Hart Island Potter's Field Former Graveyard for Civil War Vets
Above: The former special graveyard -- for Civil War veterans -- within Hart Island Potter's Field.
NYCHS use of image by courtesy of Russ Pelton who reserves and retains all rights. ©

A closer view from a different perspective of the former special graveyard, including its 14-foot monument -- for Civil War veterans -- within Hart Island Potter's Field. NYCHS use of image by courtesy of Russ Pelton who reserves and retains all rights. ©

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:

The above image is derived from the elements of the title page for the NYC Public Charities & Correction 1869 annual report accessed via Google Books. Click image for that report's Soldiers' Retreat section.

"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.

NYC Public Charities and Correction's Inebriate Asylum on Ward Island where its east wing became the "Soldiers' Retreat." Click to access the asylum resident physician Dr. Alexander S. Doherty's detailed report, dated Jan. 1, 1871, on the establishment of the Soldiers' Retreat in late 1869 and on its actual operation beginning with a detachment of 30 men Dec. 21, 1869.
"Many of the soldiers sought refuge in the alms-houses and hospitals of the Department as sick and destitute citizens of New York, and the Commissioners have assigned to them the east wing of the Inebriate Asylum [on Ward Island] until further provision shall be made for them by the State or General Government.

"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:

  • Veterans Remaining as of Dec. 31, 1869 numbered 65.
  • Veterans Admitted from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 1870 numbered 511.
  • Veterans Discharged from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 1870 numbered 317.
  • Veterans Who Died from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 1870 numbered 8.
  • Veterans Remaining as of Jan. 1, 1871 numbered 251.

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."

The above image is derived from the elements of the title page for the NYC Public Charities & Correction 1877 annual report accessed via Google Books. Click image for that report's Soldiers' Plot monument reference.
The report's particular context and that wording would seem to indicate the bodies it cited as moved to Cypress Hills National Cemtery had come directly from the hospitals or had been disinterred during the conflict itself or during the immediate post-Civil War period; that is, with specific reference to disinterments, the removals of those bodies apparently pre-dated the interments of Soldiers' Retreat residents' remains by NYC Public Charities and Correction.

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:



As president of the Metropolitan Police Board, James Bowen helped organize a number of Metro Police volunteer regiments, some units of which trained on Rikers and Hart Islands, not then part of the Public Charities & Correction (PC&C) domain. He also served during the war as Army provost in the Gulf region. After, he served a decade as NYC PC&C.

This was established in 1869, during which year, General James Bowen began gathering together the disabled veterans of the late war, residents of New York City, and gave them quarters in the unoccupied portion of the Inebriate Asylum building.

During the past year a large proportion of these men have gained admission to National Soldiers' Homes, the majority going to Hampton, Va., and Dayton, Ohio.

By this means the city is relieved of an expense which is now borne, as it should be, by the general government.

Those ineligible for admission to National Homes, and able to work, have been discharged.

A few soldiers in the Retreat were too infirm to be sent away, and were consequently transferred to the Homoeopathic Hospital. They accepted a transfer willingly, yielding a soldierlv obedience to Macbeths' command to Leyton, "get thee to bed."

The last inmate was discharged or transferred, Dec. 14th, 1875, and the Soldiers' Retreat, as such, passed out of existence.

Chief of Staff:

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:

Click a table image above 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.

The above image has been extracted from the photo apparently used for a picture in the DOC's 1967 A Historical Resume of Potter's Field: 1869 - 1967. Click to access the resume.
"Work was immediately commenced, foundation completed, and on 24th May, a marble monument, 14 feet high, was erected by Reno Post No. 44, G. A. R, to the memory of the soldiers who served in the late war, and who through necessity had to seek protection and charity in the institutions controlled by your Honorable Board.

"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.

The Old West Farms Soldiers Cemetery at 180th St and Bryant Ave., is about two blocks south of the Bronx Zoo and a block east of Boston Post Road.
The West Farms burial grounds, where the six veterans' remains from Hart Island's "Soldiers' Plot" were reburied on the Sunday before Memorial Day 1916, had started as a private cemetery on land owned by a family named Butler.

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."

The above image of the Times Square statue of famed Fighting 69th Chaplain Father Patrick Duffy was extracted from one on the website of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation. The priest and the Rev. Dr. George Bolsterle, president of the City Christian Endeavor Union, participated in the May 28, 1916 reburial rites at West Farms. Click image above for more about the statue and Fr. Duffy. No web image of Dr. Bolsterle has been found. More about the Christian Endeavor Union can be found at http://nysce.us/
Those "first effort" remains removed and reburied belonged to:

  • Lieutenant Robert McLaughlin, the 25th New York Infantry;
  • John T. Smith, Company K, 32nd Illinois Infantry;
  • Harry Gaub, Company K, 103rd New York Infantry;
  • Conrad Neycomer, Company H, Third New York Infantry,
  • Edward McGrath, the 163th New York; and
  • August Weicking, a U.S.S. Merrimac seaman who also saw service as a private with Company H of the 15th Heavy Artillery.

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.

Wording near the base of the "Soldiers' Plot" obelisk in Potter's Field explains that, while the monument still stands, the veterans' remains were removed June 9, 1941 and reburied in Cypress Hills National Cemetery.. NYCHS use of image by courtesy of Russ Pelton who reserves and retains all rights. ©
"I have found in pondering on the names of the men that there were among them Germans, Irish, and English. While they came from different countries [that] had previously known monarchs for rulers, they were one in their patriotism for the Union . . . when the nation found itself embattled they went, not thinking whether their comrades would be English, German, or Irish, and fought for a common ideal.

“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 above image was extracted from one of about a dozen photos of the Old West Farms Soldier Cemetery on the ever-interesting website BridgeAndTunnelClub.Com
Click image above to access the web page.
According to a NY Times story of May 6, 1954, a year of research by Frank H. Corbett Post 1144 Past Commander Tony Margotta tracked down ownership to Butler family heirs who quit deeded the property over to NYC. Thirteen years later, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated it a city landmark and issued findings dated Aug. 2, 1967 that

"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."

Above is one of the very evocative sketches by Thomas Fogarty that illustrated A Burial By Friendless Post. This depicts Lemuel Hall trying to stand in court and save his pride, Click to access the full 1899 story.
One of the more intriguing nuggets dug up by research into Hart Island's now bodiless Civil War ex-graveyard appeared in a fictional story A Burial By Friendless Post, written by one-time NY newsman Robert Shackleton that Scribner's Magazine published in its June 1899 issue. Later Scribner's gathered into one book that and various other Shackleton short stories, most with Public Charities and Correction institutions on Blackwell's Island (now Roosevelt Island) as an integral part of the narrative setting.

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.

Above is a section from one of the very evocative sketches by Thomas Fogarty that illustrated A Burial By Friendless Post. This depicts Friendless Post members discussing Lemuel's secrecy, Click to access the full 1899 story.
Gradually, Lemuel is accepted into Friendless Post for he proves a good listener when they retell their old war stories anew for his benefit (and perhaps their own). But he never intimates he had been in the war himself. Then one day he slips up and provides the name of a river that one of the group can't remember though it figures significantly in the battle tale being retold.

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.

Above is one of the very evocative sketches by Thomas Fogarty that illustrated A Burial By Friendless Post. This depicts Friendless Post members at Lemuel's death bed, Click to access the full 1899 story.
"The next day a group of men, gray and withered, dodderingly stumbled from the Protestant chapel, bearing between them a cheap coffin, covered with an American flag. The faces of the men were solemn with importance, and also from a sense of pride in the burden that they bore. . . .

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. . . . .

Above is one of the very evocative sketches by Thomas Fogarty that illustrated A Burial By Friendless Post. This depicts the old soldiers "honor guard" on the Blackwell Island dock, Click to access the full 1899 story.
At the storehouse dock lay the steamer that had just unloaded its morning cargo of criminals, paupers, and sick, for the public hospitals, the Almshouse, and the penal institutions of that island of varied misery. The captain was impatient, for he saw that the shambling old fellows were proceeding very slowly. . . . they did not dare actually to loiter . . . . They had once been told, indeed, that they ought to have the privilege of soldiers' funerals taken away from them for actually presuming to compel the boat to wait four minutes. . . .

"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?

Thomas McCarthy,

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