Sometimes I come across something new in my reading on the American War of Independence that leaves me - in the modern parlance of our English cousins - simply gobsmacked. Consider this passage from Edwin G. Burrows' remarkable study of American prisoners during the Revolutionary War:
"The impact on local communities was crushing. Of the thirty-six men from Litchfield, Connecticut who helped defend Fort Washington, four were killed and thirty-two taken prisoner. Twenty died in the prisons of New York, another six on the way home. Only six returned to Litchfield - six of the original thirty-six. Half a company of 100 men raised in Danbury, Connecticut was captured at Fort Washington and confined in one of the sugar houses. Two survived. Some towns may have lost everyone. At dinner one night in April 1777, Ambrose Serle, Admiral Howe's secretary, heard of 'a little town in Connecticut' that had turned out 220 men for the American cause, every last one of whom died in batle or succumbed to disease. Many families must have been nearly wiped out. Two of Ruth Peck's three sons were taken prisoner at Fort Washington. One lost both feet to frostbite trying to walk home from New York in the dead of winter; the other returned with the smallpox and died, but not before infecting Peck's husband, who later died as well."
Burrow's book is aptly named Forgotten Patriots, and even without the local connection to towns in Northwest Connecticut its grim reckoning would have haunted me. We are talking about death rates of 60-70% in the prisons of New York in 1776. Compare that with Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prison camp, where the death rate was horrendous at 40% of those in captivity there. Elmira, the northern counterpart to Andersonville, saw the death of 1 in every 4 prisoners. The numbers in the Civil War may have been larger - Clara Barton estimated nearly 13,000 at Andersonville alone - but our modern memory of the Civil War is constantly being reworked and refreshed, while these patriot dead have somehow slipped our grasp and have lost their place in narrative of our founding.
Exploring how this selective memory came to be is the central theme of Burrow's book. I keep coming back to what the impact must have been on small, rural communities to have lost nearly everyone who marched away. There is a welcome resource for those who ask this question about the Nutmeg State during the Civil War in Blaike Hines' statistical study: Volunteer Sons of Connecticut, in which he breaks down the "worst day" for every Connecticut town in terms of battlefield casualties and tracks those who died of disease or in captivity. The iconic monuments of greatcoated soldiers that stand watch on our village greens bear the names of those who served, with stars beside the names of the dead. Americans in the north chose to commemorate this war in terms of individual sacrifice.
There are very few monuments dating from the decades following Independence when veterans were still living, and those that were contructed tend to recognize collective sacrifice for patriot ideals. When it later became fashionable to recognize patriot leaders and ancestors, subsequent generations started to erect monuments along the lines of the Civil War memorials, but those directly impacted by these deaths did not choose to memorialize their personal grief and collective loss.