In June 1864, the Rev. Hiram P. Crozier published a letter in a Huntington newspaper suggesting a monument for the town’s soldiers who had died in the Civil War.
Crozier’s proposal in the Long-Islander — made 10 months before the four-year conflict staggered to its bloody conclusion in the spring of 1865 — is the earliest known recommendation that Long Island’s citizens honor the sacrifices of the more than 3,000 young men from the area who served to preserve the Union.
Not only did Huntington erect a memorial, but it was joined by more than 20 other communities across Suffolk and Queens County, which incorporated current-day Nassau County.
And now as the sesquicentennial of the war reaches its climax with the April 9 anniversary of the surrender of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army, many Long Island historical societies, museums and re-enactment groups are preparing their own commemorations. They are sponsoring exhibits, lectures and living history demonstrations beginning this month and continuing through the rest of the year.
For the past year, Huntington town clerk Jo-Ann Raia’s office has been coordinating the efforts of historical groups and museums in Huntington.
“As keepers of history it is our obligation to remind people of the context of the Civil War and highlight our town’s participation,” she said. “The lessons we learn from the war — that freedom and democracy come at a very great cost — we need to pass on to our youth.”
Harrison Hunt, a retired Nassau County museum supervisor who has spent two decades researching that era on the Island, said continued interest in the war and even in placing new monuments, as evidenced by Farmingdale’s addition of a Civil War monument on its village green four years ago, stems from the fact that “it’s a landmark event in national history and it had a tremendous effect on every community. It was the costliest war in American history. It helped to define our identity as a nation, and many of the issues are still questions being dealt with today — issues of race, states’ rights are still very much in the news.”
Local training and support
While no battles were fought on Long Island, some early regiments from New York and New England trained at camps here, including one in Mineola, before heading south. Hundreds of women volunteered with aid societies or at hospitals.
Long Island manufacturers produced war material, from medicines to uniforms. And the economic effects of the war — shortages, higher taxes and disruption of shipping and other commerce — were widely felt.
Just as Huntington led the way in 1864, the town is now organizing the most comprehensive Long Island commemoration of the end of the sesquicentennial. The clerk’s office will display an original ledger recording soldiers’ enlistment in the 127th New York Volunteer Infantry. The town is also sponsoring three tours of sites with Civil War connections.
On April 17 from 6 to 8 p.m., the town is holding a kickoff event at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Building at 228 Main St., featuring performances of Civil War music and readings of soldiers’ letters. The event also opens the Huntington Historical Society’s exhibit, “The Civil War Comes Home,” in the building.
The most notable artifact is a 12-by-20-foot American flag that had flown over Fulton Street in Manhattan when returning soldiers with the 127th Infantry disembarked on July 8, 1865. Also on display will be the uniform and sword of Samuel Ballton, a black entrepreneur in Greenlawn who became known as the “Pickle King” after the war.
The Heckscher Museum of Art, in Huntington, will host the first public viewing, from April 11 to 19, of Cove Neck historical artist Mort Künstler’s painting “Respect of an Army: Gen Robert E. Lee Departs Appomattox Courthouse,” depicting Lee after his surrender.
In June, the Northport Historical Society will offer Civil War cooking demonstrations at the society as well as an exhibit about Northport during the war.
The most unusual event will take place at the Middle Country Public Library facilities in Centereach and Selden on April 9, the date of Lee’s surrender, when staff members Jim Ward and Steven DeFriest will re-enact the meeting between Lee and Grant at Appomattox. Ward, a history buff who re-enacted President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address on the 150th anniversary of the event two years ago and is growing his beard for his latest turn as Grant, will also mark the April 14, 1865, assassination of the country’s 16th president. On that day, Ward will again dress as Lincoln to recite excerpts at the libraries from his inaugural addresses.
Though Long Island was far removed from the war’s battlefields, the soldiers engaging in battle were thought of often.
“The sacrifices that so many of these young men had been making was very much on people’s minds pretty early on,” said Hunt, who co-authored “Long Island and the Civil War,” which was published this week by the History Press ($21.99).
Crozier’s letter to the Long-Islander was well-received. “Huntington formed a committee and in February of 1865 they had a fundraising concert in Babylon, which was then part of the Town of Huntington,” Hunt said. “It was not until 1892 that they were able to get their whole memorial done. But it was quite a complex — the largest of any of them on Long Island.”
The Main Street tribute included the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial building, a granite soldier statue and a huge Civil War Rodman cannon.
Other communities emulated Huntington’s initiative. Flushing was the first to erect a public memorial, an obelisk dedicated July 4, 1866. It was followed by a sandstone obelisk in Riverhead Cemetery and a marble obelisk in Woodland Cemetery in Bellport that honored four local soldiers whose bodies, like many others during the war that were buried where they fell or never recovered, were never returned home for burial: Charles Homan, E. Thompson Cooper, Jesse Munsell and William Osborne.
A Roslyn monument featuring a bronze soldier was attacked in the 1920s by vandals who sawed off the head, which was later reattached, only to have the entire statue stolen from atop its 20-foot column in 1992. A new casting replaced it in 2005.
Like Huntington’s, Freeport’s commemoration of its boys in blue also had three components: the village’s original public library building dedicated as a war memorial and containing a plaque listing local servicemen; a cannon from the USS Hartford on Sunrise Highway; and a memorial to Joseph and Dandridge B.P. Mott, brothers who died in the conflict.
The Mott monument, a marble stele, started out in the Freeport Presbyterian Church cemetery, and when that graveyard closed it was moved in 1927 to a spot near Village Hall, which is on North Ocean Avenue, until it was hit by a car and broken. After its restoration, it has rested safely on the grounds of the Freeport Historical Society & Museum, at 350 South Main St., since 1996.
Celebration, then sorrow
As the war came to a close, prisoners began to be liberated, as chronicled in a March 17, 1865, letter to the Long-Islander by a “spectator to a sad sight — the delivery of about 400 of our brave boys who have been in the hands of the Confederate demons ... Fully one half of them were unable to walk ... They were many of them walking skeletons, and would stare into my face with open mouths with the gaze of an idiot.”
Huntington and other local villages, however, were uplifted by news of Lee’s surrender.
“The church bells were rung, guns, large and small, fired, dinner bells, tin horns, and all sorts of noisy instruments were brought into requisition, flags waved,” the Long-Islander reported.
Celebrations were replaced with anger and sorrow a week later when Lincoln was assassinated. In Hempstead, the Inquirer reported, “the bells of all (our) ... churches were tolled. ... and many of our private dwellings hung out insignia of mourning.”
Within weeks of the end to the fighting, local leaders were planning appropriate homecoming ceremonies for the returning soldiers. The Hempstead newspaper noted that the day when Company H of the 119th New York returned “at sunrise, the bells of the different churches were rang, and national salutes fired in different parts of the village.”
Men of the 127th returned home and were feted to an August picnic in Peconic. The day was filled with speeches, prayers and renditions of patriotic songs by 60 young ladies clad in white, a local newspaper recounted. The day ended with “rousing cheers for the old flag” and the singing of “Home, Sweet Home.”
Commemmorating the war
Celebrations throughout the year across Long Island will commemorate the Civil War and those who fought in it.
- Huntington: Civil War commemoration kickoff event and reception, April 17, 6-8 p.m., Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Building, 228 Main St.
- Half Hollow Hills Community Library: Songs of the Civil War, Sept. 24, 2:30 p.m. Balladeer Linda Russell explores the Civil War through music.
- Heckscher Museum of Art: Viewing of “Respect of an Army: Gen. Robert E. Lee Departs Appomattox Courthouse,” by artist Mort Künstler, April 11-19. “Seated Lincoln” sculpture by American artist Daniel Chester French on view until October.
- Cold Spring Harbor Library: Bill Bleyer and Harrison Hunt discuss their book, "Long Island and the Civil War: Queens, Nassau and Suffolk Counties During the War Between the States," 7 p.m. April 9, 95 Harbor Rd., Cold Spring Harbor; 631-692-6820, cshlibrary.org
- Northport Historical Society: Authentic Civil War Era Cooking, April 7-9, 9:30-noon. Historian and re-enactor Diane Fish will guide students in grades two through six as they prepare, cook and taste a variety of authentic dishes from the Civil War period.
- Smithtown: The Historical Society will host a Civil War encampment for students on May 15 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
- Glen Cove: The North Shore Historical Museum will present a Civil War exhibit from April 18 to Oct. 3.
- Old Bethpage Village Restoration: The Company H, 19th New York Volunteers Historical Association, a Civil War re-enactment group based at the Village Restoration, is having a Sept. 12-13 encampment with the theme of the return of the soldiers at the end of the war.
Among the LI monuments
Bridgehampton — Granite memorial with a bronze eagle, 1910*
Cold Spring Harbor — Memorial plaque in library, 1915
Greenport — Granite obelisk, 1883
Huntington — Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Building with a granite statue and Rodman gun, 1892
Patchogue — White metal statue, 1885
Riverhead — Brownstone obelisk, 1871
Southampton — Pyramid of cannonballs, artillery pieces
Water Mill — Bronze plaque on upright millstone circa 1920*
Farmingdale — Granite memorial, 2011
Freeport — Parrot gun from USS Hartford, 1902; Mott Brothers marble memorial, moved from cemetery and dedicated 1927, restored and relocated to the Freeport Historical Society in 1996
Hempstead — Bronze statue on granite base, 1888
Roslyn — Bronze statue on granite base, 1903. The statue was stolen in 1992 and replaced in 2005
*War memorials commemorating the dead of other wars as well
Source: Harrison Hunt