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  • May 30, 2014 at 8:22 pm

    “Have a Happy Memorial Day” the friend said, as he took his leave. Something about that phrase, heard for the first time, gave me pause for thought. We were sitting by the curb, waiting for the parade to begin. Happy anticipation was certainly evident all around us. Free balloons, friendly greetings from passers-by, a delightful spring day. Soon the bands, the kids’ sports teams and finally the fire trucks would pass by us, and the clowns throwing candy. What not to like?
    Something is wrong, I thought. Perhaps Memorial Day shouldn’t be happy. Perhaps Memorial Day should be a day of solemn fasting, when citizens visit the church of their choice, or at least visit the local cemetery of their choice. This is what they did a century ago. Fat chance of that happening now.
    My musings were prompted by the fact that 150 years ago, the nation was finally beginning to end the struggle which would kill an estimated two percent of its population – 620,000 young Americans. General Ulysses S. Grant had taken control of all the armies of the United States, and his strategy was to attack everywhere, at the same time. He would be called a “butcher.” He was blamed for the failures of other generals. He confronted strong enemy fortifications. Most importantly, he faced General Robert E. Lee, one of our nation’s most skilled and daring generals.
    I recalled that on June third, 1864, men from Albany County faced their Golgotha, waiting for them across that open level field, in the early morning mist. How many in the happy throng about me knew that “The Albany County Regiment,” the 7th New York Heavy Artillery, achieved one of the great feats of arms of the Civil War. And suffered one of the highest casualty lists as a result.
    Faced with seven miles of enemy entrenchments, Grant reasoned that a dawn attack, by three army corps concentrated on the southern end of that line, would give him the breakthrough he needed. In all that three corps, over thirty thousand men, the regiment closest to the enemy was the Seventh.
    The Seventh had had an easy war. Their duty was to man the forts that surrounded Washington DC, protecting the Capital. They spent their time polishing things and drilling. They slept in beds, ate in a mess hall, and even went into town on a Saturday night.
    On May 15th 1864, they had been ordered from their settled routine and sent to the front, to replace the severe casualties of the first two weeks of the campaign. During the next two weeks they had seen scattered actions, but nothing to prepare them for an all out assault against the well dug in veterans of the 26thVirginia.
    The Seventh led the charge. Confident in their numbers, their officers and their cause, they pushed on through the bullets, and overran the enemy trenches. That rare event, a hand to hand fight, saw bayonets and musket butts used as weapons. They turned the captured cannon around, to shoot at the fleeing “rebels.” They looked over their shoulders to see who was coming to help them hold their ground. No one.
    Confederates on either side of the penetration recovered from their surprise and now could fire across the open and level plain in the daylight. Veteran Yankee units following up the charge fell to the ground, and started to dig in. Now the Albany men had a hard choice to make: retreat across that bullet swept field, or surrender and spend much of the remainder of the war living in a hole in the ground inside a Confederate prison stockade.
    The Seventh lost three color bearers shot down, but Corporal Terrence Begley captured the flag of the Virginians. He was posthumously award the Medal of Honor. Also captured was Colonel Edgar of the Virginians, so swiftly had the Yankees entered the earthworks and overwhelmed the defenders.
    In fact, the entire action, from cresting the earthworks to the start of the retreat, was estimated to last only between ten and twenty minutes. “The whole thing seemed to pass like a skyrocket,” later wrote Lieutenant Colonel Derrick of the 23rd Virginians.
    In that quarter hour at Cold Harbor, Virginia, the Albany County Regiment suffered by recent estimate, 422 casualties. Eighty four men were killed outright. Two hundred and sixty one were wounded. Probably forty or so of these were mortally wounded. Seventy seven men were captured. Probably a third of these died in captivity. (In their six months of war, the Seventh lost 2 officers and 214 men dead in Rebel prisons.)
    What catastrophe today, could possibly kill eighty four Albany county men in twenty minutes?
    “Happy Memorial Day.” I don’t want to be a Grinch. I’m all in favor of parades and happy children. But I can’t agree that that is the appropriate greeting for a day honoring the nation’s war dead of all our wars – 1,321,612 men and women.

    For further information:
    An accurate, comprehensive portal to Civil War topics.
    Turned Inside Out, by Frank Wilkeson
    A vivid eyewitness account by a local teen age cannoneer in Albany’s 11th Independent Battery.
    Carnival of Blood, the Civil War Ordeal of the Seventh New York Heavy Artillery by Robert Keating
    This local author has written one of the best of regimental histories of recent times.
    Cold Harbor, Grant and Lee May 26-June 3, 1864 by Gordon C. Rhea
    Authoritative, well researched, in depth account by a historian of Grant’s campaigns in Virginia.
    The CWPT website above has a contemporary image by newspaper artist Alfred Waud, of the 7th inside the Confederate entrenchments. This should be copy-right free for your use.


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