Few, if any of Hartford’s citizens would avoid being touched in some way by the carnage and resulting sorrow of the Civil War. Newspaper articles appeared almost daily describing the brutal battles and listing the wounded, killed and missing from Connecticut regiments. The bitter reality of the War of Rebellion was that the brightest young men lost their lives and young, vibrant women lost their lovers. The bucolic, rural enclave of Nook Farm did not escape that fate.
Although unable to serve in the army due to ill health, Nook Farm resident Robert “Rob” Gillette was able to join the Navy and eventually became an acting paymaster on the U. S. S. Gettysburg. The Gettysburg was a part of Commander David D. Porter’s fleet that, combined with Connecticut’s own Brigadier General Alfred H. Terry army, lay siege on Fort Fisher, North Carolina, “the last gateway between the Confederate States and the outside world.” (1) Starting January 13, 1865, the Union gunships relentlessly fired on the garrison until its commander Colonel William Lamb was forced to surrender on January 15.
The Union victors commenced to celebrate their victory with as much fervor and energy as they had fought for it in an all-night celebration fueled by whiskey pilfered from the Confederates’ medicinal stores. Cheers of victory ashore were answered by the ships at anchor with “rockets, lights of all colors, ringing of bells, steam whistles, and all sorts of unearthly noises.” (2)
Paymaster Gillette received permission to go ashore the next day to experience the excitement for himself. Guards
were posted at the fort’s munitions magazines to prevent looting. Regrettably the largest of these, in which was stored an estimated six to seven tons of powder, went unguarded. Shortly after 8 o’clock in the morning of January 16, two drunken seamen entered this munitions store with torches blazing. The impact of the resultant explosion dismembered the men on top of and immediately adjacent to the magazine rendering their remains unidentifiable. Robert Gillette and another fellow officer from the Gettysburg were killed instantly by flying timbers that struck them where they stood 150 yards away.
Robert Gillette’s body was returned to Hartford where he was mourned by his family and his beautiful fiancée Sophia Stoddard. Just before the mourners left his parent’s Forest Street home for his burial in Farmington’s Riverside Cemetery, Sophia was left alone for a long quiet time with her lover- quiet except for her deep sobs. (1)
Oh, but this war comes home to us now! (2)
The following year, Sophie married Robert Gillette’s brother Edward but marriage was not a happy one and the pair were divorced in 1894. Despite this, the remaining Gillette siblings, Elisabeth “Lilly” Gillette Warner and the actor William Gillette, stayed close to Sophie.
Lilly Warner wrote to “dear sister” Sophie in 1899 to tell her of messages received from Robert by a medium employed by her aunt and Nook Farm neighbor Isabella Beecher Hooker. Lilly hoped Sophie would be comforted in knowing that Robert “loved her and her alone.” He despaired of not having married her
but she will be mine – yes, she is mine – and in the spirit world will be my bride . . . and she will be as pure to me as in our first engagement.
The Gillettes honored Sophie’s dying wish that she be interred near her beloved Robert. She was buried with a cherished and treasured memento of her lover – the photograph of her he carried with him throughout the war.
(1) Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative. Red River to Appomattox. New York: Vintage Books, 1986. Page 717.
(2) Ibid, page 746.
(3) Hooker, Isabella Beecher. Letter to Alice Hooker Day, January 27, 1865. Isabella Hooker Collection, Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, Connecticut.
(4) Warner, Elisabeth Gillette. Letter to Francis and Elisabeth Hooker Gillette, January 20, 1865. Gillette Collection, Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, Connecticut.
(5) Warner, Elisabeth Gillette. Letter to Sophia Stoddard Gillette, February 10, 1899. Gillette Collection, Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, Connecticut.