A Catskill Catalog: May 20, 2009
On November 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois was elected President of the United States. Lincoln, a one-term Congressman and former Illinois state legislator, had made a name for himself two years previous, when, as a candidate for the United States Senate, he had argued persuasively against the extension of slavery into any new territories in westward-expanding America.
Lincoln was the presidential candidate of the newly established Republican Party, founded in 1854 as a union of anti-slavery activists, free-market entrepreneurs, and progressive modernizers, who sought to move America beyond the debates that had dominated the country for decades toward a more prosperous middle-class future. The new party was organized under the slogan “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men.”
Lincoln was actually something of a moderate on the slavery question, clearly opposed to its extension, but always careful to avoid suggesting any federal action that would disturb slavery in the states where it existed. He was criticized by more activist Republicans for this moderate stance.
But states rights Democrats and southern apologists for slavery were downright frightened by Lincoln’s election. Six weeks after the election, South Carolina seceded from the United States, repealing, on the 20th of December, its 1788 ratification of the Constitution. A week later, the U.S. Army garrison at Fort Moultrie in South Carolina relocated to the more defensible island-base at Fort Sumter.
Lincoln was three months away from taking office, and already political division was breaking up the country. The newspapers were full of talk of war. Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, and Georgia were preparing Articles of Secession of their own. Hostility was rampant.
It was against this backdrop that 14 officers of the New York State Militia – what we would today call the National Guard – met on January 7, 1861 in the parlor of an elegant home in Rondout, now Kingston’s waterfront district. Colonel George W. Pratt, commander of the 20th Regiment of the State Militia, addressed the group. His topic: preparation for the war that Pratt thought was inevitable.
Pratt was a Greene County native, born in Prattsville, where his father, Zadock Pratt, ran the Catskills’ largest tannery. George Pratt was highly educated, both in the United States and abroad. He spoke several languages, had a large personal library, and had long been active in the state militia and in state politics.
A Democrat, Pratt had represented several Catskills counties in the State Senate in the 1857-58 term. We can’t know how he voted in the 1860 presidential election. We do know that, for George Pratt and hundreds of thousands of others, patriotism trumped party loyalty.
Late that night, after much heated discussion, these volunteer part-time citizen-officers authorized Colonel Pratt to “tender the services of the regiment to the Federal Government if and when needed.”
It was needed on April 12, 1861, when artillery units, under orders from the Governor of South Carolina, bombarded their fellow soldiers garrisoned in Fort Sumter. The next day, the United States Army at Fort Sumter surrendered the fort to South Carolina.
Two days later, President Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 volunteers to enlist for 90 days to help put down the rebellion. The Governor of New York quickly echoed the call for volunteers.
Colonel Pratt and his officers immediately resolved to answer the call. They established recruiting offices in Kingston, Rondout, Ellenville, Shokan and Samsonville. A surge of patriotism brought hundreds of volunteers.
Dubbed the “Ulster Guard,” the 20th New York Militia sought volunteers from 18 to 45 years of age, men in “physical strength and vigor” who would rally “to defend the National Capitol and to maintain the Constitution and the Union.”
Since Greene County had no regiment of its own, recruitment offices for the Ulster Guard were set up in Hunter, Windham, and Prattsville.
The Ulster Guard left the Catskills to serve their country on Sunday, April 28, sailing down the Hudson to New York City. From there they later embarked to Annapolis, Maryland, entering the fight in June, suffering their first active duty death on June 15.
Meanwhile, in Delaware County, volunteers answered the call of Governor Edwin D. Morgan to join the 72nd New York Volunteers, a statewide regiment established under the authority of the War Department at Camp Scott on Staten Island. Company I was recruited and organized in Delhi under the command of Captain Robert T. Johnson.
The Delaware County company left Delhi on June 4, 1861, marching downriver to Walton and Hancock before leaving the county to make their way to Staten Island. There, Company I, along with the rest of the 72nd Regiment, was incorporated into the Brigade commanded by General Dan Sickles, a hero at Gettysburg.
The Ulster Guard also went on to play their part in the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. Today, a monument stands to their memory on that battlefield. Another stands in memory of George W. Pratt, who died in September 1862 as a result of wounds suffered in the Second Battle of Bull Run.
That Catskill Mountain native was one of over 618,000 Americans killed in the Civil War.
The story of the Ulster Guard and other Catskill area Civil War units is ably told by Seward R. Osborne of Krumville, in several booklets available from Longstreet House, PO Box 730, Hightstown, NJ 08520.