John Curtis was willing to die for his country.
But not like this.
A member of the 9th Regiment Connecticut Volunteers, he was in Mississippi in 1862, tasked — along with other members of his regiment — with digging a canal opposite Vicksburg that would reroute a part of the mighty Mississippi River, thereby allowing Union ships to bypass the cannons at Vicksburg.
The work was difficult and deadly; a far cry from the glory of battle Curtis and others had envisioned when they enlisted, but no less dangerous. The men died in droves from inglorious conditions such as malaria and dysentery.
“It was truly awful at night or sundown, (when) the hammering of nails would be heard making boxes out of rough planks for the dead,” Curtis wrote. “Some of them were buried stitched up in a blanket. Cannonading and the firing of mortars were kept up continually. … If our men died in an engagement with the enemy we could be more satisfied, but to lay down and die like a dog with nobody to care for you is barbarous.”
A native of Bridgeport, Curtis was born on April 17, 1845, and enlisted in the 9th in 1861. The proudly Irish regiment had formed earlier that same year, consisting of first- and second-generation Irishmen. Many of these men were recent arrivals who had fled famine, poverty and oppression in Ireland.
Immigrants from Ireland began arriving in Connecticut in large numbers in the 1840s. Here, as elsewhere in the New World, they were not initially met with open arms. It was the era of “No Irish Need Apply” signs, and in 1855 Connecticut’s Irish militias were disbanded out of fear of these foreign-born men.
With the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861, and a new, more pro-Irish governor in control, Connecticut’s Irish had the chance to prove themselves on the field of battle. The 9th Regiment “Irish Volunteers” formed in New Haven. By December the men of the regiment, which at its height was about 1,200 strong, left Connecticut for the South where they soon found themselves doomed to canal-digging duty outside Vicksburg.
Ryan Keating, a history professor at California State University at San Bernardino, has written two history books about the 9th, The Greatest Trials I Ever Had and Shades of Green. He says that working on the canal was hard on the men. “The casualty rates were exceptionally high,” he says. “And when you look at the mentality here in the 19th century, you see men grappling with non-heroic death on the battlefield.”
More than 150 men from the 9th died while working on the canal. Ultimately the ill-fated project was abandoned.
From Vicksburg, the 9th was sent to Union-controlled Baton Rouge, the Louisiana capital, which was under attack from Confederate forces. Though many of its members were still sick from illnesses caught in Vicksburg, the unit distinguished itself — especially Curtis, who would earn a Medal of Honor for the role he played in the battle. “He voluntarily sought the line of battle and alone and unaided captured 2 prisoners, driving them before him to regimental headquarters at the point of the bayonet,” states the citation for his Medal of Honor, awarded in 1896.
Though, Keating notes, there were many more Medal of Honor recipients in the Civil War than other wars, Curtis’ actions and the performance of the 9th in the battle were a huge source of pride for the Irish back in Connecticut. “The battle becomes their Fredericksburg or their Gettysburg,” he says. “For the Irish in Connecticut, this becomes the most important battle to proving their manhood and proving their capabilities as soldiers.”
That pride continues in Connecticut until this day, at least for those familiar with the regiment’s history. Robert Larkin, a local historian who has spent a great deal of time researching the 9th, says, “they never really got a whole lot of credit, because they were not involved in some of the more publicized battles.”
He and other enthusiasts of the regiment’s history in Connecticut have worked to change that and ensure Connecticut’s brave fighting Irish are honored. In 1903, a monument was established in New Haven in Bayview Park that is still standing. In 2008, a granite statue was unveiled at Vicksburg National Military Park to commemorate the 9th’s canal-digging efforts.
Larkin’s interest in the regiment is personal. His great-great-grandfather, Pvt. John Marlow, was a member of the 9th. Born in Ireland, Marlow immigrated to New Haven. When he joined the 9th, he had five children, the youngest only 1 month old. He died of malaria in Vicksburg while working on the canal, but he and the men he served with have not been forgotten.
This article appeared in the March 2018 issue of Connecticut Magazine.
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