Murderer on A Monument
If you visit Ridgefield’s War Memorial on Main Street at the head of Branchville Road, you can find the name of John Rowley embossed in bronze.
He’s one of many veterans of the Civil War listed on the monument. But John Rowley is different from the others: He was a murderer and a traitor, who was hanged by the Union Army.
“Private Rowley has been convicted of the most heinous offense known in the annals of crime,” wrote Major R.S. Davis, assistant adjutant general, after his 1864 trial.
Rowley was executed for deliberately killing a comrade during a battle. He at first claimed innocence, but later confessed after reporting seeing the ghost of the man he had shot in the back of the head.
“He had a comrade, Jerome Dupay, in the same company with him, with whom he had some weeks previously a foolish quarrel,” Major Davis wrote. “Because of this he had threatened revenge, and this revenge he took when Dupay, deployed in a skirmish line of his regiment, was bravely fighting the enemies of his country at Olustee, Fla., by deliberately shooting him from behind through the brain…”
The Veterans Monument, erected in 1925, bears the names of soldiers from the Revolution through World War I, including 188 veterans of the Civil War who enlisted from Ridgefield. Twenty of our Union soldiers died in action, on duty, or in Confederate prison camps. Only John Rowley was executed.
But who was Rowley and how did did a murderer manage to be listed among Ridgefield’s honored and heroic soldiers?
Various military records say he enlisted from Ridgefield. However, Ridgefield town hall records mention no John Rowley — or any Rowley — as having lived here in the 19th Century.
Smithsonian Institution historian Silvio A. Bedini, a Ridgefield native, collaborated with this writer in researching Rowley’s background. In the National Archives in Washington, Bedini found that Rowley was an English-born sailor who was hired as a substitute to serve in the place of Charles B. Woodhouse for three years, and he was mustered in at Bridgeport on Nov. 2, 1863.
No Charles Woodhouse has been found in Ridgefield records, but Thomas Woodhouse, a chair-maker, died here in 1898 at the age of 60. Like Rowley, he had been born in England.
John Rowley, 22 at the time, had enlisted in the 7th Connecticut Volunteers, a regiment that included many Ridgefielders. He and Private Jerome Dupay of Redding were among 112 substitutes and draftees in the Regiment.
Sometime in late 1863, Rowley and Dupay quarreled — about what is not known. But Rowley swore revenge, and he took it in the heat of a Florida battle on Feb. 20, 1864, shooting DuPay while Dupay was shooting Confederates.
Rowley was not immediately a suspect, however. It was only after he began reporting he could not sleep because Dupay’s ghost was appearing to him at night that Union army officers began to become suspicious.
“He gave a good deal of trouble, could not sleep, saw ghosts, and at last confessed,” said an account in the collections of the Connecticut Historical Society. “He stated that he had shot Dupay purposely in revenge.”
But when it came to his court martial near Petersburg, Va., in April 1864, he pleaded not guilty. His defense was that there were no witnesses to his having shot Dupay; that if he were going to kill Dupay because of a quarrel, why did he wait so long?; and that, although he confessed, his confession could not be believed because he was an ex-sailor addicted to telling tall tales.
He himself testified it was “the sort of confession made by myself, a sailor by occupation, full of love for the marvelous and having a strong desire for telling extravagant stories to intimates…”
The court didn’t buy it and, by a two-thirds margin, convicted him of both murder and treason — killing a fellow soldier, especially in wartime, was a treasonous act. He was sentenced to hanging.
Before a soldier could be executed, the president had to sign a warrant. Rowley begged for mercy. And while Abraham Lincoln was often lenient with lesser crimes, he signed Rowley’s warrant in August.
Described as having black eyes, dark hair and a dark complexion, Rowley must have had his charms because in his last days, he had an unusual relationship with an unlikely person. She was Harriet Hawley, who sent her love and a Bible to Rowley in prison. She was also the wife of General Joseph R. Hawley of Hartford, commander of Rowley’s regiment.
Mrs. Hawley was a nurse who’d met Rowley the previous year in South Carolina. When she heard that he had been sentenced to death, she urged a chaplain to bring Rowley a Bible “with her love, and to assure him of her daily thought and prayers….”
In prison, Rowley was suffering from remorse, reported historian Doris Cook in an account of Harriet Hawley’s connection with Rowley. Mrs. Hawley said that Rowley had told her that “he was a bad man.” She gathered that he had never had any good training or teaching and had, in fact, had nothing but the worst influences. “She could not find it in her heart to condemn a man like him, even for the most unrestrained conduct, as she would others who had had the advantage of instruction,” Mrs. Cook wrote.
Rowley was hanged Sept. 3, 1864, at Petersburg. Five days later, Mrs. Hawley, then in Washington, took a leave of absence from nursing duties, for a “needed rest.” She returned to duty in late November.
How did a traitor’s name get on Ridgefield’s veterans monument? Thomas La Lancette, author of “Let We Forget: A Guide to the Civil War Monuments, Memorials and Markers of Connecticut,” said that sometimes the Army did not widely publicize the misdeeds of soldiers so as not to embarrass families back home. However, all indications are that Rowley never lived in Ridgefield, had no family here, and may never have even set foot in the town.
The war records of all the Civil War soldiers whose names are on the monument were readily available by the 1880s, years before the monument was erected in 1925. Rowley’s end could have been discovered by anyone researching the names of Ridgefield Civil War veterans. Apparently, the names were not closely checked, if at all.
“This is the only instance in Connecticut that I have found where a man executed by the Union Army appears on a Civil War monument,” La Lancette said. “It does baffle me.”
It also baffled Bob Tulipani of the American Legion, the organization that worked hard and raised money to erect the monument. He pointed out in 1997 that there’s no one alive who was involved in the planning of the monument 90 years ago to explain how it might have happened.
And it’s unlikely Rowley’s name will be removed; shaving it off would mar the handsome bronze plaque — the monument was sculpted by Raffaelo E. Menconi, a native of Italy (whose son became a noted sculptor of medals, especially of U.S. presidents). Gorham, one of the nation's top foundries, cast the plaques and built the monument in Providence, R.I.
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