General John Martindale: Genesee’s Forgotten General

John Martindale. Wikipedia Commons.
John Martindale. Wikipedia Commons.

I was recently asked to participate in a ghost walk to benefit the Historic Batavia Cemetery in Batavia, NY. Knowing as they do my interest in the Civil War, I was asked to portray Gen. John H. Martindale. The name was vaguely familiar, but I was surprised that he was buried in Batavia; I would have guessed Rochester. But what surprised me most was that here was another Union General, who rose to the rank of Major General (brevet), and you never heard him being celebrated; Gen. Emory Upton garnered all the attention in Genesee County. In fact, there is a large memorial to Upton’s memory in downtown Batavia at a busy intersection.

Born March 20th, 1815 in Sandy Hill, NY, Martindale grew up in Washington County, NY. His father, Henry C. Martindale was a U.S. Congressman. John Martindale entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1831 and graduated third in his class in 1835. Although he got a brevet promotion to Second Lieutenant in the First Dragoons, a sought-after assignment, Martindale resigned from the service to take up the law.

In 1838 Martindale opened a law office in Batavia, NY and quickly established himself as a skillful attorney and talented orator. According to the “Gazetteer and biographical record of Genesee County, N.Y., 1788-1890, ” Martindale was “always eloquent, [and] he had the faculty of being most so in cases otherwise commonplace.” Twice elected District Attorney for Genesee County, Martindale’s pre-war career is most notable for his advocacy for the Tonawanda Native American tribe of Western New York alongside Ely Parker.

When the war commenced, Martindale reentered the army and was commissioned a brigadier general. His first six months found him manning the defenses of Washington, DC. In the spring of 1862, Martindale was serving in the first brigade of Gen. Fitz-John Porter’s division during the Peninsular Campaign. Near the end of the campaign, he was struck down with typhoid fever. While convalescing, Martindale returned to Western New York for a time and gave a number of recruiting speeches.

Returning to service, Martindale was appointed Military Governor of Washington, DC. and gained a brevet appointment to Major General. In the spring of 1864, he joined Gen. Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James as Union forces closed in on the Confederate Capital of Richmond. Not long after, Martindale succeeded Gen. W.F. Smith as commander of the XVIII Army Corps. outside Petersburg.

Unfortunately Martindale was forced to resign his commission in the fall of 1864 due to ill health. Although not yet diagnosed, Martindale was suffering from Tuberculosis, which slowly sapped his strength and often prostrated him.

Returning to the Rochester area, Martindale again took up the law and was subsequently elected the Attorney General of New York State. Gen. Martindale died in December 1881, at the age of 66, while on vacation in the south of France, where he had gone in search of a climate that would be conducive to his health. His body would be returned to New York and interred in the Batavia Cemetery.

Martindale's Headstone. Courtesy Find-A-Grave.
Martindale’s Headstone. Courtesy Find-A-Grave.







“In private life General Martindale was greatly esteemed,” according to the “Gazetteer and Biographical Record of Genesee County, N.Y., 1788-1890,”   “his character was above reproach, and he was a man of sincere piety.” Although Martindale was not known for innovative tactics during the war, though he had his share of heroic action during the Peninsula Campaign, his service was less notable, perhaps, than Emory Upton’s. But when you consider Martindale’s service to the Tonawanda Indians, the assistance he offered to Ely Parker, and his election as the Attorney General of New York State after the war, his achievements over his lifetime certainly should earn him a place beside Emory Upton in the hearts and memories of the people of Batavia and Genesee County.

4 Responses to General John Martindale: Genesee’s Forgotten General

  1. The article neglects to mention the most noteworthy–and most damaging–episode of Martindale’s ignominious Civil War career: when Martindale recommended to other general officers to surrender following the Battle of Malvern Hill. In August 1862, commander of the 5th Corps Fitz John Porter brought charges against Martindale and a Court of Inquiry was convened in October.

    After Malvern Hill, Martindale said to Dan Butterfield and George Morell, “I propose that we stay here and give ourselves up” rather than follow McClellan’s order to retreat. Morell immediately spurned the notion, and said they would proceed as ordered. At that, Martindale fell silent and joined the retreat, again leaving his brigade to fend for itself. Martindale’s Court of Inquiry determined that his suggestion to surrender was “reprehensible” and “blameworthy”, and concluded that an officer’s place was “undoubtedly in most cases with his troops,” but refused to find him guilty, almost certainly because of existing anti-Porter sentiment in the Lincoln administration. Generals were sacked for far less and yet Martindale’s career received a boost after this incident. Henry Halleck restored Martindale to command and he became Military Governor of Washington from 1862-1864 and later commanded a division in the Army of the James.

    Martindale represented the prototype general officer that permeated the Army of the Potomac in the early part of the war: inept, self-serving, and political.

    1. thanks Todd … was the allegation(s) in the inquiry over BG Martindale’s performance during combat or his “surrender” comment to generals Morell and Butterfield? h.

      1. Porter brought charges against Martindale because of the allegations that Martindale recommended surrender after the Battle of Malvern Hill. I think this speaks to the precarious combat situation following the battle, despite what historians today view as an overwhelming tactical victory against Lee’s army. US forces still perceived they were surrounded and could be pushed off the hill at any moment.

  2. The most comically absurd part of this was that Martindale was given a brevet promotion to major general in the USV for “gallant and distinguished services at Malvern Hill.” You know Stanton made it a point to include Malvern Hill in this promotion!

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