Thursday, March 01, 2018

Charles Jennings: 
A Boy of War
Charles Jennings is one of the least known and yet most unusual servicemen buried in Ridgefield.  Like many other soldiers, Jennings served in some of the fiercest battles and on some of the nastiest battlefields of the Civil War.
But unlike the others, Charles Jennings was only 14 years old when he joined the Union Army. And he wasn’t much older when he died in the service of his country.
The Civil War has been called “The Boys’ War” because so many soldiers were young teenagers. Some experts estimate around 100,000 enlistees in the Union and Confederate armies  were 15 years old or younger; 300 were younger than 13. 
Most of these teenagers joined as musicians, especially drummers. That’s apparently what Charles Jennings did.
The Ridgefield town clerk’s records report that Charles Edgar Jennings was born on March 23, 1848, in “School District Number 11,” which was the Florida District, north of Branchville. His parents were Anson and Nancy Jane Jennings “of Reading.” The 1860 census lists Anson as a farmer in Redding (which has no record of Charles’s birth).
Why would Ridgefield record the birth of someone from Redding? Maps published in 1856 and 1867 suggest that the Jennings family lived on Simpaug Turnpike, just north of the railroad trestle; that’s in Redding, but it’s right on the Ridgefield town line. Back then towns often shared schooling duties near their borders, and it is probable that the Jennings’ family was served by the
Florida School District; the Florida Schoolhouse on the corner of Florida and Florida Hill Roads was closer to their house than any schoolhouse in Redding (or Ridgefield). 
It was an official of the Florida District who reported Charles’s birth, probably expecting that Charles would be a future pupil. And it’s quite likely that Charles did get his education at the Florida Schoolhouse.
What’s more it’s quite possible that, although the house was in Redding, much of the Jennings farm was in Ridgefield since the best land in their neighborhood was to the west, not east, of their house — territory along the Norwalk River in Ridgefield.
Charles’s father, Anson,  died March 3, 1861, at the age of 60. He must have known the end was coming, for he made out a will a month earlier, leaving his estate to his wife, Nancy Jane, and their children, Robert, Charles, Henry, and Mary Ann. 
Having lost his father may have influenced Charles’s decision to enlist in the infantry 17 months later on Aug. 13, 1862. He was 14 years, 4 months and 21 days old.
It is not known whether he lied about his age, whether military officials ignored his age — which often happened, especially with musicians — or whether he had permission from his mother. He certainly had the experience; he had been a member of a local militia in Georgetown, formed in 1861 when the war began.
“The Lincoln campaign in the fall of 1860 had been an exciting one for the residents of Georgetown and vicinity,” wrote Georgetown historian Wilbur F. Thompson (1854-1934).  “A company of 65 men had been formed, called the Lincoln Guards, or ‘Wide Awakes.’ … The company had a fine drum corps. The members were Samuel Bennett, Charles Jennings, Lewis Bedient, Morris (‘Moss’) Jennings, Direll Chapman. In the torchlight parades in Norwalk, Danbury and other places, the fine marching and evolutions of the Georgetown company was noticeable.”
Jennings was assigned Company G of the 17th Regiment of Connecticut infantry, which was organized in Bridgeport on Aug. 28. At about the same time, he made an appearance at a patriotic event in Georgetown. Historian Thompson reports that “a large flag was raised on the bell tower of the stone factory of the Gilbert & Bennett Co. … People assembled to take part in the ceremony…Dr. Lloyd Seeley made the address and there was speaking by Edwin Gilbert, Sturges Bennett and Samuel Main Sr. .... Charles Jennings of the 17th Regiment, who was home on a furlough, played patriotic airs on his accordion.”
The 17th Regiment was soon off to Baltimore to take part in the defense of that city in the fall of 1862. The next year, the regiment saw considerable combat in the Battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, and was then moved south, fighting along the coast of South Carolina. By 1864, the regiment was in northern Florida. Around this time Jennings appears to have been promoted to sergeant.
 However, Sgt. Jennings fell ill, probably while in the swamps of Florida. Records in the Redding town clerk’s office indicate he had contracted what was called “Army fever,” a potent form of typhoid fever. He was sent to Philadelphia, Pa., where he died on March 27, 1865 — four days after his 17th birthday. 
Sgt. Charles Jennings is buried next to his father in Florida Cemetery in Ridgefield, just a few hundred yards down the Simpaug Turnpike from his childhood home.  A simple government-sponsored veterans monument marks his grave, noting that he was a sergeant and that he was 17 years old. 
Right behind the war monument — so close that it is difficult to read — is the family’s gravestone for him. Its epitaph says he died “In sacrifice to his country.”
His mother eventually sold the farm and married John H. Burns, a Civil War veteran. She lived in Ridgefield, died in 1900 and is buried in Titicus Cemetery beside her husband, who died 15 years later.
Few details of Charles Jennings’ service are known, but he was probably like many other boys who enlisted with what a New York Times writer called “hopes of adventure and glory.”   Cate Lineberry said in a 2011 op-ed piece that although both the Union and Confederate Armies had rules designed to prevent children from enlisting, “that didn’t stop those who wanted to be a part of the action. Some enlisted without their parents’ permission and lied about their ages or bargained with recruiters for a trial period….Most of the youngest boys became drummers, messengers and orderlies, but thousands of others fought alongside the men.”

At least 48 boys under 18 — one of whom was only 11 years old — received the Congressional Medal of Honor. One nine-year-old grew up to become a major general in the U.S. Army.

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