Governors of Connecticut

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William Alfred Buckingham

From: The Governers of Connecticut
By: Frederick Calvin Norton
Published: 1905


GOVERNOR Buckingham was one of the “war governors” on whom President Lincoln leaned to a large extent during the Civil War, and, like Jonathan Trumbull nearly a century before, he had the patriotic love and support of the people of this state. Although a civilian by nature and early training, he developed into one of the most distinguished governors Connecticut ever had and shed lustre on this commonwealth during one of its darkest periods.

Lebanon is a small old-fashioned town on the Hartford and Norwich stage road, but it has furnished five able governors to the state. In this town on May 28, 1804, was born William Alfred Buckingham. His ancestors were among members of Davenport’s colony that settled New Haven, and his father, Deacon Buckingham, was a native of Saybrook, who afterwards removed to Lebanon.

The young man attended the district schools in Lebanon, and later became a student at Bacon’s Academy in Colchester, where he prepared for the profession of a land surveyor. After a brief trial in this work he returned to his father’s farm in Lebanon and remained for three years. Going to Norwich he entered a dry goods store conducted by his uncle in that city, with a determination to learn the business. This seemed to suit him so well that in 1826 Buckingham opened a store of his own, and began to lay the fbundation of the fortune which was to exert such a beneficent influence in future years.

In 1830 he added the manufacturing of ingrain carpets to his business, which also proved to be a successful venture.

Buckingham loaned money to a friend in 1848 to engage in the manufacture of rubber shoes. This was the starting point of the Hayward Rubber Company. The business proved to be so lucrative that Buckingham gave up his other business so as to devote his time to this industry. For many years he was the manager and treasurer of the company, and developed it into one of the largest concerns of the section. By this time Buckingham had become one of the leading citizens of the city of Norwich. His uncommon ability was demonstrated by the fact that he amassed a large fortune in the face of several financial panics.

He was elected mayor of Norwich and served during the years 1849, 1850, 1856 and 1857.

Buckingham’s name was brought forward in the spring of 1858 - one of the most dismal on record - by the Republican party as a candidate fhr governor. He was nominated and received a majority of 2,449 at the following election. The inauguration was at New Haven on the first Monday in May, and Governor Buckingham was to the state at large, and certainly to the nation, an unknown man. His message to the incoming Legislature showed unmistakable signs of his great antagonism to the slave power. The first administration of Governor Buckingham served to popularize the man, so that in 1859 he was re-elected. He was renominated in 1860, and this campaign was one of the most momentous ever witnessed in this state. Thomas Hart Seymour, the Democratic “war horse” was nominated to run against Buckingham, and then ensued a contest not soon to be forgotten. As the time for election drew near, the result was watched throughout the nation, for Connecticut had come to be a famous battle ground.

Abraham Lincoln was sent to this state, and he made six speeches throughout Connecticut. Governor Buckingham traveled with Lincoln and usually presented him to his audience. A warm friendship sprung up between the two men, similar to the one that existed between Trumbull and Washington, and which lasted until the two were parted by death.

On April 2, 1860, the election took place. The result was awaited with feverish anxiety, and for a time it looked as if Seymour had won. The large cities of the state gave majorities to Seymour, while the small cities went for Buckingham, his majority being only 541.

Governor Buckingham was re-elected in 1861 by over 2,000 majority, for the commonwealth had found in him the man they wanted for a crisis. Lincoln’s call for troops was issued April 15, 1861. The order reached this state from President Lincoln for a regiment to meet the enemy. As there was hardly a regiment of organized militia in Connecticut, Governor Buckingham issued a proclamation the fbllowing day calling for troops; and although this act was unauthorized by law he depended solely upon the Legislature soon to convene to validate this step. Fiftyfour companies enlisted instead of ten, and when the General Assembly met in May it not only ratified the action of the governor but promptly appropriated $2,000,000 for military expenses. The governor made a remark to a friend that no state should send better troops into the field, and he went about the task in a business-like manner.

During the first year of the war he turned over to the government 13,576 troops, including infantry, cavalry and artillery, thoroughly armed and ready for service. In 1862 he received another good majority, and was elected governor for the fifth time. Soon after he issued a proclamation calling for more men, in accordance with the president’s call for 600,000. A portion of the governor’s patriotic proclamation was as follows: “By our delay the safety of our armies, even of the nation, may be imperilled. . . Close your manufàctories and workshops, turn aside from your farms and your business, leave for a while your families and homes, meet face to face the enemy of your liberties.”

No wonder these words stirred the noblest emotion in every freeman’s breast, and it was but a short time before Connecticut’s
quota was raised.

The election of 1864 was quiet and again resulted in the choice of Buckingham for another term. In his message to the General Assembly he said: “Slavery is not dead. Its life is in the custody of its friends, and while it shall remain there will be no
peace. The events of the past urge us to adopt some measure which shall terminate in avor of freedom that controversy which must ever exist so long as a part of the nation remain free and a part enslaved.”

With the advent of the spring of 1865 came the close of the war, and Buckingham was elected for the eighth time as governor by a majority of 11,000.

Governor Buckingham had accomplished a work during these years which would make his name famous for time to come. Some idea of what he did can be realized when it is stated that at the time of the Civil War there were 461,000 people in Connecticut, 80,000 of which were voters, and 50,000 capable of bearing arms. The inhabitants of the old state, encouraged by the patriotic example of their governor, strained their efflrts to put men in the field. As a result Connecticut had in the army, at various times, twenty-eight regiments of well equipped infantry, two regiments and three batteries of artillery, and one regiment and a squadron of cavalry, aggregating nearly 55,000 men. This was fully 6,000 more than the state’s quota, and only one or two states in the Union excelled this record.

Connecticut’s record in the Civil War is one of which her sons will always be proud. “Although known as the ‘war governor’ of Connecticut,” says a biographer, “he was of kindly disposition and gentle manners.” His interest in the Connecticut troops was unusual. Once when in Washington, Governor Buckingham told a high official: “You will see a great many battles and much suffering. Don’t let any Connecticut man suffer for want of anything that can be done for him. If it costs money, draw on me for it.” This official when told of the victory of the Federal troops at Gettysburg, wired the news of the victory to Governor Buckingham. The latter telegraphed as quickly as possible the answer: “Take good care of the Connecticut men.”

When his eighth term was nearly completed Buckingham declined to serve again and for the next two years enjoyed the pleasures of private life. But he was not long to remain idle, for his wise counsels were needed in other departments of the government. In 1868 he was elected United States senator from Connecticut, and he took his seat on March 4, 1869. In this
distinguished body he busied himself in considering the great questions of reconstruction.

Buckingharn was chairman of the committee appointed by the Senate to investigate the New York custom house frauds. When nearing the end of his term he died, after a brief illness, on February 5, 1875, aged 72 years.

The funeral was held in Norwich and was attended by some of the most distinguished men in the nation. The “Norwich Bulletin” paid this tribute to this famous citizen: “In private life Governor Buckingham was characterized by great sweetness of disposition and an urbane courtesy in his social relations which won the sincere regard of all with whom he was personally in contact. He possessed that polished dignity of manner which we of this day characterize as the gentility of the old school, and the refinement of its minor details was strongly marked in all his habits of life. . . . He was not a politician, neither was he a great statesman, but he was great in his probity, patriotism, and purity of life. and intrusively he wielded a vast influence for good. In public and in private life, like him who was loved of God, he walked uprightly before men. And with a full remembrance of all the honors which had been pressed upon him, of all the great successes of his life, no better or truer epitaph can be produced over his grave than that which he himself would have desired: ‘A man of honor, and a Christian gentleman.’”

Eulogies were delivered in memory of Governor Buckingham on February 27th in the United States Senate. Among those who paid eloquent tributes to his life and character were Senators Ferry and Eaton of Connecticut, Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, Stevenson of Kentucky, Wright of Iowa, Bayard of Delaware, Pratt of Indiana, Thurman of Ohio, and Morton of Indiana.

Governor Buckingham left liberal bequests for various religious and educational purposes. Among these was $25,000 to the Yale Divinity School at New Haven. When the new Capitol was completed at Hartford, $10,000 was appropriated fur a suitable statue of Governor Buckingham. The Hon. Henry B. Harrison of New Haven was made chairman of the commission, and $6,000 was also appropriated for the unveiling ceremonies, which took place in the Capitol, June 18, 1884.

The statue is placed in the western end of the Capitol; represents the famous “war governor” in a sitting posture, and was executed by Olin L. Warner of New York. Governor Wailer uncovered the statue and an address was delivered by United States Senator Orville H. Platt.

Gov. William Alfred Buckingham of Connecticut

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