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On the Trail of the Civil War

It's the 150th anniversary of the Civil War: History buffs take heed.

Area historical societies and history buffs are enjoying a bout of sesquicentennial fever.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War — with the Battle of Fort Sumter, which began April 12, 1861 — and across Fairfield County people are reexamining what the bloody conflict means: from southern secession to Appomattox. For Civil War enthusiasts, there's no shortage of lectures, exhibits and re-enactments — all of which aim to make sense of the four years that ripped the nation asunder.

In Wilton, the and are hosting a four-part lecture series. The two remaining talks will deal with why the South seceded and the media’s role in the war.

Meanwhile “American Civil War (1861-1865)” a Retrospective Exhibit just opened at the Wilton Historical Society. More than 40 prints and artifacts are there for the viewing, from Confederate Flag Fragments captured by the 16th Maine to a cloth star from Old Glory – the United States' 34-star pattern flag. 

In nearby Rowayton, the historical society is most definitely planning events, said the organization's president, Wendell Livingston.

“But as we are gearing up for a really big exhibition this summer and we have a big splash for the holiday season, we will be launching our Civil War Exhibit in early 2012,” Livingston said. “We have people researching now for the exhibit, and we are collecting artifacts. We are also researching speakers and re-enactments. It's going to be great.”

Over at the Greenwich Historical Society, “Voices from the Civil War" opens in April. The exhibit will tell the stories of how the Civil War affected the lives 10 ordinary Greenwich people. The lives of four soldiers will be featured, including an African-American and a prisoner of war. On the home front, additional observations on the events come from an abolitionist, a war opponent, a female social activist, a young widow, a wife and mother and a teenaged girl coming of age. According to the society, actual letters and diaries, provide the basis for the exhibit.

In Weston, area residents can commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War on April 30, with exhibits at a new archives building at the Coley Homestead. And then on June 11 they can enjoy the reading of "Letters Home," a pre-Broadway presentation of "Battle Cry" and other Civil War related music and events.

Across the region gravestones, mostly marble, record the names of Connecticut men who volunteered.

There were bands of brothers. A monument in Wilton’s honors the four Davis brothers who fought in the Civil War, including James Davis who was wounded and captured.

Wilton men counted among the bloody affair's 3,199 casualties. Capt. George Godfrey died in April 1863. Malaria killed Sgt. Aaron Scribner and Walter Dikeman died of wounds sustained in Louisiana during the battle.

Wilton men served in the 12th and 23rd Regiments in Louisiana during the Mississippi River campaign of 1863, or Vicksburg, according to local historian Robert Russell.

There are more than 140 Civil War monuments in the Nutmeg State, records show.

In Ridgefield, a large memorial in front of honors the town's veterans from several wars, beginning with the American Revolution. A plaque is dedicated to the town’s 185 Civil War veterans.

For those who want to delve into military history a bit more, the Connecticut National Guard published a summary of each unit’s service in 1889. The book, 38 chapters, is called “Record of Service of Connecticut Men in the War of Rebellion, 1861 to 1865.”

Interested residents can attend lectures that address why the war was fought, slavery, and the Union’s preservation ranking as chief reasons.

Certainly slavery was deeply entrenched in Connecticut. The state's is buried in New Canaan.

In Connecticut, children of slaves gained freedom at age 28, according to the state’s 1784 manumission. President Abraham Lincoln even considered spreading the emancipation process over 35 years, said Steven Hahn, a Yale trained Ph.D., during a recent lecture at the Wilton Historical Society. 

“Almost everywhere, including Connecticut, slavery was abolished gradually,” Hahn said.

In fact, in 1650 Connecticut passed a law making slavery legal, legalizing what already existed. Slave codes were passed in 1660, prohibiting African Americans from serving in militias and from moving beyond borders of their own communities.

Slavery wasn’t outlawed until 1771.

During the Revolution, nearly 290 Connecticut free blacks and slaves fought alongside the Continental Army. Finally a road map to emancipation put in place. Slaves born after 1771 would be freed at age 25.

Connecticut officially apologized for slavery and segregation in 2009 in a unanimous vote by the state Senate. It became the second northern state to do so.

Indeed, one of America’s foremost scientists, and a celebrated Connecticut son, hailed from a slave owning family.

Benjamin Silliman, Jr., who documented the nation’s first recorded meteorite, matured from son of a slave owner to an ardent abolitionist. His transformation from slave owner to abolitionist mirrors the transformation of many in the Union.

Silliman supplied Sharp’s Rifles to Connecticut men fighting in Bloody Kansas in 1856. In that regard Silliman belonged to a group of several of some notable Nutmeg State abolitionists, including Prudence Crandall, writer Harriet Beecher Stowe and preacher Jonathan Edwards, Jr.

"His background is really quite remarkable," said Dr. Leo O'Connor, chair of 's American Studies Program.

Connecticut also provided active support for the Underground Railroad, the secretive system designed to help escaped southern slaves reach freedom in Canada.

“Stops include a property in Weston,” said Dan Cruson, an historian from Newtown.

In March, schoolchildren will get a chance to participate in an Underground Railroad simulation at , said Kevin Meehan, who teaches at Cider Mill School and runs the farm’s summer program.

However, history claimed many Underground Railroad stations. In part because the Fugitive Slave Act, which was federal law at the time, prohibited people from helping escaped slaves. Indeed bounty hunters were authorized to recapture the escapees by force if necessary.

On Sunday, Feb. 27, history meets music at an event at the in Weston. Reverent Dr. Bernard R. Wilson and the Norfield Sanctuary Choir will present "Music on the Road to Freedom: The Underground Railroad and the African-American Spiritual." Wilson's grandfather was born into slavery. His presentation will discuss the history of the road to freedom while the Sanctuary Choir sings an occasional spiritual.

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