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Credit: Paul Irish 

The Hudson River Valley in the Civil War

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The American Civil War and the Hudson River Valley

"I had a ball past [sic] through my canteen one through my pail three or four holes through my coattail one through the seat of my trousers but nary scratch." -- Corporal William Howell, 124th New York1

"We came when the country first called, and now, when the country calls again, we should like to see some of those who advised and entreated us to come at the start, come out here themselves. . . . It sounds very well to tell people . . . to return with ball riddled flags but let some of the harpies themselves come out and get some of their own blood washed in the green grass and by their example lead those whom they are urging on to follow.-- W. H. Ingersall, 9th New York ("Hawkins' Fire Zouaves")2

It has become a commonplace of New York State history during the time of the American Civil War to suggest, as Edmund Wilson does in his introduction to The Civil War Stories of Harold Frederic, that the state, "played an apparently paradoxical role of supplying more soldiers for its population than any other state of the Union and at the same time putting up perhaps the strongest opposition to the Republican administration."3  This observation can be verified quite clearly in the role the citizens of the Hudson River Valley played during the conflict.  Westchester and Putnam counties, for example, were called "Secessionist" by numerous New York City newspapers when they voted against Lincoln in the 1860 election.  The lack of enthusiasm for the war can especially be seen when one considers the huge bounties offered in numerous Westchester and Putnam townships in order to lure young men to fulfill their duty once the draft began.  By the time of the draft in 1863, as many young men seemed to have shirked their duty as met it.  One historian estimated that over $4,000,000 were spent on bounties in Westchester alone, much of it spent on acquiring substitutes by those wishing to shield either themselves or their sons from the draft.  (Of 281 "volunteers" from Yorktown, for example, 148 were substitutes, many of whom were lured into the business from the slums and ghettoes of New York City.   Yet, the town would claim to have filled its quota.) 4

Farther north, however, in Dutchess and Columbia counties, the draft seemed to have been met with greater outward enthusiasm but with similar results in the end, this, despite the fact that Dutchess was considerably more Republican in its politics than its sister counties to the south.  Almost immediately after Lincoln's initial call to arms in 1861, for instance, Poughkeepsie -- like many similar communities throughout the north -- raised a company of volunteers.  These enthusiastic volunteers eventually served in the 30th New York as Company E.  Many familiar county families contributed sons and fathers to this initial spirit of patriotism: Bogardus, Van Wagner, Brinckerhoff among them.  In 1862, both the 150th and 128th New York would receive numerous volunteers from Dutchess County.  When the draft came on March 3rd of the following year, however, the problems of substitutes and "bounty jumpers" would prove equally deleterious to the patriotic spirit as it had in Putnam and Westchester.  Even in this staunchly Republican county, most of the conscripts "were exempt under the law, furnish[ing] substitutes or paid commutation."  As Wellington C. Lansing points out in his June 1929 Sunday Courier article, "Only one [conscript] actually entered the army from this city [Poughkeepsie]," despite the enthusiasm of the crowds -- and, ironically, of those conscripts whose names appeared on "Uncle Sam's Tickets" -- who had gathered to hear the names announced.5

Despite these mixed reactions to the war and Lincoln's administration, young men up and down the Hudson River Valley answered Lincoln's call to arms: the 120th ("Ulster Guard") mustered at Kingston in August 1862, the 124th (known as the "Orange Blossoms") mustered in Goshen on September 5, 1862, the 125th organized in Troy in late August, 1862, the 128th organized in Hudson on the same day as the 124th, the 150th, from Poughkeepsie, mustered in October of 1862, and so on.  Several of these regiments -- the 120th, 124th, 125th -- were included in Fox's "Three Hundred Fighting Regiments," a list indicating those regiments who suffered the most casualties in the war.6  Regiments from the Hudson River Valley participated in most of the major campaigns of the war, both in the Eastern and Western Theatres, including Fredericksburg, Chancellorseville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Appomattox, the battles for Atlanta, Sherman's March to the Sea, and Bentonville, among many others.  The Hudson Valley indeed paid a high price in its effort to help, initially, preserve the Union, and then, by default, to free the slaves.7

-Mark Morreale, Senior Lecturer of English, Marist College

NOTES

1 From Howell's letter to his mother, commenting upon his experiences at Chancellorsville, May 4, 1863.  Howell's letter first appeared in print in Carlos J. LaRocca's anthology This Regiment of Heroes: A Compilation of Primary Materials Pertaining to the 124th New York State Volunteers (1991), p. 124, reprinted in Stephen W. Sears, Chancellorsville (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996), p.342.

2 Colin T. Naylor, jr., Civil War Days in a Country Village (Peekskill, NY: Highland Press, 1961), pp. 79.

 

3 Edmund, Wilson, "Introduction," The Civil War Stories of Harold Frederic, Thomas F. O'Donnell, ed., (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 1992), p. xi.

4 Naylor, pp. 52, 80-81, 82. Another example from Cortlandtown further illustrates the problem: of 218 men called for, 145 were discharged -- 50 of whom never showed up --; of the remaining 73, 41 were substitutes and the remaining 32 paid the government $300 to gain an exemption from the service.

5 The above paragraph is a conflation of information from two separate Sunday Courier articles published a little over a decade apart.  I deem the first article, written by Wellington C. Lansing on June 2, 1929, entitled, "Mr. Lansing Writes of Stirring Times When Sons of Dutchess Took Their Place in Civil War" a bit more reliable; it tends to eschew some of the sentimentality that creeps into the latter article appearing, as it did, on the brink of war, September 8, 1940.  Even so, Helen Myers' latter article, entitled "Peter Shurter, Mill Street, First Poughkeepsian to Get One of Uncle Sam's 'Tickets'," is hard-pressed to account for the "public 'jollity'" of the occasion or, as she puts it, "the carnival spirit that afternoon" of the draft.

6 Fox includes some fifty-nine regiments from New York on his list.  The 120th of the famous "Excelsior Brigade" lost some 151 killed in the war, for example, while the "Orange Blossoms" lost 148 killed, including their colonel, A. Van Horne Ellis, at Gettysburg.  In addition, the 124th could boast five Medal of Honor winners.

 

7 Most Union soldiers at the time would probably have echoed the sentiments of Richard T. Van Wyck of the 150th New York Volunteer Regiment.  In a letter to Mr. Robert Johnston, dated March 10, 1863, he says the following: "Then comes the Negro question and the Proclamation with almost the whole soldiery opposed, including some of the officers.  This however is merely a pretext for the homesick, though they are willing to fight for the Constitution, but not for the Negro now (as they term it)."   Richard T. Van Wyck, "A War to Petrify the Heart": The Civil War Letters of a Dutchess County, N.Y. Volunteer, ed. Virginia Hughes Kaminsky (Hensonville, N.Y.: East Fishkill Historical Society-Black Dome Press, 1997), p. 76.

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