Who Was Private Raisin Pitts?

My attention was drawn by the unusual name carved into one tombstone: Raisin Pitts, a Confederate private who died 26 September, 1862, now buried in a Yankee town in a Union state, far from home.

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The grave of Raisin Pitts, Mount Olivet Cemetery, Frederick, Maryland, photographed by the author on Confederate Memorial Day, 28 April, 2016.

Recently, and quite serendipitously, I visited Mount Olivet Cemetery—the preeminent burial grounds of Frederick County, Maryland. Francis Scott Key, who in 1812 wrote the poem that became the National Anthem, reposes there. Also interred at Mount Olivet are prosperous Victorians and Edwardians, Colonial and Federal-era area residents moved from their original gravesites in small family plots and cemeteries around the county, and Civil War soldiers who fought for the Confederacy but breathed their last as Union captives.

It was Confederate Memorial Day, a solemn remembrance of which I was unaware when a friend and I decided to visit the cemetery. We found Mount Olivet’s Confederate graves bedecked with flags. Reenactors laid wreaths after a small, bagpipe-led parade.

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Confederate graves at Mount Olivet. Raisin Pitts is buried in this row.

My attention was drawn by the unusual name carved on one tombstone: Raisin Pitts, a Confederate private who died 26 September, 1862, now buried in a Yankee town in a Union state, far from home. My curiosity propelled by his unusual—and unlikely—name, I decided to search for more about Private Pitts.

I have apparently not been alone in my quest. Several weeks later, during a visit to the Pry House, where some 800 wounded soldiers were treated during and after the bloody Battle of Antietam, I mentioned to staff member Katie Reichard that I was writing about an oddly named soldier buried at Mount Olivet. She immediately asked, “Is it Raisin Pitts?” Several years ago, another historian held a program about Pitts at Pry House, she said. Reichard added that he had reached my same conclusions about one soldier proposed to be Raisin Pitts but had not mooted an alternate identification.

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According to his stone, Raisin Pitts belonged to the 6th Alabama Infantry, 2nd Brigade, under command of Colonel John J. Seibels. It was established in May 1861, containing 1,400 men divided into 12 companies. The recruits were drawn from Autauga, Henry, Jackson, Lowndes, Macon, Montgomery, Russell, and Wilson counties. Company B, headed by Captain J. M. Kennedy, was known as the “Loachapoka Rifles,” as the company was accepted in Confederate service at Loachapoka, Lee County, Alabama, for a one-year term of service.

Shotgun’s Home of Civil War provides a concise summary of the action the 6th Alabama saw up to the date of Pitts’ death: “Its first service was at Corinth. It was soon ordered to Virginia, and during the winter of 1862, was stationed far in front of the army, at Manassas Junction. Its first serious battle was at Seven Pines, May 31 to June 1, 1862, where the regiment was greatly distinguished, losing 102 officers and men killed and wounded, including Lieut.-Col. James J. Willingham, Maj. S. Perry Nesmith, and Capts. Thomas Bell, Matthew Pox, W. C. Hunt, Augustus S. Flournoy and John B. McCarty. The Sixth served in nearly all the battles of the Army of Northern Virginia, including Mechanicsville, June 26, 1862; Cold Harbor or Gaines’ Mill, June 27th and 28th: Malvern Hill, July 1st to 5th; Boonsboro, September [14th]; Sharpsburg, September 17th.”

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One of the flags of the 6th Alabama Infantry. This flag was carried in 1863 and captured in 1864 at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse. Courtesy Alabama Department of Archives and History.

Returning to Private Pitts, I wondered whether “Raisin” was a nickname or whether “Raisin Pitts” was an entirely false moniker, provided to his Union captors as he lay wounded? Whilst possible, the latter is unlikely, as there is no evidence of captured soldiers hiding their identities except in extremely select cases. Providing a false name could mean that loved ones would never know the soldier’s fate—something that was understandably important to the majority of them.

What is demonstrably true, however, is that Raisin Pitts was neither of two men previously proposed (and conflated) by other researchers: Erastus J. Pitts and Erastus T. Pitts.

The Erastus J. Pitts who served with the 6th Alabama, Company B, is without doubt Erastus Jesse Pitts, born 10 January, 1836, in Macon, Bibb County, Georgia, to farmer Jesse Pitts (1812-1855) and his wife Martha Bryan (1815-1854).

After his parents’ deaths in the 1850s, Pitts relocated to Alabama and enlisted in the 6th, Company A, on 11 May, 1861, in Abbeville, Jefferson County. Later, he transferred to Company B. His unit participated in the Battle of Antietam at Sharpsburg, Maryland, and in its aftermath, Pitts was only tentatively accounted for.

Extant Confederate records note that during October, November, and December, Pitts was “sick at some unknown hospital since 25 September.” Other records show that on 18 October, he was admitted to hospital at Camp Winder, one of the largest Confederate medical facilities, located in Richmond, Virginia—quite a distance from Sharpsburg. Records show he remained at Winder until 15 December, when he was transferred to a hospital in Danville, Virginia. He remained there until 30 January, 1863, then returned to active duty. The only clue about what led to this four-month hospital stay is the word “debilitas” written by the category “complaint.” The term was used by the era’s medical practitioners to denote overall weakness and feebleness and is more of a descriptive than a diagnosis.

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Summer 1865: Confederates at Point Lookout prison during their final days before release after the war’s end.

After rejoining his unit, Pitts left further documentation of his service: He was paid and reimbursed for clothing on 3 November, 1863, and again one year later, in November 1864. He appeared on a muster roll of September 1864 and on a payroll of 1865. Erastus J. Pitts eventually ended his long Confederate military service interned at Point Lookout on the farthest tip of Southern Maryland. He was taken prisoner at Petersburg, Virginia, and arrived at the peninsular Union prison on 11 April, 1865. Several months later, he swore an oath of loyalty to the renewed United States, was released, and returned to Alabama—years after Raisin Pitts was laid to rest in Mount Olivet.

On 21 September, 1867, Pitts married Samantha J. Haughton in Henry County, Alabama, and took up, or returned to, a livelihood of farming. In May 1894, through the U.S. Government’s Homestead Act, Pitts was deeded 160 acres in Houston County, Alabama. The 1900 Census places him, still farming, in Brantins, Geneva County, Alabama. Before the 1910 Census, Pitts had removed to Holmes County, Florida. He died there on 10 January, 1909, and was buried at Sandy Point Cemetery, Ponce de Leon.

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The grave of Erastus J. Pitts with its identifying CSA stone, Ponce de Leon, Florida.

The second individual associated with Raisin Pitts is Erastus T. Pitts, the son of Robert G. Pitts (1822-1850) and Adeline Nell Deshazor (1822-1890). He was born 10 July, 1848, in Shelby County, Alabama. His father died unexpectedly when he and his brother were toddlers, and the extant tangle of estate paperwork indicates his widow Adeline was left in a precarious financial state. She married again soon after, but the social status of the Pitts boys appears to have been permanently impacted. Erastus T. Pitts went on to farm in Shelby County with his first wife Emiline E. White (1840-1872), whom he wed 27 December, 1868. After her early death, he married Louisa Laura Crowson (1851-1925), who bore him eight children. Later in life, he took up carpentry and died intestate in Birmingham on 24 April, 1927. He is buried in Union Baptist Cemetery, Lipscomb, Jefferson County.

Erastus T. Pitts, who was a young teen when the 6th Alabama Infantry formed and who was technically underage during the duration of the war, left behind no record of Confederate military service.

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The tombstone of Erastus T. Pitts in Baptist Union Cemetery, Lipscomb, Alabama.

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Having determined who Raisin Pitts was not, the focus now shifts to whom he might be. “Civil War headstones, especially those with errors, reflect the limitations of record-keeping of the era,” the National Park Service points out at the Andersonville (Georgia) Prison Historical Site. Andersonville’s historians freely admit that their database and military tombstones are rife with errors, and it is certain that the Union also made plentiful mistakes in the rolls and on the burial markers of their prisoners. If Raisin Pitts, with his Southern drawl, was asked his name as he lay wounded, in agony, or slipping in and out of consciousness, it may be that the Union questioner merely misheard and misrecorded the proffered response. It is also possible that a later transcription error is to blame. The result of either mistake is carved in stone at Mount Olivet today.

A search through 6th Alabama Infantry service records for soldiers with the last name Pitts led me to this man: Drayton Pitts, who enlisted as a private for a 12-month term in Company J of the 6th Alabama Infantry on 15 May, 1861, at Montgomery, Alabama.

Drayton Pitts was born to Amassa Pitts (1788-1857) and Catherine Pitts (1802-1857, daughter of Caleb Pitts and Frances Cole), in about 1833. According to the 1850 Census, his family worked a farm in with real estate valued at $4,000 in Newberry County, South Carolina. Amassa Pitts had been previously married, so Drayton’s siblings included half-brothers Michael, Giles, and Joseph, as well as full siblings Abner, Permelia, Ira, Hillery, Sandford, Rueben, Rachael, Susan Jane, Pamela, and Frances Ann.

Like Erastus J. Pitts, Drayton Pitts appears to have migrated to Alabama after the death of both his parents. By the day of the 1860 Census, he was in Russell County, Alabama, and was enumerated as “Dratin” Pitts on land farmed by the Law family.

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An ambrotype of an unidentified Confederate soldier from Alabama. Collection unknown.

A letter was published in the 20 July, 1861 edition of the Opelika, Alabama, newspaper, the Southern Republic composed 5 July from Sangster’s Crossroads, Virginia, by a soldier of the 6th Alabama, who signed himself “J. M. P.” The soldier wrote, “On Friday morning, June 28th, a scouting party of eleven men from each of our four companies…were detailed under the command of Capt. [Walter H.] Weems to proceed in the direction of a place called Accotinck and find out the strength of the enemy there.” The men afterward continued on toward Union-held Alexandria.

The extended reconnaissance included hunkering down in the woods for a night and being brought a stout breakfast there by local sympathizers, hearing from a “friend” that “a tory named Gilliham had gone into Alexandria…to inform [the Union] of our whereabouts,” and eventually coming within sight of Union armaments at Alexandria while marching quietly “in our stocking feet, with boots and shoes in our haversacks.” The group was eventually spotted and the reconnaissance ended in a skirmish that included hand-to-hand fighting during which J. M. P. saw Captain Weems shoot several Union attackers.

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Southern Republic letter from J. M. B. that mentions Drayton Pitts.

Against the odds, the group made it back to the Confederate camp, where “all had given us up for lost, as General Ewelle had sent the Battalion a dispatch that we had been captured.” Only one of the Confederates had been lost. “His name was Hayes and he was from Richmond, Va. Our boys recovered his body, but could not carry it with them. We [later] learned that the ladies of Alexandria had it interred in a splendid metal casket…. Your humble correspondent was also reported dead, but I knew it was a lie as soon as I read it,” J. M. P. joked.

Among the men with Weems and J. M. P. on this mission was Drayton Pitts. The published detailed letter provides a singular window into his life as a soldier and may explain his eventual promotion to 2nd Lieutenant: He was a man willing to take risks.

During a reorganization at Orange Courthouse in March 1862, Pitts was reassigned to Company F. Afterward, he moved with the 6th Alabama Infantry in the same pattern of battles as did Erastus J. Pitts, surviving Seven Pines, Mechanicsville, Cold Harbor, and Malvern Hill. Then came South Mountain.

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Drayton Pitts survived the brutal Battle of Seven Pines, which occurred in Henrico County, Virginia, on 31 May and 1 June, 1862. The 6th lost 108 men and 283 were wounded out of 632 engaged. The battle was observed from a Union Army balloon by Professor Thaddeus Lowe. Currier & Ives; courtesy Library of Congress.

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South Moutain, part of the Blue Ridge, is a meandering behemoth, rocky and beautiful. The battle that roiled upon and around it on 14 September, 1862, was fought over control of three gaps in the mountain—Crampton’s, Turner’s, and Fox’s—that provided passage east and west. It was a resounding Union victory that set the stage for the Battle of Antietam only a few days later.

Before the battle, Henry Tisdale of the 35th Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, penned his feelings, which could have easily been those of Confederate Drayton Pitts: “Prospects of our getting into action before night multiply causing a sort of feverish excitement to come over me. Help me my heavenly Father to do my duty in thy fear and for glory for Christ’s sake, Amen.”

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September 1862: Confederates moving through the city of Frederick in the runup to the battles of South Mountain and Antietam. Courtesy Historical Society of Frederick County.

Tisdale was shot in the leg that day and lost a quantity of blood. Whilst retreating toward the medics, he recalled that “a wounded rebel who was sitting against a tree called me and asked me if I did not have something to eat. Exhibiting a loaf and going to him I opened my knife to cut off a slice when he placed his hands before his face exclaiming ‘Don’t kill me’ and begging me to put up the knife and not to hurt him. Assuring him I had no intention of hurting him I spoke with him a little. Found he had a family in Georgia, that he was badly wounded and was anxious to have me remain with him and help him off. But found I was growing weaker from loss of blood and that the surging to and fro the troops about us made it a dangerous place so limping and crawling was obliged to leave him and move for the rear.”

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Sharpsburg citizens help load wounded soldiers into an ambulance wagon. Courtesy Library of Congress.

That day, the Confederates forces, which numbered approximately 1,800, suffered 325 killed, 1,560 wounded, and 800 missing. One of these casualties was Drayton Pitts. The October returns for Company F reported that Pitts was “Absent. Wounded in battle Sept. 14 ’62 and captured by the enemy.” His company was at that point unaware Pitts was dead. By November, it understood his fate. The return stated that Pitts “died in October of wounds suffered at Boonsboro.”

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After the Battle of South Mountain, whilst their wounded soldiers “still lay sprawled unseen among the craggy terrain, the Confederates began their retreat from the slope,” wrote Kathleen A. Ernst in her seminal work, Too Afraid to Cry: Maryland Civilians in the Antietam Campaign.  Drayton Pitts may have been one of those left behind on the field.

What happened to Union soldier Henry Tisdale after he was shot may mimic some of what wounded Drayton Pitts experienced. Tisdale was first treated in the garden of a nearby home then moved to back to where military hospitals were quickly assembling. Eventually, he would be sent to Frederick. Indeed, the aftermath of 14 to 17 September would see approximately 8,000 wounded from both sides trundled into the overwhelmed city on a steady flow of horse-drawn Union ambulances.

Lavinia Hooper, a girl of nine when the casualties began arriving in her town, later wrote, “I can recall standing on Market Street, which was a dirt road then, and how we used to watch the wagons bringing the wounded into Frederick for us to look after. There was so much blood dripping out the backs of the wagons and falling on the dirt road, that eventually the mud became red as the wagon wheels plowed through the streets.”

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Drayton Pitts was likely moved to Frederick, along what is the modern Route 40A, in a Union ambulance. This replica is at the Pry House Museum, Keedysville, Maryland.

At first, Union doctors must have thought Drayton Pitts could survive. It seems unlikely that under the new triage system developed by Union Medical Director Dr. Jonathan Letterman, Pitts would have been sent on the long, bumpy ride—perhaps first into Middletown and later Frederick—taking the place of a soldier with better chances. Once arrived, Pitts would have been admitted to a building commandeered as a hospital—possibly the Birely Tannery—and treated as competently as possible in the midst of the madness that only escalated as the days passed.

If the tombstone in Mount Olivet is at all correct, Pitts failed to improve, then began a steady decline that ended on 26 September. He may have succumbed to infection, gangrene, dehydration from diarrhea, or perhaps his wounds were never survivable. Whatever caused Drayton Pitts to pass from life, my hope is that he went quietly, with a kindhearted stranger by his side.

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Drayton Pitts may have died in a temporary hospital in Frederick such as that created within the Evangelical Lutheran Church, where a false floor was built atop the pews in an attempt to prevent damage. Both Union and Confederate wounded were treated and convalesced there.

Drayton Pitts’ family may not have known of his death for some months, but his siblings were definitely aware by July 1863, when a sale of their late brother’s personal property raised $399.25 in Confederate money. (The goods included a grey mare, a black-headed cow, a red cow, a red heifer, a white heifer, and a feather bed and coverings. Rueben himself bought the bed for $32.) In early November, the dead man was commemorated by his elder brother Abner, whose wife Mary Goodwin Pitts gave birth to a son they named Drayton Abner (1863-1943).

For reasons unclear, settling Drayton Pitts’ estate took years. Finally, on 21 December, 1869, his younger brother and executor Rueben Pitts, filed documents with the probate court attesting that all surviving family members received their share and that those to whom his late brother owed money were paid. This is the final mirror glimpse reflecting Drayton’s short life.

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I believe that the evidence supports a conclusion that Raisin Pitts, who has lain in Mount Olivet for more than 150 years, was Second Lieutenant Drayton Pitts of Company F, 6th Alabama Infantry. But whether or not my conclusion stands the test of further research, it is clear that whoever the brave Alabaman was, his true identity deserves to be established and memorialized beneath a new headstone. Ω

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South Mountain, Frederick County, Maryland, not far from my home.

 

Mother of Glory: Avis Burr Wooster

“And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

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Avis Burr Wooster, 1/4th-plate daguerreotype, circa 1851. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

The above daguerreotype, which includes a 20th-Century handwritten note indicating it was once held in the collection of the Ossining, New York Historical Society, shows Avis Burr Wooster in about the fifty-fifth year of her life.

Avis was born on 26 May, 1796, in Southbury, New Haven County, Connecticut, in the ember glow of a hot century that had seen Connecticut change from a British colony to a sovereign state inside a new nation. By the time the Revolution exploded, Southbury was already a venerable place, having been established on land bought from the Paugusset tribe in 1659. The area remains much as it was in Avis’s day: rural, agricultural, quiet.

The Burr family’s transplantation to the New World was courtesy of Jehue Burr, born in about 1605, who sailed with Governor Winthrop to Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1630. Jehue eventually removed to Fairfield, Connecticut, and planted the seeds of a lineage that would include the noted vice president and unfortunate dualist Aaron Burr. Avis’s line was through Jehue’s son Nathaniel (1635-1712) to Avis’s great-great-grandfather Colonel John Burr (1673-1750) to her great-grandfather Captain John Burr (1698-1752) to her grandfather of the same name and rank (1728-1771), who married Eunice Booth (abt. 1728-bef. 1786) circa 1750.

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Southbury, Connecticut, from the air. Photo courtesy of the Southbury website.

Avis’s father, William Burr (23 June, 1762-28 Jan., 1841), lost his own father tragically when he was less than ten years old. According to the parish record of Stratfield, on 28 July, 1771, “Capt. John Burr, a farmer, son of…John Burr, was killed by lightning at the old Pequonnock meeting-house…. The congregation was standing in prayer. Parson Rose stopped praying, and after a pause he uttered the following words, ‘Are we all here?’ When the congregation moved out it was found that David Sherman and John Burr were dead. They were both in the prime of life, with families (the very pick of the flock). There was no rod on the steeple at that time.”

A mere five years thereafter, when the Revolution began, teenaged William Burr joined the Connecticut Militia, enlisting on 1 April, 1776. His pension files, included in the tome Revolutionary War Records of Fairfield, Connecticutindicate that his postings were many and varied, and that he served for a time as a substitute for another man, Andrew Curtiss. One of Burr’s postings was to the “Battery at Black Rock,” or Black Rock Fort in New Haven, later Fort Nathan Hale. The Connecticut Sons of the American Revolution note, “Fort Hale is situated upon an insulated rock, two miles from the end of Long Wharf, New Haven…. The Americans [had] a battery of three guns upon this point, which greatly annoyed the enemy when landing.” Many years later, Aaron Turney of Fairfield attested that in 1779, Burr was 1st sergeant at the battery and second-in-command under Captain Jarvis. Burr appears to have left military service sometime in 1780.

Having reached manhood during the fight for independence, Burr beat his sword into a plowshare, marrying Sarah Hubbell (1770-1857), the daughter of Jeremiah (1725-1801) and Sarah (1724-1775) Hubbell, on 23 November, 1786. The above-cited pension records include testimony by friend Aner Wheeler, who was “born and lived in Sarah’s neighborhood, and knew her from childhood,” that she “saw William Burr and Sarah Hubbell married in Huntington in the fall of 1786” by Congregational Minister Rev. Elisha Rexford.

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The gravestones of Avis Burr’s parents, William and Sarah, at Southford Cemetery, Oxford, New Haven County, Connecticut. Photo by Steven Smith.

The couple was blessed with a multitude of children whose names and dates of birth were presented by Sarah Hubbell Burr during her attempts to gain a pension increase and land bounty based on her husband’s service. Although it may at first seem tedious to list them, doing so illustrates the spacing between infants that was either natural to, or practiced by this American family, and is illustrative of the sibling maelstrom in which Avis Burr was raised: Alvan (1788); Abigail (1790); Sally (1792); Betsey (1794); Avis (1797); Olive (1800); George (1803); Erastus (1805); Eliza (1808); Harry (1811); and William, Jr. (1814).

As is sadly the case with bygone women, there is little to fill the story of Avis’s days until 15 November, 1820, when she married farmer Russell Wooster (b. 25 April, 1791) in Southbury. Wooster was the son of Joseph Wooster (abt. 1743-1819) and Hannah Woodruff (abt. 1755-1835). He was descended from the early immigrant Edward Wooster, born in 1622 in Cheddington, Buckinghamshire, who became the first permanent settler of Derby, Connecticut, and died there 8 July, 1689.

Whilst running a prosperous farm (the value of the real estate was $6,000 in 1870), Russell and Avis had four children: William Burr  (1821-1900); Cynthia Cordelia (21 Dec., 1824-17 Aug., 1868); Samuel R. (22 April, 1830-5 Feb., 1906); and Avis Amanda (1839-1889).

Avis’s eldest daughter Cynthia—whose strong resemblance to her mother is evident in the photo below—married Thomas Merwin Downs (15 July, 1823-19 Feb., 1874) on New Year’s Day 1845. Downs, also pictured below, was the son of Henry Downs and Sarah Ann Botsford. He was listed on the 1850 Census as a farmer, and on both the 1860 and 1870 censuses as a “laborer.” By the latter enumeration, two years after his wife’s death, he had amassed $5,500 in real estate and $3,000 in personal wealth. The couple had three children: Imogene Amanda (5 Sept., 1847-12 May, 1881), Wilber Russell, and Avis Elena (b. abt. 1866-aft. 1931). The circumstances of Cynthia Wooster Downs’s death are unknown, but she was buried in Pine Grove Cemetery, Ansonia, Connecticut. Her husband would remarry, but have no further offspring.

Avis and Russell’s second daughter Amanda lived with Cynthia’s widow Merwin, presumably undertaking the duty of replacement mother for her sister’s children until Merwin married again. She left the Downs’ residence by 1872, when she wed the widowed Joseph White Naramore (1827-1898), the son of William White Naramore and Mary Lyman. Naramore’s first wife, Amelia Wallace, died in 1870. Naramore listed his profession in 1860 as a machinist and in 1870 and 1880 a pin maker with $5,000 in real estate and $2,000 in personal property.

Amanda and Joseph had two daughters: Amelia Wooster (b. 1874) and Harriet Avis (b. 1875). Harriet never married and remained her mother’s companion all her life. Amelia married Harrison Abram Cornell, Jr., a fire insurance agent in Ossining, New York. They had three children: Marguerite E. Cornell (1901-1940); Joseph Naramore Cornell (b. 1904); and Greta A. Cornell (1911-1997). As was noted at the start of this article, my daguerreotype of Avis Burr Wooster was formerly in the collection of the Ossining Historical Society, and by this connection that mystery is solved: one of the Cornells certainly made the original donation.

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Amanda’s memorial stone in Oak Cliff Cemetery, Derby, Connecticut. Photo by Randal Ritter.

Joseph Naramore died in 1898 in Derby, and was laid to rest at Oak Cliff Cemetery beside his first wife. In 1900, Amanda and Harriet were living with her brother Dr. Samuel Wooster, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. By 1910, Samuel had passed away and Amanda and Harriet returned to Connecticut. Twenty years later, the 1930 Census found the pair living in Park Street. Amanda died in 1933, aged 96, the last survivor of Avis and Russell Wooster’s brood. Harriet died in Hamden, Connecticut, 6 December, 1957, and is also buried in Oak Cliff.

“Surgeons operated with dirty hands, going from one patient to the next without proper washing or cleaning instruments and dressings.”

Avis and Russell’s youngest son Samuel, was a graduate of Yale Medical College, New Haven. In 1857, he removed to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where “he built up a good practice, due in a great measure to his genial disposition as well as to his exceptional professional ability,” wrote Ernest B. Fisher in Grand Rapids and Kent County, Michigan: A Historical Account of their Progress from First Settlement to Present Time.

On 1 June, 1858, Wooster married Josephine Ella Godfroy, who was born 28 February, 1837, in Michigan, to Detroit native Richard Godfroy and his Canadian wife Anne Lewis. Samuel and Josephine had one daughter, Louise D. Wooster, born in January 1860.

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Dr. Samuel R. Wooster, circa 1861.

During the Civil War, Samuel Wooster was first attached as an assistant surgeon to the 8th Michigan 8th Volunteer Infantry, which, according to the unit’s Record of Service, was mustered 23 September, 1861, in Detroit.

With the regiment, Wooster saw service as part of Sherman’s Expeditionary Corps, including “a severe engagement with the enemy on Wilmington Island [and] at Secessionville on James Island, the regiment distinguished itself by a bayonet charge upon the enemy’s works, and though their ranks were swept by the enemy’s artillery, not a gun was fired until the parapet was reached.” The cost of this gallant rush on the Union side, noted the 8th’s record of service, was 13 dead, 98 wounded, 35 taken prisoner, and 36 missing.

Wooster saw the injured as they were offloaded at a wayside surgery that was hastily established. The soldiers were triaged in order to save those who had a real chance. This would become the process during the major conflagrationary battles of the war in which Wooster was a surgeon, including Bull Run, South Mountain, and Antietam, to name the most famous scenes of carnage—as well as many smaller, bloody affairs across a wide swath of nation busily consuming its own.

The noted Stanley B. Burns, MD, wrote in Surgery in the Civil War, “Military surgeons learned to amputate and perform a wide variety of procedures as they were actively engaged in conflicts…. Few were mentally or physically prepared, on either side, for what was to come.” Unfortunately, sterilization was unknown and unpracticed, and those who might otherwise have survived perished of post-operative infections. “Surgeons operated with dirty hands, going from one patient to the next without proper washing or cleaning instruments and dressings. Knives were often held in the mouth and sutures were wet with saliva,” Burns noted.

Another Union surgeon, Zabdiel Boylston Adams of the 32nd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, a graduate of Harvard Medical School, is the only medical officer to be honored on Gettysburg battlefield. “On the afternoon of July 2, 1863, the doctor set up a rude field hospital close to the line of battle. (One flat rock that was used as a surgical table is still there.) Adams had noticed how many soldiers were dying during transport from combat to distant medical care. Because he began treating patients so quickly and near the fighting, the 1895 plaque reads ‘many of our wounded escaped capture or death,’” noted his great-grandson Mitchell L. Adams during a lecture covered by the Harvard Review. “Adams…labored so long in surgeries at Gettysburg—up for two days and three nights—that he was blind with exhaustion. In 1864, he was severely wounded at the Battle of the Wilderness and captured by Confederate forces. His left leg shattered, he lingered untreated for weeks. Gangrene set in, but Adams treated himself by pouring pure nitric acid into the wound.”

After serving with the 8th Massachusetts, Samuel Wooster was commissioned as a full surgeon with the Michigan 1st Calvary, into which he mustered 11 April, 1863. He rose to the position of brigade surgeon in July of that year while on duty at General George Custer’s headquarters. He was made surgeon-in-chief of the 2nd Michigan Volunteer Brigade from 15 September, 1863, then was appointed an acting staff surgeon by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. During this final posting, Wooster served in field and hospital practice, the Grand Rapids and Kent County, Michigan: A Historical Account states.

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The mausoleum vault of Samuel and Josephine Wooster. Photo by Mike Cronk.

After the war, Wooster practiced for a time in Muskegon, but returned to Grand Rapids in 1871. In 1874, he was one of Kent County’s two coroners, a city physician and health officer of Grand Rapids in 1880, and president of the Kent County Medical Society in 1889.

By 1900, Samuel, Josephine, and Louise lived with his sister Amanda Wooster Naramore and niece Harriett at 165 Jefferson Street, Grand Rapids. A few years later, on 1 June, 1905, at age of 45, Louise Wooster married William Cary, who was employed by a local glass factory.

In one of Fate’s weird twists, Dr. Samuel Wooster died 5 February, 1906, during an operation for chronic cystitis that sent him into shock. He was aged 75 years, nine months, and 16 days. The old doctor was buried in the mausoleum at Graceland Memorial Park and Mausoleum, Grand Rapids. Josephine died 20 November, 1922, after a fracture of her right hip, and was buried in the vault with her husband. Their daughter Louise died 12 March, 1950, aged 90.

“He believed in abolition, and led his troops with the idea uppermost in mind that the war would result in the abolition of slavery.”

The Wooster’s eldest son, William, began his life “until early manhood…following the plow and tilling the soil upon his father’s farm, teaching school in the surrounding districts during the winter months,” wrote John W. Storrs in the Twentieth Connecticut: A Regimental History.

Wooster had been educated at the South Britain Academy and later Yale Law School, after which he was admitted to the bar in 1846. As the 1850s progressed and his law career grew successful, his thoughts turned to politics: In 1858, he was elected to the Connecticut House of Representatives from the town of Derby, and in 1859 he was voted to the Connecticut Senate; in 1861, he returned to the Connecticut House. “In politics he has been a Republican from the outset, and the honesty and uprightness of his political views have been exemplified in every step of his career,” noted the Illustrated Popular Biography of Connecticut.

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Colonel William Burr Wooster

William Wooster was a strong abolitionist and he viewed the war as a righteous blow to end slavery, but he was also unsure that he was fit to command men. Almost year after his younger brother had joined up, William had not gone into uniform. At last, in early September 1862, he received a commission as lieutenant colonel of the 20th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Together, this group “left behind them the green hills of their fathers, left with them also their mothers, their wives, their children, and sweethearts with heroic bosoms swelling with patriotic devotion…. But alas! with a very inadequate idea as to what was to be the cost thereof,” Storrs lamented.

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Libby Prison, Richmond, Virginia, 1865. Photo courtesy U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

During in early May 1863, Wooster was in command of the 20th Connecticut during the disastrous Battle of Chancellorsville in Spotsylvania County, Virginia—an engagement during which “two horses were shot out from under him and his sword taken,” reported the Ansonia Valley Post. He was captured and sent to Libby Prison in Richmond, the Confederate capital.

“Libby takes in the captured Federals by scores, but lets none out; they are huddled up and jammed into every nook and corner; at the bathing troughs, around the cooking stoves, everywhere there is a wrangling, jostling crowd; at night the floor of every room they occupy in the building is covered, every square inch of it, by uneasy slumberers, lying side by side, and heel to head, as tightly packed as if the prison were a huge, improbable box of nocturnal sardines,” described the Richmond Enquirer in February 1864.

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The monument to the 20th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry on Culp’s Hill, southeast of Gettysburg.

Wooster was paroled in a prisoner exchange in time to command the 20th Connecticut at Gettysburg as part of the 1st Brigade, 1st Division, 12th Corps, Army of the Potomac. The monument to the 20th Connecticut’s heroics during the three-day battle tells the tale: “The [brigade] formed on this line on the morning of July 2nd. At eve it moved to the support left of army. Returning, it found the position and woods on rear occupied by Johnson’s Division, Ewell’s Corps. During the night it lay in line of battle. At dawn, July 3rd, the 20th Conn. advanced under cover of artillery and fought 5 [hours], driving the enemy and reoccupying the works. Was relieved by the 123rd N.Y. In the afternoon moved to support the 2nd Corps against Longstreet’s assault.” The 20th Connecticut suffered the loss of 28 men and upwards of 70 wounded.

On 8 March, 1864, Wooster accepted a colonelcy with the 29th Regiment, Connecticut Volunteers, Colored, the state’s first black regiment. “He believed in abolition, and led his troops with the idea uppermost in mind that the war would result in the abolition of slavery,” noted the Illustrated Popular Biography of Connecticut. “But it required great moral courage not less than loyalty to one’s convictions, to assume the leadership of a regiment of colored men even in 1864. All honor is due to Colonel Wooster for the frankness and manliness of his course.”

When the new unit paraded in New Haven, one of the soldiers, J. J. Hill, recalled, “White and colored ladies and gentlemen grasped me by the hand, with tears streaming down their cheeks…expressing the hope that we might have a safe return.” Even so, the unit had much to fight against—not only the Confederacy, which held an estimated 4 million slaves, but also the bias and bigotry of a Northern white society skeptical that blacks could be effective soldiers.

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The 29th Connecticut Volunteers, Colored, at Beaufort, South Carolina. Photo: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

The unit went south to Virginia, where it fought admirably to capture Fort Harrison, not far from Richmond. Then, “On October 13, the regiment participated in a scouting mission which led to the Battle of the Darbytown Road, and two weeks later the men pushed the Confederate army back at the Battle of Kell House, which resulted in over 150 casualties and many captured soldiers,” states a well-researched article on the history of the regiment at Connecticut History.

Frederick Chesson of the 29th wrote of Richmond’s fall, “We began to realize as we had not till then . . . that this was one of the great days of the Lord. Right out there in the open in sight of the flaming city we went wild with excitement. We yelled, we cheered, we sang, we prayed, we wept, we hugged each other and threw up our hats.” As it would happen, Wooster and his colored 29th were the first to enter the Confederate capital—the irony must have been great.

After the Union victory, the 29th was sent to Brazos de Santiago, Texas, arriving in July, 1865. Wooster stayed until the unit was settled, then mustered out in August. A law practice back in green Connecticut beckoned. He became a partner with Wooster, Williams & Gager then paymaster general of the State of Connecticut in 1867. In later years, Wooster was president of the Derby Gas Company and the Birmingham Water Company.

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William Burr Wooster, second from left, with members of his law firm. Picture Courtesy the Derby, Connecticut, Historical Society.

At census time, 1870, William Wooster, aged 48, lived alone in an upscale rooming house in Birmingham, Connecticut, but later that year he married 37-year-old  Jemima A. Wallace, known as “Jay,” who was born in New York 11 October, 1833, daughter of the prominent industrialist and English immigrant Thomas Wallace. Her father’s company, Thomas Wallace & Sons, was founded in Ansonia in 1848 and incorporated in 1853. It produced rolled metals, drawing wire, and finished items such as library lamps until 1895.

The Woosters traveled extensively after their marriage, spending several years in Europe. William’s passport application gives us a glimpse of him at age 60: 5’6-1/2″, with a high forehead, blue eyes, a Roman nose, small mouth, medium chin, and brown hair shot with grey.

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The tombstone inscription of William Burr and Jay Wallace Wooster, Pine Grove Cemetery, Ansonia, Connecticut. Photo by Steven Smith.

On 21 September, 1900, the Ansonia Valley Post reported, “Colonel William B. Wooster died suddenly at his home…from apoplexy. He attended a Grand Army celebration in New Britain yesterday, and came home last night in his usual good health. Shortly after arising this morning he was taken ill and died within an hour.” His wife survived until 23 March, 1927.

Avis Burr Wooster, the mother who bore hero sons, herself the daughter of a revolutionary patriot, had predeceased William and Samuel by nearly twenty years, dying 17 September, 1881, aged 86. She and her husband, Russell, who died 23 April, 1877, are buried in Pine Grove Cemetery, Ansonia. I am saddened that I cannot tell her story more fully at this time and have some concerns about the latter years of her life. The 1880 census placed her at age 83 in Derby, keeping house for Ira Bliss and Emma J. (Lines) Newcomb. The connection of this couple to Avis remains unclear, as does why her two successful, wealthy sons did not house her, but this absence of facts should not impugn their characters until further research is undertaken. Ω

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The grave of Russell and Avis Wooster. Photo by Steven Smith.