History of the Town of Schaghticoke

the results of research about the history of the town of Schaghticoke

Tag Archives: US Colored Troops

Fact and Fiction and an Unusual Civil War Vet

 

Honestly, I am biding time in my column. I am just about finished with a long piece about Schaghticoke around 1900- at this point about 50 pages long- but it’s just not ready yet. So I have been sharing bios of local men who fought in the Civil War. These were written a few years ago and have not been published. I was prompted to share the story of Henry J. Simmons as a good friend just told me the version of his early life that he had heard. I have heard much of what he told me too, and feel it is a tall tale, though much more exciting than his real life. I think I can set the record straight, though it will take a couple of columns to do it.

Henry Simmons was born in Canaan, Columbia County on March 8, 1831. I can’t find him in the public record before the Civil War, but I believe I found his parents in the 1850 US Census for Canaan: Charles, 55, and Harriet, 50, Simmons, plus a daughter Dorsey, age 19.  Charles was a laborer with a personal estate of $400. I’m quite sure this is the correct family as Henry and his parents were free blacks, and certainly in a real minority both in Columbia County and here.  I haven’t found Henry in the census that year, however. All blacks were free in New York State after 1828. Many freed slaves moved away, though not the Simmons.

I sent to the National Archives for Henry’s Civil War pension file, and it provided lots more information. He married Julia Jackson in 1852 in Rochester, NY.  Julia was working in the hotel of John Schriver in Kingston as of the 1850 U.S. Census, when she was 18. They had three children born before the war: Daniel in 1854, Richard, in 1856, and Julia, in 1860. Henry was also unusual as a free black with a wife and family. Most were individuals, either black barbers or black cooks or serving maids in hotels.

henry simmons 2

On September 5, 1864 Henry enlisted in Company H of the 20th U.S. Colored Infantry. The regiment had been formed at the end of the year before, in response to the desire of black men to serve in the Civil War following the publication of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the need of the Union army for more men. It mustered on Rikers Island in New York City. Shortly after formation, it went to New Orleans, where it served through the end of 1865. Only one enlisted man died in combat, but 263 died of disease out of the regiment of 1000 men.

Henry gave his age as 35 when he enlisted. He was 5’6” tall, and gave his occupation as farmer. He gave his birthplace as Canaan, New York. Henry mustered out after one year of service, with the rest of his regiment, in September 1865.

I know from Henry’s pension file that he was in an Army hospital for some months in 1865, suffering from jaundice. He also told a long and detailed story about receiving an injury to his right foot. While in the hospital, Henry had improved a bit, and a doctor asked him to hold the horses of his carriage. He and his wife were going to go for a drive. The flies were bad and one of the horses swiped at flies with its back foot, which it put down directly on Henry’s right instep. He ended up back in the hospital, still ill, but now with a badly injured foot. Henry was discharged from the hospital but never really returned to duty and walked with a limp thereafter. After a few years, his foot began to break open and drain yearly, for the rest of his life.

After the war, Henry lived in New York City for a few months, then in Albany for a few months more. He moved back to New York City in the fall of 1866 and lived there until 1872. He was coachman for a W.P. Furness. In 1873, he moved to Schaghticoke. I know these movements from Henry’s pension file, but don’t know where his family was during all of these years, nor why he moved around.

The first time I can find Henry in the census after the war, he and his family were living in the village of Schaghticoke in 1875, with Henry listed as a laborer. I wonder if he came here because he had heard of Schaghticoke from Amos Vincent, a local man who was a fellow soldier in Company H. In the 1880 US Census, Henry and wife Julia, 43, listed children Cordelia, 15; Emma, 13; Isadora, 6; and Harry F., 10 months old, in their family. Henry had a good-paying but dangerous job in the gun powder mill; Cordelia and Emma worked in the woolen mill.

From the records of Elmwood Cemetery, I know that Henry and his wife had had a younger son named Harry, born in August of 1875, who lived just 9 months. The Harry born in 1879 died at age 11. And the cemetery records give Henry’s wife’s name as Candis Julia Jackson. She was born in 1837 and died in 1887 of pneumonia.

Henry applied for a  Civil War pension in 1885, before they were available on the basis of old age. His claim was based on his foot injury, and was rejected. Several of his fellow soldiers testified about the circumstances of the injury, but their descriptions were contradictory. And the Army’s hospital records showed he was only hospitalized for jaundice, not for a hurt foot.

But several local people testified as to his disability. These neighbors, Herbert H. Dill, John Healy, and Nelson Viall, all stated that Henry was a man of good character, a hard worker, who lost a couple of months of work each year due to his foot injury and used a cane or crutches often. His local doctors, W.C. Crombie and D.H. Tarbell, described the injury in great detail. Dr. Tarbell, a fellow veteran, added that Henry now had kidney problems in addition to the foot injury. Dill and Healy were also veterans.

In 1890 he began to receive a $6 per month pension just based on old age. Henry applied for more money in 1896, adding in the foot problems again, and did get more at that point.  Of course he appeared as a widower in the 1900 US Census. Now 69, he was still a powder maker, living in the village. His daughter Cordelia, now 34, took care of the house, which included her sisters Isadora 24, working as a twister in the woolen mill, and Maude, 19, who was a servant. Maude had been born in 1882, so lost her mother at age 5.

A surgeon’s certificate in the pension file describes Henry in 1898, aged 67: 5’10” tall, 145 pounds, in fairly good health except for his right foot, but with no teeth except for a few stumps. The doctor felt he had some heart problems which led to his shortness of breath, plus some rheumatism.

Three little granddaughters, Ruth Lovelace, born in 1889, and twins Edith and Edna, born in 1892, lived in the family in 1900 as well. They were the daughters of Henry’s other daughter, Emma, who had married Edward Lovelace.  Emma died of heart disease at just 25 in 1892, leaving the three little girls. Edna died in 1907. The father of these girls was not far away. As of the 1900 census Edward Lovelace lived in a rooming house in Troy, and worked as a porter. Presumably he lived in Troy for work.  He was also black, born in New York in 1860. His parents were born in Florida. It is interesting to speculate how they ended up in New York in 1860 if they were slaves in Florida. Edward died of tuberculosis in 1915, and is also buried in Elmwood.

The 1910 US Census listed Henry on West Street in the village of Schaghticoke. Now 79, he was retired. His daughter Cordelia, 44, was still keeping house. Granddaughters Ruth, 20, and Edith, 18, still lived with them. They worked as twisters in the linen mill.

Soon after, Cordelia and Henry moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, along with daughter Isadora. He received an increase in his pension, to $24 a month, in 1912, and to $35 in 1919. Henry died later that year, aged 87, of nephritis. The government paid $153 for his funeral and interment in Elmwood. Unfortunately his death date was not added to his tombstone.

It would be interesting to know for sure how Henry found Schaghticoke. He evidently fit into the community, though it was as rare for a black family to live in the village then as it is now. He lived surrounded by women- his daughters and granddaughters.  He was a member of the local post of the G.A.R. The testimony of his neighbors in the pension file clearly shows that he was a valued member of the community who suffered almost daily from his war service. He must have had an amazing constitution!

 

henry simmons 1

This photo appeared in two local books: Arthur Herrick’s “Stand Proud Sonny” and Richard Lohnes’ “Schaghticoke Centennial Booklet”. This is Herrick’s caption, wrong on two counts- Henry was not a slave and the photo was before 1920. Lohnes says this is the Hartshorn G.A.R. Post (the Schaghticoke one) c. 1915.

So you are asking, where is the fiction?  Arthur Herrick, born in 1903, grew up in Schaghticoke. When he retired from his printing business in Mechanicville in 1967 he wrote his memoirs, published as “Stand Proud Sonny: Village Life at the Turn of the Century,” edited by Walter Auclair. There is a long passage in the book where Henry recounts his life story to the author, then a child.  As far as I can tell,the story is entirely false. Was it made up by Arthur or Henry? I’m assuming that an old man had a great time telling all of this to a gullible child.  As recounted, Henry was an escaped slave from Virginia, educated alongside the son of a beloved master. After his death, Henry was employed as a stud, fathering 300-500 children! As the war began he escaped, joining the cavalry, staying in the Army long after the war, serving all over the West and ending up in Vermont, where he met his wife and retired from the Army on a partial pension. All of this is false, including his final statement that there was a place reserved for him in the Soldiers’ Plot at Elmwood – his family has its own plot.

Henry Simmons

Central stone in the Simmons plot at Elmwood. Henry has his own small stone as well.

To me, while Henry’s true story is not as exciting and salacious, it is commendable. He was a hard-working family man who found a niche and lots of support in a conservative upstate community.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Henry Lay Bliss, Ambitious and Daring

 

I am sharing the biographies of a few of the 300 or so men connected with Schaghticoke who fought in the U.S. Civil War. Many local men served in Company K of the 125th NY Infantry Regiment. They left Troy about September 1, 1862, went to Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and were surrendered as part of a Union Army of 11,000 men two weeks later to the Confederates under General Stonewall Jackson. After spending the winter in an internment camp in Chicago, they returned to duty in Virginia and fought out the rest of the war.

Henry L. Bliss enlisted as a Private in Company K in August of 1862 at age 19. He was born in Schaghticoke, and had brown hair and blue eyes. He was 5’10” tall and gave his occupation as student. For that to be his occupation, he must have been attending college somewhere. Nineteen was too old to be in a local school.  Though his record card states he was born in Schaghticoke, I believe he was born in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1843.

Henry’s mother Julia was the daughter of Colonel Bethel Mather, a prominent farmer in Schaghticoke. He had been a Colonel of the local militia at the time of the War of 1812.  His farm house was where the M & T Bank is now. Julia Mather attended Emma Willard’s Troy Female Seminary, a very rare thing in the 1820’s.   In 1840 she married Henry Bliss, born in Massachusetts, who was a farmer. Henry, age 34, and Julia, age 30, show up living with her parents in Schaghticoke in the 1850 US Census, along with son Henry, age 7, our future soldier,  and daughter Mary, 5. Mary died the following year.

Parents Henry and Julia attended the local Presbyterian Church. Julia died in childbirth in 1859.  Colonel Mather died in 1861 and listed among his heirs the son of his deceased daughter Julia: Henry of Springfield, Massachusetts. He may have been living with relatives of his father in Springfield, perhaps attending school there. When it came to enlisting in the Army, Henry returned home.

henry Bliss card

NYS Muster Card of Henry Lay Bliss

He was promoted to Sergeant in the 125th  in April 1863. In March 1864 he accepted a commission as a First Lieutenant in the 31st  Regiment, Colored Troops. As the war went on, partially because President Lincoln had turned the focus to the abolition of slavery, partially due to the need for more men, the Union began to recruit African-American regiments. The officers, however, were white. Some of the officers were idealistic and sought to work with the blacks, others were men who saw an opportunity for promotion. Several men from the 125th joined the Colored Troops as Lieutenants. Ezra Simons, author of the history of the 125th Regiment, noted that “men going from us on such service were all men of a marked force and exalted character. They had passed a rigid examination, for only men of special fitness were deemed qualified to land in a service demanding not only intelligence and skill and patience but unusual daring.” He added that if captured they would surely be shot.

The 31st participated in the vicious battles of the Wilderness and Cold Harbor, and the sieges of Richmond, and Petersburg in June and July 1864. They stayed around Richmond through the winter of 1864-1865, and were at Appomattox when Lee surrendered in April. The Regiment served in Texas until they were discharged in the fall of 1865. By then Henry had been promoted to Captain. He is listed on the African-American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C. , see below.

African am. civil war mem. (2)

By the 1870 US Census Henry was a painter living in Chicago, Illinois. That occupation usually indicates the person was a house, carriage, and sign painter.  He married Laura Lane in 1873.  They lived in Marshall, Iowa for a time and had three children. The 1900 US Census listed him back in Chicago, with a second wife, Nellie H.  Henry was now 57, still a house painter, but was also the census taker!  He remained in Chicago.  Henry also worked periodically as a special policeman for the board of education.

plutocracy's statistics

Henry died in 1916, at age 72, and is buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery in Chicago.  He was widowed, and still worked as a special policeman for the board of education. The bare facts of his life hide his private work as a statistician. An article in a magazine called “The Public” on January 23, 1916 states that though Henry was a paperhanger by trade, he “was known to a wide circle of readers as a statistician. He was a frequent contributor to the press, and during the free silver agitation he wrote a book.” It was as a newspaper controversialist..that he distinguished himself. No one, from the Superintendent of the U.S. Census down to the densest protectionist was immune from his criticism; and it was rare indeed that he failed to make his point. Mr. Bliss was a fundamental democrat and devoted all his spare energies to the propagation of Free Trade and Singletax.”   The book was called “Plutocracy’s Statistics: Statistical Lies and Liars, Official and Unofficial.” Published in 1900, it is still available on amazon.com as the company considers it “culturally important.” Henry Bliss must have been a very interesting person.