Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Rare and Stunning Images of Civil War Pelham Engraved from Photographs Taken In 1864

"A disciplined American soldier is the most invincible one in the world."

-- Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Nov. 19, 1864
Discussing the Training of Raw Army Recruits in Pelham.

The United States Army has Basic Combat Training camps for army recruits at Fort Benning, Fort Jackson, Fort Leonard Wood, and Fort Sill.  The United States Marine Corps has its own recruit depots including those in San Diego and on Parris Island.  Thoughts of training military recruits at such sites evoke images of the nation's toughest drill sergeants barking orders at raw recruits to whip them into shape and to transform them from raw young men to professional combat troops. 

Few can imagine training combat troops in the tiny little Town of Pelham, New York.  Yet, tens of thousands of raw army recruits were mustered into service and trained in Pelham during the Civil War. 

Today the U.S. Marine Corps has its Parris Island in South Carolina.  In days gone by, the U.S. Army had its Hart Island in the Town of Pelham.  Hart island operated as a "draft rendezvous" during the Civil War where men reported to be mustered in and then were housed, trained, and drilled until ready to fight. 

Hart Island lies in Long Island Sound about a half mile east of City Island.  The two islands are separated by a stretch of water known by some as City Island Harbor.  The 85-acre Hart Island is about one mile in length, from north to south, and somewhat less than a half-mile in width.  The island has been known by a number of names including Lesser Minneford Island, Little Minneford Island, Spectacle Island, and Hart Island.

John Hunter (of Hunter's Island fame) purchased Hart Island from Nicholas and Mary Haight in 1819 for $3,250.  The island appears to have been a "barren and desolute [sic] spot . . . destitute alike of inhabitants, trees and buildings" until the Civil War when John Hunter, Jr. leased all or most of the island to the U.S. Army.  The Army bought the island outright in 1868.  Although owned by the Army, the island remained part of the Town of Pelham until the area, including Hart Island, was annexed by New York City in 1895. 

As early as March, 1864, and perhaps earlier, the Army erected barracks and housing on Hart Island to support the mustering in and training of new recruits.  Among the early units mustered in and trained on Hart Island was the 31st United States Colored Troops (USCT) organized under the command of Colonel Henry C. Ward.  According to one source: 

"The 31st USCT was organized on Hart Island during April 1864 under the command of Colonel Henry C. Ward.  In May 1864 the 30th Connecticut Colored Volunteers consolidated with this regiment.  Additionally, a number of Black Canadians and other foreign born Blacks served in the New York regiments.  From Hart Island, the 31st departed for Virginia where it was active in a number of battles, including the siege of Petersburg.  The Hart Island regiment was there during the mine explosion and the fall of Petersburg on April 2, 1865.  It pursued Lee's Army from April 3 through April 9 and was at Appomattox before, during and after the Confederate surrender on April 9, 1865.  The 31st USCT was one of 17 regiments that formed an advance line and moved towards Appomattox from the west and prevented Lee's army from escaping.  Two Black units from other states were in this line while three other Black regiments were among other Union units positioned in the rear.  A number of Confederates surrendered to those regiments and were subsequently paroled under the surrender agreement.  The 31st Regiment was one of 32 regiments that made up the 25th United States Army Corps, the only Army Corps in the history of the country to be made up entirely of Black infantry regiments." 

Source:  NY State's Civil War 'U.S. Colored Troops' Organized, Trained on Rikers & Hart Islands, New York Correction History Society Web Site (visited Dec. 4, 2016).

Over the next few months the training facilities on Hart Island were improved and expanded.  Between late March and mid-November, 1864, over 50,000 men were received, trained, and dispatched from Pelham to battlefronts throughout the nation. 

In late 1864, the Army began constructing a prisoner of war camp on a tiny section of land on the southern tip of the island.  The prison facility opened in April, 1865, just as the war was drawing to a close.  During the three months of April, May, and June, a total of 3,413 Rebel prisoners were held in the camp (including Nathaniel Henry Bouldin of the 57th Virginia Infantry, a 2nd Great Grandfather of the wife of this author who died of cholera while imprisoned).  The mean number of prisoners held at any one time in the camp was 3,031.  The men were confined in such close quarters that each had the equivalent of 102 cubic feet of air space.  About 235 prisoners died (many of cholera) during confinement on Hart Island, a shockingly-high mortality rate of about 6.89%. 

Detail from 1884 United States Coast Guard Survey
Nautical Chart No. 361 Entitled "CITY ISLAND
Island. Note the Many Buildings on the Island, Many
of Which Were Part of the Military Training Facility
During the Civil War. The Dotted Lines Outlining a Rough
Oval at the Southern Tip of the Island May Depict the
Area Once Enclosed as a Rebel Prisoner-of-War Camp.
NOTE: Click on Image to Enlarge.

On November 19, 1864, a popular national publication, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, published an article on the new military facilities constructed on Hart Island.  Significantly, the article included several important engravings of outdoor scenes (and one indoor scene) on the island.  The engravings, according to the article that accompanied them, were based on photographs of Hart Island taken by "Mr. Tyler, the well-known photographer."  The article and published engravings shed important light on what the military recruit training facility on Hart Island was like in 1864. 

NOTE: Click on Image to Enlarge.

The first engraving (immediately above) shows the portion of Hart Island on which the military training facility was built.  In the waters on the right, in the foreground of the engraving, is a steamboat.  This likely depicts the steamboat John Romer.  It was the principal means of transportation to and from Hart Island at the time.  According to the article published with the engravings, passengers on the John Romer traveling to Hart Island typically were packed as thickly as sardines or figs in a "figdrum."  Indeed, if you pay close attention to the steamboat in the image, it is packed with passengers. 

Barracks and officers' quarters appear visible on the high ground of the island in this view.  The prisoner of war camp was built on lowland on Hart Island.  Some reports indicate it was built on the northern end of the island, but it now seems clear that it was built near the southerly tip of the island.  Close inspection of the image shows that in addition to the many buildings that appear to be painted white, there are many more that appear to be of unpainted wood that, though difficult to see in the image, are scattered all over the landscape.

NOTE: Click on Image to Enlarge.

The second engraving (immediately above) shows the headquarters of Brigadier-General (at the time) Edward Winslow Hincks, the commander of the training facility and ranking officer on Hart Island.  Hincks (born May 30, 1830 in Bucksport, Maine; died Feb. 14, 1894 in Cambridge, Massachusetts) grew up and was educated in Maine, moved to Boston and became a member of the Massachusetts Legislature.  He volunteered for service early in the War with the 8th Massachusetts Regiment, later being commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the regular service and then promoted to Colonel of the 19th Massachusetts Volunteers.  After suffering wounds, he commanded the draft rendezvous on Hart Island from October, 1864 until January 1865, then became the chief mustering officer for the United States in New York City until the end of the War.

Cabinet Card Depicting Brigadier-General Edward
Winslow Hincks During the Civil War.
NOTE: Click on Image to Enlarge.

The engraving above showing the headquarters of Brigadier-General Hincks includes two women approaching the facility with a man and a woman standing on the porch of the headquarters building, facing the approaching women.  It also shows what appears to be an armed guard standing in front of the picket fence near the smaller structure.  According to multiple accounts, many of the officers assigned to the recruit training facility on the island brought their wives and family members with them to live in the officers' housing.  The larger structure depicted in the engraving has three chimneys while the smaller one only has one, certainly a necessity during the brutally cold winter months when gale-force winds could sweep over Long Island Sound.  The image shows buildings that were indicative of the small but well-kept wooden structures built on the island as part of the draft rendezvous and training facility.

NOTE: Click on Image to Enlarge.

The third engraving (immediately above) shows the quarters for officers and soldiers surrounding a parade ground.  There appears to be an officer on horseback with two men standing next to him.  They are watching at least four groups of soldiers drilling on the right and in the distance.  Also in the distance are two couples near some of the residences as well as a group of men near a tree.  In the foreground is a man atop a piece of training equipment and, nearby, are two men who appear to be carrying a piece of equipment.  In the distance on the waters of Long Island Sound may be seen at least nine sailing vessels and what may be a small steamboat.  Although it is only speculation, the officers quarters appear to be on left, fenced, where the two couples may be seen, while the soldiers' quarters appear to be on the right, unfenced.

NOTE: Click on Image to Enlarge.

The fourth engraving (immediately above) shows a Battalion drilling on a rather cramped parade ground.  A drill sergeant, perhaps, appears to be standing before the men who are carrying weapons.  In the foreground appears to be an open crate, a canvas, and lumber (perhaps camping equipment for a demonstration?).  On the right, many men can be seen in the shadows of the various barracks buildings adjacent to the parade ground viewing the Battalion Drill. 

This image clearly depicts what, according to the accompanying article, was known as the daily "Battalion Drill" on Hart Island. Every afternoon at 5:00 p.m. there was a full dress parade that was attended by many of the officers and, sometimes, their wives.  According to the article:  "The band of music is in attendance, and plays at intervals an agreeable melange of airs both operatic and patriotic.  The whole scene is very inspiring."

NOTE: Click on Image to Enlarge.

The fifth engraving (immediately above) is the most fascinating of the group.  It is a rare depiction of the interior of a soldiers barracks.  There appear to be about ten rows of double bunk beds lining each of the two long exterior walls of the structure suggesting that the barracks was designed to sleep about forty men.  Interestingly, however, on at least the first three sets of double bunk beds on the right, there are FOUR rifles at the ready with hanging cartridge boxes standing at the foot of each of the bunk beds.  This suggests at least the possibility that the bunk beds were shared at times, two to a bed, and that the barracks could sleep up to about eighty men.  That would not be particularly surprising given that the comparatively small number of barracks buildings on the island were known to hold up to 4,000 men at one time.  Indeed, according to the article published with the engravings, the recruit training camp at Hart Island was so busy in 1864 that it became "one of the busiest and most thickly populated spots in our State." 

There are three groups of soldiers depicted in the engraving.  In the foreground is a group of three.  Two are chatting while the third looks directly at the viewer.  On the right is a pair of men talking.  One is standing.  The other is seated on a lower bunk bed holding an open book in his lap.  In the background is another pair of soldiers who also appear to be talking. 

There seem to be two wood-burning pot-bellied stoves in the barracks to provide heat.  One is plainly visible in the center of the image.  The second seems to be obscured by two soldiers talking in the foreground, but its stovepipe extends up and through the ceiling and is plainly visible.  It is most certain that soldiers must have jockeyed for position vis-a-vis the warm pot-bellied stoves on cold winter nights. 

It appears that above every bunk bed is an eight-over-eight paned window to provide ventilation -- certainly a necessity on hot summer days on Long Island Sound.  Indeed, the article published with the engravings suggests that when the barracks first opened, ventilation was a problem but the problem later was solved.  Such windows, on both sides of the building, likely provided precisely that solution.  Hanging from the rafters high above is a wooden bucket.  Its purpose is unclear. 

The accompanying article also provides additional fascinating insights into military life on Hart Island in the Town of Pelham in 1864.  When the military first took control of Hart Island, its objective was to create a training site where it could "convert a raw recruit into the trained soldier."  According to the article, each new batch of recruits scheduled to muster in on Hart Island gathered at the Battery at the foot of Manhattan to be transported to the "drilling ground" of Hart Island on the John Romer

The article points out that in addition to General Hincks's Headquarters, the officers' quarters, and the soldiers' barracks, there were also reading rooms in which were "found all the publications of the day, besides some few foreign magazines and newspapers," although there were only a small number of books.  Additionally, at the south end of the island there was "a very neat building, which contains a library, two good-sized rooms, one for the officers and the other for the men, and a very spacious concert-room, which will also be used for Masonic purposes."  The article further noted that a small series of concerts was scheduled for November 14, 1864.  It said "the vocalists will be selected from the soldiers, the regimental band being the orchestra.  The band is a very fine one, consisting of 20 pieces, the drum-major, Mr. Wiley, having formerly occupied that position in the Hawkins's Zouaves." 

As the engravings and accompanying article confirm, the little Town of Pelham played a far more important role in the Civil War than its tiny size (and its location far from the battlefields of the day) might otherwise suggest.  Yet, that role has largely been forgotten not only by Pelhamites, but also by the nation Pelham served.

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Below is the text of the article that accompanied the engravings that are the subject of today's posting to the Historic Pelham Blog.  The text is followed by a citation to its source.  An original copy of the publication published on November 19, 1864 is in the author's possession.


TILL within the last four years all we have known of the practical part of war has been from books.  Our idea of the life of a soldier belongs entirely to the bygone heroic, rather than to this common-place epoch.  The every day notion seems to be that, like Minerva, a soldier springs ready armed and equipped, and disciplined for battle.  The processes through which he passes are unknown to the million.

Our readers will, however, perceive, from the series we present in this number, some of the stages which convert a raw recruit into the trained soldier.  The genius of our institutions will always prevent our citizens from degenerating into those mere machines which monarchical subjects invariably become, but still the natural effect of training shows itself, and the result is that a disciplined American soldier is the most invincible one in the world.  

Hart's Island was a barren and desolate spot some few months ago -- destitute alike of inhabitants, trees and buildings.  It is situated about 18 miles from New York, in the bend of the East river, at the entrance to Long Island Sound.  It is now one of the busiest and most thickly populated spots in our State.  All the machinery necessary to make a first-rate soldier is there, and, while there are undoubtedly many cases of individual oppression, it is generally conceded that it is as well and humanely managed as any institution of the kind can be.

Departure of Recruits.

The moment a recruit goes on board the John Romer steamer, which takes him from the Battery to his drilling ground, he parts with his personal freedom -- he delegates to others his volition.  He is no longer free to act as he wishes.  And what a motley assemblage a parcel of recruits represents.  Every variety of the human race is there.  The drunken loafer, henceforth to be broken of his intemperance and his indolence -- the disappointed man, who has enlisted in a moment of half despondent indignation and despair -- the angry man, who has done so from domestic trouble -- the destitute, whom misery has driven into the great net.  These, however, are more the exceptions than the rule.

The brilliant fighting qualities of our men sufficiently prove that the greater part of our armies is composed of noble and patriotic men, whom the love of the Union has called to fill their ranks.  

It is curious to observe how, at first, the sharp word of command, as it issues from the officer's mouth, seems to jar upon the nature of the recruit.  It takes some time to make him amenable to reason, and to obey with alacrity the word of command.

Arrival at Hart's Island.

One of the first steps taken on the recruit's arrival is to make him perform various ablutions and transmogrifications, so as to give him a look more like a part of a great machine than an individual.  He is registered, and, as it were, endorsed -- and docketed -- ready for detailing into this or that regiment when sufficiently drilled.  

Many of the recruits declare that, in a short time, they feel a great calm in being relieved from the daily cares of life.  The haunting importunity of being obliged to think how they are to live, from day to day, is removed and a contented security succeeds to what before cost them many a sleepless hour.  The effect of regular meals and abstinence from stimulants soon becomes apparent, and the body acquires a healthy, vigorous tone to which it had long been a stranger.  It is a very curious study to note the different characters of the men as they develop themselves in their daily intercourse.  The quarrelsome become less so, the talkative husband their words, and the vivacious and mercurial acquire a steadier behavior. 

Interior of the Barracks. 

The first thought that struck us when we entered the barracks was, that they were stables.  The berths had a regularity which put us in mind of stalls, and the men seemed transformed into a species of horses.  We heard, as by instinct, one continued chorus of snores, something half way between a lengthened grunt and an organ. 

It must be confessed that the barracks are very commodious, and are well ventilated now -- although at first many complaints were made.  But perfection is of slow growth, and the barracks and Rome were not built in one day. 

The Officers in Command. 

It would be difficult to select better officers than those now occupying the most important posts on the island.  

General Hincks, the chief, is a gallant and experienced soldier, and is only just recovering from wounds received on the 15th June before Petersburg, where, at the head of his colored brigade, he carried the first line of works.  He has the reputation of being a very exact disciplinarian, a quality which pre-eminently fits him for his position.  He is most ably supported by Captains Shannon and Chase, whose habits of dispatch, courtesy and order are invaluable.  Captain Shannon is much mistaken, if every true soldier, as well as good citizen, does not appreciate the self-denial and continuous labors of those officers who are compelled to remain at home to 'organize victory.'  The valor of our officers in the field would be of little avail but for the labors of such men as Shannon and Chase and Euen.  Their attention to the comfort and health of the men have earned for them the respect of even those whom they are occasionally compelled to deny and punish.

Reading-Rooms and Concert-Room.

At the south end of the island there is a very neat building, which contains a library, two good-sized rooms, one for the officers and the other for the men, and a very spacious concert-room, which will also be used for Masonic purposes. 

A series of concerts will be commenced on the 14th Nov., in which the vocalists will be selected from the soldiers, the regimental band being the orchestra.  The band is a very fine one, consisting of 20 pieces, the drum-major, Mr. Wiley, having formerly occupied that position in the Hawkins's Zouaves. 

In the reading-rooms are to be found all the publications of the day, besides some few foreign magazines and newspapers.  The number of books at present is very small; but, of course, when it becomes known, numerous donations cannot fail to come, since all must know that an intelligent soldier is not only the bravest man in the field, but the true conservator of our constitutional liberties. 

New Barracks for Rebel Prisoners. 

At the extreme southern end of the island, on a sort of peninsula as it were, there are now being constructed immense barracks for the reception of rebel prisoners.  They are calculated to accommodate 5,000 comfortably, but will hold more on a pressing necessity. 

Apropos of prisoners, an officer, who has just come from before Richmond on a short furlough, mentions, as a very significant fact, the great change that has come over rebels when brought in as prisoners.  Two years ago they were bitter, abusive, vindictive and dogged, full of threats; now they accept the fortune of war with so much good-temper as to be the next thing to satisfaction with their capture. 

The Accommodations. 

Hart's Island, which is about one mile in length from north to south, and somewhat less than half a mile in width, affords accommodation for about 3,000 men, although more than 4,000 have been there at the same time on several occasions.  Since the end of March last over 50,000 men have been received, trained and dispatched to the seat of war.  There are at the present time about 2,000 recruits, who are rapidly being drilled into good soldiers. 

The Officers' Quarters. 

These are very pleasant little residences, with a cottage look, eminently vocative of summer -- but a woman's clever management can always give life and warmth, and as many of the officers have their families with them, they, no doubt, are what they look, pleasant homes, although somewhat circumscribed in space. 

The larger house is that allotted to the General commanding, and has been successively occupied by Generals Brown, Jackson, and now by General Hincks. 

Battalion Drill. 

At five o'clock every afternoon there is a dress-parade, which is attended by many of the officers, and sometimes by their wives.  The band of music is in attendance, and plays at intervals an agreeable melange of airs both operatic and patriotic.  The whole scene is very inspiring. 

Conveyance To and From. 

Our space will only allow us a few words more, and these we will give to the transit there and thence. 

In the first place, you must procure from Gen. Dix's office, 48 Bleecker street, a pass to visit the island.  This duty devolves upon Lieut. Babcock, a most attentive and courteous officer. 

The boat John Romer, Capt. Brett, is presumed, by a fiction worthy of Dumas, to start from the Battery at half past nine.  The morning we went it did not get away till nearly 11.  The fare to the island is 50 cents -- pretty good for 21 miles of water-travel.  It stays at the island half an hour, and then departs, leaving the visitors no alternative but to take a small tug -- the most villainous little tub that ever hissed through the water -- to New Rochelle.  Columbus never suffered half the inconvenience in discovering America that the passengers do in discovering New Rochelle.  Imagine the painful position of a susceptible man, clutched at on every lurch of the boat by some young and lovely creature, whose eyes are dimmed with tears shed on parting with her lover on the island, and who is compelled to hold on to the next passenger in a little boat so crowded that its inmates have to stand on deck, packed nearly as closely as figs and sardines. 

That it often leads to romantic friendships is certain, since we saw a young and gallant officer of the ------- U.S. Artillery captured twice, once by a fair raider in a blue veil, and finally, without hope of ransom or exchange, by a still lovelier one in a vermilion shawl.  With such attractive perils it is perhaps not too much to be charged 50 cents for your share of this figdrum or sardine box.  Nor are your troubles over on landing, for you have to take a carriage to the railway station, in such a state of dilapidation that a fifth wheel would be a blessing, so as to be ready to take the place of that wheel which seems always on the point of coming off, and will one of these days.  For this ride you are charged only 20 cents, while the handsome and gentlemanly treasurer of the railroad charges only 55 cents for a ride to 27th street, where you are left alone and unprotected to find your way home.  Surely the Government ought to keep the John Romer till three o'clock in the afternoon, so as to avoid this heavy tax on the mothers, wives and children of the soldiers.  Among the redeeming features of the John Romer are Captain Brett, and his most courteous and liberal steward, Mr. Voorhees. We must not forget to than Mr. Tyler, the well-known photographer, for his excellent views, some of which we have engraved." 

Source:  HART'S ISLAND, EAST RIVER, NEW YORK, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Nov. 19, 1864, pp. 139, 141.

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Although, until today, I never have written extensively regarding the use of Hart Island in the Town of Pelham as a draft rendezvous and recruit training facility during the Civil War, I have written extensively about the Confederate prisoner of war camp built on the island.  For examples, see

Mon., May 02, 2016:  Additional Research on the Confederate Prisoner of War Camp During the Civil War on Hart's Island in the Town of Pelham

Mon., Feb. 22, 2016:  Report on Prisoner Deaths at the Confederate POW Camp in Pelham During the Civil War

Wed., Oct. 21, 2015:  Ministering to Troops on Hart and Davids Islands During and Shortly After the Civil War.  

Thu., Jun. 12, 2014:  Eyewitness Account of Prisoner of War Concentration Camp That Once Stood in Pelham

Fri., May 21, 2010:  The Announcement of President Abraham Lincoln's Assassination in Pelham, NY on April 15, 1865

 Mon., Mar. 29, 2010:  Nathaniel H. Bouldin, a Poor Confederate Prisoner of War Who Died in Pelham in 1865.

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