Peterboro During the Civil War

Peterboro During The Civil War

by Donna Burdick, Smithfield Town Historian

A forewarning of the conflict to come took place at Peterboro on April 13, 1859, when “Capt. John Brown of Kansas” spoke at the Free Church, established by abolitionist Gerrit Smith in the 1840s. In his address, Brown defended his actions in Kansas and said that he was determined to “carry the war into Africa,” by liberating the slaves. That he was in earnest was proven by his raid at Harper’s Ferry, begun on the 16th of October 1859. By the end of the month, Gerrit Smith was convinced that he would be taken to Virginia to answer for his assistance to Brown, and Peterboro residents armed themselves to stand guard over the Smith estate. Instead, Smith was committed to the New York State Lunatic Asylum in Utica, where he remained for about two months, returning to Peterboro at the end of December.

The Civil War officially began on April 12, 1861, with the firing on Fort Sumter at Charleston, South Carolina. On April 27, residents of Peterboro and vicinity met at the local Presbyterian Church (now the Smithfield Community Center). Here they pledged themselves to the preservation of the Union and the suppression of the Southern rebellion. They also vowed to support the families of the men who would soon enter military service. A committee of five men, James Barnett, Caleb Calkins, Jesse Watson, A. A. Phipps, and A. S. Hungerford was named to solicit funds from the audience and other residents of the Town of Smithfield (the “township” in which Peterboro is located) to aid the volunteers for the army. In a prophetic statement, Gerrit Smith asked that the soldiers go to the South more in sorrow than in anger, that slavery was the crime of the North as well as of the South, and that as her leaders fell into our hands, we should avoid treating them with vengeance.

The Presbyterian Church was again the site of a meeting on May 15, 1861, when the “Peterboro Volunteers” were feted prior to their leaving for Elmira, where they would join the 35th New York Infantry. Speeches were made, poems read, and patriotic songs were sung, including “Red, White and Blue” by the choir. The sum of $1,200 had already been subscribed for the benefit of the men. A ladies’ committee consisting of Mrs. Hattie Hall, Mrs. Josie S. Baum, Miss Mollie C. Brown, and Miss Nellie M. Barnett presented each volunteer with an article known as the “House-Wife,” containing a pin-ball, needles, thread, buttons, combs, etc.

In 1862, the 157th New York Infantry, in which more Smithfield men would serve than any other regiment, was formed at Hamilton. On September 25, the soldiers started for Canastota, where they were to take a train to the front. At mid-day, they stopped at Peterboro. A picnic-style lunch awaited them on the village green. While eating, they were addressed by Gerrit Smith, seated on a white horse. Behind him the Stars and Stripes waved at half-mast, in memory of Captain James Barnett of the 35th New York, who had died at Antietam just the week before. Each soldier was given a New Testament, the gift of Smith, who also presented the regiment with $500, to be used for the purchase of stationery and stamps.

President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863, and afterwards African American men were encouraged to join the military. On April 21, Gerrit Smith called a meeting of the “colored men of Peterboro” asking them to enlist. In early June, residents Henry Charles, and brothers Laban and Alberto Robbins left for Boston to join the 55th Massachusetts Colored Infantry. Local blacks also served in the 8th United States Colored Troops, the 22nd New York Cavalry, and the 86th New York Infantry.

The call for volunteers and the funds to support them did not cease. By the end of 1863, through the efforts of the Ladies’ Aid Society and by individual contributions, Smithfield had sent to the various hospitals, to the Sanitary Commission, and to soldiers in the field over $1,000. By the end of 1863, Gerrit Smith had pledged a town bounty of $400 to each man who enlisted.

When the war ended in 1865, sixteen Smithfield soldiers had made the ultimate sacrifice, and the fate of at least four was unknown. True to his sentiments of 1861, Gerrit Smith sought reconciliation: On May 13, 1867, Jefferson Davis, the former President of the Confederacy, was released after two years’ imprisonment, the bail having been posted by Smith, along with other prosperous Northerners.