That’s life in a nutshell: it’s all about decisions. When confronted with options, we make a choice. Sometimes even the first few moments that follow can change our lives forever. Such was the case with a North Country soldier, Private Joseph Lonsway of Clayton, New York (in Jefferson County, on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River).
Lonsway was a member of the Union Army’s 20th NY Cavalry which, in October 1864, was on a mission to assess the enemy’s strength and destroy army supplies near Murfree’s Station, Virginia. They soon found themselves in a standoff with rebel troops based on the opposite bank of the Blackwater River. Heavy fire was exchanged, but Union troops clearly had only one option to pursue the enemy: a ferry, operated by a rope connected to both shores. But there was a problem: the ferry in question was tied to the far bank, and was only about 10 yards from the rebel breastworks.
Officers, knowing what needed to be done, called for volunteers to swim the river and release the ferry, described as a “large, flat scow.” Among the men to respond were several from Jefferson County, but their brave efforts failed in a hail of bullets.
Private Lonsway persuaded the troop’s captain to allow a solo attempt that had all the makings of a suicide mission. But Joseph’s courage was bolstered perhaps by the cockiness of a tough 20-year-old, and certainly by his superior swimming skills, which had been honed on the St. Lawrence River in his youth.
With a plan in mind, he stripped off his clothes and took to the water. Aided by the distraction of intense cover fire from his Union brothers, Lonsway made his way towards the opposite shore, remaining submerged as much as possible. When swimming on the surface, he did so on his back, with only his eyes and nose above water.
The river’s width was estimated at 400–600 feet, which Joseph managed to cross unscathed. Releasing the ferry, he began the return trip amid furious fire from the enemy, but fortified by loud shouts of encouragement from the men of the 20th.
Against great odds, he made it, and the rebels were soon on the run, leaving behind all that they couldn’t carry. The Union’s cause was advanced mightily that day. As quickly as men could cross the river, the breastworks were captured; prisoners were taken; large supply caches of cotton and other goods nearby were destroyed; enemy troops were routed and pursued for six miles; near Murfrees Station, supplies of small arms, brandy, cloth, cotton, shoes, tobacco, and other goods were burned, along with several storage buildings; telegraph lines for miles were torn down; and nearly 200 head of cattle were taken.
Major newspapers of the day featured detailed reports of all troop actions, much like today’s sports pages sometimes offer play-by-play descriptions. Lonsway’s heroic deed (it was actually the second time he had performed such a feat) was recounted in the New York Herald, followed by this assessment: “The whole affair was as brilliant an expedition as anything of the kind ever before attempted in this department, and reflects great credit on the originator as well as those who executed it.”
The war continued, and Joseph fought on. He claimed to have been repeatedly offered promotions by superior officers, and was sent to the White House about a dozen times, meeting on a few occasions with President Lincoln.
The offers of promotion may well have happened, but just days after the river incident, Brigadier-General Vogdes wrote in his official report: “In regard to Private Lonsway, I would state that his education is not of such character as to fit him for the position of an officer, but that I deem his conduct worthy of special honor, and would respectfully recommend that a medal be given him for the bravery he displayed in swimming the river in the face of the enemy’s sharpshooters. It will be seen that this was the second time Private L. performed the hazardous feat of crossing the river.” Vogdes’ order was approved and signed by Commanding Brigadier–General G. F. Shepley.
If there were, in fact, offers of promotion, Lonsway turned them all down. (And if so, it provides plenty more fodder for “The Road Not Taken.”) Joseph was informed that he would receive a medal for bravery by order of officials from the war department. However, for reasons that remain unclear, it never came into his possession.
After the war ended, he returned to life on the river in his hometown, working at various occupations, but becoming best known as an expert fishing guide, oarsman, and raconteur, equally popular with local folks and clients from far and wide. Whether it was bass, musky, or northern pike, Lonsway could virtually guarantee a successful fishing trip.
Men of the 20th NY Cavalry, who had also returned to the Clayton area as citizens, delighted in telling war stories, and none was more popular than the stirring tale of Lonsway’s incredible swim. Joseph remained humble about his own deeds, but when health issues affected him 35 years later, the ferry story played a role in the decision to grant him a pension.
The government’s review, in part, noted that after swimming the Blackwater River twice, “… he was in the engagement which afterwards took place. That he was up all night before and after the engagement, rode back near his camp and slept in the open air, and as a result took a severe cold and contracted rheumatism, with which and resulting heart disease, he has since been afflicted.” The pension was a welcome addition to his meager income.
Next week, the conclusion: a humble hero gets his due―in spades!
Photo: Joseph Lonsway (1921)