By DAVID DRURY, Special to The Courant The Hartford Courant
April 7, 2012
The story goes that President Abraham Lincoln was at work in the White House executive office one day when he was interrupted by a visitor from Connecticut.
Rising from his chair, the lanky, care-worn president clamped his hand down on the man's shoulder and exclaimed: "From Connecticut? Do you know what a good governor you have got?"
Lincoln knew well what Connecticut today has largely forgotten: Its Civil War governor, William Alfred Buckingham, was one of the greatest leaders in the state's long history.
One of only four Union governors to serve throughout the entire Civil War, Buckingham proved an able, energetic administrator, a staunch and often eloquent opponent of slavery and a vital supporter of the Lincoln administration. His decisiveness and political courage in the days immediately following Fort Sumter assured that Connecticut was among the first states to answer Lincoln's call for volunteers to put down the Southern rebellion.
When the crisis refused to die quickly, Buckingham's administration worked tirelessly over the next four years to raise and supply troops.
The governor worked 12-hour days, seven days a week, traveling between the two state capitals, in Hartford and New Haven, and his home in Norwich, which became a third command center. He made regular trips toWashington, D.C., and to other Union states to confer with peers and made it a priority to personally address Connecticut troops whenever possible to thank them for their service.
Buckingham was elected as Connecticut's first Republican governor in 1858, just four years after the national formation of the party. He served until 1866, surviving hotly contested annual elections and, after a brief return to private life, was elected in 1868 to the U.S. Senate, where he served until his death in February 1875.
A great parade in Hartford on June 18, 1884, marked the dedication of the seated bronze statute of Buckingham that occupies a prominent position in the state Capitol's Hall of Flags.
For years afterward, Buckingham Day observances were held. But today, Buckingham's legacy has been largely forgotten.
His Norwich home, a two-story Italianate building built in 1847 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is literally falling apart. Bricks and mortar are crumbling, the roof needs replacement and the wooden porch is sagging. A consultant last year estimated that $375,000 was needed for restoration, and the local historical society wants the city of Norwich, which maintains several offices in the building, to acquire ownership.
After Buckingham's death, the home was acquired by Civil War veterans and became The Buckingham Memorial, Sedgwick Post No. 1, and in the 1930s ownership passed to the Buckingham Memorial Association, said city historian Dale Plummer, whose snug office on the first-floor hallway is above a shelter for the homeless in the basement.
"Gov. Buckingham might have liked that. He was a generous soul,'' Plummer said.
Buckingham was born May 28, 1804, at his parents' farm in Lebanon. His parents, Samuel and Joanna Matson Buckingham, had Connecticut ties going back several generations.
The second of six children, William attended Bacon Academy in Colchester, showed a talent for mathematics and for a while planned to make his living as a surveyor. That changed when at age 19 he went to Norwich to work at an uncle's dry goods store. He learned the business there, worked briefly in New York City, then returned to Norwich in 1826 to open his own mercantile business, beginning a spectacularly successful business career.
In 1848, he sold his business to become founder, manager and treasurer of the Hayward Rubber Co. in Colchester. He continued his association with the company through the profitable war years. A savvy investor, he remained ever vigilant for business opportunities.
Buckingham began his political career as a Whig. He served four terms as Norwich mayor, the last in 1857, and developed a reputation as a common-sense moderate, someone the contentious factions within the nascent Republican Party could all agree to support as governor. His won the 1858 election by the largest margin in 20 years and was re-elected the following year.
In spring 1860, Buckingham sought a third term, and the Connecticut state election was thrust, front and center, into the national political scene. Buckingham's opponent, Democrat Thomas H. Seymour, a former governor and hero of the Mexican War, ran on a platform that slavery was a constitutionally protected right and that anti- slavery Republicans would wreck the state's lucrative business connections with the South.
Republican leaders countered with their rising star, Abraham Lincoln, who made a celebrated swing through Connecticut in March. Lincoln addressed enthusiastic audiences in Hartford, New Haven, Meriden, Bridgeport and Norwich on March 9, 1860, and urged voters to back the Republican candidate.
While in Norwich, Lincoln stayed at the Wauregan Hotel downtown, which Buckingham built in 1855. The two Republican leaders began a cordial relationship that continued through the war.
Lincoln's visit helped Buckingham win re-election — barely — by just 541 votes. In May, Lincoln captured the Republican nomination at the party convention in Chicago. In late December 1860, as the secession crisis loomed, Buckingham wrote to the then-president-elect, urging that he appoint Connecticut Republican Gideon Welles to his cabinet and expressing hope that he would be able "to execute the laws all over our land in spite of the combinations of states."
Buckingham had no illusions about what Lincoln's election meant for the country. As early as December 1860, he asked the state quartermaster to make preparations to equip and train 5,000 state militiamen.
The governor's response to Lincoln's call for 75,000 volunteers after the fall of Fort Sumter in April 1861 was immediate and decisive. On his own authority — the General Assembly, which had constitutional control of the militia, was not in session — Buckingham issued a call for volunteers and within weeks, three 90-day regiments were formed, equipped and dispatched to Washington.
To help meet the expense, Buckingham pledged $50,000 in personal credit from the Thames Bank in Norwich, where he was a director. He would continue using personal funds to meet the state's military expenses throughout the war.
Raising and organizing regiments, equipping the troops and meeting their needs while in the field occupied much of the governor's time during the war years.
In total, the state contributed 30 infantry regiments, including two "colored regiments," artillery brigades and cavalry units to the Union cause. The administrative machinery needed to support such an undertaking simply did not exist in 1860 and had to grow, often painfully, under Buckingham's direction.
State government archives at the Connecticut State Library indicate the unprecedented day-to-day demands faced by the governor and his staff. File folders are filled with letters from residents seeking military commissions, promotions or transfers, inquiring about back pay or benefits, offering suggestions or simply complaining when someone received an undeserved appointment: "Mr. Bradley Lee (?) of Barkhampsted a young lawyer, good looking, a pet of the ladies too but without business capacity & with no military knowledge whatever.''
Buckingham's views on slavery hardened as the war progressed. "He really came to view the war in a messianic way,'' said Matthew Warshauer, professor of history at Central Connecticut State University.
A deeply religious man, Buckingham was involved with the establishment of Broadway Congregational Church in Norwich, taught Sunday school there for decades and was strongly influenced by its charismatic abolitionist minister, the Rev. John P. Gulliver, Plummer said.
In his May 1862 address to the General Assembly, Buckingham argued that slavery, by causing the war, had forfeited its constitutional protection and all but called for emancipation.
In August 1862, Buckingham led a group of petitioners to the White House to press Lincoln to authorize emancipation. The president did so a month later and Buckingham wrote to offer congratulations.
By the spring of 1863, after a disastrous winter for the Union, Buckingham's re-election became critical for the future of the Lincoln administration.
Buckingham was again challenged by Seymour, a Peace Democrat whose party had been energized by the Emancipation Proclamation and the depressing military situation.
"If I can do anything to assist you in the coming election, let me know and it will be done,'' wrote Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in a March 21, 1863, letter to Buckingham, on departmental stationery, that was found in the Connecticut Historical Society archives.
That assistance came by granting furloughs for Connecticut troops, allowing them to return home to vote, which likely assured Buckingham's narrow re-election.
The governor achieved a significant legislative victory in January 1864 when the state legislature passed a constitutional amendment to allow Connecticut troops to vote by absentee ballot. Its approval by popular vote in August came too late for the spring gubernatorial election, but in time for the critical presidential election of 1864 that saw Lincoln defeat Gen. George B. McClellan.
In his address to the General Assembly following his 1864 re-election, Buckingham called for a constitutional amendment ending slavery. Congress adopted the 13th Amendment prohibiting slavery in January 1865. Connecticut approved it that May and it became law in December.
Re-elected to his eighth and final term in 1865, Buckingham opened the General Assembly by calling on legislators to amend the state constitution to give blacks, many of whom as soldiers had been fighting and dying in the nation's armies, the right to vote.
The amendment passed both houses of the legislature, but to Buckingham's disappointment it was rejected by by state voters in October 1865, keeping Connecticut the one state in New England where only whites were allowed to vote.
His return to private life proved brief, however. His wife, Eliza, died in April 1868, and he agreed that fall to run for a seat in the U.S. Senate. Easily elected, he began serving in March 1869 and maintained a vigorous work schedule that included seeking restoration of legal rights for his former Confederate enemies. He died at age 70 a month before his term was to expire.
The former governor's passing was widely mourned. Public plaudits highlighted his patriotism, his integrity, his devotion to hard work, his sobriety — he served as president of the Connecticut State Temperance Union — his religious faith and his generosity.
"A noble, kind and generous soul has passed away. A man whose life in all things honored the name of Christian,'' the Hartford Daily Courant wrote.
Buckingham is buried alongside his wife in Yantic Cemetery in Norwich.
In their guided tours of the state Capitol, the Connecticut League of Women Voters does what it can to keep Buckingham's memory alive. Schoolchildren are encouraged to rub the feet of his statue for good luck.
"The kids get a kick out of it,'' tours director Kim Fabrizio said. The guides also like to entertain their audiences with the story of how a lieutenant governor in the 1920s claimed to have seen Buckingham's ghost standing in Room 324, today's Republican caucus room.
"He haunts the building he never worked in,'' Fabrizio said.