IN WEST FARMS SOLDIER
CEMETERY OF 6 CIVIL WAR
VETS REMAINS REMOVED
FROM HART ISLAND
On the Sunday before Memorial Day 1916, the remains of a half dozen Civil War veterans were removed from a special separate section of Hart Island Potter's Field (where they had rested more than 40 years). They were transported to West Farms Soldier Cemetery on the Bronx mainland where they were reburied. The event was attended by suitable ceremonies witnessed by more than 1,000 people.
Purchased by NYC in 1868 chiefly to be used as a Potters Field for unclaimed dead, Hart Island not long afterwards developed its separate small section of individual veterans graves within the larger burial grounds of common plots.
This "cemetery within a cemetery" emerged because many Civil War veterans had become patients or inmates in the institutions run by the NYC Department of Public Charities and Correction which also operated Potter's Field. In some cases, when they died, no one claimed their bodies for burial.
Retired General James Bowen, then president of the NYC Board of Public Charities and Correction, addressed the issue in the agency's 1869 report under the headling:
"There is a large number of volunteer soldiers in the late war, citizens of New York, who, from infirmities caused by exposure in the field, are unable to obtain a livelihood.
"Many of them have been compelled to apply to the Department for support.
"To such as are unmarried, the Commissioners have assigned the east wing of the Inebriate Asylum, where they are organized in squads and perform such light labor as their wounds and infirmities will permit."
The department's 1870 annual report, explained the situation in more detail:
"The condition of many of the volunteer soldiers who served in maintaining the Union during the late rebellion is deplorable.
"Large numbers of them are unable to work because of disease contracted by exposure in the field, and are without pensions, while others who receive pensions for lost arms and legs have families dependent on them.
"The General [federal] Government has established hospitals in Maine and Ohio, but, if the soldier avail himself of the relief they afford, he is deprived of his pension and separated from his family for whom the pension may be the sole means of support.
"There have been received at the Soldiers' Retreat during the year, 511 soldiers, and there were there on 1st January, 251."
In the Jan. 1, 1871 report on the Soliders' Retreat to the Public Charities and Correction Commissioners by the asylum's resident physician, Dr. Alexander S. Doherty described the loose quasi-military routine -- bugle calls, daily inspections, light work details under "sergeants," monthly furloughs, etc.
The doctor gave the following numerical counts:
Deaths among the Soldiers' Retreat residents were likely a factor in development of what became known as the "Soldiers' Plot," the seperate burial yard of individual Civil War veteran graves within the larger cemetery where covered-over trenches each accommodated 150 or so coffins of the city's unclaimed dead.
There is reason believe that, while Hart Island was in use as a Union military base during the Civil War years, the remains of some who died on it were buried in it. The report of the federal inspector of national cemeteries, Major Oscar Mack, on his Sept. 2, 1870 inspection of Cypress Hills National Cemetery, which opened in 1862, noted:
"The burials were made from the general hospitals near New York; and bodies were removed from Hart's and David's Islands, in Long Island Sound, and from the soldiers' burial-ground near Providence, Rhode Island."
At some point prior to 1877, the Reno Post No. 44 of the Grand Army of Republic, a Civil War veterans organization, began making the City Cemetery's Soldiers' Plot on Hart Island a regular destination for memorial rites.
Hart Island Warden Lawrence Dunphy, in his report to the Commissioners for the year 1876, noted:
"A separate plot is designated for the reception of deceased soldiers; 12 bodies are already buried therein, and each grave is provided with a head board showing the name, age and date of death. Post Reno of the Grand Army of the Republic visited here on the 21st of June and decorated these 12 graves with a select quantity of flowers, etc."
Those two 1876 annual report sentences do not make clear whether the Reno Post's grave decorations at the Soldiers' Plot had begun that year. However, an entire section in the annual report for the preceding year, 1875, made clear that the Soldiers' Retreat as such had ended:
Four statistical tables accompanied the 1875 annual report on the shutdown of the Soldiers' Retreat. Click a table image below to see a larger version for easier reading. Use your browser's "back" button to return here:
In his report to the PC&C Commissioners dated Dec. 31, 1877, Hart Island Warden Dunphy provided details on the installation of the monument shaft installed in the "Soldiers' Plot" of the City Cemetery aka Potter's Field:
"By a resolution of your Honorable Board, dated April 25th, I was instructed to locate and prepare a stone foundation for a monument in 'Soldier's Plot,' in accordance with drawings and specifications.
"On the 30th May (Decoration Day) the Post, accompanied by Major-General Henry C. Barnum, Major Bullard, Captain H. C. Perley, and a number of invited guests, prominent among whom was the President of the Department of Public Charities and Correction Thomas S. Brennan, Esq., proceeded to the Cemetery.
"The monument, being unveiled, was presented by Major Bullard, on behalf of Reno Post No. 44, G. A. R., to President Brennan, who accepted the same in the name of the Commissioners of Charities and Correction. The graves were decorated with a profusion of choice flowers, and an oration suitable to the occasion, delivered by General Barnum, closed the exercises of the day.
"While the monument adorns the Cemetery, it is also a proof that these brave soldiers are not forgotten by their comrades and friends, who by their presence showed respect and honor for the defenders of their country.
G.A. R. Remo Post 44, that unveiled the oberlisk on Memorial Day 1877, was undoubtedly the prime mover behind its being erected, but the actual installation was carried out by the New York City Army Reserves. Until the Reno Post's own members passed away, they faithfully held Memorial Day services every year at the Civil War graveyard within Potter's Field. Later the Reno Camp of the Sons of Union Veterans continued the tradition.
But over time it acquired the character of a graveyard for soldiers and former soldiers, beginning with its first burial in 1815 -- that of a local Adams family member who had fought in the War of 1812. Another War of 1812 local warrior buried there was Captain John Butler of the Second Light Dragoons.
Because so many of the men in the area had served in the military during the nation's wars, and because their families would visit the little cemetery to decorate the soldiers' and veterans' graves on holidays, the graveyard often took on the appearance of a national cemetery. It became the focus of community observances remembering and honoring those who had served their country.
In due course, a community committee took over running the cemetery as a soldiers' burial ground and actively sought to bury the remains of those veterans who might otherwise be interred in Potter's Field, albeit in a special section within that City Cemetery on Hart Island.
In fact, for years the West Farms Memorial Park Society members had sought to arrange disinterment of all in Potter's Field "Soldiers' Plot" and their reburial in the mainland Bronx "Soldiers' Cemetery. But the funds raised as of 1916 would permit disinterment and reinterment of only the half dozen. The society said it regarded the removal and reburial of the six as simply "a successful first effort."
Fidelity, the steamer that had left Hart Island with the six coffins, docked at 132nd St., East River, at 9:30 a.m. A police patrol board had provided escort. The Public Charities and Correction steamer was met by a New York National Guard detachment from the 2nd Battery. The coffins were placed on individual caissons.
The National Guard Second Battery pallbearers and several hundred Bronx Boy Scouts met the cortege at the West Farms Soldiers Memorial Cemetery.
Father Francis Duffy, chaplain of the 69th Regiment, NY National Guard, and the Rev. Dr. George Bolsterle of the Anderson Memorial Church conducted the services.
Among the more one thousand attending the services, many women shed tears as the coffins containing the remains of the six men -- who had fought for their country during the Civil War but afterward died in this city without friends or family claiming them -- were lowered simultaneously into their new graves by the Boy Scouts. Some 150 children from Public School 45 sang "Nearer, My God, to Thee" and "America." Second Battery members fired a gun salute.
"In time others of the more than twenty still buried on Hart Island will be burled here," said Surrogate George M. S. Schulz, in deliverying the main address, according to the N.Y. Times Monday, May 29, 1916 story.
"The forces of human sympathy which this ceremony has mustered will work out the removal of the bodies of the other veterans.
“It might be well for some of us to draw a lesson from this. Men of this stamp it has been who have brought this country to its present status of Independance and, we hope, solidity”"
The Reno Camp of Sons of Union Veterans continued observing Memorial Day at Civil War graveyard within Potter's Field up to and including 1940. On June 9, 1941 the remaining veterans' bodies were removed from Hart Island and reburied at Cypress Hills National Cemetery.
In 1954, a 30-year campaign by Bronx American Legionaires and others succeeded in persauding leaders of NYC municipal government to take on responsibilty for maintenance of the Old West Farms Soldier Cemetery's 155-by-190-foot grounds holding some 60 graves of soldiers and veterans from four major wars spanning 1812 through 1918.
"the Old West Farms Soldier Cemetery has a special character, special historical and aesthetic interest and value as part of the development, heritage atd cultural characteristics of New York City, and that it
"stands as a memorable reminder of our past, that it serves as the last resting place for veterans of four wars, some of whom made the supreme sacrifice for their country, that they are interred in a modest landscaped enclosure, and that it is an attractive cemetery representing an important part of our heritage."
A Burial By Friendless Post tells the tale of old Lemuel Hall, once a mechanic but now too bent by rheumatism to hold a job. Too proud to accept, much less seek charity, he has no money for food or lodging and is resigned to dying, wanting only to be left alone in the process. Instead, Lemuel is arrested for vagrancy. At the sight of the old man trying to find the strength to stand, a sympathetic judge at Essex Market Court passes some money to an officer, orders that some food be purchased for the man, that he be fed, and that instead of being sent as criminal to the Workhouse, he is to be delivered to the care of the Almhouse, both institutions situated on Blackwell's Island.
"Don't, don't make a pauper of me! " cries Hall. "Let me just creep away somewhere and die!"
Nevertheless, at the Almhouse his health slowly improves sufficiently so that he is able to walk around the grounds, though in the halting gate of a rheumatic. He regularly checks out his surroundings, views the swift moving waters of the East River, and watches the craft of steam and sail navigating it. During one such perambulation, he encounters a group of men from the Almhouse, everyone about his own age, some missing limbs but all -- despite their infirmities -- evidencing a certain bearing he recognized as military. This very informal group of old soldiers at the Almshouse had been called the Friendless Post by a newspaper man who learned about them. They let the name stick, rather liking it.
So precise is Lemuel's information about that embattled river, his listeners know he knows more about the war than he has let on to them. There follows a series of scenes in which his Friendless Post comrades, seeking to understand why he hid from them that he had been in the war, speculate that perhaps he had been a Confederate soldier or Union deserter.
This synopsis won't disclose that "secret" but it is revealed at the moment of Lemuel's death surrounded by his Friendless Post friends. There follow heart-wrenching scenes in which they -- disregarding their aches and pains, their illnesses and age -- summon up determination to see their comrade buried with dignity.
Behind them came the firing squad; six more men, each of whom carried a gun, and each of whom wore a long blue overcoat, such as were worn by inmates sent on errands, in winter-time; and which, on occasions like the present, were privileged to answer for military coats. . . .
It was a proud privilege of the handful of old soldiers to bury, with military ceremony, such of their number as died on the island, and thus it was that Lemuel Hall was to be honored in death so far as Friendless Post could honor him. . . .
The coffin-bearers grew red in the face and staggered weakly, but none asked to be relieved of the burden of which all were so proud. A few of the old soldiers, too crippled or feeble to accompany the funeral party, looked after the little procession with wistful longing. . . . .
"Step lively there! Just take that up in front with the other bodies! "
. . . but they did not put it down beside the other coffins that were there piled up, for the others held pauper bodies from the Morgue, that were to be given burial in Potter's Field, while it was the pride of Friendless Post that the soldier dead escaped that fate, one of the G. A. R. Posts, of New York, having purchased a plot of ground on Hart's Island, near, indeed, to the Potter's Field, yet entirely separate from it, and given it to the veterans of the Almshouse for use as a soldiers' cemetery.
To that dreary island, in Long Island Sound where New York City annually buries over two thousand pauper or unknown dead, the steamer puffed its leisurely way, and the soldiers were hurried ashore with their burden. At the little plot of land where, though paupers in life, they could at least lie in free soil in death, the company took on an aspect of curious dignity, and even the mate, who had gone after them to hurry their proceedings, took off his hat as he neared them and stood silent as he watched.
A friendly keeper, who had accompanied the party, loaded the muskets, the tottering firing squad lined up beside the open grave, and the service for the dead was slowly monotoned. . . . The chaplain concluded the brief service. . . .
The firing squad, with a reawakening of self-conscious glory, braced themselves with tense importance. . . . "Fire," said [their blind leader] Morrison, loudly.
There came a scattering response, for the old and palsied fingers were too much affected by nervousness of the supreme moment to give a concerted volley. Pointed down, or up, or toward either side, the guns flashed out their salute over the grave of the dead soldier, and Morrison stood in stiff regidity until the sixth shot sounded . . . .
Does it really matter that no annual report or newspaper report so far researched references any such G.A.R. Post purchase of Potter's Field land for a Civil War graveyard so that Blackwell's Island Almshouse Civil War veterans might perform burial honors at the site?
It is a beautifully written piece of fiction for which questions of historically accuracy about such details seem irrelevant.
It is not a story about the origin of the Hart Island Civil War graveyard or about who, if anyone, provided military-like burial honors there.
Rather this is a story about human dignity. The tale tells about how, in trying to see that another receives the dignity he is due, those seeking it for him find some measure of it for themselves as well.
On Memorial Day, does not a nation honoring its war dead, also in the process, attain and retain honor itself?