The Story of LT. LAWRENCE VAN ALSTYNE, an Officer of the 128th NY Vol. Regiment & the 90th U.S. Colored Infantry
DIARY OF AN ENLISTED MAN
Introduction — Good afternoon. Today I would like to share a few stories from Diary of an Enlisted Man, Lawrence Van Alstyne’s personal record as a Civil War soldier. Van Alstyne wrote faithfully every day of his experiences and sent them home to his parents in small bundles. He did not publish the diary until 1910. I intend to highlight LVA’s time in the 128th NY Vol. Reg. and then his time in the 90th US Colored Infantry.
From Hudson to Baltimore
In August of 1862, Lawrence Van Alstyne was 23 years old. After hearing Pres. Lincoln’s call for 300,000 more troops to help save the Union, he felt he could no longer justify staying home, even to care for his aging parents. He enlisted at Millerton and reported to the training camp in Hudson, NY, on August 19. He was joining the newly formed 128th NY Volunteer Regiment.
Lawrence’s home was near “The City,” a hamlet on the northwest side of the Town of Amenia, known today as Smithfield. This hamlet straddled the borders of North East and of Stanford. Most of the residents of the area attended the church at The City and utilized the mill and the general store that was there, too.
Lawrence was the youngest of seven children. His brother John was 11 years older than he, his brother William was 18 years older. All three brothers were iron moulders. Iron moulding was a skill necessary in the iron industry of the time. Two of Lawrence’s sisters were married and living in Sharon, Ct. Sarah was married to Herman Rowley, and Betsy was married to John C. Loucks. When Lawrence went off to war, many of his friends and acquaintances chose to do the same. At the camp in Hudson, he counted at least 25 men who were friends from home. They all signed on with Company B, hoping that Ed Bostwick, the storekeeper’s son from The City, would be appointed their Captain, which he was. Col. David Cowles, originally from Canaan, Ct., was the commander of the regiment.
The men and boys of Company B were in Hudson just long enough to receive their uniforms, and then they were granted a 5-day furlough. All the sad farewells would have to be said once again, but they were delighted to see their loved ones one more time. Van Alstyne wrote that, when he got home, Obadiah Pitcher offered to chauffeur him around the countryside, in order to visit old friends and neighbors, the McElwees and the Bryans, Hugh Miller and Jason Hull. He visited the Haights in Mabbettsville, because their son was already in the service. He called on his brother John, who was working in Amenia Union. Brother John told him he was a fool for enlisting.
The next day Lawrence took his girlfriend, Mary Eggleston, for a long drive, by horse and buggy. In the evening, he attended a patriotic rally in Millerton and received a $100 bounty from the Town. Soon, the furlough was over and he was back in Hudson.
On Sept. 5, 1862, the 128th NY received a glorious send-off from the thousands of people gathered in Hudson to bless their departure. On board the steamship Oregon, 993 new soldiers setout for parts unknown. Lawrence wrote that seeing the beauty of the Hudson River was a first for him. This small town boy was going to see a whole new world, a world without much beauty and without peace.
Within a few days, the 128th was setting up tents at Camp Millington, near Baltimore.
Lawrence described their accommodations in great detail, — the flimsy two-man tent that got drenched with rain, the men covered in red mud when they got up, the bugs that crawled over them and the hungry mosquitoes that devoured them, the hot sun and the woolen uniforms, buttoned up to the chin, the sweat, the drills, the chills, the meals and the cooks, who didn’t ever wash their hands. And, this was as good as it was going to get in the army.
When the men finally received new and improved 4-man tents, Lawrence’s tent-mates were Walter Loucks, age 35, a good friend from home, actually, his brother-in-law’s brother, and George and Jim Story, two friends from Pine Plains. They were packed in like sardines, but they could close the sides of the tent to keep out the rain and the mosquitoes, — to a certain extent.
The word around camp was that a Dutchess County regiment had been formed and was soon to join them in Baltimore. By mid-October, the 150th NY Vol. Regiment did indeed arrive! Everyone in Company B was thrilled. And, guess who was in the 150th? Lawrence’s brother John! (Now, who’s a fool?) There were many other friends in the 150th who Lawrence knew even better than his own brother. George Willson, from his neighborhood in North East, for one. Of course, everybody wanted a pass to visit friends in the 150th, and vice versa, for them to visit the guys in the 128th.
By November 1, Lawrence’s sore throat was making him feel rundown and weak. Dr. Andrus finally sent him to the hospital, along with the other sick men of the 128th. Brother John came to visit him. An early snowfall that day, unusual for the area, seemed ominous. Within a week, four men had died in the hospital. And, the other men of 128th were heading for Louisiana, — without Lawrence.
On Nov. 14, when Lawrence heard that Dr. Andrus was going to leave and catch up with the regiment, he decided that he was sick of being sick. He determined to sneak away, without the doctor’s permission, which he did. Hustling 2 miles in 20 minutes, weighed down with gear and weak from illness, he arrived at the ship just as the gangplank was being raised. Dr. Andrus took good care of him, but scolded him, too.
Later, on board the ship Argo, with the regiment, Lawrence got sicker rather than better. They were at sea, in unhealthy conditions for almost seven weeks. Measles, scurvy, typhoid fever, jaundice, and lice plagued the men. William Haight died and was buried at sea. So many men were sick that they had to be left at Quarantine Station in Louisiana. It was there that Company B lost Harrison Leroy and John Van Hovenburg, both from The City (i.e., Smithfield). They were buried on New Year’s Day 1863.
The regiment moved on to Camp Chalmette, La., where 28 men were still very ill. The men set up camp on the very ground where the Battle of New Orleans had taken place in 1814. The soldiers had to sleep on the damp ground, getting wet and chilled from the winter rains.
Lawrence’s tent-mate, Walter Loucks, was suffering from rheumatism. (This may have actually been rheumatoid arthritis.) He was in pain all the time, with the cold, damp weather making his pain excruciating. He had to be hospitalized for a long time.
Lawrence’s cough got worse. He would have coughing spasms, if he were to lie down, so he slept very little and stayed upright most of the time. After the move from Camp Chalmette to Camp Parapet in February, Dr. Andrus put Lawrence in the hospital.
On Feb. 16, something very special happened. Capt. Bostwick was married to Miss Kate Douglass of Amenia Union. She had arrived the day before. This brought great excitement to Company B, (“Bostwick’s Tigers,” as they called themselves) if not to the whole regiment. It’s too bad that Lawrence was sick in bed at the time.
As I was looking for more information about this event, I found a Harlem Valley Times article, written for the Bostwick’s 50th wedding anniversary in 1913. That article included a newspaper article from the New Orleans Daily Era. (What a find!) I quote:
“A beautiful and interesting ceremony took place last evening, Feb. 16, 1863, at the residence of Gen. and Mrs. S. B. Holabird, the occasion being the marriage of Capt. Charles Edward Bostwick of the 128th Regiment New York Vol., and Miss Katherine Douglass, both of Amenia, N.Y.”
“A select company of officers and their wives were present, including Major-General Banks, Col. Clark, Gen. Holabird, Gen. Beckwith, Lt.-Col. Strother, Capt. McClure, Capt. Hooker, Mr. Tucker, private secretary to the commanding general, besides Lt. Col. Smith, Major Forest, Capt. Parker, and Lt. Dutcher of the regiment to which the groom belongs.” (the article continues)
“The bride was dressed with exquisite taste and was attended by Mrs. Holabird as matron of honor. The marriage ceremony was performed by Rev. Dr. Bacon, rector of Christ Church, the happy couple standing under the bright folds of the flag, whose honor the gallant bridegroom is fighting to protect. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the company partook of a delicious repast.”
How did all this come about? you may ask. How could this young woman travel, apparently unaccompanied, from Amenia, during the War, to New Orleans and get married in the home of a general, just six months after her truelove was assigned to Company B of the 128th?
Well, I did a bit of digging and learned that the two women, Kate Douglas and Mary (Grant) Holabird had lived next door to each other in Amenia Union. Mary Grant was about 10 years older than Kate. She attended Amenia Seminary, as did her future husband, Samuel Holabird. They were married in the South Amenia Church July 2, 1849, the day after he graduated from West Point. She was 19, he was 22. Because he was going with the army to Texas for frontier duty, Mary remained at home with her parents in Amenia Union.
(FYI: Kate Douglass and Ed Bostwick attended Amenia Seminary, as well.)
Gen. Holabird was born in Canaan, Ct. He became Chief Quarter Master of the Dept. of the Gulf, and is credited for having saved many lives because of the improvements he made in the soldiers’ uniforms and in their living conditions in the South. The Holabirds, at some point, bought land in Amenia Union, on the Sharon side of the line, a farm of about 250 acres.
But, I am getting away from our story. — Poor Lawrence was in the hospital at Camp Parapet, so sick that the doctor wrote to his father informing him that Lawrence might die before the letter arrived in Amenia. More of the men had died of illness, Henry Coon, Bill Crowther, and Lewis Holmes. Capt. Bostwick visited Lawrence in the hospital a few days after the wedding in February.
But, it was not until mid-April that Lawrence was released from the hospital and allowed to report for duty. Mercifully, he was appointed Commissary Sergeant. This job was less physically demanding, and it afforded him a higher rank and slightly more pay.
Port Hudson, LA
On May 21, 1863, Lawrence wrote that Capt. Bostwick had left the men of Company B high and dry, with not so much as a good-bye. The rumor was that he had been promoted to the rank of major in a Negro regiment. The 128th NY was soon to be on its way to Port Hudson, where a great conflict would ensue.
When the battle was underway, Col. David Cowles, Commander of the Regiment, was one of the first to be killed. As he sat propped up and dying, he requested that they tell his mother that he died facing the enemy. Riley Burdick of Company B also died in battle.
Many of the men of the 128th were wounded. Generals Sherman and Dow were also wounded. The siege of Port Hudson continued until the surrender of Vicksburg on July 7. Confederate troops at Port Hudson surrendered the following day.
Meanwhile, the horrific battles at Gettysburg had taken their toll of dead and wounded. It wasn’t until July 22, however, that Lawrence heard about his brother John having been killed at Gettysburg. Lawrence felt his own parents’ pain and grief over losing a son.
Little John Wing was hit at the same time. They are buried next to each other at Gettysburg. Lawrence also heard that his friend and neighbor, George Willson, had been seriously wounded. He had been shot in the head and left for dead, but was later found to be alive.
The heat of the summer continued to be oppressive, Lawrence recorded.
The 90th U.S. Colored Infantry
On August 15, 1863, Lawrence wrote: “Major Bostwick has been promoted to Colonel Bostwick of the 90th U.S. Colored Infantry, Corps d’Afrique. …He is allowed to choose his staff from the 128th.”
And that is what he did. Col. Bostwick judiciously chose 2 or 3 men from each company. From Company B he chose Sgt. Van Alstyne, Sgt. “Sol” Drake, and Sgt. George Gorton. By Sept. 1, they were all on their way to New Orleans as 1st Lieutenants.
The task of the 90th USCI was to recruit ex-slaves, freed by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. This was a dangerous assignment. It was a crime against the Confederacy, punishable by immediate execution if caught, whites and blacks alike.
Many black men had already joined the Union forces. Those who were recruited by the 90th were enthusiastic about the cause of freedom, eager to become what they called “Linkum Sogers.” Of course, they needed rigorous training, which Lawrence was to supply. He was expected to shape up these awkward recruits into a tight marching machine.
Some of the colored volunteers arrived with their families, who were seeking refuge. Some of the men were too old or too lame to be considered for service. Some just came to hang around the camp. Lawrence and the other officers had to be tough and send away everyone, except those who passed muster, to other places of refuge.
In examining the men, the officers saw some who were scarred entirely down the back from the neck down. They heard horrific stories of abuse, beatings and hangings.
Of those men who were too old or lame, some had winsome qualities and were taken on by the officers as a valet or servant. Lawrence hired a man named Tony, and George Gorton took Henry into his employ. Once trained, the “Linkum Sogers” of the 90th Regiment were turned over to the 4th Louisiana Engineers.
In November of ’63, two months after their transfer to the 90th, Lawrence decided to record in his diary his assessment of the officers of the new regiment. I will share his insights about the three men who transferred from Company B. He wrote:
Col. Edward Bostwick — 5’ 10” tall, light complexion, gray eyes, brown hair and beard. He is particular about his appearance and about the appearance of his men. He seldom drinks, never in excess, and is a good soldier. He was promoted from Capt. of Company B, 128th, to Major of 1st Louisiana Engineers in May ’63. He served at Port Hudson with this regiment. In August ’63 he was promoted to Colonel of the 90th to raise a regiment of freed slaves in the Dept. of the Gulf.
1st Lt. George H. Gorton – enlisted with the 128th as a wagoner or teamster, as he had been when working for the Bostwicks in Amenia. He was promoted to Commissary Sergeant in the 3rd Louisiana Engineers, and then came to the 90th. (Van Alstyne also wrote) Gorton is strange. He is well liked, but not respected. He is better at handling horses than men. He has no real enemies, but no real friends either.
1st Lt. George Solomon Drake – “Sol” also had worked for the Bostwicks in Amenia. He was appointed Commissary Sgt. In the 128th. He has always been in close touch with Col. Bostwick. “He and I (Lawrence wrote) have long been good friends. I could not find anything wrong with him if I tried. (In my estimation) he is a good writer and promises to be a good businessman.”
Henry Holmes & Going Home
In December of ’63, Lawrence had great hopes for a furlough, but to no avail. On Dec. 26th, however, he received a letter from his father requesting that he come home to help him find another place to live. Lawrence went to Col. Bostwick with the request and applied for leave. He was so hopeful that leave would be granted that he went to bed each night with his bags packed and ready to go.
Days went by, and weeks, until finally he was so desperate he went to a fortuneteller to find out if he would or would not be going home. She told him nothing relevant, and he regretted having spent money foolishly. But almost the next day, on Jan. 12, 1864, he received word that he had been granted leave to visit his family. He was asked to take with him Henry Holmes, Gorton’s servant, who would help Mrs. Gorton in North East Center. “Glory! Hallelujah!” Lawrence shouted, “I’m going home!”
Travel then, as now, can be fraught with unforeseen events. All went well, — despite Henry’s seasickness — until they arrived in NYC and were on the way to the 26th St. station to get the train bound for Millerton. A man persistently tried to shanghai Henry, but they said “NO” and drove him away. Lawrence sent Henry to the Dutchess County House across the street for some food, while he bought the train tickets. When time came to board the train, Henry was nowhere to be found. What to do? Lawrence decided to go on to Millerton, leaving Henry’s ticket with the policeman on duty. He asked him to watch for Henry and to put him on the next day’s train.
Lawrence arrived in Millerton at 8:20 PM. It was Jan. 22, cold and dark. He had no means of transportation to his parents’ home. So, he spent the night at Sweet’s Hotel. The next day, he waited for the train. But Henry did not arrive. Fortunately, he was able to get a ride home with Joe Hull. On the way, they stopped at Mrs. Gorton’s in North East Center and explained the situation about Henry. It wasn’t long after and he was at home in The City.
His reunion with his folks was emotional, I’m sure. They had experienced so much concern and sadness in the past year. Larry, as they called him, had been sick to the point of death, but it was his brother John who had been killed. Larry commented in his diary that he found his bedroom just as he had left it.
With Storekeeper Bostwick’s kind assistance, Larry was able to find a new home for his parents, just north of the Smithfield Church, across the road from Sol Drake’s parents. His time at home went by quickly, — without word from Henry. Then, just as he was getting ready to return to Louisiana, Henry was found.
This is what happened to poor Henry the day he disappeared in NYC. The man who had tried to hire him followed him into the restaurant. The man lied to Henry and told him that Lt. Larry had left a trunk on board ship and wanted him to get it. Henry went off on a “wild goose chase” and only got back to the station after the train had left for Millerton. The dutiful policeman gave him his ticket and told him where he could spend the night.
The next day Henry boarded the train to Millerton, but he fell asleep and woke up in Albany. Some kind people there, upon hearing the names Van Alstyne, Palon, and Bostwick, sent him to Hudson and put a notice in the newspaper. Col. Bostwick’s mother happened to read the notice and contacted Larry. Larry’s brother-in-law, John Loucks went to Johnstown and located Henry. But Henry was skeptical about going anywhere with any stranger. However, when John started talking about how disappointed Lt. Larry was going to be, he agreed to go with him. Lt. Larry was indeed glad to see Henry safely in Millerton before he headed south again.
The rest of Henry’s story is this: After the war, after Lawrence had married Mary Eggleston and they had settled in Sharon, Henry Holmes moved to Sharon, too. He became a much-loved member of the community. He attended the Methodist Church and supported himself by working hard and saving his money.
When he died in 1887, the churches of Sharon took part in his funeral, eulogizing him for his encouraging words and hard work over the years. His grave in Hillside Cemetery is marked with a large rough-cut boulder, which bears this epitaph:
Died May 19, 1887
Free at last
Conclusion of the 90th USCI
Lawrence Van Alstyne returned to the 90th USCI in early March 1864. The Red River Campaign was about to get underway. While traveling up the river, they still looked for recruits to add to the regiment. The men of the 90th were ordered to guard and assist the engineers who were building and moving the pontoon bridges along the way. They had many harrowing experiences, foraging for food, dodging the sniper’s bullets, and witnessing the burning of Alexandria and its tormented refugees fleeing the city.
On July 11, 1864, the men received an order, Order No. 88, to muster out of the 90th USCI. They mustered out on August 24 in New Orleans, a full year before their original 3-year commitment with the 128th would expire. None of the officers complained about leaving the front early. They were happy to return home. What became of the Negro soldiers is another story.
Lawrence Van Alstyne concluded his diary by saying this, and I quote, “In due time, we reached our homes, and the eventful life of the soldier was exchanged for the less eventful life of the private citizen.”
Van Alstyne’s life after the war may have been less eventful, but it was not less productive. He managed the Malleable Iron Company of Sharon Valley for many years. He also invested countless hours in researching and compiling local history data, in order to publish at least four more books:
Burying Grounds of Sharon, Conn., Amenia and North East, New York
Born, Married and Died in Sharon, Conn.
Merchants of Sharon
Manufacturers of Sharon
A Presentation by Elizabeth C. Strauss
North East Historical Society, August 25, 2013