( May 9, 2014 )
Norwalk's Douglass Fowler A Determined Civil War CommanderBy MATTHEW KAUFFMAN, email@example.com | Hartford Courant
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."