Earlier this year, I was in Saratoga, New York (working on some Revolutionary War history), but I thought I had read somewhere about a Union officer writing about wanting to go to Saratoga. When I got home, I poked around in my notes, and there it was: Union General William Francis Bartlett wrote at least four times during his 1864 captivity in Libby Prison about wanting to go to Saratoga.
He started planning his “vacation” on August 31st, when the transport vessel arrived, and he expected to be exchanged:
Wednesday [August] 31st. The boat is here. We shall go tomorrow I expect. . . . I trust this is my last night in this horrible place. I want to be in Baltimore by Sunday. Home and Saratoga by week after. A week at Saratoga would do me more good than all the medicine in the world.
Much to Bartlett’s disappointment, his exchange was delayed for several more weeks. Later diary entries suggest that on August 23 he had promised himself that by September 10, he would be “be at Saratoga with uncle and aunt.” It seems to be something he was living for. But that date rolled by, and he still lingered within the prison walls in Richmond. Five days later on September 15, he was thinking about home and Saratoga again:
Thursday [September] 15th. It was just a month ago yesterday that I began to mend and get well. Oh, how grateful I am for the mercies of this past month! I have suffered two awful disappointments, but when I think how much worse it might have been, I can only be thankful and patient. A year ago I was at Pittsfield, just going to Saratoga. What a pleasant time I had. That is past for this year. . . .
And finally, four days later on September 19, he thought of elapsed time…and included Saratoga on the list:
Monday [September] 19th. Pleasant day. Just two months since I left Washington. It seems like two years. I hope the end of this month will find me at home, or at least, at liberty. . . . One year ago I was at Albany, on my way to Saratoga with Mr. Learned.
When Bartlett wrote about wanting to go to Saratoga, what did that mean in 1860’s context? Why did he want to go? What would he have seen or experienced there? I decided to do a little research.
During the antebellum and Civil War eras, Saratoga Springs, New York, was known for its health spas and decadent vacation experiences. These eras saw the rise of hydrotherapy—the idea that water could cure ailments—and natural springs often became “spas” where invalids or health-conscious people could “take the waters.” Drinking mineral water or bathing in it was often prescribed by doctors and became the thing to do at spa resorts. Called “the Queen of the Spas,” Saratoga Springs, the only naturally carbonated mineral springs located east of the Rocky Mountains, attracted many wealthy patrons to experience its waters and clear air.
Native American traditions claimed that the “place of swift water” had natural healing powers, and white people quickly capitalized on the concept. As early as 1802, Gideon Putnam built his first three story tavern across from the Congress Spring. The decades passed, and Putnam’s Tavern evolved into Union Hall, The Union Hotel, and the Grand Union Hotel. In the surrounding area, other competitive hotels joined the scene, including Congress Hall, The Pavilion, The Columbian, The United States, and the Grand Central. Putnam planned a resort town and literally laid the foundations of a prosperous community.
The advent of the railroad, along with renewed interest in mineral water by the health and medical communities, boosted arrivals at Saratoga Springs. Around the 1830’s, the springs were tubed (channeled) to make it easier for guests to get to the water. Bathhouses were constructed, and physicians supervised guests’ regimes of bathing, walking in the fresh air, resting, and drinking mineral water.
Saratoga had a “season,” and most people visited in the summer. Bartlett says in one of his diary entries that it would be too late to go, referencing that most of the amusements at Saratoga would have ended and the fashion people would have already left. Some of the preferred summer season activities included dances, visiting “Indian encampments,” carriage rides around town, trips to the nearby lakes, or hot air balloon rides. With the rich and often famous gathering at Saratoga for the season, the hotel porches and restaurants became the backdrops for business deals, society courtships, political wranglings, and other social moments of the upper class. Thoroughbred horse racing started at Saratoga in 1863, leading to a rise in the gambling scene and casinos also opened in the early 1870s.
With this background, it becomes clearer why Saratoga had such an attraction for General Bartlett. He clearly had fond memories from his 1863 visit, and he may have wanted to return for health reasons. In 1863, he had been recovering from battlefield wounds and may have followed a medical prescription at Saratoga. In 1864, he might have wanted to return for medical reasons since he was racked with intestinal illness and overall poor health during his imprisonment.
Likely, he wanted to be part of the social scene, too, and with his new promotion to brigadier general as of June 1864, he could possibly have enjoyed some social perks of being a war hero with battle scars. Bartlett’s diary entries in his published biography rarely mention his fiancee, Agnes Pomeroy; it’s not clear if he did not frequently write about her or if his biographer edited out those parts, thinking they were too private for a 19th century book. Agnes did travel frequently, so perhaps Bartlett desired to meet her at Saratoga as well.
Whatever his particular wishes for health reason, entertainment, or social pleasure, General Bartlett held a popular view of Saratoga Springs. He had set a visit to Saratoga as a goal while he lay Richmond’s Libby Prison and firmly believed that a week there would raise his spirits and improve his health. His opinion echoed the views of mid-19th Century doctors and upper society’s preferences for “taking the waters” and enjoying life at a resort in the shadow of the Adirondack Mountains of New York.
Francis W. Palfrey, Memoir of William Francis Bartlett, (1878), Pages 133-138. Accessed through Google Books.
Saratoga Springs Visitor Center History: https://www.discoversaratoga.org/saratoga-springs-visitor-center/history/
Library of Congress, Saratoga images, 19th century. https://www.loc.gov/photos/?dates=1800/1899&q=saratoga&sp=1