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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

One Man’s Contribution to the War Effort

by Rob't E. Yott
Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved by the author.

As we enter the third year of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, I feel it appropriate that remember one of the many veterans of Steuben County, whose tireless efforts helped to preserve the Union; Major John Stocum.

John Stocum was born in Pultney, Steuben County, on April 27, 1825. That same year his father drowned in the Conhocton River. Alone and penniless, John moved to Bath in1840. Here he learned the cabinet making and undertaking trade. In February of 1847 Stocum, a member of the First Presbyterian Church married Elizabeth Metcalf of Bath. Together they had at least three children; John L., James D. and daughter, Osie (nicknamed Kate.) When his son John was old enough he joined his father’s business. The Directory of 1854 shows Stocum and Son had a warehouse located on the eastern edge of Pioneer Cemetery on West Steuben Street. In 1858 Elizabeth died. Stocum remarried in June of 1860. His new wife Susan B. Townsend of Elmira gave birth to Frank and Ruby.

In 1852, Stocum had joined the local militia, the 60th Regiment, 27th Brigade, New York State Volunteers and served as the orderly sergeant. When its commanding officer, Captain Levi C. Whiting, was promoted to major, Stocum was commissioned captain by New York governor Myron H. Clark. Stocum served in this capacity until 1858. He also served as watchman for the village of Bath from 1853 to 1857.

When the Civil War broke out in early 1861 President Lincoln called for troops. General Robert B. Van Valkenburgh of Bath asked Stocum to recruit members for a new regiment being formed, the First New York Light Artillery. Stocum wasted no time. In just two weeks enough men enlisted from Bath and nearby towns to form Battery E. Stocum was elected its captain.

Mustered into service in Elmira, Battery E departed for Washington, D.C in late October. It was here that the volunteer officers of the regiment would attend the school of instruction in tactics and gunnery. Like many of the volunteer artillery officers, Captain Stocum failed to qualify. As a result, he was relieved of command and unceremoniously discharged from service. Command of the battery was given to newly promoted Captain Charles C. Wheeler of Bath. In the first week of January, 1862, Stocum returned home. New York Lieutenant-Governor Robert Campbell, also of Bath, wrote the War Department and demanded Stocum be reinstated or at least allowed to re-take the exam.

In February, armed with letters of introductions from Governor Campbell and the Honorable Guy McMasters of Bath, Stocum headed to Washington to meet with General James Wadsworth. The general ordered Stocum to Yorktown, Virginia where Battery E was stationed. Taking a steamer to Fortress Monroe, Stocum arrived in time to watch the “Monitor” and “Merrimac” do battle for the last time. After a three day’s march with very little food Stocum was inside Union lines, where he found the boys of Battery E. After a brief and jubilant visit Stocum continued on to the division commander, General William F. Smith. After Stocum stated his business the general abruptly denied him a re-examination. Knowing that argument was futile Stocum returned to the battery.

The next morning saw Battery E heading out for their first battle. Stocum followed and remained 500 yards to the rear as his battery fired the first rounds in the battle for Yorktown. An artillery duel ensued and he watched as his boys knocked out the rebel artillery while taking several near-fatal hits. After the battle Stocum was commended by Colonel Guilford T. Bailey for having the best drilled battery in the regiment.

Stocum turned for home while Battery E, now known as Wheeler’s Battery, would serve gallantly throughout the war. Being the first artillery unit to land on the peninsula, it fired the first shots on the Army of the Potomac’s advance on Yorktown during the Peninsula Campaign. Although being nearly decimated by a lightning strike while on the peninsula, the battery continued to serve. It saw action at Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Petersburg and Appomattox.

Disheartened, Stocum returned to Bath but his stay would be temporary. President Lincoln called for an additional 300,000 men in July of 1862 and for any districts unable to meet their quotas, a draft would be instituted. The War Committee, having limited success recruiting for the newly forming 161st New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment decided to call upon Stocum for assistance. Despite his recent experience with the military, Stocum agreed and immediately sprang into action. Again, in two weeks’ time, one hundred men from Bath and Howard enlisted into Company F; sparing Bath the draft. Naturally, Stocum was elected captain.

In the last week of October, as the 161st was mustered into service at Elmira, a Typhoid epidemic broke out; claiming the lives of many soldiers there. Captain Stocum was severely affected and, while a majority of his regiment was being transported to the Department of the Gulf, he was ordered to the hospital. After three months, although not fully recovered, Stocum was able to resume command of his unit. He successfully led his company on many daring exploits during the battles of Plain's Store and the siege and surrender of Port Hudson. It was while on picket detail that Captain Stocum fell victim to heatstroke and was once again ordered to the hospital. This time the hope of a full recovery was slim and after two months Captain Stocum was again made to resign and he returned home.

Company F and the 161st fought on with great distinction throughout the war; taking part in Sherman’s celebrated March to the Sea. They mustered out of service in November of 1865; suffering over 300 casualties.

Again, Stocum’s return home was temporary. Lincoln made one final call for troops during the summer of 1864 and Captain Stocum, now sufficiently recovered, again answer the call. He pitched his tent in the village park in Bath and recruitment was swift. In nine days enough men had signed up to form up Company A of the 189th New York Infantry Regiment. Once again, Stocum was elected captain.

Promotions for senior commanders gave Captain Stocum the opportunity to take charge of the entire regiment which consisted of 10 companies. Here, Stocum displayed his natural leadership abilities. One such occurrence took place in January of 1865 when he marched his men eight miles to recover the body of fellow officer Captain Burrage Rice who was killed by bushwhackers. Entering a set of woods Stocum’s men were met by the enemy and a fierce firefight ensued. His men drove off the enemy and the body of Captain Rice was recovered. After witnessing his courage and abilities, the commissioned officers of the 189th petitioned New York governor Reuben E. Fenton for Stocum’s promotion to major. In February of 1865, the promotion was granted.

On April 9, 1865, the 189th was positioned around Appomattox Courthouse. It was here that two companies of his regiment had met and driven back the last rebel battery sent out by General Robert E. Lee. By 4:00pm General Lee had surrendered.

The 189th took part in the battles of Hatcher’s Run, White Oak Ridge, Five Forks, the fall of Petersburg and the Battle for Appomattox. They had lost eighty enlisted men to combat and disease. After the surrender, the regiment marched from Appomattox to Washington D.C. where they took part in the Grand Review on May 23rd. They mustered out of service on June 1, 1865. Company A returned to Bath and they honored Major Stocum by forming in the village square so that Major Stocum could review his troops one last time and bid them farewell. To the townsfolk the mutual affection between the major and his men was obvious.

With the war over Major Stocum focused on his business. By the mid-1880s Stocum and Son had become the most prominent furniture business in this part of the country and the oldest of its kind in Bath. Stocum eventually bought the lot next to his and built a large addition, 100 feet long, two storied with a full basement, to serve as a showroom divided into five showcases. A majority of its stock; chairs, book cases, sideboard tables, bedroom suites, dressing cases and many other items was manufactured on the premises. They also offered upholstering.

His was the leading undertaking trade the in the county as well and he served as vice-president of the Steuben Country Undertakers Association. The morgue, located at 115 West Morris Street (known as Stocum’s Point) provided a large range of caskets, coffins and burglar-proof grave vaults. His son John was a certified embalmer. They owned three hearses; one of which was white, the only one of its kind in this part of the country. Because he offered such a wide variety in both trades his low prices rivaled those found in Elmira and Rochester. Stocum and Son were known to their customers as “…honest, square dealing and energetic men.”

When the Grand Army of the Republic Soldiers Home of the State of New York was established here in Bath in 1876, Major Stocum was appointed the official undertaker of the institution. Stocum, according to his obituary, had wished that, “…he might be permitted to bury his comrades at the Home as long as he should live” did so for a nominal fee. In the early 1880s a competitor demanded bids be accepted for the position. Trustees of the Home had no choice but to agree. The competitor submitted a ridiculously low bid which Stocum knew would break any undertaking business. Compelled by loyalty to his comrades, Stocum offered to continue as undertaker for two thirds his competitor’s price. He would rather donate the casket with a plaque engraved “Our Comrade” mounted on it than to have his competitor, who did not serve during the war, perform the services. Stocum was retained as undertaker and by the time of his death, he had buried nearly 2,000 veterans at the Home.

Unlike many of his comrades at the time Major Stocum, an ardent Democrat, never dabbled in politics. He became a member of Custer Post No. 81, G.A.R. of Bath on June 28, 1878. On several occasions, Stocum served as Marshall of the Day during the Memorial Day ceremonies in Bath. It was remarked that he “…looked every inch the soldier” as he donned the same uniform he wore in Appomattox when Lee surrendered. When Bath celebrated its centennial in 1893, it was Major Stocum the planning committee asked to record the military history of the town. The Sons of Veterans of Bath also honored Stocum by naming their camp after him.

In November of 1889, he purchased a cottage site along the west shore of Keuka Lake. The following spring he began work on a three-story hotel which he named Ruby Cottage Hotel. Next to it he had built a smaller house called the “Stocum House.” Major Stocum hosted several reunions here for the three hundred plus men he recruited for the war. Members of Battery E (now referring to themselves as Stocum’s Battery,) Company F and Company A were brought to the hotel from Hammondsport by Stocum’s steamer yacht, the Sally Beekman. In August, 1895, Stocum sold his summer hotel property, to Simeon Rathbone of Elmira who renamed the place “Snug Harbor” and used it as a private residence. The property still goes by that name today.

Major Stocum died February 5, 1905. As the oldest businessman in Bath he enjoyed passing his later years sitting on his porch, reminiscing. His contribution to the war effort and to the community has certainly earned him a place in the annals of Steuben County.

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