Civil War Albany Rises To Action


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Shipment of Guns and Ammunition from the Watervliet ArsenalAs had happened during the French and Indian War and later the Revolutionary War, from the first days of the Civil War Albany was converted into a military camp. Lincoln’s original request for troops designated Albany, New York City and Elmira as military marshaling points. Troops from the entire northeast, including upstate New York as far west as Buffalo, east to Vermont, New Hampshire and western Massachusetts reported to Albany.

During one six month period, 63 regiments passed through Albany on their way to war; this did not include any Albany regiments. Regiments would usually stay only one day, being transported efficiently by the Hudson River Railroad or steamboat to New York City and then to a southern destination. The Watervliet Arsenal became the largest supplier of military goods and weapons in the country. (One of the reasons so many troops may have passed through Albany was that they had to cash their bounty payment drafts at National Commercial Bank.)

Thousands of volunteers began to arrive in Albany even before authority to receive them came from Washington. Political differences were forgotten; flags flew from every building: public buildings, church steeples, schools, homes and businesses.

Railroad bridge at Albany used by troop trains during the Civil WarMost buildings flew more than one flag. Nationalities vied with each other to raise companies; British, French, German, Irish and Scottish companies were raised in Albany. The Albany Shaker Community, unable to serve for religious reasons, made and donated everything needed to supply a hospital.

After the first months, returning troops, including the sick and wounded, flowed back into Albany from the battlefields. All of these troops needed to be fed and cared for. They needed a place to camp for the night. As the war went on, many families of the troops became destitute. Those who lost sons, brothers, fathers and husbands needed to be consoled. Both the soldiers and their families suffered greatly.

Mayor George Thacher led Albany’s humanitarian efforts to combat these growing problems. The Citizens Military Relief Fund and the Ladies’ Army Relief Fund were formed. These groups started a Great Sanitary Fair held in Academy Park in Albany. Its officers were Mayor Thacher, Congressman Eli Perry, Chauncy Williams and John Taylor Hall.

Albany Civil War bazaar vignette 2A huge temporary building, named the Army Relief Bazaar was constructed. It was built in the form of a double Greek cross; 189 feet long on the eastern nave and 160 feet on the western side, with a transept 205 feet long and 28 feet high. Immediately upon entering the building were located the great national booths of England, Scotland and Ireland, manned by the St. George, St. Andrew and Hibernian Provident societies. To the right were located the United States, the Yankee, and the German booths.

These booths competed to see who could raise the most money for the humanitarian causes. To the right of the entrance was the Curiosity Shop, thought by many to be the largest draw, housing “curiosities of every kind, both the rare and beautiful, relics of great value and age, and everything attractive and novel.” The Shaker booth was filled with exquisite products from the Shaker community.

Albany Civil War bazaar vignette 1There were Schenectady, Saratoga Springs and Troy booths; Spanish, Japanese, Dutch, Swiss, French, Italian and Russian booths, as well as an Indian wigwam manned by people dressed in Native American costumes and a Gypsy tent presided over by a Gypsy queen. There was a War Trophy booth displaying military memorabilia and an autograph booth selling autographs from military generals and prominent citizens.

But most important was the donation from President Lincoln: the original draft of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Delivered by Secretary of State William H. Seward’s son, Fred, to Emily Weed Barnes, daughter of Thurlow Weed, the original draft was raffled off with lottery tickets going for $1 each. Fred Seward had been the night editor of the Albany Evening Journal prior to the war and knew Emily well. The winner of the drawing was Gerrit Smith, an abolitionist leader who had bought a large block of tickets.

Smith donated the Emancipation Proclamation back to the Sanitary Commission, which then sold it to the State Education Department for $1,000 with the condition that it was not to leave Albany. After the destruction of the final handwritten draft in the Chicago Fire, the State Education Department in Albany became the owner of the only remaining copy of the Emancipation Proclamation written in Lincoln’s hand.

Funds raised from the bazaar amounted to $111,493.49, and it was deemed a great success.

Many other efforts continued in Albany to assist the soldiers and their families. The Albany branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was formed in April of 1864 with the goal to promote the spiritual and temporal welfare of the officers and men of the U.S. Army and Navy and to house those in transit. Thomas W. Olcott, John F. Rathbone, Levi Dedrick and William McElroy were the first officers.

Large contributions of money and services were provided. The Soldiers Refreshment Committee served meals to 16,709 soldiers in transit in a six-month period. Almost every town and church formed a soldiers’ aid society, collecting useful articles and food for the troops.

Individuals did their part: Mrs. Samuel Pruyn received a letter from an acquaintance in Washington asking for stores for the needy soldiers, as well as the sick and wounded. Her gift of two large boxes of clothing prompted a return letter pleading for more. Her efforts raised 287 boxes and barrels of materials forwarded to Washington.

Benjamin Payne, at the request of Mrs. Pruyn, went to Washington and was so appalled by what he saw that upon his return, he mounted a relief effort among the farmers outside Albany. They sent 600 barrels of fruits and vegetables to the troops.

Albany artist Erastus Dow Palmer donated five pieces of sculpture to be auctioned for aid for the hospital. Palmer also obtained many art objects from his friends and associates to be exhibited at the fair. Stephen Van Rensselaer donated funds to provision thirty troops and donated $1,000 to the war fund. The editors and publishers of the local newspapers donated free services to publicize the bazaar and the many other fund-raising functions. Thurlow Weed and Joel Munsell’s publications were singled out for special praise.

Albany’s railroads, steamboats and telegraph companies donated considerable free services. The firm of Van Sickler & Forby was praised for packing and shipping many of the boxes and crates destined for the soldiers. Mrs. Amos Dean, treasurer of the Albany chapter of the National Freedman’s Relief Commission, donated $1,000 on behalf of the group.

albany-armory june 1861In April, 1861, Albany’s Gen. John F. Rathbone took over Albany’s Industrial School and converted it into a hospital. He built three additional buildings to house the sick and wounded. Dr. John Swinburne, also of Albany, was the hospital’s chief surgeon but left to serve at the front and was replaced by Dr. Mason Fitch Cogswell. Upon Dr. Cogswell’s death, he was replaced by Dr. James H. Armsby (founder of Albany Medical College). The hospital, originally called The Barracks, was converted to a full U.S. general hospital and renamed the Ira Harris General Hospital, in honor of Albany’s U.S. senator.

Albany’s Dr. J.V.P. Quackenbush succeeded Dr. S.O. Vanderpoel as Surgeon General of the New York State forces in 1863. Quackenbush oversaw the work of 584 volunteer surgeons in service to the New York Militia. Large numbers of Albany volunteers served in both the Albany Ira Harris Military Hospital and the field hospitals.

Typical of the activities in Albany was the raising and outfitting of the 44th Regiment. Originally known as a Zouave Regiment or People’s Regiment, it was formed as a result of a very patriotic appeal to raise a volunteer regiment consisting of one man from every town or ward in the state to “avenge the noble blood spilt on the soil of Virginia.”

Despite the wide-ranging appeal, most volunteers were from Albany. The regiment was raised, splendidly outfitted and drilled to a high level of expertise in Albany. A large celebration was held to mark its send off. The 44th demonstrated its prowess in marching, firing and loading by companies, platoons, and the entire line. A newly invented battery consisting of 5 guns discharged 60 balls a minute. It was described as a “truly terrible instrument of destruction.”

Mrs. Emily Barnes presented the 44th’s Col. James Clay Rice with a beautiful sword. Col. Rice said that he felt like one of the knights from King Arthur’s Roundtable being sent off to do God’s work. Stopping their march at the home of Congressman Erastus Corning, the standard bearer was presented with the regimental colors by Mrs. Corning. The demonstration was described as “deeply moving.”

The regiment went on to fight in 12 major engagements and many skirmishes. Originally 1,060 men, they would suffer a total of 730 casualties from their peak enlistment of 1,585 before they were mustered out in Albany in June, 1863. Colonel (later Brigadier General) Rice was killed at Spotsylvania.

Upon their return to Albany, they again marched to the home of Erastus Corning, honoring Corning with a marching salute as they passed his home. A shocked Mrs. Corning welcomed the small group of battle-worn surviving troops and received the tattered colors that she had originally given them. She presented them with a new flag. Most of the officers and recruits she had welcomed previously were dead. The Albany newspapers reported that “It was an event for which Mrs. Corning had not been properly prepared.”

Albany Rural Cemetery Soldiers' LotThe surviving troops proceeded to the Capitol, where they were greeted by the governor, and then to Congress Hall, owned by Albany’s black businessman Adam Blake, where the city hosted them to a large celebration.

With private donations, Albany constructed a Soldiers Home to care for the returning disabled, unable to care for themselves. On June 7, 1862, Albany Rural Cemetery’s trustees donated a section, named the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Plot, at the cemetery to bury and honor Civil War dead who were not buried in family plots. All costs of internment were born by the cemetery.

The Soldiers’ Plot is marked by a soldiers’ monument of granite bearing bronze plates with the names of 648 Civil War veterans from the city of Albany who died while serving. The bronze plates were cast from a melted-down Civil War cannon. One hundred and forty-nine soldiers are buried in the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Plot.

Illustrations, from above: “Shipment of Guns and Ammunition from the Watervliet Arsenal” Railroad bridge at Albany used by troop trains during the Civil War; vignettes showing the Albany Civil War Relief Bazaar; a building identified as the Albany Armory by Harper’s Weekly in early June 1861; and the Albany Rural Cemetery Soldiers’ Lot.

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