Last year, I wrote about efforts in Cattaraugus County, NY, to demolish a Civil War memorial and historic building erected by the war’s veterans. Twelve months later, the effort to save the memorial continues. On Friday, The Buffalo (NY) News ran an editorial I wrote in reaction to news that county legislators continue to drag their feet. A version of that editorial appears after the page break.
My thanks to historian Mark Dunkelman and St. Bonaventure University archivist Dennis Frank for providing me with a copy of Col. Warner’s letter, quoted within.
Imagine how they must have felt, the men of the 154th New York Infantry, as they waited in Elmira for the train to take them on the last leg of their journey home. Cattaraugus and Chautauqua Counties lay just hours to the west. The men’s anticipation to get there must have been palpable.
They had marched through Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. They had fought their way from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Atlanta, Georgia, and from there, marched to the sea. Then, they marched again through the Carolinas, and in victory, they passed in grand review through Washington.
That had been the end of May. Now, a month later, the train had brought them as far as Elmira, where they waited as the United States government slowly mustered more than a million men out of the army.
Imagine their impatience. Imagine their bone-deep weariness. Imagine their excitement. Imagine their longing.
“[W]e are now about to return to our homes,” their colonel, Lewis Warner, told them as he bade them farewell. Finally, they were about “to exchange the implements…of war for those more congenial to our tastes and education.”
Years earlier, the men had “nobly” come forward in their country’s defense “without hope of other reward than a consciousness of having done their duty,” Warner recalled. Aside from motives of patriotism, they had desired “no richer recompense than to see peace once more restored…and then to hear the plaudit, ‘Well done, brave and faithful ones,’ from a grateful nation.”
One thousand of them had gone off to war. Now, a little more than one-third of them returned.
“These depleted ranks…tell their own tale of battles, marches, exposures, privations, hardships, and all that tends to exhaust the physical powers, and shorten the life of man,” Warner observed.
“[L]et us not forget those who have thus fallen by the way,” he beseeched them.
The men of 154th would later remember their former commander’s plea when, on the eve of another great war, they erected a memorial to those comrades who had fallen fifty years earlier. Dedicated in 1914, the Cattaraugus County Memorial and Historical Building—erected prominently in the county seat of Little Valley—honored all soldiers and sailors from the county who’d served during the Civil War.
Their deeds, Warner had predicted, were “inscribed in enduring characters” upon the annals of time. “[T]hey will remain, and will be held in remembrance by a grateful people,” he assured them.
One hundred and fifty years after Warner wished his men well, Cattaraugus County stands on the brink of breaking trust with them. The county, it seems, no longer holds them in the esteem it once did.
Last October, the county legislature voted to demolish the memorial, which had fallen into disrepair and disgrace after years of neglect. Since then, twelve months of dithering have done little to decide the building’s fate beyond a temporary reprieve for additional bureaucratic study.
In 1862, the men of Cattaraugus County didn’t have the luxury to “study” the Rebellion. They knew their duty, hard as it was, and acted decisively to help save the country.
“I have ever endeavored to do my duty,” Warner told his men, “and have been governed by what appeared to me to be the best interests of the Regiment and the service.” The men had “the proud consciousness” of having done their duty, too.
Local preservationists have worked hard to remind county legislators about the service of those men and the duty they performed that made everything today possible. Legislators, in turn, have a duty of their own: to remember the debt we owe those who came before us.
Imagine how those men would feel.