Note: A large debt of gratitude is due to Dr. Walter Powell (former Historic Preservation Officer for the Borough of Gettysburg) and Lt.Col. Art House (USA, Retired) for providing copies of the newspaper series and the Warren background pieces, respectively.
Fragile Volumes Reveal the 17th‘s Regimental History
By Lt. Col. Art House (USA, Retired)
Students of the 17th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry have a major study resource at the main Bridgeport Public Library’s Historical Collections room, on the library’s third floor. There resides a frail but fascinating collection of 11 volumes of historical material on the regiment. Bound, but never published, this monumental work, History of the Seventeenth Connecticut Volunteers or Fairfield County Regiment, was assembled by William H. Warren, a soldier of the 17th from the regiment’s C Company from Danbury. Begun as a diary during the war, Warren continued adding to the work and revising it until just before his death in 1918.
Warren’s history is full of first-person narratives, recollections, and details, but though partially indexed, much of the work is haphazardly organized and therefore a challenge to the researcher. As Warren continually revised and added to it (most of the collection in the Bridgeport Library is from his 8th Revision, apparently the last), much of his latter work became more of a scrapbook than a coherent history. Digging into the volumes, however, results in finding vivid details of every aspect of the regiment’s three years of service. Though the accounts of its heroic service at the battles of Chancellorsville, Va., and Gettysburg, Pa., in 1863, are particularly detailed, information about every other aspect of the regiment’s adventures is to be found.
The Warren material in Bridgeport is organized as follows:
Volume I, typewritten and dated April, 1900, covers the recruiting and organization of the regiment and its service from July 1862 through the end of the year.
Volume II, typewritten and dated February, 1901, describes the regiment’s service from January 1 through June 30, 1863. It covers the battle of Chancellorsville, Va., the regiment’s disastrous baptism of fire.
Among many recollections of Chancellorsville is the particularly interesting account of Pvt. Floyd Rusco, H Company, who was captured Rusco reported that on May 7, 1863, he and other Union prisoners were assembled at Guinea Station, a depot on the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad south of Fredericksburg, Va.. Within easy sight of the depot was the small farm office structure in which lay dying “Stonewall” Jackson himself. Jackson, wounded by friendly fire at the end of the attack which had resulted in Rusco’s capture and the near destruction of the 17th Connecticut itself, died there 3 days later. Rusco was apparently unaware of Jackson’s presence there, as he never mentions it in his account.
Volume III, typewritten, and dated January 1906, deals primarily with the 17th‘s service at Gettysburg. On the battle’s first day, July 1, 1863, the 17th Connecticut again found itself on the extreme right of the Union line at small rise now known as Barlow’s Knoll, due north of Gettysburg. There, the regiment and its higher commands were driven from the field, just as at Chancellorsville two months earlier, by a sudden, massive and unexpected flank attack by overwhelming numbers of Confederate troops.
Despite heavy losses, the rest of the 17th went on to fight a successful defensive battle the next evening, July 2, at the foot of Cemetery Hill
Volume IV, typewritten, and dated January, 1905, covers the time between Gettysburg and the end of 1863. During this period the regiment and its brigade, much reduced in size from their rough handling at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, were transferred to South Carolina, where they took part in smaller fights and operations on the sea islands adjacent to Charleston Harbor.
Volume V, typewritten, and dated July, 1905, differs from its predecessors in that it does not cover a specific period of time. Warren called it “Gleanings” and in it and the following undated Volume VI, he assembled copies of orders, rosters, diary entries, letters from old comrades, newspaper clippings, anecdotes, pension applications, and other snippets of all types, covering incidents throughout the war and after.
Volume VII, written entirely in longhand, dated 1906, covers the regiment’s service from early 1864 to the end of its existence in July 1865. Most of its service was in Florida during this period, where it was engaged in minor operations.
Volume VIII, mostly in longhand, continues the regimental story with additional details of its service in Florida.
Volume IX of the collection in Bridgeport is dated 1891, and therefore must be from Warren’s 5th edition, begun in 1887. The volume also describes several small actions in Florida, One resulted the capture of the regiment’s commanding officer, Colonel William H. Noble. Noble, sent to the notorious Andersonville Prison in Georgia, was–in company with other officers imprisoned there–attempting to tunnel out of the place when the Confederates released him.
The final two volumes (numbered 10 and 11 by the Bridgeport Library, but not by Warren) are in longhand. The first consists of 458 pages of additional material, covering all periods of the war. Warren assembled it in his last years and though undated, its final entry refers to a document sent him in January, 1918. The entry suggests that he was working on the history until he was physically incapable of further effort. His death (though not its date) was duly recorded in the Minutes of the 17th Connecticut Volunteers Association Annual Reunion, dated August 28, 1918.
The final volume, dated December 1916, is a photo album, with some handwritten notes. In it are to be found 200 images, most of which are photos of soldiers of the regiment taken during their service.
Warren labored for more than half a century on his history, but it was never published. He offered it for review to the 17th‘s post-war regimental association but would not allow the association to publish the work, or use any of its materials, without compensation. None was forthcoming. (See the separate item on Warren’s dealings with the 17th’s association).
The size of the immense work (comprising several thousand pages of material), its continuing revision, and disjointed scrapbook-like “gleanings” volumes would have been a daunting challenge for any editor. Warren resisted suggestions that he shorten the work to a more manageable size, and it was likely a combination of all these factors that precluded the work ever being printed.
The eleven volumes in Bridgeport may be the only hard copies of the work still existing. The Sterling Library at Yale University has some of Warren’s 1895-1915 work gathered on a single microfilm reel.
In Volume II of the Bridgeport collection is a handwritten request from Warren that asks his family to keep the material in family hands for as long as any were alive. Failing that, he asked them to send it to the Connecticut State Library in Hartford. A check with the state library showed no such manuscript in its collection.
Serious students of the 17th will find this giant, though difficult, work a treasure trove of information. Importantly, the core of the work is Warren’s own diary, recording events as they happened. Some of the many accounts included in his work, however, were written decades later and must be considered in the context of the passage of time, and in the warming of memories by old men recalling their youthful participation in the greatest adventure of their lives.
The 17th Connecticut Volunteer Association and William Warren’s History
By Lt.Col. Art House (USA, Retired)
Like the veterans of many other Civil War regiments, the survivors of the 17th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry formed a post-war regimental association. Founded in November, 1867, the association conducted annual reunions until 1937. On the association’s first roster (dated 1870) appears the name of William H. Warren, compiler of the vast, unofficial history of the regiment that now is in the historical collection of the Bridgeport Public Library. Warren’s dealing with the association regarding his history are revealed in the association’s annual reunion minutes, currently on file at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford.
The association’s annual reunion was normally held on August 28th of each year, the anniversary of the regiment’s formation and acceptance into Federal service in 1862.
On August 28, 1891, in a reunion held in New Canaan, Warren presented his history and asked for the association to publish the work.
No such pledge to publish was made, but Warren turned over the history to the Association for review only, and in turn received a promise that no part of it would be “appropriated” by the group without Warren receiving compensation.
Apparently no agreement with Warren was ever reached, for the minutes of the 1895 reunion mention that Warren continued to refuse the association use of the work without compensation
The following year, 1896, saw the 17th veterans back in New Canaan on August 28, marching from the depot to the Nichols Opera House in company with the New Canaan Town Band. That day, a committee was appointed to publish a history of the regiment, but Warren was not among its members. (The meeting also reported the death that year, of former H Company Private Justus Silliman. Silliman’s letters home from the war were published by the New Canaan Historical Society in 1984. The book is still in print and available from the Society.
The 1901 reunion saw another committee designated to publish a history, but the matter was dropped indefinitely at the 1902 reunion. It was not taken up again until after Warren’s death in 1918.
Despite his continuing troubles with the association over the history, Warren remained active in the group. Each of the former 10 companies in the regiment named a vice president of the association at the annual reunion, and the minutes of 1906, 1914, and 1916 record Warren as being the vice president representing Danbury’s C Company.
At the 1918 reunion, after Warren’s death, the association formed a committee to contact Warren’s family to try to obtain the history. The 1919 reunion minutes reflect that the committee’s attempts to communicate with the Warrens had failed. And there the matter was dropped forever.
The association continued to meet annually, though most of the members were now children and grandchildren of the “comrades” (as the regimental veterans called themselves). By 1934, the Association’s 72d annual reunion, only former Private Edward A. Pinkney of Greenwich’s I Company, was able to attend, and the work of the association had clearly passed to the veterans’ descendants. Pinkney’s last attendance was recorded at the 74th reunion in 1936.
The brief minutes of the 75th reunion in 1937 mention no comrade in attendance. With that entry, the history of the 17th Connecticut Volunteer Association concludes.