Posts Tagged ‘civil war heroes’

Many Nyackers are unaware that Oak Hill Cemetery contains an entire section dedicated to Nyackers who either died fighting the Civil War or were Civil War Veterans. Two Generals are actually buried there, but one was particularly special – he convinced Abraham Lincoln that the time had come for African Americans to be allowed to fight in combat in the Union Army for after all, who had more of a stake in the outcome…? Read on…

civil war memorial


At a time when it seems that selfishness and partisanship often appear to be the rule of the day in all levels of government, I thought a Nyack story about a public figure devoted to fairness, justice and the spirit of “All Men  Are Created Equal” was in order. Many of us have seen the movie “GLORY” but may not realize that Nyack shares in that glory…

Daniel Ullman (sometimes spelled “Ullmann”) was born in April of 1810 in Delaware, and moved to New York City after graduating Yale University in 1829 (you’ll note, he was all of 19 years old!). He passed the bar in New York and began a law practice.  Also something of a minor politician, he ran for Governor of the State of New York in 1854, gaining 26% of the vote.  When the Civil War began, he volunteered and was made a Colonel in the 78th New York Infantry. In August of 1862 he was captured at Cedar Mountain and became a prisoner of war at Libby Prison.  He was paroled in October, and immediately went to Washington to speak to President Lincoln about an idea he thought would help save the Union, and represent just what our Nation was supposed to be all about.

The idea was the inclusion of Black Soldiers – free and those freed from bondage – as regular members of the Union Army. Not servants, not support or camp followers. Soldiers.  A somewhat radical idea for that time period (despite the numerous African-American soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War) President Lincoln was at first cool to the idea, concerned with how some of the top brass of his own troops might feel about the concept, AND the fact that his own coup – The Emancipation Proclamation – was due to become law on January 1, 1863. Too many “radical” ideas at once might break the remaining states of the Union apart.  After that stunning proclamation, Lincoln called Ullman back to D.C. further discuss the idea.

photo: public domain

In January of 1863, Ullman was promoted to Brigadier General and sent to Louisiana under the command of General Banks, where his orders were to raise five regiments of African-American troops, given the designation of Corps D’Afrique, though commonly nicknamed Ullman’s Brigade.  Despite this victory for Civil Rights, all was not smooth sailing for Daniel Ullman and his troops.  In a letter to General L. Thomas dated May 19th, Ullman would bemoan the lack of respect for his troops – the tendency of lower level officers to attempt to use his troops as nothing more than ditch diggers and drudges and those officers’ reluctance to believe African-American troops would be “capable” under fire – and the overall lack of competence of the white junior officers assigned to his command.

Vindication for Ullman and his recruits was just days away – the troops would see their first major action on May 27, 1863 when they advanced over open ground in the face of devastating artillery fire.  Ullman’s Brigade, made up almost entirely of men born into enslavement, desperate for the freedom our Constitution promised all men, stormed the Confederates at a place on the Louisiana shore of the Mississippi River ironically named PORT HUDSON!  They would not win this military battle.  Many of the soldiers desperate for their freedom found their freedom that day only through the boundaries of death. The battle they won, however, was mental and moral. General Banks would write in his official report of the Battle of Port Hudson that: “Whatever doubt may have existed heretofore as to the efficiency of organizations of this character, the history of this day proves…in this class of troops effective supporters and defenders.”  Another “cherished” myth – that African-Americans could not effectively fight as a unit – was laid to rest.  For really, who had more of a stake in the outcome of this conflict than men for whom victory meant liberty and defeat continued bondage?  Amazingly, the display of courage shown by the Corps D’Afrique in the Battle of Port Hudson actually spurred more enslaved men to escape their masters and join the Union Army.  Please note that the more famous assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina – chronicled in the movie “GLORY” – and fought by the African-American freemen of the 54th Massachusetts occurred several months AFTER Ullman’s troops made their history at Port Hudson. And recall, while Colonel Shaw of “Glory” fame commanded African-American freemen – tradesmen, scholars, artisans and professionals from New England – Ullman commanded former slaves fighting for their very existence.

Ullman’s Brigade was officially renamed “The United States Colored Troops” and served with distinction through the seige of Mobile in early 1865.  However, in February of 1865, Ullman was detached from his command and sent to New Orleans for “rest”. For at heart, Ullman was a thinker and advocate, not a warrior.  The stress of a command constantly plagued with prejudicial suspicion and distrust, and the constant uphill battle for equal treatment had worn him down.  By the spring of 1865 he had developed a serious alcohol problem and was mercifully taken off the front lines, and out of the command structure he’d had to constantly buck for two bloody years.  He was mustered out in August of 1865 and given the rank of Major General.

After the war, where else would he retire to but Nyack-on-Hudson?  He spent the Reconstruction years with literary and scientific studies – and speaking on tolerance and his assertion that “equality of education and universal suffrage” was the right of all citizens of this country, and would be the only means towards healing in the South. Unfortunately, his dreams of equality and suffrage would not bear fruit in the South for almost a century.  Daniel Ullman – Lawyer, Statesman, Scholar, General and Civil Rights Pioneer – died peacefully at his home in Nyack on  September 20, 1892 at the age of 82.  He is buried on the slopes of Oak Hill Cemetery in view of his beloved Hudson. An adopted son of Nyack, perhaps, but so welcome in the diverse tapestry that is our history. Heroes, real heroes, are in short supply in any century, and I’m proud to claim this hero as one of “ours”.

Oak Hill Cemetary on US 9W, across from Nyack Hospital.  Take a walk through the magnificent burial grounds and offer your respects to General Ullman’s grave, along with the other celebrities, authors, artists and politicians making up Nyack’s “permanent” population.  

photo: J.P. Schutz

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In February of 1879 a remarkable woman passed away here in Nyack.  She was born right here in Rockland in 1808 to John and Jane Moore of Tappan – her father was well-known all over Rockland and he owned the Mill on the Sparkill Creek. He was one of the wealthiest men in the area at the time, and invented an improvement on the Mill Wheel that was utilized all over the Hudson Valley. He was proud to have his Mill producing blankets for the Union Soldiers fighting the Civil War.  It is frighteningly unclear how this freeborn young lady wound up enslaved but kidnappings of free african-americans were not unknown at the time and despite her father’s notoriety and community support it appears her family was unable to liberate her from her bondage in the American South.

photo: Nyack Historical Society

She would meet her husband during her period of slavery – Edward Hesdra was the “mulatto” son of  a white Jewish Virginia planter and a free black woman from Haiti.  They would purchase her freedom and flee north, settling first in Greenwich Village where she began a laundry and a money lending business.  Through hard work and smart investment, she soon owned (in her own name, it appears her hubby was not so industrious) her own home, and a dozen other properties on MacDougall, Sullivan and Bleecker Streets.  Having established the beginnings of her personal fortune, she moved herself and her husband to Nyack for its’ healthier environment.

Here she would again establish another laundry business and another money-lending business while continuing to operate her businesses and manage her properties in Greenwich Village.  Soon she would own additional properties in Nyack and nearby Bergen County along with her local and city businesses and properties. By the standards of the time, she was quite a wealthy self-made woman – by today’s standards a multi-millionaire.  She and her husband were also quietly helping others still in bondage in the unrepentant South – by opening their home as a station on the “Freedom Trail” – the mysterious and legendary Underground Railroad.  With the night sky’s constellations as their guide and the threat of torture or death behind, intrepid men and women slipped away from plantations and farms seeking the north and freedom meeting helpful “station keepers” – both white and black – on their dangerous journey to freedom.  (A new sculpture in the center of Frederick Douglass Circle at Central Park West and W.110th Street shows the constellation “map” used by the fleeing slaves – drop by and check it out!)  Though many chose to run the tracks all the way to Canada and away from the United States, some of the fugitives would choose to stay in Nyack – led there by the constellation map and the Nyack Brook – or in New York City where they could lose themselves in the large free-black community.

At the time of her death in February 1879, Cynthia Hesdra had acquired quite a fortune, and her death sparked a precedent setting and much publicized court battle by her heirs, including her husband.  Previously unknown Wills, additional falsified wills, unknown relatives and fraudulent heirs all marked a battle that played itself out in the Courtroom and in the Papers, until 1890 when it was finally all settled.  The New York Times of June of 1890 would sum up the contentious probate battle in a series of stories called “For An Ex-Slave’s Fortune”.  The case would mark the first application of a new law in New York State that allowed for comparisons between known and disputed signatures.

The historically significant Hesdra House stood at the corner of Main Street and 9W but was torn down to build the utterly charming and well-utilized tan and brown building on the corner that formerly held a pet supply center and a rug store.  You may sense my sarcasm here, and though even though as a Real Estate agent I am in favor of development, I consider the loss of a historic structure without a significant reason and well-researched development plan to be nothing short of sinful.  We have so little left in the area that is significant historically, let alone significant to our long-term African-American community, and I wish that there had been some responsible thought in maintaining a home that played a pivotal past role to so many people alive today.  Granted, there is a historical marker in place on the corner – but in a final insult to a woman who went from freedom to enslavement to self-made real estate tycoon, the home is listed in her HUSBAND’s name on the marker, despite the house and the fortune coming from HER industrious nature.  If you cross 9W from the marker and walk down the hill to the Provident Savings Bank, you can see one of the few places where the Nyack Brook is not culverted, but still open to the sky – the same sky that led fleeing slaves to the Brook, where they would follow its’ banks to a safe haven in Cynthia Hesdra’s corner home.  A local resident recently proposed that the brook property be acquired and a Village Park established with historical markers to explain the significance of the site, and benches to allow one to sit and appreciate an untouched part of Nyack’s original environment. I would like to heartily second that wonderful suggestion!

photo by Michael Herrick

If you want to find out more about Cynthia Hesdra, Dr. Lori L. Martin, a Dean at John Jay College in NYC and a Nyack native has written a book that like the New York Times series of the late 1800s is called “The Ex-Slave’s Fortune”.  Local and significant history at its finest.  Look for it on Lulu.comhttp://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-ex-slaves-fortune/3889603

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In keeping with the “spirit” of October, All Hallows Eve or Samhain (take your pick) I’ll continue with two of our local cemeteries reputed to come with a “little something extra”. For each, I’ll give the alleged haunting first with history second.


HAUNTING:  Since I was a kid, I’ve heard stories of people who SWORE they saw someone pass them as they were reading the stones, only to look up as they passed and find no one within hundreds of yards of their location.  A former resident of the caretaker’s house reports playing hide-and-seek type games when he was very little with children he only later realized could NOT have been there (no wonder they were so hard to catch!).  The caretaker’s home itself has had a certain number of reports of footsteps, doors opening and other haunting type phenomenon all around the structure – not a surprise perhaps as two different former caretakers suicided there.  One extensive reporting of “Phantom Walkers” regards a young woman in jeans who walks vacantly past in broad daylight.  This apparition began shortly after the burial of a young lady who’d been killed in a car accident, and her boyfriend told me the outfit that witness claimed the spectre was wearing sounded exactly like her favorite.

HISTORYFounded June 27, 1848 this large, beautiful, hillside cemetery winds up the side of the mountain ridge affording spectacular views of the Hudson from the upper sections.  A walk through this spectacular graveyard (still expanding, which cause a bit of controversy a few weeks back!) reveals elaborate tombstones, monuments, pillars, obelisks, weeping angels, and a large number of elegant mausoleums.  Most touching, perhaps, is the “Children’s Area” an area very close to the top of the ridge that for a time was limited to the graves of the very young. Recognizable permanent residents of Oak Hill include actress Helen Hayes and her playwright husband Charles MacArthur as well as his writing partner, Ben Hecht the screenwriter of “Gone With the Wind” and many other film classics; Americas’ greatest realist painter and Nyack native, artist Edward Hopper; Author Carson McCullers of “Member of the Wedding Fame”; Filmmaker and artist, Joseph Cornell; Nyack’s homegrown Civil War heroes Col. Edward Pye who commanded the New York 95th regiment at Gettysburg, Grant’s Overland Campaign and was mortally wounded at Cold Harbor in 1864 AND Brigadier General Daniel Ullman who was commanding general of the first black troops raised by the Union.  Also scattered among the well-tended rows are many other famous artists, designers, musicians, and several congressmen.  A free walking tour of Oak Hill is coming up on Sunday, October 24 from 2 to 4 pm sponsored by the Friends of the Nyacks – for info: http://friendsofthenyacks.org/2010/10/17/oak-hill-cemetery-tour-sundays-200-p-m-may-2-and-october-17/


HAUNTINGThe legend has remained the same for a long, long, LONG time.  I can find references to it in Nyack histories going back as far as the late 1800s.  A Revolutionary War era soldier sits his lonely sentry post atop one of the stones, musket forlornly held across his lap, awaiting a relief guard who will never come. I always thought it far more tragic than scary, and as a teenager we used to walk by on autumn evenings hoping to catch a glimpse of him… but we were perhaps too noisy, too intrusive, and perhaps too much WANTING to see something that a whole gaggle of us might have simply been too much, if indeed it is even possible that a solitary disincarnate guard WAS still protecting Nyack from the Redcoats.  I will say that it is a mournful, melancholy place at night – less frightening, more sorrowful. It was not until many years later when I was 40, riding by on my bicycle at dusk on my way from Marydell that something odd occurred. Braking hard to keep control on my way down Old Mountain Road, I noticed somebody leaning on one of the stones downhill from me in the old cemetery, looking like he was smoking or something.  Immediately I thought the police were going to be annoyed that someone was in there after dark, but wasn’t going to bother him.  That’s when I saw the sign – I had not seen the new historical marker they had erected and skidded to a halt to read it.  And noticed I was alone. No one was in the Burial Ground, nor was there a deer or a bush or anything that might have fooled me. Either I had been mistaken in the gloom of twilight and my subconscious mind chose the shape from my teenage love of the legend of the cemetery, or… well… or I finally saw him. The soldier. If he’d waited, I’d have relieved him for a while… it’s the least I could do for one of our original veterans.  You can check out the investigation of the Old Palmer Burial Ground by NPI –  Nyack’s own Father/Son team of Paranormal Investigators – that was performed in 2009 by linking over to their site (on another tab, of course!) at: http://64nywf65.20m.com/uncem/uncem.htm.

HISTORYThe Burial Ground began operation in the 1730s, on the land of Corneilius Kuyper who was the original settler of this area of Upper Nyack in 1686.  Kuyper himself was the first burial in 1731 and his wife Aeltje followed him 4 years later.  There are 66 graves, including 3 Revolutionary War soldiers. I do not know if “our” soldier is BURIED there, or was supposedly KILLED there… (which is entirely possible, if you read my “Today in Nyack History” post that will appear tomorrow, October 15). If he is buried there, then he is likely to be Corporal Philip Sarvent as neither a Captain nor a Major would have been on sentry duty along the only road from Rockland Lake to the Hudson during the Revolution.  The Old Palmer Burial Ground is on the north side of Old Mountain Road in Upper Nyack between Midland and Broadway.  It is easily accessible from the road, but remember that cemeteries are generally off-limits at night (I stood at the gate to take my pics) and somewhat dangerous – not from spooks mind you, but from uneven ground, sinkholes, knocked over tombstones, exposed roots and sadly, deer ticks.  The Burial Ground is administered by the Town of Clarkstown so get permission if you want to do any kind of research there.  The nifty historical marker was a gift from another Nyack realtor, Russ Wooley.

All photos, J.P. Schutz

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