It’s guaranteed that you’re going to enjoy this, another unique North Country link to the Civil War. It sounds like something culled from the pages of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, and begs the question: what the heck are the odds of that happening?
Though I can’t answer the question, I do recall that in my former employment, it was notable when three men all having the same first name worked in the same department. So what can you say about “The One-Legged Jims,” a group of three Civil War veterans? Read more →
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.
The historic Depot Theatre in Westport on Lake Champlain will celebrate its 33rd year with a new managing director, a new volunteer guild and four shows for the 2012 season. The popular professional theatre company was founded in 1979 by Carol Buchanan, former President of the Westport Historical Society, which maintained stewardship over the historic Westport train station. The Historical Society saw the potential for cultural activity in the partially renovated D & H Railroad station, and turned first to a Wednesday Night Bingo game to reach the goal. In 1985, the Depot Theatre stepped out from under the Historical Society’s umbrella to become its own separate not-for-profit entity (the theatre company turned professional in 1988 under an agreement with Actors’ Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers. In 2006, the Depot Theatre also became a member of the Theatre Communications Group, the national organization for professional, non-profit theaters.
Since 1979, the Depot Theatre has produced over 170 plays in its handicap accessible, 136 seat performance space (the former D&H freight room, now fully air conditioned.) In 1995, the Depot Theatre was recognized with a Park Heritage Award from the Adirondack Council and in 2000 with an Adirondack Architectural Heritage Award which recognized major renovation and restoration work to the historical building.
Though Delaware and Hudson is no longer in operation, AMTRAK continues to service rail passengers on the Adirondack Line between NYC and Montreal. The Westport stop is a gateway to the Adirondack Park, and the train station and the Theatre have developed a unique partnership to keep this historical space maintained – the Depot Theatre serves as steward of the historical site.
The Depot has launched a national search to replace outgoing managing director Chris Casquilho who is moving to Ogden, Utah with his family to work for Weber State University.
The Board of Trustees has said it’s approaching this leadership transition as an opportunity to realign operations to focus on the Depot’s long range plan. “We’re looking for an individual who can help grow the operating budget in order to nurture our commitment to exploring new work alongside the canon of American Theatre,” explained Artistic Director Shami McCormick, whose involvement spans the organization’s history. The annual operating budget recently ranges between $300,000 and $350,000, but McCormick is says there is room and demand for growth.
“There’s something quite magical about being behind the scenes in a live theatre atmosphere,” said Kim Rielly, board trustee. “And in 2012, we plan to ramp up our Volunteer Guild, with new opportunities for community members to take a real hands-on role in the operation of our hometown Theatre, and earn some great perks to go along with it.”
The 2012 season will feature four main stage shows including a Country/Blues Love Story, a fast-paced comedy, a 1950‘s musical with classic favorites, a funny story of five full-figured women racing to meet nearly impossible production deadlines, plus a full season’s worth of mid-week and special events.
For more information, season subscriptions, tickets and a complete schedule, contact the Box Office at 518.962.4449 or visit depottheatre.org.
The Adirondack Center for Writing presents author and historian Colin Wells in their annual Reading Series. The series hosts writers and poets from the North Country at local venues to share their recent work. Wells’ talk is titled “Potty Humor and History: The Strange Friendship of Nicolo Machiavelli and Francesco Guicciardini” and will explore Nicolo Machiavelli’s friendship with the “first modern historian.” He will speak on September 16th at 7pm at The Whallonsburg Grange Hall in Whallonsburg, NY. The event is FREE and open to the public. Colin Wells has been interested in history since his undergraduate days at UCLA, and has published widely, from Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Changed the World, to The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Saudi Arabia. Reviewing Sailing from Byzantium, the American Library Association’s Booklist said, “Wells brings vividly to life this history of a long-lost era and its opulent heritage.” His most recent book is called A Brief History of History: Great Historians and the Epic Quest to Explain the Past. The book brings together evocative sketches of the great historians with concise summaries of their most important works. Wells demonstrates how brilliant minds have changed our understanding of history, how history itself moved forward over time as a way of approaching the past, and why “history” is a startlingly fluid concept, with an evolutionary course–a story–all its own.
In addition to works of popular history, Wells has published a children’s mystery titled Stick Like Glue and is working on a new book called The Invention of God: The Origins of Faith in the Rise of Reason. He lives with his two Samoyeds and a crew of cats in Westport, where he writes for the local paper.
The Reading Series will also feature novelist Steve Stern in Glen Falls, NY on August 26 and poet Jay Rogoff on September 21st at the Saratoga Arts Center.
The Adirondack Center for Writing is an independent non-profit, 501(c)3 organization dedicated to promoting literature and providing educational opportunities and support to both aspiring and established writers in the Adirondack region. We provide workshops, conferences, and readings throughout the year in locations all around the Adirondack Park. ACW is based at Paul Smith’s College and is supported by a strong membership and public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency.