Try the new, improved Hartford Courant digital edition today
CT Now

Norwalk's Douglass Fowler A Determined Civil War Commander

Douglass Fowler of Norwalk had already served two tours as a Union soldier when, in the summer of 1862, he took command of a company of the 1,000-strong 17th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, and once more headed south to the bloody battlefields of the Civil War.

He knew the enormous toll the military engagements had taken on both armies, having participated in the First Battle of Bull Run, where the rebels received a shot of confidence and Confederate General Thomas J. Jackson would earn the nickname "Stonewall."

And he knew the toll disease had taken as well, falling ill in the spring of 1863 and requiring an ambulance to carry him into battle at Chancellorsville, Va.

Described as a "true soldier, brave and skillful," Fowler nevertheless was said to have fought at Chancellorsville "with great endurance, being among the last to retreat."

Two months later, he would be among the first to head into battle in the rolling hills and open pastures of a town called Gettysburg, Pa.

Census reports from the mid-19th century describe Douglass Fowler as a locksmith. But 150 years later, he is known principally as a soldier.

On May 25, 1861, Fowler, then 35, left Hartford for Washington, armed with a smooth-bore rifle and serving as captain of an infantry company. In the pre-dawn hours of Sunday, July 21, Fowler's troops were moving along the Warrenton Turnpike in northern Virginia, marching toward Manassas and the first major battle of the war.

Union generals expected a quick rout of the enemy. But after hours of fighting — and a forced flight by Union soldiers, the best the regiment's commander could muster was that his troops' retreat was conducted "in good order" — a claim in considerable dispute.

Fowler was honorably discharged in August 1861, but was back a month later, leading a company of the 8th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry for a few months until he resigned in a dispute with a superior officer.

"I think he would be glad to stay as his company think everything of him," Oliver Cromwell Case, an infantry private would later write to his sister. "He was the best military man in the regiment and should have been Maj. instead of Capt. Appleton."

Fowler's resignation was accepted and he headed back to Connecticut. But not for long.

He put together a company for the 17th, which was made up almost entirely of volunteers from Fairfield County. Later, after his valiant if unsuccessful efforts at Chancellorsville, Fowler was promoted to lieutenant colonel. And commanders were counting on his leadership as the 17th arrived at Gettysburg in the early afternoon of July 1, 1863.

In three days' time, the land below their feet would be hallowed ground. But as skirmishes broke out that afternoon and Fowler charged forward, it was just another battlefield.

Fowler, leading several regiments, advanced from the southern end of town toward what is now known as Barlow's Knoll. Fowler, astride a white horse, joked about the artillery rounds whizzing past, telling his soldiers: "Dodge the big ones, boys!" as he urged his men forward.

But not long after, one of those cannon shots found their mark, slamming directly into Fowler's head and decapitating him.

"There no longer remains any doubt as to the fate of Lieut-Col. Douglas[s] Fowler of the 17th Regiment," the Courant wrote 10 days later. "He was killed by a cannon ball in the early part of the battle at Gettysburg."

His fearlessness — mounting a high-visibility steed on an active battlefield — made him a legend. A flagpole in Gettysburg marks the spot where he fell, and a nearby monument honors the sacrifice of the entire 17th Connecticut, which saw half its number killed, wounded or captured at Gettysburg.

A month later, the 17th was transferred to a post in South Carolina. Fowler, whose body could not be retrieved, remained behind.

"His genial temper, generous disposition, and buoyant spirits, united with a fervent interest in the loyal cause, had won for him an enthusiastic regard," William Augustus Croffut and John Moses Morris wrote of Fowler several years later in The Military and Civil History of Connecticut During the War of 1861-1865. "He was struck down while leading them in charge; and still he sleeps in his unknown grave upon the battle-field of Gettysburg."

Copyright © 2015, CT Now
Related Content
  • Hartford's Correspondent Abroad Reports On World War I

    Hartford's Correspondent Abroad Reports On World War I

    On the front page on Oct. 7, 1917, in the breathless style of the day, The Hartford Courant informed readers that it had dispatched a correspondent to war-ravaged France, where the 26th Yankee Division from New England had begun to arrive.

  • Lebanon 'War Office' Played Central Role In Revolutionary War Planning

    Lebanon 'War Office' Played Central Role In Revolutionary War Planning

    "Arrived at Bunker Hill and commenced building a fort … were not discovered until the approach of daylight, when a British cannonade and bombardment commenced … completed the fort about 12 o'clock. It was a poor one ... but better than none. In the battle I discharged my musket 15 times …"

  • 250 Years Of State War Veterans

    250 Years Of State War Veterans

    In May, The Hartford Courant is celebrating Connecticut's veterans, stretching back to the Revolutionary War. Click through the gallery for photos, videos and stories. Do you have a veteran in your family with a story you'd like to share? Submit the story and optional photo to The Courant by clicking...

  • State Soldiers Were First To Receive Honor Now Known As The Purple Heart

    State Soldiers Were First To Receive Honor Now Known As The Purple Heart

    Three Connecticut soldiers — Daniel Bissell, Daniel Brown and Elijah Churchill — are not really household names in the state despite their feats of Revolutionary War heroism: mounting daring raids behind British lines, facing enemy fire in combat and infiltrating the British army as a spy.

  • The 'Provision State': Connecticut Resources Fed Struggle For Independence

    The 'Provision State': Connecticut Resources Fed Struggle For Independence

    Freezing cold, stricken with smallpox and under attack from enemy ships in a foreign land, a regiment of American soldiers fled their encampment in Deschambault, Canada, early on the morning of May 7, 1776.

  • Pictures: Connecticut's Revolutionary War Weapons

    Pictures: Connecticut's Revolutionary War Weapons

    Connecticut, arguably more than any other state, provided the resources necessary for the newborn nation to win and defend its independence from England, earning it the nickname, "The Provision State." Click through the gallery to see some of Connecticut's Revolutionary War weapons. For more, read:...