When attorneys reach retirement, many of them escape to the beach, head to the golf course or settle into a lounge chair.
Robert J. O’Brien dives into Civil War history and specifically, New Haven’s role in the war.
After retiring last May, the former supervisory assistant state’s attorney in the New Haven Career Criminal Unit now has plenty of time to devote to his passion for the war, which has garnered new attention as the nation marks the 150th anniversary. "I think this is really fascinating and I want to get other people interested in the history," said O’Brien, a self-proclaimed history buff.
And he’s doing it by offering tours of Civil War monuments and gravesites in the New Haven area.
His tours begin with a CD of Union and Confederate music played during the drive, and he mixes in stops at multiple local pubs to discuss the Civil War and answer questions about the landmarks. "People have been driving by these monuments and sites for years but they don’t know the history," he said.
‘Hooked on Gettysburg’
His interest in the Civil War started during the last major anniversary 50 years ago. He was in high school when he first read about famous battles and generals. He also purchased a special edition set of cards that depicted war scenes and heroes produced by Topps, a baseball card company.
O’Brien really got into Connecticut’s role in the war during the 1990s after the movie "Gettysburg" came out. During a trip to Kentucky to see his brother, O’Brien took a side trip to the Gettysburg battlefield and took photos of the gravestones of Connecticut soldiers. "I got hooked on Gettysburg," O’Brien said.
When he came back to New Haven, he researched the origins of the men whose gravestones he photographed to learn which battle units came from New Haven. Then he discovered the multiple Civil War monuments in New Haven and throughout Connecticut.
"I was surprised to learn that 60,000 soldiers from Connecticut fought during the course of the war," O’Brien said. "Governor [William A.] Buckingham was an ardent supporter of the war."
In New Haven, O’Brien came upon significant Civil War monuments and soldier gravestones in Evergreen Cemetery and Grove Street Cemetery. One of the most impressive is the Knight Hospital Monument in Evergreen, which was dedicated in 1870 to honor more than 200 wounded Union soldiers who died at the New Haven hospital.
"That’s unique to have a monument dedicated to an entire hospital," O’Brien said. "That hospital treated 20,000 Union troops during the Civil War, and it was one of the earliest monuments in New Haven."
George Washington Warner
Not far from the Knight monument is the grave of one of O’Brien’s favorite Connecticut veterans, Private George Washington Warner.
Warner was fighting at Gettysburg in July 1863 with the 20th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry when he was hit by friendly fire and lost both of his arms. He returned to Connecticut to be treated at Knight Hospital and became a local celebrity.
In 1887, a large monument was dedicated on East Rock, and it’s easily visible today when driving on Interstate 91. Warner was part of a tremendous dedication event that attracted between 100,000 and 200,000 spectators, and 20,000 veterans who marched in a parade, including General William Tecumseh Sherman, O’Brien said.
When the contingent reached the peak of East Rock, where the new monument was covered with a tarp, Warner became the center of attention.
"He pulled the rope with his teeth to unveil the monument," O’Brien said.
Warner died in 1923 at the age of 91. Through his research, O’Brien was able to find Warner’s great-grandson, who lives in Cheshire, and the two shared Civil War artifacts and photos.
With spring here, O’Brien said his tour schedule will start to get busy again, as will his speaking visits to local libraries and schools. He’s always excited to introduce people to the local Civil War history and his driving tour is an informal operation.
"Maybe they’ll buy me a beer or chip in for gas," he said. "It’s just something I enjoy doing. I’ll be glad to take anyone along."
Those interested in Robert O’Brien’s Civil War tours can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.