Rikers Island's 26th U.S. Colored Troops on parade
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Background Story of 'Too Small' Image of 26th USCT on Parade
Before www.CorrectionHistory.Org came into existence, several NYC DOC's pages on the city government's official web site focused on the history of the correctional agency and its facilities. One of those pages reported on how, before becoming major bases of NYC Correction operations, Rikers and Hart Islands had served as military bases for, among others, 4,000+ African-American soldiers in the Civil War. They formed New York State's only three regiments in what was formally called the United States Colored Troops (USCT): the 20th, 26th and 31st. To help illustrate the web story, use was made of a National Archives photo of the 26th USCT on parade at Camp William Penn, Pa.
Most web users in the era when that page was first put together accessed the Internet via dial-up connections. For that reason the municipal web site's general guidelines called for its images to be kept relatively small and relatively few per page. A page with images "too large" or with "too many" images took longer to download, thus increasing the web visitor's phone bill and decreasing said visitor's patience and interest in viewing a page "heavy" with graphics.
When www.CorrectionHistory.Org came into existence in the late 1990s, nearly all of NYC DOC's history web pages migrated to it, including the one with the 26th USCT parade image. Since those keep-images-small days of web page creation, technological advancements -- cable and wireless connections, faster transmission rates, greater working memory and digital storage capacities -- have enabled more and bigger images to be used.
Thus, NYCHS can post not only the uncropped version of the 26th USCT parade image at the top of the page (8.9 x 6.5 inches, 192K, 72 dpi) but also can make available an interactive and still larger version (14 x 10 inches, 33 Mbs, 288 dpi).
The version that emerges from clicking on the top-of-the-page image can be zoomed and panned using the mouse's wheel or the mouse's left button. With the pointer on the image, hold the left button down to drag (pan) the image. Or use the on-screen zoom and pan tools just below the interactive image. When finished exploring the image, click your browser's "back" button to return.
Presentation of 26th USCT Colors
According to New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs text accompanying its images of the 26th USCT colors (see immediately above, left & right), a severe rainstorm prevented a grand flag presentation scheduled for March 26, 1864.
The regiment received its colors, prepared by the Ladies of New York, in a less formal ceremony the following day, Easter Sunday.
The event took place aboard the steamer Warrior, lying in the North River (the Hudson) at the foot of Warren Street. The presentation was made by John Jay, grandson of Founding Father John Jay (for whom CUNY's college of criminal justice is named).
The grandson was long-time president of NY's Union League, a sponsor of the state's three USCT regiments.
He relinquished the position when he accepted appointment by President Grant as minister to the Court of Vienna.
Colonel William Silliman, under whom the 26th mustered in and trained on Rikers Island, accepted the colors from Mr. Jay.
In prepared remarks, the colonel declared:
“Fair Ladies, I cannot tell you how dear to us will be this banner, the gift of loyal women of the North.
"We love it, not chiefly for its rare and costly beauty, but for what is beyond all price and more glorious than beauty.”
As more than a thousand of his fellow uniformed African Americans aboard the steamer watched and cheered, the regiment's only black commissioned officer, Chaplain Benjamin Franklin Randolph, accepted on behalf of the unit a silk banner from Vincent Colyer, the Union League's superintendent of recruitment for its sponsored USCTs, of which the 26th was the second.
The 20th had been the first; the 31st would be the third.
The banner bore the words "Unconditional Loyalty -- To the Soldiers of the 26th United States Colored Troops -- From Their Friends."
Visiting Chaplain to Rikers' USCTs
Two days later (March 28th, 1864), Union League officials met with members of the Shiloh Presbyterian Church, an African American congregation in Manhattan, to hold a tribute to the 26th USCT. The main speaker was the Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, a volunteer visiting chaplain to the USCTs on Rikers Island.
Some interesting details about Rev. Garnet and about the military, political and societal context in which he rendered service to Rikers Island's USCTs can be found in a biographical sketch written by Dr. James McCune Smith. The bio sketch served as an introduction in a book containing a discourse given Feb. 12, 1865, by Rev. Garnet in the House of Representatives. He was the first black minister to preach at the U.S. Capitol. Here are a few excerpts from Dr. Smith's bio notes about Rev. Garnet:
At first, there were difficulties . . . The runners kidnapped boys and old men, cripples and maimed, and by collusion with the proper officers, forced them to Riker's Island. Here the sutlers charged 50 cents for a cup of coffee, a dollar for a canteen of water; in the cold month of February they were thrust into old and worn cotton tents, compelled to sleep on the earth without even a camp-stool. How these difficulties were met and overcome is told in the Report of the Committee on Recruiting of the Union League Club. p. 38.
"These three things—the public meetings in colored churches, attended in person by members of the Committee; the printing of circulars, with the names of distinguished colored men, side by side with those of the Committee; and the employing of the able and faithful friend of their race, Rev. Mr. Garnet, to visit Riker's Island and hear the complaints of the recruits and getting General Dix to right them, soon secured the confidence of the colored people in our patriotic enterprise . . . .
"Hearty approbation!" In the streets of New York, in February, 1864; what a wide contrast to what occurred in these same streets only seven months before, in July, 1863. Well might it have been said to the colored people
"God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform." To have been mobbed, hunted down, beaten to death, hung to the lamp-posts or trees, burned, their dwellings sacked and destroyed, their orphan children turned homeless from their comfortable shelter which was destroyed by fire, and then, within a few months to be cheered along the same streets, are occurrences whose happening put ordinary miracles in the shade; the first, more hideous than hell; the last, one which might be, and was smiled on by heaven. . . .
26th USCT Commanding Officer Killed
The 26th USCT served under the Department of the South (Union Army) in South Carolina and was very active in military engagements at Johns and James Island, Honey Hill, Beaufort, and a number of other locations.
Two officers and 28 enlisted men killed or mortally wounded, and 3 officers and 112 enlisted died from disease.
Overall, more than twice as many soldiers -- Union and Confederate -- died from disease during the civil War than from combat wounds. Perhaps half of the disease deaths were from intestinal disorders such as typhoid fever, diarrhea, and dysentery. The rest died from respiratory illness, mainly pneumonia and tuberculosis. Ultimately, more than shot and shell, the chief killer in the Civil War was the filthy condition of the military camps fostering the spread of the contagious diseases.
One of the 26th USCT's two officers killed as a result of actual combat was Col. Silliman.
Jonathan was pastor from 1835-61 of the Canterbury Presbyterian Church situated in downtown Cornwall.
Pastor Silliman was an abolitionist and also considered by some rather strict, both factors figuring in a split within the congregation and the formation in 1856 of the Cornwall Presbyterian Church.
William C. attended Albany Law School. Founded in 1851, Albany Law School is the nation's oldest independent school of law.
Silliman graduated 1858. In 1860 he enlisted in the 7th NYS Cavalry at Troy, mustering in as a 1st Lieutenant of Company D. He mustered into the 124th N.Y. Infantry as a Captain and Adjutant on July 16th, 1862.
The 124th was called the "Orange Blossoms" because they were raised in Orange Country, N.Y. On Feb. 1, 1864 he was promoted to Colonel and accepted the color flag for the newly-formed Unites States Colored Infantry, 26th division.
Colonel William C. Silliman died on December 17, 1864 of wounds he received in action at Georgia Farms, S.C., according to research by James F. Leiner, history writer for the Nyack Villager, a monthly newspaper in Rockland County, N.Y.
26th USCT's Other Commanding Officer
The 26th USCT was honorably discharged and mustered out, under Col. William B. Guernsey of Norwich, Chenango County, NY, August 28, 1865.
William Bellamy Guernsey (Nov. 28, 1828 -- July 20, 1898) had varied facets to his character. He was a man of both letters and action, of both law and mechanics, of both business and politics.
A graduate of Troy Polytechnic Institute, he also studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1852. He first served in the Civil War as a Captain in the 89th Regiment.
On Jan. 30, 1864 he was appointed as a Lieutenant-Colonel of the 26th U. S. Colored Infantry. He was promoted to Colonel June 18, 1865 and mustered out with his regiment Aug. 28, 1865.
William, owner of various mills in the Norwich area, was also an inventor. He received a patent in October 1870 for an electric/telegraph burglar alarm that would work even if the intruder cut the wires. Bronson & Company Agents in New York City manufactured and marketed it. He also came up with a better way to pack and ship butter.
His candidacy was more a way of his taking a stand on issues of the era than an attempt to actually win public office.
The Greenback Party, founded in Indianapolis on Nov. 25, 1874, was originally the Independent Party. A populist movement, the party enjoyed some success at winning offices in farming and mining communities. It helped elect more than 20 members of Congress.
Its first presidential candidate (1876) was NYC's great 19th Century benefactor, Peter Cooper -- inventor, industrialist, philanthropist, opponent of slavery, supporter of labor and prison reforms. He polled about 80,000 votes nationally. (More on Peter Cooper can be found elsewhere on this web site.)
Greenback-Labor was generally against bank and rail monopolies and gold-based currency.
It was for easier credit, farm-friendly policies, and a progressive income tax.
It demanded abolition of both convict and child labor.
It insisted on reduced working hours and installation of occupational safety measures for workers.
By 1885, the party had passed its zenith and was not expected to elect the top of its ticket George O. Jones running for NYS governor.
Democrat David B. Hill won that spot with 501,465 votes to Republican Ira Davenport's 490,331 and Prohibitionist Henry Clay Bascom's 30,867. Against such tallies, the Greenbacker Jones' 2,130 showed that the party was not a factor in the outcome.
William died July 20, 1898, in Norwich.
The Guernsey Homestead was not only the oldest house, but was also the first frame house built in Norwich. Erected in 1799, it was bought by Peter B. Garnsey in 1804. In 1807 when Peter and one of his neighbors donated two acres of land for the court house, jail and parks, the Garnsey House was moved to a site nearby. There was occupied by the family until 1901 when it became public property by the terms of the will of Mrs. William B. Guernsey. The legal title to the property was passed on to the Board of Education of Union Free School District Number One of the Town of Norwich.
These terms stated "That they shall take and forever keep and maintain the property known as the Guernsey Homestead. . . For the establishment and maintenance of a free public library and park. . . . "
In 1967 the Guernsey Homestead was razed because the house was no longer structurally safe. The current library was built on the same site and dedicated March 8, 1969. The nearby park was dedicated on August 1, 1982.
26th USCT Hospital Steward: African American Pioneer Physician
While both Rikers Island USCT regiments, the 20th and 26th, had African Americans serving as commissioned chaplains, respectively George W. LeVere and Benjamin F. Randolph, neither regiment had an African American serving as a commissioned physician.
The 1860 federal census of Gallipolis, Ohio, listed the occupation of a black male, 36, Noah Elliott, as that of physician. But since a common practice among USCT regiments was to assign commission ranks to black volunteers from the clergy and the medical profession, the fact that the 26th USCT roster listed Elliott as hospital steward and not surgeon, suggests that, while his doctoring experience was somewhat recognized, it was not regarded as sufficient to warrant designation as regimental surgeon.
This may have reflected prejudice on the part of those making decisions in assigning ranks. Or it may have reflected that Dr. Elliott's pre-USCT medical experience possibly fell more into the category of alternative medicine: home potions, spiritual remedies, psychological cures.
An account in a 1910 journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, (pages 680-683 inclusive), even if heavily discounted, given the publication's perspective and the author's evident condescending attitude, at least promps consideration whether Dr. Elliott's diagnostic practices may have included somewhat unorthodox approaches. The article's author thought him a clairvoyant.
A more straight-forward rendition of Dr. Elliott's medical career can be found in Chapter 9: Pioneer African-American Physicians of Stories of Medicine in Athens County, Ohio, a multi-authored anthology compiled and edited by Gary E Cordingley, MD, PhD. Co-authored by Cordingley and Carl Jon Denbow, it reads in part:
He was apparently born a slave in Greenup County, Kentucky, on March 10, 1826. Thirty-four years later, the 1860 federal census of Gallipolis, Ohio, designated his occupation as that of a physician. During the War of Rebellion (1861–1865), he served as a hospital steward in the 26th United States Colored Infantry. This rank seems to have combined some of the functions of modern hospital administrators, pharmacists, dentists, physicians and nurses. . . . .
The 26th USCI regiment was organized at Rikers Island, N.Y. . . .. [Its] soldiers spent a good deal of time in South Carolina and were involved in a number of engagements with the enemy.
Caring for the wounded in [the Battle of Bloody Bridge near Johns Island, S.C.] as well as in the others [engagements] listed, provided Hospital Steward Elliott many chances to hone his medical skills. Additionally, because disease accounted for almost 75 percent of the 26th USCT deaths, he would have gained valuable experience in caring for the sick as well. . . .
Not long after moving to Athens, Dr. Elliott hosted a famous wedding at his residence at 193 West Washington Street. On August 11, 1886, Dr. Elliott’s sister-in-law Olivia Davidson married the renowned black educator Booker T. Washington. The house where the marriage took place still stands.
According to his pension record, Dr. Elliott himself was married twice. . . . [His] first wife . . . died in Kentucky. His second wife was Mary A. Davidson, Olivia’s sister. They were married in Oswego, New York, in 1862. Mary corresponded with Booker T. Washington on a lifelong basis, even after her sister passed away in 1889.
Dr. Elliott died on Feb. 2, 1918, in Columbus, where he had moved after leaving Athens around 1890. According to his obituary in The Columbus Evening Dispatch, he was a most devoted physician who “maintained his practice until his illness forced him to give it up about six weeks [prior to his death].” His passing was also noted in the Journal of the American Medical Association . . .
26th USCT drew enlistees from near and far
While the overwhelming majority of 26th USCT regiment members mustered in and trained on Rikers Island, some did rendezvous and drill at a few other locales in the state such as Elmira and Cananadaigua.
"Laborer" and "farmer" are the listed occupations that predominate in the researched records of those who signed up for the Rikers-based regiment. But scattered among the entries are such trades as "cook," "mason," "shoemaker," "carpenter," "blacksmith," "coachman," "butcher," "barber," "hostler," "sailor" and "boatman."
The latter category fit David Carll, 21-year-old man of color who had been born free in Cold Spring Habor, L.I. (slavery having ended in NYS in 1827) and who was living and working in Oyster Bay, then part of Queens County but now part of Nassau County, when he went to a county center in Jamaica to join the Union army Jan. 2, 1864. He signed up with the 26th USCT during the first week of opportunity to do so. With $200 from the $300 bounty he received for enlisting, Carll bought some land in the community. To this day, a hill near South Street bears the Carll name.
Carll has been the focus of separate research quests undertaken by a few of his descendants acting independently:
After many years battling his way through federal bureaucratic red tape, Carll finally did gain his pension -- $6 a month -- in 1902, eight years before his death in 1910 at age 67.
Both quests briefly spotlighted Oyster Bay's Pine Hollow Cemetery on South Street where David Carll's tombstone notes his service in the 26th USCT.
The Vanessa Williams Feb. 4, 2011 show included a visit to the cemetery where both her father and her great great grandfather are buried, though not in the same section. Dagmar Fors Karppi's August 20, 2010 Oyster Bay Enterprise Pilot story about the Frank Carl/Gilbert McDonald research reported not only about that gravestone but also about other African American Civil War veterans buried there. These include a Simon Rapalyea, a 20th USCTer, who was born in 1828 and died Nov. 24, 1894.
In Ithaca, next to the St. James A.M.E. Zion Church is a stately black granite monument dedicated to the 26 Black men who enlisted at that church to serve in the 26th.
St. James A.M.E. Zion's building, erected in 1836 at its present site on Cleveland Avenue, then called Wheat Street, is now Ithaca's oldest surviving original church structure.
Before, during and after the Civil War, it served as a cultural, political and spiritual center for the black community in Ithaca.
The 26 who joined the 26th, ages 17-47, enlisted at the church between 1863 and 1864.
Their names are engraved on the monument unveiled circa 2009: Henry W. Adams, Henry Allen, Morgan Dennis, Isaac Desmond, Sylvester T. Dorsey, Henry L. Green, Jacob Guess, George Guinn, Daniel Johnson, Jacob Johnson, George E. Jones, Thomas McChesney, George A. Richardson, John R. Ross, Henry Selby, Charles S. Shaw, Alonzo Smith, Henry Smith, James E.L. Smith, John Smith, John F. Smith, Joseph B. Smith, Edward Sorrell, John Sorrell, John Tyler, and Zachariah Tyler.
Besides their names carved in stone, they are memorialized in a film, Civil Warriors, scheduled for showing during a Civil War exhibit at Ithaca's History Center until July 2011.
Author Ben Porter Lewis wrote the screen script. The film was produced and directed by Deborah Hoard and Che Broadnax of PhotoSynthesis Productions in Ithaca.
A series of vignettes -- such as the story of Zachariah Tyler who was 44 years old in 1864, yet volunteered alongside his 19-year-old son to fight -- are woven into a powerful dramatic statement.
Also some considerable distance from the 26th USCT's home base, Rikers Island, is yet another monument mentioning the regiment; this one out of state.
Although the front declares it is Dedicated to the Memory Of the Black Soldiers of Greater Danbury who Served in the 29th and 30th Regiments, Conn. Volunteer Infantry During the Civil War 1861 – 1865, the back includes among the soldiers listed four from the "26TH U.S.C.T." They are Privates William Brown, George Dunbar, Milton Dunbar and Lewis Hines.
Still further away from Rikers is the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C., where its Wall of Honor bears more than 209,140 United States Colored Troops names, including the regiments that trained on Hart and Rikers Islands, respectively the 31st, 20th and 26th USCTs.
Hopefully this web site's pages recalling their short stays on the islands that afterwards became ours may, in some modest way, count as a NYC Correction salute recognizing their service to the country.
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