By John Rook
The center room of the Hitchcock-Phillips House, home to the Cheshire Historical Society, offers history buffs in general, and military historians in particular, a lot to digest.
In the corner is a Civil War-era cot, folded up and somewhat tattered around the edges but still in fine condition given its age. Under glass and key is a replica Derringer pistol, the exact kind used by John Wilkes Booth to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln in April 1865. And off to the side is a display dedicated to Medal of Honor recipient Eri Davidson Woodbury, one of two Cheshire residents to ever receive the distinction.
But perhaps nothing catches the eye of a visitor quite like the portraits hanging on the wall.
On one side, the steely glare of Admiral Andrew Hull Foote stares out from behind his portrait’s frame, as if still surveying the watery battlefields over which he commanded in the Civil War. To his left, Commodore Robert Hitchcock, whose family occupied the Hitchcock-Phillips for decades, is shown floating amongst the clouds, a sign that his portrait was completed after his death.
Both represent men of purpose, duty, and remind Cheshire of the important role these men played in America’s deadliest conflict.
Foote and Hitchcock’s lives seemed to take parallel paths nearly right from the beginning. The men were born two years apart - Hitchcock in 1804, Foote in 1806 - but would not have likely come in contact with one another until 1813, when Foote, who was born in New Haven, moved to Cheshire.
Each had prominent father figures to guide them through their formative years. Foote’s father, Samuel, would serve as a member of both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, at one point being named Speaker of the House. Hitchcock’s father, Amasa Jr., was the son of Amasa Hitchcock, a veteran of the French and Indian War, the conflict that would lead directly to the American Revolution - all those taxes “without representation” went to pay down the debt incurred by the British during the war - and the order enlisting Amasa, Sr. in his Majesty’s army currently hangs just a few feet away from the portrait of his grandson at the Historical Society.
Foote attended school in Cheshire at the Episcopal Academy, what is now Cheshire Academy, and counted as a classmate one Gideon Welles, who would go on to be Secretary of the Navy under President Lincoln.
Both attended West Point Academy, but neither graduated. Foote was there for only six months in 1822. Hitchcock, who enlisted as a midshipman in 1825, is counted as a member of the Class of 1828, but never received his diploma.
Each seems to have been drawn to the ocean, and the allure is understandable. At a time when most Americans never left their towns or their states, the Navy allowed men to see the world. Hitchcock served on the schooner Shark in the early 1820s as part of the West India squadron. He would sail around Asia, seeing sights most men could only dream of. In 1829, he was assigned to the frigate Delaware, which he called home through 1831. As was the trend, the two Cheshire natives just barely missed one another as, two years later, Foote was assigned to the Delaware where he was eventually promoted to the rank of lieutenant.
As part of the European squadron, the men would visit such far-off destinations as Egypt, Africa, Italy, France, and “the Holy Land” in Israel.
Civil War Begins
In normal times, Foote and Hitchcock would have continued their rise in the ranks and retired after substantial careers. But life was not normal in America in the 19th century.
Independence from Britian had produced a new nation, but one left to grapple with many unanswered questions. The biggest was the issue of slavery, as the new country tangled with how to survive with one section – the South – dedicated to the institution’s survival and the other – the North – increasingly hostile to slavery’s existence.
The whole thing would come to a head in 1860 when, upon the election of Lincoln, southern states began to secede.
By the time the war commenced, Foote held the rank of Captain and was put in charge of operations in the “western waters.” The mission at the time was simple: Create an inland navy capable of controlling the rivers on what was becoming the western front of the war.
With few ships ready for combat and little time to get everything prepared, Foote had to improvise. Whatever could be converted or built on the fly was utilized, but so was a new innovation in naval technology: the ironclads.
The Rise of Ironclads
For centuries, naval warfare had been conducted by large, lumbering ships made of wood. Two ships engaged in battle would hurl cannonballs at one another until the hull and masts of one was so badly damaged as to make movement impossible. But by the time Foote began his work of creating an inland navy, wood was being replaced by iron.
Hitchcock, not surprisingly, had an indirect connection to this new innovation, one that started before the war even began.
In 1855, the USS Merrimack was launched. A steam frigate, she was one of six to be commissioned by the U.S. On the day it left the ship yards in Boston, an estimated 20,000 people turned out to watch Merrimack’s engines kick into gear and her smoke stacks, which could be lowered below deck, carry her out to sea.
Hitchcock was named Commander of the Merrimack two years after she took to sea. He immediately set sail for the Pacific. The new type of warship drew interest wherever she went, but was not without her detractors. Many suggested that, despite the firepower on board - huge shell guns mounted on Marsilly two-truck carriages - their size would make maneuverability during combat difficult.
That, according to the U.S. Naval Institute, was put to rest by Hitchcock and company during one presentation.
“During one particular gunnery exercise, a gun crew took just 1 minute, 23 seconds, to shift one of the 7,000-pound VIII-inch Dahlgren guns from one side of the ship to the other. A 9,000-pound IX-inch Dahlgren took just 22 seconds longer.”
Under Hitchcock’s leadership, the Merrimack would travel around Cape Horn and to the Pacific coast of South and Central America. He would eventually relinquish control of the ship in 1860, on the eve of war.
But that wasn’t the end of the story for the Merrimack. In 1861, as tensions mounted and war between North and South appeared imminent, Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, Foote’s old classmate, ordered the Merrimack, at that point docked in Virginia, to Philadelphia and readied for battle. However, southern loyalists sank small boats in the channel outside the shipyards, blocking the Merrimack’s escape. Rather than allow the steam frigate to fall into Confederate hands, the order was given to burn it.
Yet, the hull of the Merrimack would remain relatively intact, and with the Confederacy in desperate need of ships, it was raised from its resting place and turned into the ironclad CSS Virginia.
On February 17, 1862, the Virginia, still often referred to as the Merrimack, would engage the USS Monitor, one of Foote’s fleet of Union ironclads. The battle was a draw, but it ushered in a new era of navy warfare, leaving behind forever wooden ships.
Taking Forts Henry and Donelson
The “Gunboat Commodore,” as Foote would become known, earned his place in history with the attacks on Forts Henry and Donelson. Under the direction of Brigadier General Ulysses Grant, Foote was placed in charge of leading a coordinated attack from the sea in conjunction with Grant’s army on the ground.
Foote’s fleet arrived at Fort Henry in early February, 1862 and found defenses lacking. Improvising, he moved in for attack. Since the river abutting Fort Henry was flooded, it allowed Foote to sail right up close and forced the Confederates to surrender.
Moving on to Fort Donelson several days later, things didn’t go as immediately planned. Foote was late in arriving and Grant began his ground attack early. However, Foote immediately swung into action and while the bombardment was resisted by the Confederates, and heavy casualties were sustained, Donelson eventually fell and Foote’s part in it would be remembered as a deciding factor.
It did not come without a cost.
A Wound Never Healed
During the fighting, Foote’s ship was hit and he was wounded in the right foot by iron shrapnel from an exploded cannonball and the wooden splinters it created. The wound forced Foote onto crutches, but he continued to command his naval forces in battles, including at Island Number 10 on the Mississippi River, another victory.
The wound would never fully heal. Foote was eventually assigned to Washington and promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral, but being landlocked was not to his liking. Foote asked for a new assignment and was given command of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. However, before ever taking command, Foote, as a result of his injury, would become bed-ridden and, after suffering for 10 days, would die at the Astor House hotel on June 26, 1863. He was 56 years old.
In 1866, the Civil War Monument was dedicated on the green in front of First Congregational Church in Cheshire. The monument recognized President Abraham Lincoln and Foote. There to lead the commemoration: Robert Hitchcock.
Having risen to the rank of Captain and then Commodore, Hitchcock had taken command of the steam sloop Susquehanna of the Western Gulf Squadron from 1862-63. He was given command of the Mobile, Alabama blockade and was also credited with capturing the CSS Florida late in the war.
After the cessation of hostilities, Hitchcock became commandant of the Norfolk Navy Yard and performed “special duty” until his retirement.
Unlike Foote, Hitchcock would live to the ripe old age of 83, dying in 1888 in New York. He is buried in Cold Spring Cemetery, NY.
(Note: This version corrects an error in the original story that identified Amasa Hitchcock, Jr., as a veteran of the French and Indian War.)