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North Fork History Project: A Civil War on the North Fork

As Georgette Case made her way around Riverhead Cemetery last Thursday morning, she pointed out the gravesites of some of the two dozen or so Civil War soldiers buried there, poignant reminders of the ultimate price those soldiers paid for their country in a time of need. “I probably know more dead people here than otherwise,” said Ms. Case, Riverhead’s town historian.

The author of “We Will Not Forget: Riverhead’s Civil War Soldiers and Sailors,” Ms. Case walked among rows of headstones, reading out names as the mid-July heat began to climb. With birds chirping in the background, it was a peaceful setting — a stark contrast to what many of these deceased soldiers experienced when North and South took up arms against each other from 1861 to 1865.

That was a volatile, turbulent time for America. Although a Civil War battle was never fought on North Fork soil, this area was affected by the events that have since filled history books.

When Abraham Lincoln was settling into the highest office of the land, he already had a secession crisis on his hands. Confederates attacked Fort Sumter in South Carolina, igniting the War between the States.

To some on the North Fork, what was happening at faraway Fort Sumter might as well have been on the moon. But there were divisions and opposing viewpoints on the North Fork, where historians said slavery (the last slaves in New York were freed in 1827) wasn’t as much at issue as preserving what the nation’s revolutionary heroes had created less than 100 years earlier.

The attack on Fort Sumter galvanized the rest of the nation, but was less polarizing in Southold, said Amy Folk, Southold Town’s historian and manager of collections for the Southold and Oysterponds historical societies. “Southold was kind of like, ‘It’s somebody else’s problem, not ours.’ ”

Only one Southolder, Antoine Engler of Cutchogue, enlisted during the war’s first month, Ms. Folk said, and only two others followed the second month.

Back then, the Democratic Party was identified as conservative and the Republican Party as more liberal. North Fork politics included Lincoln Republicans, Copperheads (Democrats who opposed the war) and so-called “war Democrats,” who supported the Union.

A newspaper war was going on, too, between The Suffolk Times and the Watchman. Similar to Fox News and MSNBC today, they offered dramatically different opinions on the issues of the day. The papers were run by editors from opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Henry Reeves, editor of the Watchman, carried Southern sympathies, denounced the war and opposed the Lincoln administration. He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind and put those thoughts on paper.

“Reeves was to the point of … labeling the administration nervous imbeciles, donkeys,” Ms. Folk said. “He called Abe Lincoln an Illinois ape. He called him a baboon. He called him a joker.”

Mr. Reeves’ outspoken opinions got him into trouble. With habeas corpus suspended during the war, he was arrested for sedition in 1861.

The Civil War memorial in Greenport. (Bob Liepa photo)

Maligned and vilified as a Copperhead traitor, Mr. Reeves’ career was marked by bitter controversy and he was accused of rejoicing at the news of President Lincoln’s assassination, said Gail Horton, president of the Stirling Historical Society in Greenport.

Interestingly, Mr. Reeves made a comeback after his jailing. He went on to hold a number of public offices, including those of congressman, town supervisor and state assemblyman, as well as running his paper until his death in 1916.

“Does not that tell you something about us?” Ms. Folk said. “He became a well-liked and revered politician of our area. We sent him to Albany, for pete’s sake.”

Ms. Horton doesn’t believe Mr. Reeves’ career should be defined by his arrest. “There was a lot of support for the war and, to me, he must have been somebody of real stature to do all that and come back,” she said.

Mr. Reeves’ counterpart at The Suffolk Times, John Riddell, not only wrote editorials encouraging people to support the war effort, but put his money where his pen was by enlisting himself.

Although there was an outpouring of support for the Union on Long Island at the start of the war, the North Fork was a “hotbed of pro-Southern sentiment,” perhaps because of disruption of trade or “a conservatism born of the area’s isolation, but whatever the cause, it was widespread,” Harrison Hunt and Bill Bleyer wrote in their book, “Long Island and the Civil War.”

Ms. Folk said she hasn’t seen primary-source documentation to support that take on the Copperheads’ influence on the North Fork.

Mr. Bleyer said in an interview: “The Copperheads would threaten strong Union supporters out on the North Fork. People were actually arming themselves.”

By the end of the war’s first year, only 21 Southold men had signed up for service, Ms. Folk said. In 1862, 120 men from Southold enlisted. Among them were Henry Prince of Southold and John Henry Young of Orient. Like many of the volunteers from Riverhead east to Orient, they served with the 127th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Both were faithful diarists.

The 127th was officially nicknamed the Monitors, but they were also referred to as the Clam Diggers, a reference to the baymen among them. Sent to defend Washington in 1862, the 127th spent most of its time in South Carolina and Florida. They moved around often but did not see much action, fighting at Honey Hill and Mackay’s Point in South Carolina.

The writings of both Mr. Prince and Mr. Young give insight into the hardships of a Civil War soldier’s life. It wasn’t just Confederate bullets and bayonets that the men in Lincoln’s army had to worry about. They often faced miserable conditions: interminable marches in suffocating heat (some died from sunstroke), camping in bitter cold, illness and bug-infested food, not to mention vermin such as rats and sand fleas. (Mr. Prince wrote of soldiers killings hundreds of rats at their camp on the infested Coles Island in South Carolina.)

Mr. Young, who witnessed the execution of a deserter, sounded disillusioned, complaining about the treatment handed down by his officers. “Long Island and the Civil War” quotes him as writing: “We have an everlasting grudge against our officers and would sooner shoot them than the rebels any day … They look down upon us and treat us worse than dogs.”

The issue of slavery also came up in their writings.

“The North is desperately wicked as well as the South, but Slavery is a Curse,” Mr. Prince wrote in a letter to his parents.

Mr. Prince didn’t look kindly upon Copperheads, either.

“I am sorry that we have so many Traitors at the North & even on L.I.,” he wrote in 1864. “They are a curse to the country. Talk about the negro being a curse to the country, I think it is the rebellious white man.”

Meanwhile, life on the home front wasn’t easy, either. Four years of war brought inflation, shortages, uncertainty and stress for families worrying about their loved ones.

“It was a difficult time,” said Ms. Case, whose great-great-grandfather, Oliver T. Reeve, took part in eight battles during the war. “The family had to have suffered when the men went off to war. The wives were left home, and they had to cope with things.”

Commerce was disrupted, in part by privateers employed by the Confederacy to raid shipping as close as eight miles off Montauk Point, according to Mr. Bleyer.

Patriotic rallies and Liberty poles were nice, but as the war dragged on, the Union Army needed bodies. In July 1862, President Lincoln issued a call for 300,000 volunteers. The first draft in American history was instituted. Southold didn’t see the draft riots that New York City experienced, but there reaction to the president’s request was cool.

“Everybody’s kind of pointing fingers at each other,” Ms. Folk said. “Everybody’s taking a big step backward, saying, ‘OK, take these guys.’ ”

By 1863, the town was paying for substitutes to serve, with John Ireland, the town supervisor for most of the war, traveling to other states, searching for recruits. “We were willing to pay $400 per man to go and fight for us,” Ms. Folk said. “We didn’t want to send our own boys.”

The town spent $50,000 on the war, a debt that wasn’t paid off until 1871.

As the war neared its end, some interesting scenarios unfolded. One could sense the glee in Mr. Young’s writing in 1864 at watching black Union soldiers guarding Southern officers. “Oh it must cut those southern bloods to be under the power of a n….. and they showed their indignation in their looks,” he wrote in an unpublished letter in the possession of the Oysterponds Historical Society. “The 59th [Massachusetts Colored Regiment] are just the boys to guard them … let any of them try to escape and he will soon get a pill which will be hard to digest.”

The Union victory came at a cost, as official town histories show. Southold lost three killed in action, two died as prisoners, 12 died of disease, 12 were discharged with disabilities and 78 were mustered out with their companies. Of 100-plus soldiers from Riverhead, nine died in battle, an unspecified number died later from wounds received in battle, eight were prisoners of war and 31 survived wounds. Twenty-five men from Shelter Island served, five died and an unknown number were wounded.

The fallen were not forgotten. Monuments were erected in honor of their service.

“You have to think about the deaths of the soldiers,” Ms. Case said. “That was the highest price that the town paid and the biggest contribution … Knowing that they served, we should say thank you and give a salute to them. They saved the Union.”

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Photo caption: The sandstone obelisk bearing the names of Riverhead’s Civil War veterans in the Riverhead cemetery. (Bob Liepa photo) 

North Fork History Project

Part I: Before anything else, there was ice

Part II: Long before the ‘first families’

Part III: When English arrive, Indians disperse?

Part IV: So, who was really here first?

Part V: Slavery, an ignored part of our history

Part VI: Slavery on Shelter Island, a story not hidden away

Part VII: When was Cutchogue’s Old House built?

Part VIII: The Revolution ‘tore families apart’

Part IX: For one loyalist, all would be lost

Part X: From growing divisions within Southold, River Head town is born

Part XI: An epic saga of East End whaling

Part XII: Murders in 1854 shattered a hamlet

Part XIII: The Wickham murders part two