SHARING THE STORIES OF NORTHWEST CONNECTICUT'S AFRICAN AMERICAN CIVIL WAR SOLDIERS
Henry H. Fitch
In one of the most famous scenes from the movie Glory, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, played by Matthew Broderick, essentially blackmails his commander to allow the African American soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts to fight, rather than be used solely as laborers. Despite this, many African American soldiers were heavily employed in manual labor during the war. One such soldier was Henry Fitch, a member of the 29th Connecticut Infantry. In the aftermath of the Union victories at Fort Harrison in the fall of 1864, Union General Benjamin Butler sought to improve the road network by which his men at the front lines could be supplied from Union headquarters at City Point. As part of this operation, Fitch and other men from the 29th Connecticut were sent to build a corduroy road near their regiments line at Fort Harrison. Corduroy roads were made from logs that were placed perpendicular to the direction of the route over swampy and muddy areas. The establishment of these roads made it possible for Union troops to move massive numbers of both men and supplies over areas that otherwise would not have been traversable. In a siege operation, like that at the Richmond/Petersburg front in 1864-65, such roads were essential. In December 1864, the constant lifting of heavy logs resulted in a hernia “approximately the size of a hen’s egg.” Fitch’s comrade, Willis Brimsdale, later testified: “While carrying timber to the road, it was very slippery because it was raining every morning, Fitch while trying to lift a heavy piece of timber on his shoulders suddenly fell. Later tried to walk it off. Fitch tried walking it off, but he had hurt himself badly. That said Fitch not being able to walk, he was later taken to the hospital in Virginia. He took a long time to recover and returned back to the regiment. He later told someone that he was badly suffering and needed to be discharged.” Fitch’s medical records indicate that the hernia ruptured in his stomach, and that he was brought to the Tenth Corps hospital at City Point. Following a lengthy period of recovery, Fitch returned to the 29th and was ultimately discharged in Hartford on November 25, 1865.
Building a Civil War corduroy road
The post-war years were not easy ones for Fitch. He and his wife Emiline had two daughters born in the 1870s, and acquired a farm in Watertown. Fitch’s war injury, however, prevented him from being as productive as he wished. He suffered from kidney trouble ever since the hernia, as well as cardiac hypertrohy. A doctor’s report in 1892 stated that his heart trouble had increased by 25% over the previous decade. He continued to have a hernia on his right side. When his wife passed away, Fitch applied for a pension, in part to support his two teenage daughters, but his initial applications were rejected because the paperwork was incomplete. Fitch was notified that his medical records from the war were lost in transport, and he required five affidavits from comrades to establish his injury. This Fitch was able to secure, and he began to receive $8 a month in 1885. This amount was increased to $12 a month, and then, in 1907, to $15 a month. Fitch died on February 23, 1910, after nearly fifty years of struggling with a war injury caused not by a bullet, but a log.