Category Archives: Military History

Westchesters Civil War Monuments: The Kneeling Angel

Ossining Kneeling MonumentIn the late 19th and early 20th centuries states, counties, cities, towns and villages all across America erected thousands of commemorative statues, monuments, tablets and other memorials to honor their citizens who served in the American Civil War of 1861-1865. Additionally monuments that are national in scope such as those like Antietam and Gettysburg and in the nation’s capital city were constructed. There is even a memorial monument in Edinburgh, Scotland dedicated to the Scots who fought in the Union Army. It is exceptional as it is the only American Civil War memorial outside of the United States. Continue reading

Request for Pictures of Ulster County Veterans

Friends of Senate House are seeking pictures of Ulster County’s veterans and active duty military to use in their holiday decorations at the Loughran House located on the grounds of the Senate House Historic Site.

The front room of the Victorian Italianate-style home will be decorated in a military theme, and the volunteers will decorate the tree (the largest one in the house), with the pictures they receive. Volunteers will copy and mount the pictures as ornaments which will list the name of the service member, their military branch and dates of service. Continue reading

Fort Ticonderoga: The 3-D Movie

The terms “North Country” and “world premiere” haven’t mingled very often, but May 8, 1953 was one notable exception. It all had to do with Fort Ti, but not the one we’re all familiar with. This was Fort Ti, the movie, and it was special for several reasons. Continue reading

Thomas Symons: A Noted Western Engineer

In 1847, Thomas Symons operated a book bindery in the village of Keeseville, offering ledgers, journals, receipt books, and similar products. Rebinding of materials was much in demand in those days, a service that helped expand his clientele. While Thomas, Sr., was successful in building a business, his son, Thomas, Jr., would play an important role in building a nation.

Thomas William Symons, Jr., was a Keeseville native, born there in 1849. When he was a few years old, the family moved to Flint, Michigan, where several members remained for the rest of their lives. His younger twin brothers, John and Samuel, operated Symons Brothers & Company, the second largest wholesale firm in the state. They became two of Michigan’s most prominent men in social, political, and business circles.

Thomas chose a different route, completing school and applying to the US Military Academy at West Point. After acceptance, he proved to be no ordinary student, graduating at the top of the Class of 1874. He was promoted to Second Lieutenant, Corps of Engineers, and served at Willett’s Point, about 50 miles south of West Point. After two years, he was ready for some field work, and his timing couldn’t have been better.

Symons was assigned to join the Wheeler Expedition under fellow West Point alumnus George Wheeler. The travels of explorers Lewis and Clark and Zeb Pike are better known, but the Wheeler Expedition is one of four that formed the nucleus of the US Geological Survey’s founding.

The engineers, Symons among them, not only explored, but recorded details of their findings. The land encompassing Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, and Utah was surveyed using triangulation, and more than 70 maps were created. Their studies on behalf of America’s government produced volumes on archaeology, astronomy, botany, geography, paleontology, and zoology. The possibilities of roads, railroads, agriculture, and settlement were addressed.

The experience Thomas gained during this work was invaluable. In 1878, he was promoted to First Lieutenant. In 1879, Symons was appointed Engineer Officer of the Department of the Columbia, and was promoted to captain in 1880. Similar to the work he had done under Wheeler, Thomas was now in charge of studying the area referred to as the “Inland Empire of the Pacific Northwest,” focusing on the upper Columbia River and its tributaries.

Much of the land was wilderness, and the job was not without danger. The American government was notorious for breaking treaties with Indians, and groups of surveyors in the region were driven off by angry natives who said they had never sold the rights to their land.

Symons was a surveyor, but he was also an officer of the military. Leading a company of the 21st Infantry from Portland, Oregon, into Washington, he faced off against 150 armed warriors. The situation was potentially disastrous, but Thomas listened to the concerns of the Indians, learning their histories and beliefs. Bloodshed was avoided as Symons skillfully negotiated a truce, allowing him to survey from the Snake River north to the Canadian border, unimpeded.

Much of the upper Columbia study was conducted in a small boat carrying Symons, two soldiers, and several Indians. His report provided details of the region’s geology and history, a review so thorough that it was published as a congressional document. Combined with his earlier surveys of Oregon, it made Symons the government’s number one man in the Northwest.

Whether or not his superiors agreed with him, Symons addressed the Indians’ issues in prominent magazine articles, sympathizing with their plight. Few knew the situation better than Thomas, and he freely expressed his opinions.

Besides exploring and mapping the Northwest, he chose locations for new army outposts, built roads, and carried out military duties. He also became a prominent citizen of Spokane, purchasing land from the Northern Pacific Railroad and erecting the Symons Building, a brick structure containing commercial outlets and housing units. (A third rendition of the Symons Block remains today an important historical building in downtown Spokane.)

Thomas’ proven abilities led to a number of important assignments. In 1882, he was placed on the Mississippi River Commission, taking charge of improvements on the waterway. In 1883, the Secretary of State asked Symons to lead the US side of the joint boundary commission redefining the border with Mexico. Surveying, checking and replacing border markers, and other work was conducted while averaging 30 miles per day on rough ground in intense heat. For his efforts, Thomas received formal thanks from the State Department.

He was then sent to Washington, D.C., where he worked for six years on city projects, principally the water supply, sewage system, and pavements. He also developed complete plans for a memorial bridge (honoring Lincoln and Grant) connecting Washington to Arlington, Virginia. (A modified version was built many years later.)

Symons’ next assignment took him back to familiar territory, the Northwest. Based in Portland, he was given charge of developing river and harbor facilities in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington. He did primary engineering work on canals, including one in Seattle that remains a principal feature of the city, and planned the tideland areas for Ballard, Seattle, and Tacoma harbors. Seattle’s present railroad lines and manufacturing district were included in planning for the famed harbor facilities.

On the Pacific coast, Thomas’ work on the world-renowned jetty works at the mouth of the Columbia River was featured in Scientific American magazine. He also provided the War Department with surveys and estimates for harbor construction at Everett, Washington.

Next week: Even bigger and better things, including historic work in New York State.

Photos: Thomas Williams Symons, engineer- Modern version of the Symons Block in Spokane, Washington.Lawrence Gooley has authored 11 books and more than 100 articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 24 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.

Trail to Mark Historic March From Fort Miller to Bennington

In August of 1777, German Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Baum found himself in a precaurious position as his dismounted cavalry trudged through an unfamiliar wilderness – on a continent seperated by the Altlantic Ocean from their European homes – accompanied by British marksmen, layalists, and Native Americans of uncertain discipline.

Speaking in only his native tongue, unfamiliar with war in the wilderness, wary of the rebels’ determination and having no understanding of the landscape that lay between him and his goal, Baum departed from Fort Miller to capture stores at Bennington. So begins the saga of “The Road to Walloomsac.” Continue reading

A Treacherous Beauty Behind Benedict Arnold

Treacherous Beauty: The Woman Behind Benedict Arnold’s Plot to Betray America by Stephen Case and Mark Jacob (Globe Pequot, 2012) is the biography of Peggy Shippen, a Philadelphia society girl who became Mrs. Benedict Arnold and was involved in the most notorious treason in American history. When the plot was discovered, Peggy cleverly deflected blame. More than a century after her death, documents were discovered showing that she was a conspirator. But Peggy’s story remains little known today.

The granddaughter of a Philadelphia mayor, Peggy was 17 when the British army occupied her city. She became friends with John Andre, a handsome British officer. Then, when the patriots retook Philadelphia, Peggy was courted by the city’s top military man, General Benedict Arnold, who was considered the best battlefield commander in George Washington’s army but had been grievously wounded at Saratoga. Peggy was 18 and Arnold was 37 when they married. A month later, they began secretly communicating with the British, offering to commit treason. The British officer who handled the negotiations was Peggy’s old friend, Andre.

Ultimately, the Arnolds settled on a plan to surrender the vital outpost of West Point to the British and arrange the capture of thousands of troops – and perhaps even Washington himself. But Andre was captured behind enemy lines, and the plot unraveled. Arnold fled to the British, leaving Peggy behind to care for their infant son and convince the Founding Fathers that she was innocent. She put on one of the greatest performances in American history – a hysterical episode known as the “Mad Scene” that convinced Washington and the others that this highly intelligent woman was oblivious to the plot.

Andre was hanged as a spy. Peggy rejoined Arnold and eventually moved to London. Later they tried to settle in Canada, but Arnold’s business disputes ruined their chances. Peggy spent her last years in England trying desperately to keep her family afloat despite her husband’s financial recklessness. She succeeded in raising five children of the British Empire, four of them soldiers. Peggy died of cancer at age 44, and demanded the most modest burial possible. A keepsake was found among her effects: a lock of hair from John Andre.

Stephen H. Case is managing director and general counsel of Emerald Development Managers LP. He is a member of the board of the American Revolution Center. Mark Jacob, deputy metro editor at the Chicago Tribune, was part of the team that won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism. To satisfy his personal curiosity, Case has made himself an expert in the Peggy Shippen story, reading all available histories that examine her story and tracking down Peggy’s letters at various repositories of historical manuscript.

Mark Jacob, deputy metro editor at the Chicago Tribune, was part of the team that won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism. He is co-author of the newspaper’s “10 Things You Might Not Know” feature. He has co-written four other books, including What the Great Ate.

Note: Books noticed on this site have been provided by the publishers. Purchases made through this Amazon link help support this site.

AJ Schenkman: The Hasbrouck Ledger

One of the problems in researching the life of Colonel Jonathan Hasbrouck is that there are so few primary sources written by him left to us. We are fortunate that at least one of the treasures that give us a peek into his life, one of his account ledgers, has been preserved. It is a rich source for a researcher of not only Hasbrouck, but of others from his time period as well.

Colonel Jonathan Hasbrouck was born in 1722 in Ulster County just outside of New Paltz, New York. He later relocated in 1749 to what would become Newburgh, where his mother Elsie Schoonmaker purchased 99 acres of land.
Continue reading

Fenimore Lunch Lecture Series Spotlights New Exhibits

Food for Thought, the popular lunch-and-lecture series at the Fenimore Art Museum, offers an in-depth understanding of the museum’s new exhibitions, including Tasha Tudor, G.C. Myers, and New York in the Civil War.

All Food for Thought programs are held on Wednesday from 12:30-2:30 pm at the Fenimore Art Museum. The museum offers two discounts: NYSHA members receive $5 off. Register for three or more Food for Thought programs at once, receive $2 off.
September 12: In Plain Sight: Hidden Gems of Native American Open Storage

Join Eva Fognell, Thaw Collection Curator, as she offers a behind-the-scenes look at the museum’s Study Center, which houses open storage of the Thaw Collection of American Indian Art. Appreciate the extraordinary range of art produced by North America’s first artists, including ritual objects, ceremonial clothing, pottery, and basketry.

September 19: Artist and Visionary: William Matthew Prior Revealed

Learn about America’s most prominent folk artist as Paul D’Ambrosio, President and CEO, explores the William Matthew Prior exhibition (on display through December 31).

October 10: On the Home Front: New York in the Civil War

Join John Hart, Assistant Curator of Collections, as he shares Civil War artifacts from the On the Home Front exhibition. Objects tell us so much about the past and the history of those who made and used them. Learn about New York State and its place in the American Civil War through lively discussion.

October 17: Tasha Tudor Around the Year

Come for a heart-warming discussion and tour of Tasha Tudor Around the Year, an exhibition from the Norman Rockwell Museum. This exhibition illuminates beloved author and illustrator Tasha Tudor and stirs the imagination through the artist’s iconic art and greeting cards. Co-curator Jeanette Chandler Knazek reflects on the changing seasons and special celebrations as depicted by Tudor.

October 24: Oral Histories of New York’s Farm Women

Professor William Walker of the Cooperstown Graduate Program plays excerpts from oralhistory interviews with women who have lived and worked on farms in central New York State. Using recordings available on the website CGP Community Stories, Dr. Walker leads a discussion of the varied experiences of women in the agricultural heartland of the state.

November 7: Internal Landscapes: The Paintings of G.C. Myers

Guest curator Gary C. Myers joins us in a discussion and tour of his contemporary exhibition, InternalLandscapes. Learn first-hand from the artist in this amazing exhibition of paintings that provide moments of stillness and encourage reflection and a renewed sense of purpose.

November 14: Flags, Uniforms, and Insignia: New York State Material Culture of the Civil War
Ted Shuart, printing supervisor at The Farmers’ Museum and re-enactor with the 125th New York State Volunteer Infantry, discusses flags, uniforms and insignia of New York troops during the Civil War. Learn about New York State’s wartime history while looking at objects from the period and understand what they tell us about one of the most tumultuous times in American history.

Pricing Information: Lunch and lecture fee – $20 members/$25 non-members. Register for three or more Food for Thought programs at once and receive a discounted price of $18 members/$23 non-members per program. Call (607) 547-1461 with questions regarding pricing or the cancellation policy.

Battle of Plattsburgh: Countdown to Invasion (Sept 11)

On September 11, 1814, the American and British naval squadrons on Lake Champlain engage in a long awaited duel to the death, culminating in a decisive American victory.

Owing to the masterful strategic planning of Commodore Thomas Macdonough, the American fleet is able to defend Plattsburgh Bay and defeat the Royal Navy following a fierce 2 1/2 hour battle, the largest of the entire War.

On land, the British commander, General Sir George Prevost makes a monumental blunder when he allows his troops to wait for an hour before commencing the land attack while they finish breakfast. What should have been a simultaneous naval and land assault became delayed and although Prevost’s ground forces succeed in crossing the Saranac River at Pike’s Cantonment, a mile and a half above Plattsburgh, by this time, the naval battle had been decided.

Believing his forces could not hold Plattsburgh without naval superiority on the Lake, Prevost quickly issued orders to his commanders to withdraw. This order was met with shock and frustration by his veteran Generals, who clearly knew a land victory over the meager American Army and Militia was easily within their grasp…-The grand British master plan of invasion from the north had been halted at Plattsburgh.

This Battle of Plattsburgh Countdown to Invasion fact is brought to you by the Greater Adirondack Ghost and Tour Company. If you enjoyed this fascinating snippet of North Country history, find them on Facebook

North Countrys Union General H. Judson Kilpatrick

H. Judson Kilpatrick, a Union general during the Civil War, has been described as flamboyant, rash, and tempestuous. There’s no doubt that he was often a rogue officer, sometimes to disastrous effect. The South developed a deep hatred of him for the extreme methods he employed, but he was certainly part of the team effort that led to the North’s victory.

As every leader knew during the war, many levels of support were necessary in order to win. Despite being brash and confident in his abilities, Kilpatrick famously cited a North Country man, Captain John Viall, as critical to the general’s own success, and the Union’s as well.

John Greeley Viall, son of William and Mary Viall, was born in November 1829 in Westport, New York, on the western shore of Lake Champlain. In January 1852, when he was 22 years old, John left New York and settled in Texas. Nine months later, he purchased the San Antonio Tin, Copper, and Sheet Iron Ware Manufactory, which sold and/or fabricated stoves, cookware, water pipes, and just about anything made of metal.

Texas was still wild territory, having attained statehood just seven years earlier. Viall maintained contacts in Westport, and in a letter home in 1854, he described San Antonio as in “a state of intense excitement.” Several families had been killed by Indians, while others were scalped and left for dead in disputes along the state’s border. Viall had chosen a tough place to make a living.

In 1858, six years after he purchased the metal manufactory, the business failed. Viall returned to the North Country, where he became involved in politics. That same year, he was among the delegates to the convention in Springfield, Illinois, where Abraham Lincoln was nominated to succeed Stephen Douglass in the US Senate.

On September 17, 1861, several months after the outbreak of hostilities between North and South, Viall enlisted at Crown Point. For three years following induction, he served as a private, second lieutenant, first lieutenant, and captain of Company H, Fifth New York Cavalry.

From that point (July 1864) forward, John served as captain and assistant quartermaster of volunteers until his honorable discharge in November 1865. Those final 16 months of service prompted General Kilpatrick to offer high praise for Quartermaster Viall, a man burdened with tremendous responsibility.

The duties of the quartermaster were remarkably varied, deeply complex, and absolutely critical to victory. The Quartermaster Review of 1928 noted that the success of all military operations relied on the promptness and efficiency of the quartermaster.

That may sound like an exaggerated assessment of any position, but consider the Review’s description of what the job entailed during the Civil War.

“The quartermaster’s department is charged with the duty of providing the means of transportation by land and water for all the troops and all the material of war. It furnishes the horses for artillery and cavalry- supplies tents, garrison equippage, forage, lumber, and all materials for camps- builds barracks, hospitals, wagons, and ambulances- provides harness, except for artillery horses- builds or charters ships and steamers, docks and wharves- constructs or repairs roads, bridges, and railroads- clothes the army- and is charged generally with the payment of all expenses attending military operations which are not expressly assigned by law or regulation to some other department.

“… wagonmasters, agents, teamsters, scouts, and spies, all … come under the supervision and pay of the quartermaster. He must … anticipate every want of the army.

“The quartermaster … builds the warehouses at every post- repairs, refits, and furnishes all houses and offices for army use- provides all hardware and building material (nails, glass, rope, etc.) and all the machinery used- fits up hospitals for the sick- and furnishes coffins for the dead.

“He pays the mileage of officers- expenses of courts-martial, per-diem of extra-duty men- postage on public service- expenses incurred in pursuing and apprehending deserters- burials of officers and soldiers, interpreters, veterinary surgeons, clerks, mechanics, laborers, and cooks.”

For General H. Judson Kilpatrick, one of the roughest, gruffest, most controversial men in the Union army, Viall provided those services better than any of the hundreds of men who undertook them for the Union cause. The general bestowed lasting glory on him with the oft-quoted pronouncement: “John Viall is the best quartermaster in the Army of the Potomac.”

Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, the top man in the department, urged Viall to remain in the army at war’s end (ill health forced him to leave the service). Meigs himself was cited as indispensable to the Union cause by Secretary of State Seward. Clearly, Meigs’ assessment of Viall’s value was the highest of commendations.

Though working as quartermaster was the hallmark of his career, Viall did much more on the Union’s behalf, complementing a family history of stellar military service. His grandfather had fought in the Revolutionary War, “from Bunker Hill to Yorktown,” and his father had served in the War of 1812.

Impressive, for sure, but Viall’s own field experience took a back seat to none. He fought in the battles of Fredericksburg, Second Bull Run, Gettysburg, Appomattox Court House, Richmond, and dozens of others.

Throughout the remainder of his life, Viall consistently supported the military, though he struggled for reciprocation from the government. His health had suffered badly from the war, and when the military pension program was instituted in 1890, Viall began receiving $12 per month (equal to $300 in 2012).

A request for increased benefits due to stomach, kidney, and liver problems was rejected in 1892 (he was 63 at the time). Another rejection followed in 1900, even though a board of surgeons found him “totally disabled by reason of indigestion, enlarged prostate, and age.”

Finally, in 1907, the House of Representatives looked at Viall’s entire record from the Civil War. His great service was noted, leading up to a physical breakdown “from exposure and hardships in the West Virginia campaign.” Upon recovery, he had been “promoted to division quartermaster, and at the close of the war was acting quartermaster for the cavalry corps.” In retrospect, it was recognized that his efforts for the Union cause had been truly heroic.

A physician’s affidavit informed lawmakers of Viall’s current condition: “… the beneficiary is totally unable to perform any kind of manual or clerical labor due to general physical and mental debility, imperfect heart action, and senile decay.

“Other proof filed shows that the officer, owing to unfortunate financial ruin, has now nothing to live upon except the small pension of $12 per month, which is totally inadequate to maintain him. In consideration of the officer’s meritorious services for the period of four years, his great age, total inability to labor, and destitution, an increase of his pension to $24 per month is believed to be warranted.”

By an official Act of Congress on February 25, 1907, his pension was increased to $24 (equal to $575 per month in 2011).

Six years later, on September 1, 1913, John Greeley Viall—Westport nat
ive, loyal soldier, and among the best supply men to support the Union troops—died in Washington at the age of 85. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.

Photos:  Captain’s medal of John Greeley Viall- Major General H. Judson Kilpatrick.Lawrence Gooley has authored 11 books and dozens of articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 24 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.