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Long IslandHistory

Long Island marches off to battle

Wanting a company of his own, a Roslyn attorney named Benjamin Willis coaxed 104 men who lived in and around Hempstead to join together, and they became Company H.

Roslyn attorney Benjamin Willis formed Conmpany H of

Roslyn attorney Benjamin Willis formed Conmpany H of "everyday Long Islanders - farmers, baymen, laborers of all stripes" - in the Hempstead area and became its captain. Photo Credit: Nassau County Museum Collection

John Carman was in Fairfax, Va., a lonely soldier a long way from home, when he sat down and wrote his sister a letter.

Dear sister i now write you a few lines informing you that i am well and sincerely hope these few lines wil find you all the same. I received your letter the 1st and it done me a great deal of good to hear from you. We are encamped at fairfax court house at present but doe not know how long we shal stay here ... i am tiered of a soldiers life and i want to get to Long Island.

He dated his letter Oct. 3, 1862, addressed it "Mrs. Valentine Smith, Merrick Post Office, Long Island," and sent it on its way.

That fall, Carman's infantry unit - Company H of the 119th New York Volunteers - was a month old. The 119th had been formed in New York City late that summer and was composed mostly of German immigrants. Wanting a company of his own, a Roslyn attorney named Benjamin Willis coaxed 104 men who lived in and around Hempstead to join together, and they became Company H.

The regiment's 1,000 men left New York City in early September, sailed on a steamer to New Jersey, where they boarded a train that took them to Harrisburg, Pa., Baltimore and then Washington, D.C. By early October, when Pvt. Carman wrote his letter to his sister, the regiment was bivouacked around the Fairfax County Courthouse in Virginia. And there, Company H of the 119th New York did what soldiers have always done - they waited impatiently for orders.

As Company H settled in that October, the war between the North and South - between those states that called themselves free and those states which to protect their peculiar institution of slavery voted to quit the Union and fight - was 18 months old. For the men of the 119th, the worst was yet to come. Slaughter on a scale never seen before in America would soon unfold on farm fields from Tennessee to Pennsylvania. And Carman, 21 years old and a vegetable farmer back in Merrick, would see much of it for himself.

In all, the 119th, with 104 young men from Long Island carrying the banner of Company H, would participate in more than a dozen engagements. They would see, feel and experience the bloodiest days of the Civil War. Company H would bury its own in ground up and down the East Coast. And its survivors would come back to Long Island, far different from what they were when they left, to restart their lives.

From Brooklyn, a burgeoning city of 266,000, all the way east to the tiny farming hamlets on the North and South Forks, the beginning of the war in April, 1861, was a distant alarm. Within months, what began as an effort by the southern states to become independent led to pitched fighting on the battlefield. And in New York, as in every other northern state, thousands of young men rallied 'round the flag.

Hundreds from Long Island enlisted in dozens of companies that were themselves attached to dozens of regiments and militia units. Some went because they wanted to help end slavery; others went because they wanted to keep their country together, and others simply wanted to see what it was all about. Hundreds of others on Long Island signed a document called a Certificate of Exemption on Account of Having Furnished a Substitute, which meant, in short, that they bought their way out of service and stayed home.

Some on Long Island, including Henry Reeves of Greenport, an influential newspaper publisher, were labled Copperheads - open supporters of the South and secession. Confederate flags were seen flying on Long Island, and men spoke in favor of the South's cause. On top of that, when President Abraham Lincoln instituted a draft in 1863, hundreds rioted against it. Those riots began in Manhattan and spilled over into Queens County (which then included what is now Nassau County). For the most part, these draft riots took on the form of pogroms - rioting Irish immigrants hunting down free blacks and murdering them.

Long Island would never see a battle. The nearest fighting was at the Pennsylvania farming community of Gettysburg, in July, 1863, where over three days nearly 50,000 men were killed or wounded - a number about 7,000 greater than the population of Suffolk County in 1860. John Carman and the 119th would be there. Carman would survive to march with Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman as he blazed his way across Georgia to the sea; he would march with the other survivors of Company H in the huge victory parade in Washington, D.C., after the war ended in April, 1865. He would return to his Merrick farm, where he died in 1919 - one of 35,000 men from Long Island who served and fought in the Civil War.

The vast majority of those 35,000 were from Brooklyn. But approximately 3,000 men from Queens and Suffolk Counties enlisted. They came from every walk of life, from members of old families to just-off-the-boat immigrants. They were doctors, lawyers, blacksmiths, sailors, farmers, cigar makers, carpenters, teachers, politicians, laborers of all kinds and failures of all kinds. Women left their homes to work as battlefield nurses; Walt Whitman, who was born in Huntington, left for Virginia to work as a nurse after he heard that his brother had been injured. What he saw changed this poet forever.

The hot flame of war also drew black Americans in extraordinary numbers. More than 800 blacks from Brooklyn, Queens and Suffolk enlisted, and for them, there were no philosophical discussions as to why they should fight - it was to end slavery, finally, no more excuses, and to contribute to a country they believed in even as it shortchanged them in every conceivable way. These black soldiers put their lives on the line for an idea - freedom for everyone.

No black man born on Long Island who was of enlistment age was a former slave, for that institution ended in New York in the 1820s. But they knew former slaves; many of their mothers and fathers were former slaves, and they knew the South was home to hundreds of thousands of slaves. They had seen the human face of slavery when runaways hid out on Long Island. Simply put, a Confederate victory meant slavery would continue; a Union victory meant it would end.

Many Long Islanders were killed, including sets of brothers, and an unknown number were taken prisoner, deserted and were never seen again, or were reported missing in battle. At least five soldiers from Long Island were taken prisoner and incarcerated at the notorious Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Ga. Four died there - Jonathan Miller of Glen Cove, and Samuel Vernon, Cornelius Remsen and James Butler, all of Oyster Bay. The fifth, Josiah Brownell, of Glen Cove, survived and wrote a brief account that was published in 1867 by the Glen Cove Gazette.

Brownell, who worked as a house and sign painter, enlisted in 1862 in Company C, of the Second New York Cavalry, which was called the Harris Light Cavalry. The unit took part in the battles of Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg and the Wilderness. According to his account, Brownell was captured at the Battle of the Wilderness, in May, 1864, and shipped to Andersonville, which held more than 30,000 Union soldiers in a crowded, filthy environment. More than 12,000 died, nearly all of disease and malnutrition.

When he returned to Glen Cove, he wrote a brief account titled, "At Andersonville - A Narrative of Personal Adventure at Andersonville, Florence and Charleston Rebel Prisons." It sold on Long Island for 25 cents a copy.

"We think of the Civil War as something that happened in the South, where the fighting occurred, but the war deeply affected many Long Island families," said Harrison Hunt, a Nassau County resident who is writing a book about Long Island during the Civil War. "Long Island was very representative of the North as a whole. We had factories, maritime interests, farming and other businesses, and there were divided opinions. But when the war began, you find support behind saving the Union. People felt the South had tried to get its way for too long and had now crossed the line - they couldn't just walk out of the Union, this is what people thought."

One of the smallest political minorities was the Copperheads - northern supporters of the South and secession. Their most prominent mouthpiece was Henry Reeves, the publisher of the Republican Watchman newspaper in Greenport, who spoke in favor of slavery and white supremacy and believed the South had the constitutional right to go its own way. During the war he was arrested and jailed for treason, but after 1865 he became a leading political figure on Long Island.

Soon after the war began, in April, 1861, recruitment drives sprang up across Long Island. The war, some said, would be over in 90 days, and young men signed up in droves. The 14th Brooklyn quickly recruited 1,000 men, including a number from Suffolk County; the 15th Regiment, in Queens, recruited all over what is now Nassau County. Company C, of the 74th New York Volunteers, was recruited in Flushing and communities to the east. While the 119th Regiment was filled in Manhattan, Benjamin Willis formed Company H in Hempstead and became its captain.

The 48th New York recruited heavily in Huntington; the 127th New York recruited in Huntington and Southold; Company C of the 102nd New York was filled with men from Oyster Bay and Cold Spring Harbor. Recruitment posters were nailed to trees, poles and on buildings where the public gathered. While posters were different for each regiment, they had common themes, such as the one used to win recruits to the 127th Regiment. Across the top the words, "PATRIOTS, COME FORWARD!" were emblazoned. It read, in part:

"In the present critical state of our country, will young men still wait to be drafted? Come voluntarily, young men, and choose your associates in the performance of a most sacred duty. Who would not rather be a Volunteer than a drafted man in such a glorious cause?"

Black recruitment became legal after 1863, and regiments were formed quickly. The 26th U.S. Colored Troops included blacks from Long Island, as did the 20th U.S. Colored Troops and the 4th Rhode Island Colored Troops. Two black men from Oyster Bay who joined the 20th were Simon Rappaljae and David Carll, both of whom survived.

Rappaljae had unique bloodlines - he could trace his rich ancestry back to Sarah de Rapelje, the first Dutch child born in New York, in 1625, and to freed blacks and Matinecock Indians. He lived in a house on what was once called Poverty Hollow Road, and is now called Mill River Road. A letter he wrote to his wife, Bertha, dated Sept. 11, 1864, was found in a wall of the house. It read, in part:

You must keep good spirits. I think I shall get home once more. Give respects to all my friends. Tell them I am well. We have some good news from the war. Our folks has taken Atlanta with 25000 prisoners. Today our regiment has fired 100 guns as cheers for it. Write soon and let me know the news around home . . .

One black man - Joachim Pease, who wrote on his enlistment papers that he was from Long Island, but did not specify a town - won the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery on a U.S. Navy vessel that battled a Confederate raider off the coast of France. A Huntington white man who led black troops, George Brush, also won the medal.

Historians familiar with Long Island's role in the Civil War say they have no exact count of war dead. But there are solid indications that many died. For example, Company H of the 119th had a full complement of 104 men when Carman wrote the letter to his sister in October, 1862; by July, after the battle of Gettysburg, Company H had 60 men. Historians say Company C of the 74th New York Volunteers was decimated - by the spring of 1863, there was none left.

By all appearances, Company H was a cross section of Long Island. "The regiment was recruited in Manhattan and was made up mostly of German immigrants," said Gary Hammond, the historian for the Company H, 119th New York Volunteers Historical Association, which has re-created the life and times of the company. "But when Willis put together his company, it was everyday Long Islanders - farmers, baymen, laborers of all stripes.

"Willis felt strongly about preserving the Union," Hammond added. "He really cared about the country staying together. Willis came back and ran for Congress. He died in 1886."

The history of Company H continues with the historical association, but there are living links - generation to generation, strung together like the beads on a necklace. A Theodore Tupper of East Rockaway was an original member of the company, and survived to come home. His grandson, Theodore Tupper, of Massapequa, is a member of the association. He has another claim to historical distinction - he survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

The last survivor of the company died in 1936. His name was Benjamin Sprague. He was a bayman from East Rockaway. He was born in 1847, and was married in 1864 to a woman named Mary Adeline Denton when he returned to Long Island on a furlough. She died in 1914.

They had three daughters and two sons. One of the girls lived in Island Park and died in 1958. A grainy photograph taken shortly before Sprague's death shows him posing with his grandson, William Pearsall.

In the photograph, Sprague proudly wears his history - the blue uniform of Grand Army of the Republic.

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