Tombstone of John Wool in Oakwood Cemetery, Troy
The next time you drive east on Alternate Route 7 toward Troy, take a minute to notice the tall granite shaft sticking up on the side of the wooded hill, just to the left or north. It looks like the Washington Monument, only smaller. It is the tombstone of General John Ellis Wool, in Oakwood Cemetery, Troy. If you haven’t been in the cemetery, turn on in, and head over to the edge of the hill to see the tombstone and the view to the west. Or keep your eye out for the notice of tours of the cemetery. The tombstone is definitely worth a look, as is the rest of the cemetery. The Gardner Earl Chapel is a National Historic Landmark.
I am claiming John Ellis Wool as a product of Schaghticoke, which will not seem true if you Google him. What Wikipedia and I agree on is that John Wool was one of the most important men in the U.S. Army in the 19th century.
John Wool’s great-grandfather Jurgen Woll arrived in New York City from Finland around 1700. One of his sons, James Wool was born about 1725 in New York City. James and his second wife and five of his seven children moved to a farm in Schaghticoke in 1762. The farm was located off Fogarty Road on what is now Wetsel Road. James’son John stayed behind in New York City as an apprentice to a heel and last maker, (a last is a form around which shoes are made), but he and his wife Ann joined his father by the time of the Revolutionary War. John and his brother James, Jr. served in the 14th Albany County Militia under Colonel Knickerbocker. Two of James Sr.’s sons ended up as prisoners of war, confined on British prison hulks in New York Harbor. One died during that ordeal.
In December 1783, the war over, John the heel and last maker decided that he and his family would return to New York City. En route, they stopped in Newburgh. Perhaps he tarried there because of the imminent birth of his sixth child, the future general, John Ellis Wool, on January 31, 1784. John Sr. continued on to New York, and set up a heel shop in the city, returning for his family in August. In July, 1790, John Sr. died, just before the birth of his eighth child. His poor widow sent six-year-old John north to live with his grandfather in Schaghticoke. She remarried and died shortly after. In 1796, grandfather James apprenticed twelve-year old John to a merchant in the new city of Troy. Troy had just been surveyed in 1787 and only had about 500 residents. So John Ellis Wool spent the formative years of his childhood, from age six to twelve, in our town, on his grandfather’s farm.
John Ellis Wool opened his own dry goods store in 1803, quite an accomplishment for a young man of 19. It was on River Street, facing the river, in the downstairs of the building that housed “The Northern Budget” newspaper. The business thrived, and John began to get involved in his community. In 1808 he joined the “Troy Invincibles”, a militia unit, in which he was an ensign. In 1809, the joined the Saint Tammany Association, a civic and political group, which marched in elaborate uniforms in parades. He also married Sarah Moulton that year. She was the daughter of one of his first employers in the city. In 1810, a fire began in the printing office which burned John’s store. His livelihood destroyed, John tried clerking for a lawyer in Troy, and ran for county sheriff, but lost. When the War of 1812 began, Wool enlisted in the Army and obtained a captaincy in the 13th Regiment, due to his militia service.
An interesting sidelight to this career is that John was the executor of his grandfather’s estate when James died in 1805. Why this 21-year-old was the executor and not one of his grandfather’s children, his uncles, we do not know. Perhaps it was in recognition of his intelligence. The will does not survive, but the inventory of the estate is in the files of the Rensselaer County Historical Society. The total value of James Wool’s personal estate was $224.77, almost half of which was debts owed to him by his neighbors. The only animals listed were two cows and eight sheep. The next most valuable possessions were two featherbeds and a fanning mill.
When John Wool joined the Army in 1812, he found his destiny. He was a hero of the War of 1812, promoted to Major after the battle of Queenston, Ontario in 1813, when he served in the regiment of Stephen VanRensselaer. General Van Rensselaer ordered his men to cross the treacherous Niagara River in too few boats at night, then to scale a vertical cliff with the British Army at the top. His nephew Lt. Colonel Solomon VanRensselaer was in the first wave with Captain John Wool. They made it up the cliff and attacked the British. Solomon was badly wounded almost immediately, and Wool stepped in and led the charge, despite the fact that he was also wounded. The attack and invasion ultimately failed, but Wool’s heroism and skill were noted. He served with distinction in the battle of Plattsburgh in 1814, and was promoted to Colonel. By the end of the War, he was Inspector General of the whole U. S. Army.
The original uniform coat of John Wool during the war of 1812-preserved and owned by the Rensselaer County Historical Society in Troy.
One of Wool’s later responsibilities was to relocate the Cherokee Indians in what came to be called “The Trail of Tears.” He came under criticism at the time because he refused to allow the state militia working with his federal troops to abuse the Indians. He did his job, but was very sympathetic to the plight of the Indians. By 1841, he was a Brigadier General and Commander of the Department of the East. He traveled throughout the East, visiting each of the military installations under his command. He also traveled to Europe to inspect installations there. Wool had come a long way from Schaghticoke.
General John Ellis Wool
During the Mexican War of 1845-1846, General Wool first led his troops 900 miles from San Antonio into Mexico, capturing the city of Saltillo. Then he led his troops in the Battle of Buena Vista, so distinguishing himself that he was awarded a Congressional sword and promoted to Major General. Incidentally, he is the subject of the oldest surviving military photographic image, a daguerreotype of him riding into Saltillo during the War. Wool was mentioned as a possible candidate for Governor of New York in 1850.
the hilt of one of the ceremonial swords given to John Ellis Wool. This one is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York
After the War, Wool also headed the Department of the Pacific and settled the Indian Wars in Oregon. His letters at the time showed that he was very much against the persecution of the Indians. His reputation as a General was that he was very strict, believed in firm discipline and following the rules to the letter. He did not smoke, used no profanity in a very profane age, and drank in moderation. Interestingly, Wool was only 5’2” tall, but did not need height to have a strong command presence. He felt that honor was man’s chief virtue. But he was no prude. He entertained lavishly, was a wine connoisseur, read widely and often quoted Shakespeare. Throughout his life, he tried to maintain his headquarters in Troy. Wool was famous. He was mentioned as a Presidential candidate in 1852, 1856, and 1860, though he declined any interest in politics.
This glorious hat, one of those belonging to John Wool, is in the collection of the Rensselaer County Historical Society in Troy.
When the Civil War began, Major General Wool was 76 years old. Despite his age, he rode several hours each day, and was in vigorous health. He also was the General in command of the Department of the East- stretching from the Great lakes and the Mississippi to his home in Troy. His headquarters was in Troy, where he was much of the time. The 1860 census lists Wool and his wife Sarah at their home on First Street, with a family including Mr. Isaac Hart, gentleman, and his wife, plus three female and two male servants, all but one black. Wool was a Democrat, but a determined Unionist, who attended a peace conference in February 1861, after the election of Lincoln.
Wool went to Washington, D.C. as war neared, certainly a strong supporter of his country no matter his political party, and helped with preparations for Lincoln’s inauguration. Soon after he moved his headquarters to New York City and was very active in getting the northern military on a war footing. He drew on arms and ammunition from both the Watervliet and Springfield, Illinois armories to supply new troops. On April 23, 1861 he wrote to Lt. General Winfield Scott, commander of the US Army and his contemporary in age and experience, worried that Washington, D.C. could easily be taken by the new Confederate Army and stating that New York City was ready to furnish him 80,000 men. Wool’s initiative was not appreciated by the more lethargic and perhaps jealous Scott, who ordered him back to Troy. He stated that this was due to Wool’s “feeble health,” not true.
By August Scott was ready to call on Wool for help, offering him command of the Department of Virginia. Wool served for a year, taking initiative to secure Fortress Monroe, near Norfolk, Virginia, for the Union, vitally important for strategic control of the James River and Chesapeake Bay. He was in command when the Rensselaer County Regiment, the 125th, was among those surrendered at Harpers Ferry in September of 1862. He had told the commander, Colonel Miles, not to surrender under any circumstances.
In June 1862, Wool was transferred to command of the Middle Department of Maryland. As such he was in charge of a major camp of instruction and the defense of many strategic railroad lines. His last command was back to the Department of the East in 1863. As summer advanced, he was concerned that he kept losing troops from New York City to reinforce General Meade in Pennsylvania. His concern was justified when the notorious draft riots broke out in July 1863 and he had few resources. He complained that there was a confusion of command between state and federal authorities. At that point he was almost 80 years old, the oldest General to serve on either side in the Civil War. The Army retired him, much to his dismay.
John Ellis Wool returned to his home on First Street in Troy, an extremely celebrated man. Military bands from Troy and Albany came by to serenade him often. By 1867, he was in ill health, but supported five families, relatives of his sister and his wife, on the income from his investments. In 1869 he received an honorary degree from Williams College. Later that year, he fell while walking in his garden, and died shortly after. His funeral, out of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, drew 30,000 people into the streets of Troy. 30,000 people- imagine the scene!
He left bequests amounting to $650,000 in his will, a huge sum at the time. He had investments in 25 different banks. Among the inheritors were RPI and Williams College, several orphan asylums, and his Wool cousins in Schaghticoke. His cousin Benjamin was a blacksmith/farmer in Speigletown at the time, and lived on the original family farm. Wool also gave large sums of money to relatives of one of his sisters and to relatives of his wife.
The tombstone of John Wool being erected in Oakwood Cemetery in Troy
General Wool’s tombstone, quarried in Maine, was the largest single piece of granite to have been excavated to that point, about 60 feet tall. It took four tries for an obelisk to be quarried successfully. It was laboriously moved from Maine to Troy by sea. Mounted on rollers, it was pulled up Hoosick Street by horses, a process which took ten days, and erected in Oakwood Cemetery on an Egyptian-style base, resulting in a total height of about 75 feet. Wool’s home, at the corner of First and Ferry Streets is now owned by Russell Sage College, and is used as an honor students’ dormitory. It still has a Victorian sofa in its living room which was Wool’s. Its wooden parts are carved with his name, plus “Buena Vista”- his important battle in the Mexican War, and “Fortress Monroe,” the fort in Chesapeake Bay which he had responsibility for defending at the start of the Civil War. Fort Wool is close to it today. The Rensselaer County Historical Society owns more of Wool’s furniture, including a beautiful bed, plus one of his presentation swords, his uniform coat from the War of 1812 (a very rare survival), his saddle, a chapeau de bras, and some other uniform parts. The very small coat is proof of Wool’s 5’2” stature. Currently it is a centerpiece of an exhibit at the Candadian War Museum in honor of the Bicentennial of the War of 1812. The gorgeous sword is in the War of 1812 exhibit at the Rensselaer County Historical Society, 57 2nd Street, Troy.
home of John Ellis Wool on 1st Street in Troy, now an honor student dormitory for Russell Sage College
John Wool certainly traveled a long way from his birth en route to New York City, a childhood spent on a farm in rural Schaghticoke with his grandparents, an early apprenticeship and very little formal education, to total success in the US Army, wealth, philanthropy, fame, and sophistication. He must have been an amazing man. It is the quintessential American experience.
Bibliography: Hinton, Harwood; John Wool, U. of Wisconsin, 1960.
Will of John Ellis Wool in the collection of the Rensselaer County Historical Society
Obituary of John Ellis Wool, “New York Times”, Nov. 11, 1869
1860 Federal census