A Bloody Bolton Story – The Hard Luck Regiment (Part 2)

by Hans DePold, town historian
(Published in Bolton Community News, April 2008)

In the last issue I wrote about lucky Charles Lyman, but now it's time to return to the other side of the coin.

The Connecticut 16th Regiment was undeniably a hard-luck regiment from its inception. Nearly 475 men in their prime were mustered into the service of Commander in Chief of the Union, President Abraham Lincoln, on August 24, 1862. From this group, 131 emaciated, worn, and shaken men returned to muster out of service in April of 1865. Austin Tullar was 32 years old with a wife, three children, and a two-month-old baby in Bolton when he left with the all-volunteer hard-luck regiment. The regiment flag, and the camaraderie of the soldiers of this regiment, would forever change the meaning of Austin's and his fellow soldiers' lives.

Virtually untrained, they were thrown immediately into battle at Antietam (Sharpsburg) on September 17, 1862, the bloodiest single-day battle in American history. To put the battle into perspective, as of March 14, 2008 after five years of battle in Iraq, 3,987 American soldiers have died. At Antietam, in one day, 3,620 American soldiers gave their lives.

Mary Bedinger Mitchell described what the battle sounded like down the road. "It is curious how much louder guns sound when they are pointed at you than when they are turned the other way! And the shell, with its long-drawn screeching, doubtless more terrifying than the singing minie-ball, has a way of making one's hair stand on end."

The Union attacked through the woods into a 40-acre cornfield. The heavy volleys of fire from the Rebel lines had a particular sound that Lt. Frederick Hitchcock described as he approached the battlefield. "These volleys of musketry we were approaching sounded in the distance like the rapid pouring of shot upon a tin pan, or the tearing of heavy canvas, with slight pauses interspersed with single shots, or desultory shooting."

They took a heavy toll from the 16th Regiment when, in the midst of the battle, the sound was described as the whistling song of Confederate mini balls. They almost reached the high ground when the sound changed again. Artillery and exploding canister were unleashed, devouring the green soldiers. Alpheus Williams described that noise: "The roar of the infantry was beyond anything conceivable... If all the stone and brick houses of Broadway should tumble at once the roar and rattle could hardly be greater, and amidst this, hundreds of pieces of artillery, right and left, were thundering as a sort of bass section of the infernal music."

The cornfield of the Miller farm became a gruesome sight. Every church, barn, and house in the region became a field hospital. In the typical field hospital room, about 12 feet wide and 20 feet long, a bloody table stood near a window and around it stood the surgeons. A wounded man was laid on the table and it took but a few minutes to do what had to be done. The amputated limbs were thrown out of a window. John Snavely wrote that the "arms and legs were piled several feet high outside the Dunkerd Church window where the amputating tables sat."

From a single hospital in just that one day there were as many as two cartloads of amputated legs, feet, arms, and hands. Men such as Bolton's wounded Austin Tullar were put to work carrying the most critically wounded, making beds of straw, hauling and cutting wood, and assisting in a world reduced to bedlam. From the walls echoed the moans of the wounded, the gasping of the dying, and the hymns for those for whom the dying was done. The yards and fields outside were strewn with straw and the recovering patients were laid there without shelter through the September night.

On September 18, Austin Tullar and others in the 16th were assigned to collect the body parts from the fields and trees and bury them in mass graves. Many of the wounded were sent home as unfit for duty, and in the paperwork confusion some were reported missing or as deserters and received no salary or medical compensation. On September 19, Austin Tullar was reported missing.

The casualties of the 16th were again so high in December at Fredericksburg that the unit was pulled from the front lines and sent as reserves to Fort Williams at Plymouth, NC. The fort had an escape route that was well protected by Federal gunboats. But then, in a massive ground and naval assault, the rebels attacked the fort, captured the Federal gunboats and turned their guns on the fort. Though bombarded from every direction, General Wessels thought it would be a disgrace to surrender. As all hope of survival died, the men of the 16th Connecticut tore their battle flag into shreds and distributed the remnants among the regiment, so it would not fall into the hands of the rebels. They concealed these remnants on their bodies. The battle flag to them had become the symbol of what they meant to each other and of the Union of states for which they fought.

The fort fell and the survivors were sent to the notorious Andersonville Confederate death camp where more died than at Antietam. When finally freed, the 16th Connecticut was recognized by General Ulysses S. Grant, and appointed his personal escort on the occasion of his visit to Raleigh, North Carolina, in April of 1865.

In 1879 the remaining remnants of the battle flag of the 16th were gathered together from the survivors and sewn onto a white silk banner. The resurrected remnants formed the blue shield surrounded by the American eagle. They trimmed it with a gold fringe and had the names of the battles fought by the 16th emblazoned across the banner in gold. On Battle Flag Day, September 17, 1879, all the battle flags went on display at the Connecticut State Capital and can be seen there to this day.

Austin Tullar was a proud invalid war veteran of the 16th and named his eighth child Grant Colfax Tullar after the new American President Ulysses S. Grant and Vice President Schuyler Colfax. You can read about this son, the famous music publisher Grant Tullar, on the Bolton Community News web site. Austin's wife Rhoda died in 1871 at age 33 after their ninth and 10th children, twins, were born. Austin and his 10 children were then desperately poor, and eventually he had to give up support of his children to his wife's family. No one in the family knew that when Austin returned home as an invalid from Antietam that they declared him missing and later declared him a deserter. He may have lived without medical help out of fear of execution if he ever tried to clear his name, as lucky Charles Lyman had. Perhaps one day his name can be cleared, too, knowing all that he and the Hard Luck Regiment volunteers sacrificed for a United... States of America.