General William Henry Noble
by Eric D. Lehman
Born in 1813, William Henry graduated from Yale University with a law degree at age twenty-three. After returning to his home town of Bridgeport, he was admitted into the bar and helped the city of Bridgeport secure its charter. He taught French and Spanish in his father’s school on Golden Hill, but his career blossomed when he became the secretary of Bridgeport Savings Bank in 1842, then the state’s attorney in 1846. When his father died, he inherited land in East Bridgeport and entered into an agreement with P.T. Barnum to develop it, assisting the construction of houses, hotels and factories.
Then, on April 14, 1861, Fort Sumter fell, beginning the War of the Rebellion. Unlike Barnum, Noble was a conservative Democrat, and thus on the “wrong side” politically to serve in the Union army. But that did not stop him. He saw the necessity for preserving the Union, and turned against those in his political party who sympathized with the Southern rebellion. He served the cause of Lincoln because it was “the cause of the Union.” He said after the disaster at Bull Run, “The soul of the North, unflinching before disheartening reverses, aroused to mightier effort.”
Noble was commissioned colonel of the Seventeenth Regiment of Connecticut Volunteers. With one thousand men in the regiment under his command, he noted, “It was from the start known as the Fairfield County Regiment. With few exceptions, its ranks were filled by her sons.” Inventor of the sewing machine Elias Howe signed up for this regiment, though his age and health prevented him from serving. On August 28, 1861, the regiment was mustered in what is today Seaside Park, and left for Washington D.C.
The 17th fought at Chancellorsville against Stonewall Jackson, and Noble’s horse was killed from underneath him, while a shot hit his arm and a shell fragment cut his left knee badly. Luckily, his artery clogged and he did not bleed to death. He said, when recounting the battle: “The crushing force of Stonewall Jackson’s attack was in such irresistible mass, with such steady and unabating fire, that the air seemed full of whizzing rifle-balls. Their advancing light artillery threw a storm of shells down the lines of retreat.”
Noble recuperated in Bridgeport for over a month, while his men marched to Gettysburg. But, although he was far from healed, he left his bed at home and rushed to the upcoming battle. His regiment was stationed on the edge of town, and by the time he got there things were mostly decided. He marched into the town with the 17th on Independence Day, after losing 206 men.
The 17th shipped out to South Carolina and then Jacksonville, Florida. Noble assumed command of the Second Brigade, and the Seventeenth moved to St. Augustine to conduct foraging raids. He was captured on Christmas Eve of 1864. Later, he said, “The attack was sudden and unexpected. They are easily made so in Florida, which is pretty much all one pine wood.” He survived the notorious Andersonville Prison Camp, as the highest ranking imprisoned officer. In his old age he would often remember the horrors of that “snakepit” with a shudder and a curse.
After the war, General Ulysses S. Grant brevetted William Noble a brigadier general in the Union army. However, Noble did not serve after the war. He returned to a law career in Bridgeport and helped veterans and their descendants acquire their pensions from the federal government. His interest in horticulture also led him to be chairman of the Board of Parks commissioners. city council, senior warden of Christ Church and a state representative. He bought an old 1795 homestead on Stratford Avenue, where he could climb the captain’s walk and watch the sea. As he said: “When the cruel war was over the soldiery and officers had no other thought or longing, but for home, and to renew their toil of life.”