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Woonsocket played a big part in the Civil War

July 24, 2011

PROVIDENCE — Woonsocket’s long overlooked connections to the Civil War have gone on display at Brown University’s John Hay Library thanks to a collaborative effort by the Library’s special collections department and the Foss Media Center at Woonsocket’s Oak Hill Cemetery.
Foss Media Director Elizabeth Vangel, a Woonsocket native, worked with Hay Library curator Holly Snyder to offer “Ricochet: Woonsocket in the Civil War” as a Hay Library exhibit running through Sept. 23. The project marks the 150th anniversary of the opening of the war between the Union and the Confederate states in 1861.
The Woonsocket Civil War photographs, letters, documents, and artifacts included in the exhibit complement a showing of the Hay Library’s materials on Christopher Robinson, a Woonsocket attorney in 1850s who became a member of Abraham Lincoln’s federal administration. The Robinson display will also run through Sept. 23.
Rhode Island’s participation in the war overall has gained attention in the past, whether for the role of future Gov. Ambrose Burnside played in early battles between the Union and Confederacy, the attention given a letter by Rhode Island’s Sullivan Ballou to his wife Sarah as noted in the Ken Burns production “The Civil War,” or for the battle- damaged Gettysburg gun artillery piece on display at the Statehouse.
Vangel, a Woonsocket historical researcher, says the new exhibit shows that Woonsocket had a much greater role in the Civil War than most people would imagine.
Not only did Woonsocket’s leading residents such as Edward Harris and Latimer Ballou have strong ties to the anti-slavery movement that implored Southern slaveholders to free those in bondage, the community’s leaders also had significant contacts with Lincoln through Christopher Robinson and its soldiers going off to answer the President’s initial call up to preserve the Union.
City factories contributed to the war effort and the display even includes a battle saber made by Mansfield and Lamb, manufacturers based in nearby Slatersville.
Vangel hopes the exhibits will give the city’s Civil War veterans a bit of long overdue attention.
“This is the first time anyone has zoomed in on the respective backgrounds of Woonsocketers in the Civil War,” Vangel said of the joint project with Brown University.
“This is not only a Woonsocket story, it is a national saga,” she said. Vangel, the valedictorian of Woonsocket High School’s Class of 1976, has uncovered a large trove of information on the city’s Civil
War heroes while researching their burials at Oak Hill both during the war and in the years that followed.
The city claimed a lieutenant colonel in the Union Army, four majors, 16 captains and 27 lieutenants among its war participants. Four of the local officers lost their lives during the war. And in all, Vangel has tallied more than a 1,000 residents from the area with war service. Oak Hill became the burial ground for many of the city’s Civil War veterans and leading figures of the time, including Harris and members of the Ballou family, and has several war memorial pieces on display that were erected by the veterans as a tribute to the city’s contributions.
And while Maj. Sullivan Ballou is now widely known for the love letter he wrote his wife Sarah before his death from wounds suffered in the Battle of Bull Run, Vangel hopes the exhibit will help people learn of his origins from the village of Woonsocket Falls and residence on Arnold Street. Most accounts mention only that Ballou was from Smithfield, R.I., a town that in the 1850s and 60s included all of what is today Smithfield, North Smithfield, Woonsocket, Lincoln and Central Falls.
Sullivan Ballou came to Woonsocket as an orphan and was raised in the Arnold Street area by a relative, Henry Greene Ballou.
He also went to work for Christopher Robinson, a well-known city attorney, and advocated for the Union’s cause as war approached.
The exhibit includes writings by both Robinson, who also went on to serve as a congressman from Cumberland, Sullivan Ballou’s writings on his reasoning for why the war was necessary. Robinson and Ballou were among Abraham Lincoln’s local supporters and campaigned for his election as President. Upon his election, they marshaled supporters for a torch light parade down Main Street.
The future President also had close ties to Edward Harris, the Woonsocket woolen goods manufacturer who hosted him at his home in the city’s North End the night Lincoln gave a speech in Harris Hall on Main Street, the location where the City Council meets today.
Snyder said she also believes Woonsocket’s role in the Civil War has been “under represented” in history projects over the years. The exhibit shows the city to have a “fabulous history that Elizabeth has worked to bring out and place on display,” Snyder said.
Many of the Woonsocket photographs in the exhibit, including two of Sullivan Ballou, were located by Vangel as part of her research, Snyder said. The exhibits also draw on the materials Brown has on Christopher Robinson, an 1825 graduate of the University who went on to become Lincoln’s ambassador to Peru. He was known as “Senor Americanus” in Lima, Peru, during the war years and the exhibit includes a display of his uniform of those times.
The exhibits show many scenes of old Woonsocket, its street fronts and its trademark woolen mills, like the Clinton Mill to which Robinson had family ties.
There are also photographs of Woonsocket’s soldiers, both at home and off to the war’s battlefields. Capt. Augustus Colwell was among the city’s noted artillery men and was credited with firing “more shot and shell” than any other union soldier, according to Vangel. The city’s newspaper of the time, The Woonsocket Patriot, a predecessor of The Call, had its own war correspondent in German Foss, brother of Patriot publisher Samuel Foss, who traveled to see many of his city friends in the field and wrote home about their exploits.
The Woonsocket residents’ experiences in the war would become the most memorable times of their lives for some of those making it back home by war’s end. Some like Ballou, who died of his wounds days after the battle and whose body was later dug up and desecrated by Confederate troops, became honored and remembered heroes in death.
Erasmus Bartholomew escaped the first Battle of Bull Run without any injuries but was later killed as an officer with the 3rd Rhode Island Artillery Regiment at James River.
Other city soldiers returned home only to wither and die from the lingering wounds they brought with them.
George W. Greene, suffered chemical facial wounds while serving as an artillery man and died before he turned 40, according to Vangel.
Enos Clark, a member of the 9th Regiment, was taken prisoner by the Confederates and held in their prison camps for two years. He later became a leading authority on the treatment of prisoners during the war.
George Grant returned from the war and became Woonsocket’s first mayor. Daniel Pond, an 1857 graduate of Brown, also made it home from the war and was elected as the city’s second mayor.
Francello Jillson was just 19 when he passed up a chance to study at Brown to go fight in the war as a volunteer with the 1st Regiment, Co. K. Jillson would write about how the whole town turned out to see the soldiers head off to war in April of 1861.
Albert E. Greene would become the first Union soldier to enter the Confederates’ Fort Pulaski. He came home to become Woonsocket’s first town clerk. Greene was known to carry his journal of the Civil War with him when he went out from his home at Gaskill and Prospect Street, Vangel said.
A photograph in the exhibit is most telling of the war’s aftermath on its city participants. It was taken in 1868 of a group city Civil War veterans gathered near the former Baptist Church at High and Main Street. The faces of the men in the photograph show a range of emotions that can still be felt by an observer all these years later.
J.B Barata, a young graphic designer who worked with Vangel on the project’s posters, said he feels the history of those times when he looks at the exhibit’s materials. “It’s about where we came from as a country. When you look at where we are now, it all started in the past,” he said.
A student staffer with the John Hay Library, Sean P. McGowan, said the exhibit’s impact on visitors is not really surprising given all the history that is to be found in Brown’s collections.
The University brings out items such as those in the Robinson exhibit for special occasions and they always draw interest from those stopping in to see them, according to McGowan.
“I am consistently impressed with all the things that are stored in this building,” he said of Brown’s historical archives. “You just wish there could be an exhibit going on all the time,” he said.
The Hay Library, located at 20 Prospect Street on the East Side, is open to visitors during its business hours from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. A photo ID must be shown for admission. School or community groups can make arrangements for a guided tour of the exhibits by contacting Snyder at 863-1515.

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