 6th Regiment, also known as the Mansfield Guards after Starr’s friend J.K.F. Mansfield. He achieved the rank of Brigadier General in 1860 and was the Commandant of the Mansfield Military Camp that was occupied by the 24th Regiment Connecticut Volunteers until the permanent officers took command in 1862.

Starr also served his city as Postmaster, Town Clerk, City Clerk, and Treasurer.

Life Goes On

homefrontlifeWhile men were suffering, fighting, and dying on the fields of battle, life in Middletown in many ways continued as it always had. The price of labor and certain goods may have been inflated by the war, but houses were still sold and bought, traveling entertainers came to town, and the annual agricultural fair was held. Some of the entertainments were to raise funds for the war relief effort, but for those not worrying about a loved one in the military, life continued.





Those left behind

homefrontdependentsAs hard as the war was on the soldier, it was also difficult for the wives, children, and other dependents left at home. The pay of a soldier was not much ($13.00 a month for a private) and often he would need that money to replenish clothing or buy supplemental food supplies. There were also serious problems with pay being months behind and with enlistment bounties not being disbursed in a timely fashion.

If a soldier was wounded, his pay was immediately cut off as he was no longer able to fight and this would contribute to a family’s already tenuous financial situation. If a soldier died, there were no provisions made for his family until after 1862 when an act was passed to provide pensions for widows and dependants, which could include underage children, mothers, and sisters. The only problem with the act was that it required proof of death in order to qualify and in an age where the government did not provide such proof, it was often difficult to obtain. Families would have to seek out comrades who could testify to a death if they were unable to secure the actual body.

These documents from the City of Middletown show the lists of soldiers’ names and the amounts paid out to their dependents from the city and the state. Note how many of the soldiers dependents signed only with an X. What would happen to these wives, children, mothers, and sisters, if their loved one fell on the field of battle, succumbed to disease, or were permanently crippled?

“A woman with 5 small children & no means”

homefrontSlackIn the Society’s archives are several letters from the Town of Clinton to the City of Middletown concerning the fate of a Mrs. Susan Slack and her five children and which municipality was responsible for their care. According to the letters, Francis Slack enlisted in the army in 1861, was taken prisoner in Richmond, and died there October 23, 1861. It is quite possible that Mr. Slack died at Libby Prison or one of the other prisons in the immediate area such as Belle Isle.

Mrs. Slack was left with five children all under the age of ten in 1862 with apparently no personal resources or an extended kinship network to care for her and the children. It is unclear why the City of Middletown would take responsibility for the family, but they apparently did and the family arrived in the city towards the end of 1862. After that, the children disappear from official records. Susan Slack does make an appearance in the 1880 United States Census as a domestic in Old Saybrook but then she too drops from the records.

Francis Slack has also disappeared from the official record. There are no records of enlistment in the army and the prison records of Richmond were burned by the Confederates at the end of the war.  Francis and Susan Slack and their children Frank, George, Mary, Charles, and William are one among many families who vanished into the haze and destruction of the war.

Hard & Stirring Times: Middletown & The Civil War

 | Introduction | Homefront | Hearth | Battlefront | Remembrance | Wall of Honor |