A missing chapter in Darien’s Civil War history and a treasure trove of rich details from our town’s past have just come to light, thanks to a decade of Internet and archival sleuthing by Darien author Kenneth Reiss, who tells all in his recently-published The Story of Darien, Connecticut.
"The Internet and advances in technology have produced the equivalent of a research staff," said the amiable Reiss in his introductory remarks at the Darien Historical Society book signing on Sunday. "I discovered things we had no idea had happened.”
Among the historical discoveries recounted in the book, Reiss shared a harrowing and previously unknown Civil War episode with his rapt audience of nearly 100.
On May 19, 1864 occurred one of the most dire events in the town’s history, said Reiss.
"We had never heard of it."
On that date, 18 Darien soldiers were captured and imprisoned by a Confederate raiding party in little-known Welaka, Florida; eight died during the episode.
Reiss made his discovery during online research into Darien’s role in the Civil War, when one of every 12 Darien residents served in the military, and one in four of those died.
By no means did he rely entirely on the Internet as a source for his 280-page, indexed account. As former board member and four-year president of the Darien Historical Society, Reiss has combed for years through Darien’s voluminous archives and other repositories in libraries and private collections.
But the Internet did reveal some startling findings. Reiss came across an online directory of every Connecticut Civil War soldier and every soldier each town sent to war. The database also listed the most significant date in the war for each particular town: May 19, 1864 for Darien.
Reiss credits Darien’s former First Selectman Bob Harrel for undertaking an "investigative visit" to Welaka, Fla., where local historians shared their accounts of Connecticut’s 17th regiment with him.
A key find was a trove of letters Private Justus Silliman sent home to his family in New Canaan. These letters contain the details of the Confederate’s surprise raid on Darien’s soldiers on May 19.
In detailed notes to his Civil War chapter, Reiss also credits Darien native Blaikie Hines’s Volunteer Sons of Connecticut, published in 2002.
"The Welaka story represents an important breakthrough," Reiss writes. "Everything builds on everything else."
The Welaka episode ranks second only to the July 22, 1781 Tory raid on the Middlesex Meetinghouse (Middlesex is Darien’s former name), as the single most dire event in Darien history in Reiss’s estimation. The two events had similarities in treachery, betrayal, capture and death.
Reiss’s account of the Meetinghouse raid represents radical revisionist history. The prevailing view for two centuries has the raiders planning their raid rather clumsily at best. The audacious assault is depicted artistically in the wall murals of the Town Hall auditorium painted during the Depression by government-funded artists.
"The local histories usually fail to connect the dots," he writes. "The simple fact is that this was a thoroughly planned military operation that was flawlessly executed on land and sea."
The raiders included Darienite Loyalists, temporarily located at Lloyd Harbor, eight miles directly to the south across the Long Island Sound. As Reiss’s book explains in full detail, the Loyalists had intimate knowledge of their native coastal geography, the tides and their neighbors’ whereabouts.
Charismatic Rev. Moses Mather was the key target of the Meetinghouse raid. Highly respected and influential, the Yale-educated clergyman, farmer and ardent Patriot, held the loyalty of his congregation—also fervent Patriots.
The strategy was, from the raiders’ standpoint, a complete success: the British claimed capture of Rev. Mathers and 49 other "notorious rebels," who were led off to imprisonment in New York City. Not one was killed in the assault, but as many as six eventually died because of conditions in captivity.
The Story of Darien is not all war and strife; it’s full of tales of charity and philanthropy, Jazz Age frivolities, cultural evolution and societal change. Reiss’s text covers all of Darien history, from first settlements by native Americans who left artifacts 4000 years B.C. to the present.
As for what’s next for Darien, Reiss becomes philosophical as well as realistic in his closing chapter.
He takes note of the migration of the financial world from Wall Street and into the suburbs, bringing a class of "mega-income-earners." They have taken the place of artists and the Madison Avenue crowd "and with them much of the joie de vivre that Darien is noted for," he writes.
In Reiss’ judgment, today’s residents work longer and harder than their predecessors ever did.
"Even in the worst days of the hardscrabble farms, the shorter days of winter would bring some relief," he writes. "Now, everyone seems to be perpetually overbooked."
Artist and professional graphic designer Gilbert Fletcher designed the book and also gave his autograph at Sunday’s event.
Copies of The Story of Darien, Connecticut are for sale at the Darien Historical Society for $75.