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Melzar Dutton's Civil War Letters (1861-1862)

Dutton family plot at Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven, Connecticut

On my way to an atmospheric science conference in Newport, Rhode Island in June 2013, I took a side trip to Connecticut to trace the footsteps of my third great grandfather Henry Dutton and his ancestors.


My trip ended in New Haven at the Dutton family plot at Grove Street Cemetery where Henry and his family are buried. The plot contains eleven monuments, the tallest one being that of Henry and his wife Eliza. The inscription on his side of their monument lists his many achievements, two of which were Governor of Connecticut from 1854-55 and judge on the Connecticut Supreme Court from 1861-66.

Next to Henry's and Eliza's monument are those for their two daughters, Mary and Harriet who both died in their late thirties. Mary's is the one with the rounded top directly in front of her parents'. Harriet's monument is not visible in this photo.

Melzar Dutton's cenotaph on his sister's gravestone in the Dutton family plot

Near the base of Mary’s monument is an inscription for Henry's and Eliza's only son, Melzar, the youngest of the four Dutton children. It is badly eroded and as a result several of the lines are illegible. The portion that I could make out reads:

Henry Melzar Dutton

. . .  First Lieut., Company C

5th Regiment Connecticut Volunteers.
Killed at Cedar Mountain Aug. 9, 1862

& buried on field of battle.
Aged 24.

As I stood looking at this monument, my thoughts turned to that young man whose life ended so tragically. When I returned to Toronto I set out to learn more about him. 

Sample pages from Melzar's and his mother's letters

My search led me to a library in Winchester, West Virginia which had transcribed copies of letters Melzar Dutton had written to his parents from the Shenandoah Valley in the spring of 1862.


After much detective work and a fair amount of good luck, I found the original letters. They were in Minneapolis with another third great grandson of Henry Dutton, Henry Dutton Foster. When I told Dutton about my project he offered to give me the letters provided I send him a complete transcription and donate the letters to a suitable library.

When the box arrived a week later I discovered that not only did it contain Melzar’s letters to his parents, but also his mother’s letters to him.

Their letters tell two parallel stories. The first is from the perspective of a highly educated, thoughtful and modest young man whose letters are filled with colorful and often humorous descriptions of his wartime experiences. The second is the timeless story of a mother whose only son is off at war. Eliza’s letters speak of her all-consuming fears and worries for Melzar’s safety, which in the end were tragically realized. Her letters also describe life on the home front: her hospital visits to sick and injured soldiers, sewing clothes for the soldiers and thoughts about the war.  

Henry Melzar Dutton, wartime photograph  

Henry Melzar Dutton was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut and moved to New Haven when he was a child. He graduated from Yale College in 1857 and from Yale Law School in 1859. At the outbreak of the Civil War he was practicing law in Litchfield, Connecticut.

In July 1861 Melzar enlisted in the 5th Connecticut Infantry. He served with his regiment in western Maryland from August 1861 to February 1862 and in the Shenandoah Valley from March to June 1862. He was killed in an infantry charge at the Battle of Cedar Mountain in Virginia on August 9, 1862. He was 23 and unmarried. 

In a memorial written at the end of the war a fellow officer described him as “a favorite at the camp fire at night, and at our halts upon the marches by day—none could tell more amusing stories; none could repeat more snatches of poetry from ancient or modern authors; none could sing a song better; none so good a physician amid discomfort, home sickness and blues as he."

Selection of letters between Melzar Dutton and his parents, and two condolence letters to the Duttons following his death at Cedar Mountain: