SHARING THE STORIES OF NORTHWEST CONNECTICUT'S AFRICAN AMERICAN CIVIL WAR SOLDIERS
Integration at Fitch's Home for Soldiers
An 1866 view of Fitch's Home for Soldiers, from Frank Leslie's Illustrated
Open from July 4th, 1864 to August 28th 1940, Fitch’s Home for Soldiers in Darien, Connecticut welcomed and housed hundreds of orphans and thousands of Connecticut veterans. While it eventually boarded veterans from the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, the Mexican Expedition, and World War I, philanthropist and millionaire Benjamin Fitch first opened the soldier home for men who served in the Civil War and for orphans whose fathers had died in that conflict. Fitch (1802-1883) became personally involved in the Civil War when he funded a local regiment with his personal money in 1861. An 1866 edition of Harper’s Weekly recounted Fitch’s purpose: “too old and infirm himself to shoulder a musket, and appreciating the tender anxiety of those who by going to the field must leave behind their wives and children, [. . .] promised a large number of men to take under his care all who should be left by them”. This was just the beginning of the great compassion Fitch would show to Civil War soldiers and then veterans. In response to the inconceivable number of casualties incurred by the Union army, Fitch established a home to care for them even before the war had ended.
Fitch was not just a supporter of Union soldiers, but a supporter of the Union cause. As such, Fitch opened Fitch’s Home for Soldiers, in the Noroton Heights section of Darien, to veterans both black and white. An analysis of data available at Connecticut State Library indicates that 2.9% of Connecticut Civil War soldiers were black soldiers, and 3.1% of soldiers at Fitch’s Home for Soldiers were veterans of black regiments in the Civil War. Of the soldiers at the home, 2% were from the 29th Connecticut Regiment, including Lewis Starr of Sharon. While African American soldiers were slightly overrepresented at Fitch’s Home for Soldiers, the socioeconomic status of black veterans of the Civil War would suggest that there should have been more black residents. There may be several reasons why this was not so, but one is particularly striking. Historian Kelly Mezurek has found that in 1890, close to 50% of white Civil War veterans were still living; only 30% of black veterans were still alive. Furthermore, due primarily to discrepancies in medical care, a black Union soldier was more than twice as likely to die during the war than a white Union soldier. Black veterans also dealt with the ramifications of their pre-war lives, many of which involved enslavement.
Not only was Fitch’s Home for Soldiers open to both black and white veterans, but photographic evidence exists that suggests its facilities were integrated. If so, this would be quite different from conditions at other homes for soldiers across the North. Mezurek argues that amongst veterans, “the belief in a brotherhood of soldiers over pervasive racial attitudes went only so far.” Soldiers in several homes in the United States showed that full equality was difficult to achieve within the whole group because of the attitudes of white soldiers. This unequal treatment also furthered with the administrators. In many other soldier homes across the country, it was common for administrators to separate the black soldiers when eating, sleeping, or going to the barber; however, the rules of Fitch’s Home - available at the Connecticut State Library - made no mention of segregation of the veterans.
A postcard depicting Fitch's Home for Soldiers at its peak
From evidence available in its written rules and historic photograph, Fitch’s Home for Soldiers served as a broader symbol of attempts in the post-war era to implement the highest ideals of the Civil War. It not only helped keep the memory of African American contributions to the Union war effort alive, but placed their sacrifices on an even standing with those of white veterans. It also stood as a reminder - at a time when many Americans were looking to push aside such issues in the spirit of reconciliation - that slavery and emancipation were at the heart of the Civil War. It took the efforts of an individual like Benjamin Fitch to make this happen.
"The Battle Story (Returned Soldier)", on the grounds of the Connecticut Veterans Home in
Rocky Hill, originally stood at Fitch's Home for Soldiers
Unfortunately, while it was Fitch’s fortune that made the home possible, the Home fell upon hard times when Fitch died in 1882. In 1888, the State of Connecticut took over operations of the home, and subsequent wars led to increases in the number of “patients,” as all residents were referred to in the official rules. With over 1,000 men living at the home by 1930, the state began looking for a new location. In August 1940, a new facility opened in Rocky Hill, and over 500 residents were moved there. Among them was one Civil War veteran.