Bored with retirement, former Grumman Aerospace executive Robert Farrell embarked on what he thought would be a short-term project to keep busy: creating a master list of Civil War soldiers with a Long Island connection.
A dozen years later, he’s still at it.
The 81-year-old Huntington resident was a subcontract manager at Grumman for 26 years before retiring two decades ago. “When I retired, I did all the things that people usually do when they’re first retired,” he said, but after a while Farrell wanted something more. So, combining his high-level interests in genealogy and the Civil War, Farrell decided in 2004 to research and list all of the veterans of that conflict who were buried or had lived in his hometown.
After finishing that project in 2007, boredom soon returned, so Farrell decided to expand his research to include all of Suffolk County. Last year, he completed that task and is now determined to include all Civil War soldiers of Nassau County. So far, he has identified more than 5,500 veterans for the two counties.
The final result of Farrell’s work is what Long Island historians and genealogists have coveted for years: a list of every soldier from Nassau and Suffolk who served in the Civil War. “It’s a tremendous resource for military historians and genealogists and all sorts of other uses,” said Courtney Burns, director of military history at the New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center in Saratoga Springs.
The root of Farrell’s undertaking came from traveling to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, years ago to see his son, who was attending college there. “Every time we would go to visit him, we would end up taking the battlefield tours,” he said, which led to reading books about the war. “I started to understand it and realize just how important it was to American history.”
While some Civil War buffs concentrate on the many battles that took place during the war from 1861 to 1865, Farrell said, “I’m interested in the people. It’s the people who did the fighting; it’s the people who made the country. I want to honor the ordinary soldier because I was an ordinary soldier myself.”
From 1955 to 1957, Farrell was a private first class in the Army, serving with an anti-aircraft battery at Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island. With a growing interest in the seminal conflict, he joined the North Shore Civil War Roundtable, which has monthly speaker programs. A 2004 lecture by James E. Haas, author of “This Gunner at His Piece,” about the Civil War soldiers from College Point, Queens, proved to be Farrell’s inspiration.
“I said to myself, ‘Maybe I’ll do the same thing,’ ” he recalled. “I was looking for a hobby, and I had picked up a good number of skills doing a family genealogy, and I realized they were the same set of skills I would need to search for the Civil War veterans. It ballooned and ballooned to the point where I found 1,500 people between Huntington and what is now Babylon, which was part of Huntington until 1873.” In 2007, Farrell self-published the results in a 67-page paperback book, “Our Veterans Brave and Noble.” Copies are available by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org; the cost is $21.95 plus postage.
During his research, Farrell came across many other veterans of the period who lived elsewhere in Suffolk. “I continued to just make a list of them,” he said. “I came up with almost 3,500 people in Suffolk County.” By expanding his roster to include Nassau veterans, he was able to incorporate his findings of some Suffolk soldiers who had been buried in the adjacent county. “So far I’ve got more than 2,000 people from Nassau,” he said.
Farrell’s detective work relies on post-Civil War books, websites such as findagrave.com and data sheets from state archives. He also asks friends who like to explore cemeteries to jot down the name on any gravestone that indicates Civil War service so he can do the research. His list includes people who lived here, enlisted here or were buried here, even if they died elsewhere. Many of the soldiers on Farrell’s list are buried locally, but he tracked one soldier to Anaheim Cemetery in California and another to a national cemetery in Milwaukee.
His target areas of research also include a portion of Queens County that is now part of Nassau County, and anyone identified as a member of the 1st New York Congressional District, which covered that area in the 1860 census. Farrell’s expansive approach can lead to overestimation of the number of Long Islanders who were in the war, both he and Civil War historian Harrison Hunt agree.
Hunt, a former supervisor with the Nassau County museum system who for more than two decades has studied the Civil War as it relates to Long Island, said while “a master list is something that Civil War buffs and local historians have been asking about for years, the approach that he is taking is very broad.” Some of the men included by Farrell were carried on town records to meet enlistment quotas but were actually residents of Brooklyn or other areas who had been paid a bounty to serve as substitutes, Hunt said. He estimates the number of local Civil War soldiers to be 3,000-3,500.
But Farrell sees it from a different angle. “I look at this list of veterans through the eyes of a person who wants to find information concerning their ancestor,” he said. “My theory for including a veteran is simple: If he was from here, later came and lived here or is buried here, then there is valuable genealogical data” that the veteran’s descendants would want to have concerning his service.
Among the dead, Farrell said there are “somewhat famous people nobody knows about.” For instance, Charles A. Abbey, who served with the Revenue Marine, the predecessor of the Coast Guard, and was in charge of all the lifesaving stations in the country after the war: Once a resident and trustee in the Village of Northport, Abbey is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
Then there is Regis de Trobriand, the only French general in the war. He lived in Bayport and is buried in the cemetery of St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Sayville.
“There are all kinds of people that we never knew about,” Farrell said. “Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ grandfather, John Vernou Bouvier, is buried out in the Hamptons.” Bouvier served as a captain in the 80th New York Infantry. He died Jan. 2, 1926, and is buried in Most Holy Trinity Cemetery in East Hampton.
Farrell’s favorite Long Islander in the war is Frederick W. Mather, who served in the Seventh New York Heavy Artillery Regiment before becoming an officer with the 24th United States Colored Troops Infantry, an all-black unit with white officers formed after the Emancipation Proclamation. In June 1864, Mather was captured at the Siege of Petersburg in Virginia. According to the Long-Islander of Huntington, Mather’s sword was kept by Confederate Capt. Wilson H. Brewster. The newspaper reported that after Brewster died in 1890, his sword was found among his effects and the Army and Navy Journal published an item about it. Mather wrote Brewster’s widow, who returned the weapon, and Mather wore it in a Huntington veterans’ parade.
Mather was the first superintendent of the Cold Spring Harbor Fish Hatchery and introduced brown trout to American fishing streams after getting the roe from a German baron, said Farrell, who devotes about 20 hours a week to his project. Most of the time he works in his office, filled with files and books on the second floor of the home he shares with his wife of 64 years, Barbara.
The results of Farrell’s research so far are available on two genealogy websites: Italiangen.org and Germangenealogygroup.com. By year’s end, his listings will also be on the state military museum and North Shore Civil War Roundtable websites. He also uses the material he finds to write a “Long Island Veterans Remembered” column in Drumroll, the Roundtable newsletter.
Farrell’s plans after completing the Nassau rolls includes more research, he said. “I’ll probably go back to doing my own family tree genealogy, which needs some more work.”