The Civil War officially began 150 years ago this month, with the attack on Ft. Sumter, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861. The first casualty of the war occurred two days later, after the Union troops surrendered. As a condition of the withdrawal, the Union soldiers were permitted to fire a 100-gun salute to the U.S. flag before it was lowered. A spark from the salute accidentally blew up a pile of ammunition, instantly killing a private named Daniel Hough.
Hough, the first of an estimated 620,000 soldiers to die in the conflict, was from New York State.
And that’s fitting, really. Even though no blood was ever shed on New York soil, the Empire State had perhaps the greatest influence on the war. Indeed, as the Union’s wealthiest and most populous state at the time, and arguably the intellectual center of the war’s major issues — abolition and secession — New York shouldered the biggest share of the burden. Many of the war’s most important figures, including William Seward, Harriet Tubman, John Brown, Fredrick Douglass, and Ulysses S. Grant, all lived in New York. The first state troops, the New York National Guard’s 7th Regiment, left New York City and entered the war just five days after Ft. Sumter fell. More than 200 New York infantry, cavalry, and artillery units soon followed. New York sent more soldiers, raised more money, and produced more supplies than any other state. And the state also suffered the most casualties: about 50,000 soldiers killed, countless injured.
A photo of the regiment’s 1888 reunion in Hudson
“When people ask, ‘What does New York have to do with the Civil War,’ I ask, ‘What does the U.S. have to do with World War II,’ ” says Robert Weible, state historian and chief curator of the New York State Museum in Albany. “No battles were fought here, except Pearl Harbor, but the U.S. was of course a critical part of that war. It is inconceivable that the Union could have won the war without New York.”
And that includes the Hudson Valley — despite our region’s mixed feelings about the war. Westchester and Putnam counties, for example, voted against Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 election (they were called “secessionists” in some newspapers), and it has been estimated that those counties’ citizens spent more than $4 million to hire substitutes in order to avoid the draft. There was dissension further north as well. While the most famous draft riots of 1863 occurred in New York City, another big riot took place that year in Troy.
Dutchess and Columbia counties, on the other hand, quickly answered President Lincoln’s call for volunteers after Ft. Sumter. The 20th New York Militia, known as the Ulster Guard, mustered at Kingston in September 1862. The 128th Infantry Regiment left Hudson in September; the 150th, from Poughkeepsie, joined the fray in October.
These regiments saw action, and often played critical roles in just about every major battle of the war in both the eastern and western theaters: Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg, Appomattox, the battles for Atlanta, and Sherman’s March to the Sea. Several New York regiments, including the 20th and 120th, were considered among the finest fighting units in the Union Army. Others, such as the 124th (from Orange County) and 125th (from Troy), suffered some of the highest casualties of the war.
Soldiers stand aboard the U.S.S. Monitor, which was armed with materials made in Troy
They also produced some local heroes. Col. George Watson Pratt, commander of the Ulster Guard, was actually from Greene County. Mortally wounded at the Second Battle of Bull Run on August 30, 1862, Col. Pratt died on September 11. He was “an exemplary citizen soldier,” says John Quinn, cochair of the Greene County Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee and a board member of the Zadock Pratt Museum in Prattsville. “He was a man of means, self-educated and highly respected, yet he gave it all up in service of his country.”
Col. David S. Cowles, a Yale-educated lawyer from Hudson, led the 128th under Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. Mortally wounded in June 1862, “he asked an aide to turn him to look at the Confederate Army, and said, ‘Tell my mother I died facing the enemy,’ ” Quinn says.
As for materiel, New York’s wartime production was “in high gear,” says Weible. The famed ironclad, the U.S.S. Monitor, was built in the then-high tech Brooklyn Naval Yards with armor made in Troy. The West Point Foundry was well-known for its manufacture of the Parrott gun, an accurate long-range weapon widely used by the Union army. “The Hudson Valley itself was mostly farmers, but there were also many tanneries that profited nicely from the war,” says Seward R. Osborne, a Civil War historian and author who lives in Olivebridge, Ulster County. But war profits hardly compensated for the astonishing loss of life and property. “No one came out of this war in better shape,” Osborne says. “It affected literally every family from every state. It was that big, and that devastating.”
And the aftereffects are still being felt in debates about civil rights, states’ rights, and the limits of federal power. That is perhaps the greatest good that can come from celebrating the sesquicentennial of such a horrific conflict, says Weible. “It’s a great opportunity to get people thinking about how they define freedom and how the issues of the war still resonate today.”
Michael Aikey, director of the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs, provides this accounting:
“One Nation” Civil War Exhibit Opening. Daughters of the American Revolution, Hendrick Hudson Chapter, Warren St., Hudson. E-mail for information
“Ashokan Civil War Days: Answering Lincoln’s Call” A Tribute to Hudson Valley’s Civil War Citizen Soldiers, and Armed Forces Appreciation Day (Sun.). The Ashokan Center, Olivebridge
May 26-Oct. 30
“Rally ’Round the Flag: Frederic Edwin Church and the Civil War.” Evelyn & Maurice Sharp Gallery at Olana Historic Site, Hudson
Greene County Civil War Sesquicentennial kick-off event: Civil War Proclamation Reading and Music Celebration. Greene County Courthouse, Catskill
Annual Civil War Heritage Music Gathering and Encampment Historic Center Church, Windham. 518-734-5655
Col. George W. Pratt Heritage Day. Pratt Museum, Prattsville