The First Days of the Civil War in Albany

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Fort Sumter Newspaper HeadlineEarly Sunday morning on April 14, 1861, barely two months after Lincoln left Albany, news arrived there that Fort Sumter had been fired on and surrendered. Fort Sumter was not far from Washington, and this news hit Albany like a shock wave.

New York State Governor Edwin D. Morgan called an emergency meeting of his staff and leaders of the Senate and Assembly that afternoon in the Executive Chamber in Albany. A bill was drafted calling for New York to appropriate $3 million to provision and provide 30,000 New York Militia to support the preservation of the Union.

By the next morning, panic hit the North. The entire federal army at this time was only 14,000 men, many stationed in the West. Most state militias were much larger, and the militia of the State of Virginia, which had seceded that morning, outnumbered the entire federal army.

The same day, Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for “75,000 troops to suppress insurrection from the southern states that had seceded and to cause the laws to be duly executed.” By the end of the day, three more states, North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas seceded and the states of Kentucky, Missouri and Delaware refused to send troops. Most important was Maryland because after Virginia seceded, it controlled the only railroad access to the Capitol. Gov. Thomas Hicks and Baltimore Mayor George Brown telegraphed Lincoln, “Send no troops here” and “The excitement is fearful.”

Phelp Comination Telegraph PrinterHere are some telegrams received at Albany:

“War Department, April 15, 1861. Call made on you by tonight’s mail for 17 regiments of militia for immediate service,” Simeon Cameron, Secretary of War.

April 17. “Virginia seceded; Harpers Ferry taken; Washington endangered; ready all night to serve orders.”

April 18. “Lose not a moment in issuing your orders for additional regiments for Washington.”

April 18. “To Governor Morgan at Albany. The Southern Tier Rifles have unanimously resolved to tender their services to the general government. The Colonel awaits your Excellency’s orders.”

April 19. “Davis being within one day’s march of Washington with an army…”

April 19. “have militia armed at once and… instant departure of 20,000 troops to Washington.”

April 20. “Troops must go on tonight, or Washington is gone.”

April 20. “To Gov. Morgan at Albany. The impression here is that Washington will be taken before Monday. Comdr. Vanderbilt and Mr. Aspinwall tender to you all steamers necessary.”

April 20. “Send the first regiment you get ready in fast steamer up the Potomac. Simeon Cameron, Secretary of War.”

April 21. Albany’s 25th Regiment departed for Washington.

The next day, the 6th Massachusetts Regiment, sent to defend Washington, was attacked by a mob in Baltimore and four soldiers were killed. A Baltimore committee was sent to meet with Lincoln to demand that no soldiers be sent through the city and that he make peace with the Confederacy on any terms. Lincoln refused.

Washington was under siege as Marylanders destroyed the railroad bridge and cut telegraph lines. A confederate assault was expected at any time. On April 25, New York’s 7th Regiment arrived in Washington. Within days several other regiments including Albany’s 25th began to arrive.

Albany’s 25th Regiment, NYS Militia, 575 men, under the command of Col. Michael K. Bryan was ordered to stand ready on April 19, and on April 21 received orders to depart to defend Washington. Albany’s 25th Regiment was comprised of the Albany Republican Artillery (Co. A), Gen. Richard Montgomery Guards (Co. B), Gen. William J. Worth Guards (Co. C), Albany City Volunteers (Co. D), Albany Washington Light Infantry (Co. E), McGraw Guards (Co. F), Albany Emmett Guards (Co. G), Garde Marquis de Lafayette (Co. H), Albany Washington Rifles (Co. L) and the Albany Burgesses Corp (Co. R).

This was Albany’s volunteer militia (Albany had an organized volunteer militia since the city was founded in the early 1600s). Company A was recruited, armed, trained and financed by the Van Rensselaer family. Originally called “The Van Rensselaer Guards,” Steven Van Rensselaer renamed them the “Albany Republican Artillery” after the adoption of the U.S. Constitution.

The rear company, the Albany Burgesses Corp was always provided by Albany’s burgers or downtown merchants.

The voluntary Albany militia had fought in the French and Indian War on the side of the British, at Saratoga in the Revolutionary War, in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War.

The 25th Regiment boarded a paddle-wheel steamboat in downtown Albany and was transported to the city of New York, where they boarded the steamer Parkersburg, which took them to Annapolis; they then marched to Washington, where they reported to the commander of the Army, 75-year-old Major General Winfield Scott. Scott had been a major general since the War of 1812 but at the outbreak of hostilities had rushed from his headquarters in New York to his post in Washington and was commanding the defense of the Capitol.

Union soldiers cross the Long Bridge during the occupation of northern VirginiaOn May 23, Albany’s 25th was the second regiment to exit Washington and cross Long Bridge to Virginia (the first was the 12th NY Militia). Once across the bridge, they proceeded to Arlington Heights where they constructed a wooden fort and encampment that Colonel Bryan named “Fort Albany.” On their way to Arlington Heights they encountered and captured two Confederate soldiers, the first two prisoners taken in Virginia since the start of the war. Fort Albany along with three other such forts remained the main guardians of the road to Washington for the duration of the war.

Trying urgently to raise troops quickly, Governor Morgan walked down Albany’s State Street from his home at State and Eagle Streets to the National Commercial Bank and saw Ezra Parmelee Prentice, a wholesale fur merchant and president of the bank. Based solely on the discussion between Morgan and Prentice, the National Commercial Bank authorized the issuance of up to $3,500,000 in cash to recruits presenting drafts for bounty payments issued by military boards throughout the state. This avoided the time loss and expense of calling a special session of the legislature.

During the next four years, New York would send 474,000 men, 1/8 of New York’s entire population, to comprise 1/5 of the Union Army. Ten regiments and one artillery battery would be raised in Albany County. Albany troops would play major roles and take casualties at almost every major battle of the Civil War.

Illustrations, from above: A newspaper announcement of the fall of Fort Sumter; a Phelps, or American Combination telegraph printer of the type produced in Troy and used in Albany during the war; Union soldiers cross the Long Bridge during the occupation of northern Virginia following that state’s secession from the Union.

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About Peter Hess

Peter Hess is the president of Albany Steel and served on the Board of Trustees of Albany Rural Cemetery for 18 years. During his time on the Albany Rural board, he wrote over 150 articles on important and interesting people buried in the cemetery. Starting about 2008, he accumulated the 150 articles and additional research into four books known as the People of Albany series. Hess has also conducted tours of the cemetery and spoken to public groups over 100 times.

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