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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

From Soldiers' Home to Medical Center


Excerpts from the new book by Robert E. Yott
Photo courtesy of the author

In early April of 1863, the Civil War entered its third year with no immediate end in sight. The casualty list for the north had risen to over 101,000 dead, wounded and missing. Ex-Governor Edwin Morgan of New York observed veterans returning home disabled, unemployable, and homeless and seen the need to establish a refuge. He pushed the issue until the State Legislators passed an act to incorporate a State Soldiers' Home on April 24, 1863. This was two years before one of the last acts signed by Abraham Lincoln incorporating a National Asylum for disabled volunteer soldiers and sailors of the Civil War.  

Large contributions were made but a State Board of Trustees, after canvassing the area found that patriotism was now running high in the North. The thought of returning veterans being turned out into the street or housed in asylums and poorhouses was absurd. Families and friends were reluctant to have their veterans committed to an asylum so the idea was dropped.

In 1872 Major-General Henry A. Barnum, Department Commander, Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), raised the issue once again. He convinced Legislature to pass an act incorporating a Soldiers’ Home. Ironically, no funds were appropriated for the project and after several attempts, the G.A.R. in 1875, decided to appeal directly to the public. The response wasoverwhelming and on May 15, 1876, Governor Samuel L. Tilden signed the act incorporating the Grand Army of the Republic Soldiers' Home of the State of New York.

Corporal James Tanner took the lead. At the request of Tanner, The Reverend Henry Ward Beecher spoke at the Academy of Music in Brooklyn; raising over $14,000 in just 35 minutes. After a four-year struggle, the New York State Soldiers’ Home was becoming a reality.

On June 1, 1876, notice was given to all places interested in hosting the Home. The following responded: Elmira offered 50 acres and $25,000; Penn Yan offered 188 acres on Lake Keuka and $5,000; Watkins offered 200 acres and $5,000 and Bath offered 220 acres and $6,000 in cash and offered the services of the Davenport Institute for Orphaned Girls for soldiers who were admitted. Bath won after a tie breaking vote.

On Wednesday, June 13, 1877, the GAR semi-annual encampment was held in Bath to coincide with the cornerstone laying ceremony. No fewer than 20,000 people attended including twenty reporters.

On April 8, 1878, the Grand Army of the Republic Soldiers’ Home of the State of New York was transferred to the state and renamed the New York State Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Home. On Christmas Day, 1878, the first 25 Civil War veterans admitted to the Soldiers' Home sat down to a banquet.  

Billed as the greatest event of the year 1879 in the Conhocton Valley, the formal opening of the New York State Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Home took place on January 23, 1879. The 13th annual Department Encampment of the G.A.R would take place on Wednesday, January 22, 1879, to coincide with the official opening. Among the many guests and speakers were Commander-elect General James McQuade, General Wm. F. Rogers (Department Commander), The Honorable William Prior Letchworth of Buffalo, Past Commanders Corporal James Tanner,  John C. Robinson and Henry A. Barnum. General Henry W. Slocum and the Letchworth Rifles under the command of Captain Abram B. Lawrence, of Warsaw were also present.

On Wednesday, Commander Rogers called the Annual Encampment to order. In his opening address he remarked that no other public building was ever erected for the same number of men at such a small cost. For this, Rogers recommended that Superintendent E. C. Parkinson should be praised. Commander Rogers then pointed out that the Soldiers' Home was the incentive needed to bolster the membership of the G.A.R., proving how essential the G.A.R. was to their comrades in need.

General Slocum, President of the Board of Trustees, in his speech shared that New York State had contributed 445,758 men, or 1/6 of the 2,690,401 soldiers that answered the call to defend our country. More than 1,500 New Yorkers who had resided in almshouses, or poorhouses, before the war answered the call to proudly serve their country. (In March of 1877 a survey was made of the 60 poor-houses in New York State; only 28 responded, stating that over 400 veterans were again residents of said homes.)There were now more than 9000 veterans, many of them New Yorkers, residing in four National Homes established shortly after the war. These four National Homes were located in Togus, Maine; Dayton, Ohio; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Hampton, Virginia. One Soldiers’ Home, established in 1851, was located in Washington, D.C. This was a Home for Regular Soldiers who were disabled, crippled or well advanced in years and could only house 400 men.

Using these numbers, General Slocum explained the reason why the need was so great for a Soldiers' Home here in New York. General Slocum continued, remarking on the contributions made by the public and the cost of the Home. In his closing remarks, General Slocum stated “Although this is now a State institution, and must be hereafter supported by the State, it bears the name of ‘The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Home of the Grand Army of the Republic.’”  He also stated, “Here is erected a monument which will perpetuate the Grand Army, whose comrades can appreciate the services of
the humble heroes who will be gathered within these walls.”

General Slocum then read a dispatch from Edwin F. Brown, Governor of the National Home in Dayton, Ohio, saying 800 New York veterans of the Dayton Home “... united with him in sending greeting and congratulations.” (Governor
Brown was unable to attend the ceremony due to delay of the train.)

After the glee club and audience sang “Marching Through Georgia” Past Department Commander Tanner was introduced amid cheers of the crowd. Corporal Tanner began by stating that although he had never broken down in front of an audience, he thought he might today, merely because the Home was finished. Tanner reminisced about how Senator Ira Davenport, E. C. Parkinson and he reported to the Senate Committee on Finance seeking approval for their proposal. He also spoke of the first subscriptions secured in Brooklyn and the mass meeting led by Henry Ward Beecher at the Academy of Music. Beecher had told him “. . . when the work got heavy and we needed help . . . he would go to every city, town and village and lecture for us.”

Tanner announced that they would not be content with just three buildings, not while there were wounded and disabled soldiers in the poorhouses and the National Homes. Tanner also called for a building here in which to hang in a prominent place every tattered battle-flag of the state.

Tanner then spoke of his visit with Governor Brown of the National Home in Dayton, Ohio and remarked that hundreds of New York veterans had asked him for the opportunity to return to New York. Tanner had promised them that a Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Home would soon be built. Tanner now spoke of how those men are “. . . gazing
eastward with longing eyes, hoping we will send for them.”

Corporal Tanner concluded his speech by stating, “In the name of those who suffered and died for the Union we ask the help of the people of the State for these men.” The Home was now officially opened.



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