Memorial Day keynote speaker Bob Russell: Wilton has given centuries of service

When Bob Russell steps to the podium on Memorial Day to give the keynote speech at the ceremony at Hillside Cemetery, he will speak not of his own service to this country but of the service of others.

Too young to serve in the Korean War and too old for Vietnam, Mr. Russell served at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey for six months in the Army Signal Corps and then seven and one-half years in the Army Reserve. He also was in ROTC while at Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh, now Carnegie-Mellon, and left as a second lieutenant. He received an honorable discharge as a captain from the reserve in 1965.

He and his wife, Carol, moved to Wilton in 1969 and he spent the majority of his career with IBM, in tech sales, long-range planning, finance and international operations.

A former first selectman, Mr. Russell has always been interested in history and is author of the most definitive book on the town, appropriately titled, Wilton, Connecticut.

“There are a lot of people who gave a lot more than I did,” he said of his military service in an interview last week.

Mr. Russell was keynote speaker in 2002, the year of Wilton’s bicentennial, and he will revisit some of the stories from Wilton’s past he related more than a decade ago.

Whenever there was a call to serve, Wilton was always ready to answer.

“In the Revolution we had two of the most important soldiers” from the Wilton-Norwalk area, he said. Matthew Mead was a colonel and Samuel Comstock was a captain.

“Both served the entire seven years,” he said, “whereas others were part of the militia and showed up occasionally.” Their homes still stand on Ridgefield Road.

Although Connecticut troops did not go on the offensive in the War of 1812, they did protect the state, and Wilton soldiers responded when the British attacked the northeastern shore, firing on Essex and Stonington. Connecticut troops managed to sink some British ships.

Wilton lost 34 men to the Civil War. Three died in Andersonville Prison, 15 were killed in battle and the rest died from disease and infection.

“Wilbur Morgan was in the Battle of Gettysburg, where he received an injury that  killed him a month later. He came home to die and is buried at Hillside Cemetery,” Mr. Russell said.

In letters home Pvt. Morgan spoke of camp life. On Sept. 17, 1862, he wrote to a friend from Camp Sigel in Baltimore, Md., “We are here without tents good for anything except some temporary concerns. I have got a cold here sleeping on the ground but am better somewhat now.”

He went on to say, “We have not had any trouble from the rebels yet, nor do I think we shall have at this place. It is too strongly fortified for any but a very large force to attack.”

By Feb. 3, 1863, he was in Virginia, where he wrote of conditions so muddy “the army could not go any further and they were ordered back to wait until the traveling was better which will not be until the rainy season is over which lasts through the months of February and March.

“We are staying here now but expect to go back about six miles to join the division as soon as we can possibly get there although we have very good quarters here, a log hut with fireplace in one end and bunks raised up in the other. We have five of us in the shanty and have some very good times together. … We are stationed right on the Potomac, that is, in sight of it. It is a very splendid sight to get up in some of the high hills and look off on the Potomac … but it is an awful hilly country more so than ever Connecticut was along side of the river, and in fact the whole of that part of Virginia I have been through.”

He also spoke of Wilton, asking in his letter from Baltimore, “How are all your folks and the rest of my acquaintances in that part of Wilton? Has that celery got ripe enough to use yet? I suppose mine has by this time.

“Have you seen Miss Miller lately? I suppose she is as full of fun as ever. I wrote to LeGrand [Seymour] a few days ago but have not received any answer yet but look for one in a few days. I told him I wish he was here with us. I should like to be up there for about a week and cruise around a little but shall not come at present. I do not expect to come very soon.”

The Battle of Gettysburg was fought July 1-3, 1863. Mr. Morgan died Aug. 16, 1863, and is buried in Hillside Cemetery.

Also serving in the Civil War was Charles Hallock, a transplant to Wilton later in life, who wrote of his experiences in a diary in January 1914, which may be found in the History Room at Wilton Library. Mr. Hallock was underage — not yet 17 — when he was sworn into service on July 22, 1861.

In the lead-up to the Battle of Gettysburg he wrote,  “June 19, 1863 we had the first military execution for desertion. The whole of the 12th Army Corps were formed in a large field in a hollow square and two young men from the 46th Penn and one from the Thirteenth New Jersey Regiments were seated on their coffins at the edge of their graves were shot to death by a detail of 12 men for each prisoner and they paid the penalty for desertion, this being the first execution for desertion in the Army of the Potomac.”

On July 1 the army moved from Littletown at 7 a.m. “and could hear heavy firing in direction of Gettysburg. We reached Gettysburg about 4 p.m. and were placed in a position on the extreme Right of our Army but did not get engaged with the Rebels. Today on the morning of July 2nd at Hoekam Hill we built breastworks using bayonets and tin plates mostly to dig with. … On the afternoon of July 2nd we were ordered from our ranks and sent to the left of our Army to reinforce General Sickles who was being very hardly pressed.

“… July 4th both Armies remained quiet after three days of hardest fighting the country had ever seen. All we could hear all day was an occasional rifle shot — by the skirmishers of both armies. On the afternoon of the 4th which was a very hot day we had a very hard thunder shower and the smell from the dead together with that from fresh beef which was issued to us was awful. I took a walk up to and in the line of battle held by General Hancock’s troops and there saw hundreds of men who had been killed on the afternoon of the 3rd during the charge by General Pickett. The batteries along the line … Hancock’s men suffered terribly. Saw five batteries which lost nearly every horse in them and the caissons and limber chests were nearly all destroyed by the fire of the Rebel artillery.”

Other veterans of note include James Whipple, for whom Wilton’s American Legion post is named, killed in World War I. He is buried in France.

Ten Wilton men lost their lives in World War II, among them Martyn Ficke, Wilton’s first Eagle Scout.

“He was a crack shot but he got caught in a huge battle in Germany at the end of the war,” Mr. Russell said. He was awarded the Silver Star and is the only Wiltonian buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Mr. Russell said.

Wilton’s most recent loss was Nick Madaras, who died while on patrol in Iraq in 2006 after an IED exploded.

“We weren’t even in Iraq” when he last spoke on Memorial Day, Mr. Russell said. Since then the town has dedicated the Veterans Memorial Green and has suffered through recent tragedies in Newtown and Boston.

“Everybody has friends or family affected one way or another” by those events, he said, and he plans to bring them up in his speech.