Homefront to Hardtack: Ridgefield's Civil War History Explored at Keeler Tavern

A local historian talked about Ridgefield's involvement during the Civil War on Sunday.


If twitter existed during the Civil War, it’s not hard to imagine Phineas Lounsbury, a Ridgefield resident who served with the 17th Connecticut Volunteers, sending this update: "@Keeler’sTavern, @AnnaMarieR We saw the elephant, scared out of our wits. #chancellorsoville #battle. "

After all, friends and neighbors anxiously awaited news during those four years. And thanks to the diary of Anna Marie Resseguie, such insight is available. 

Indeed Ridgefield soldiers were 7 months into service and had yet to see the "elephant," a Civil War-era term for combat. Then came Chancellorsville. Under the direction of newly promoted General O.O. Howard, the 17th were part of a flank overrun by Stonewall Jackson. They were the picket line, a kind of human trip wire. 

“Soon there was heard the chilling rebel yell as Confederates came from the woods. It was one of greatest disasters in US military history,” said Charlie Pankenier in his talk “Ridgefield Fights the Civil War.”

As part of a series of statewide events commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the start of the Civil War, Pankenier spoke in Ridgefield’s Keeler Tavern’s Garden Room. More than 50 people gathered for the lecture and a chance to sample hardtack, a wartime delicacy, at the talk’s end.

Before the war, Ridgefield’s economy was based largely on subsistence agriculture assisted by cash crops. Shoemaking was a cottage industry. It also sold carriages and furniture to wealthy southern planters.

“By 1860, 2,213 people and at least that many cows and sheep,” Pankenier said.

But most of those residents had never strayed 20 miles from their own front doors.

Then, on April 12, 1861, nearly 150 years ago to the day, Fort Sumter fell and Abraham Lincoln asked states to give 75,000 troops for 90 days to squash the rebellion. Ridgefield responded.

“Surprisingly bands played, flags raised, and cannons were fired in Ridgefield,” Pankenier said. “Within hours of Lincoln's call two Ridgefield men rushed to join.“

Like much of the North, Ridgefield believed the war would end quickly. 

“A 90 day enlistment appeared to be an opportunity for a brief, glorious adventure in a noble cause,” Pankenier said. In 1861 aside from Selectman Ebenezer Hawley, an 1812 veteran, its likely no more than a dozen living citizens had battlefield experience. 

Yet the Union lost Richmond. The North quickly realized the war would be bloody and protracted. 

“Instead of being dispirited, the North is more determined than ever,” Resseguie wrote In a July 1861 journal entry.

On May 4, the town voted to give a $2 weekly stipend, plus 50 cents for each child under 12, to wives whose husbands served. In addition, each man who joined a Connecticut regiment received a $200 bounty in addition to the $100 bounty. 

The town was decidedly anti-slavery. In 1860, a reported 650 people filled the newly completed Katoonah Hall to hear a talk about slavery’s evils. It was election year and people knew war was coming. 

Lincoln carried every New England county. Lincoln won Ridgefield with 291 votes, or 66 percent. That compares to 43,488 votes, or 58 percent statewide. By comparison, Ridgefield accounted for just 3 of the 15,431 votes cast for Douglas in Connecticut.

In her journal, Resseguie noted the 1861 appointment of “the young and dashing George McClellan." She also remarked on federal successes in the west and the Carolinas, the standoff between the Monitor and the Merrimac, and the 1862 capture of New Orleans. She didn’t make much room for community events.

“That makes her communication about the August 1862 Ridgefield recruits parade all the more notable, especially since, as she wrote ‘All feel that the prospects for our country are vey gloomy, and good men believe that many more thousands of lives must be sacrificed,’” Pankenier said. 

“She proved a reliable reporter and commentator,” he said. “Anna Marie’s somber outlook leads us to believe that Ridgefield residents were weighed down by the rapidly growing casualty list of friends and neighbors and defeats.”

Eventually the 17th volunteers became part of the 11th Potomac. Colonel William Noble of Bridgeport commanded the soldiers. 

Joseph Hawkins was the first Ridgefield soldier of the war to be killed.  He was home on furlough when hit by a cannon during a celebration. Henry Keeler fell at the battle of Antietam, mortally wounded in combat. 

Ridgefield soldiers held the defensive line at the foot of Cemetery Hill during the Battle of Gettysburg. 

For Ridgefield, Jul. 3, 1863 was the war’s costliest day with 11 casualties.

“The village’s own 1st Sgt. Edwin Pickett died,” Pankenier said.

Picket was the first to enlist after the 1861 call to action, despite being newly married and the father of a young son. He was promoted to 1st Sgt. a month before his death. Picket was shot down while carrying the regimental colors.

Then in 1865 Resseguie noted the ‘news which causes devout thanksgiving to ascend from thousands of hearts comes to us, the surrender of Lee’s army.’ 

Toda,y a monument to the 17th Connecticut Volunteers stands in Gettysburg. 

In 1947, one of the last surviving Civil War veterans died after having lived most of his adult life in Ridgefield. He had enlisted as a drummer boy when just 15-years-old.


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