A review of the recent
publication “Notable Civil War Veterans of Oswego County, New York” by Natalie Joy
Woodall. Published by SUNY Press, Albany, October 2022
OSWEGO COUNTY - Natalie Joy Woodall writes books about the Civil War that are not about battles or campaigns. She focuses her spotlight on people: ordinary people who just happen to have gone to war and the experiences that transform their lives. Known for her three previous books: “Oswego County and the Civil War: They Answered the Call”; “Men of the 110th Regiment: Oswego’s Own”; and “Of Blood and Battles: Oswego’s 147th Regiment,” Woodall takes a different slant in this latest one. All profiles are men and women who may or may not have been born in the county or entered service in Oswego, but who are buried in Oswego County and made an impact on county history in some way. Meticulously researched and detailed with fascinating tidbits of their personal lives both before and after the war, it is a compelling read for those who want to fill gaps in their Oswego County historical knowledge.
Notable in this biography is that, along with the men who served, she tells the story of the women, usually wives, who supported both them and the Union cause by maintaining homes and farms, sending supplies to the front, and raising morale through their letters.
She starts with an introductory chapter on the history of slavery in the state of New York and the growth of abolitionism, especially in Oswego County. There are examples of heroic efforts of the Underground Railroad participants as well as the writings of pro-southern slavery advocates. While most Oswego men enlisted to “preserve the Union,” there are some astonishing examples of how soldiers became fierce advocates of emancipation after witnessing firsthand the cruelties of Southern slavery.
The 40 biographical stories are rich in details from contemporary newspapers, diaries and letters. Woodall has done extensive ancestral research to document each individual’s family and descendants. In every case, she identifies where her subject is buried and often shows a photo of the gravestone. The text is generously illustrated with portraits, illustrations and photographs.
Here are three profiles:
Daniel McSweeney, of the 21st “Barnes” Battery, NY LA, Oswego City grocer, who helped uncover a gang of coin and bill forgers in Oswego and went on to a career as a US Secret Service agent breaking up similar counterfeiting schemes.
Smith Parke, of Amboy and Parish, described as an “ordinary man” whose bio reads like a Greek tragedy: death from disease after less than a year in the army, the death shortly afterward of his wife who had left her children and travelled south to nurse him and the demise of his oldest son who enlisted only to support his now orphaned younger siblings.
John Wilson Sykes, who is buried in Fulton, is a character whose life was full of aliases and inconsistencies, a multiple marriage odyssey and many mysteries. The military records and census data on him are so contradictory that Woodall is forced to leave many of these mysteries unresolved.
Women who made an impact in the Civil War on their own, and not because of marriage to a soldier, are given their due.
Doctor Mary Walker earns a place in the book by being a contracted civilian surgeon in the war and to date, the only woman to earn the Medal of Honor. She spent the rest of her life advocating for women’s rights and dress reform. She is buried in Rural Cemetery in the town of Oswego.
Elmina Spencer of Mexico followed her husband to the war and made her reputation as a tireless nurse in hospitals and in the field. She fearlessly followed the troops to the most dangerous positions, providing comfort to the wounded and care to the remains of the dead. She eloquently advocated in letters to the government for resources for better treatment of the wounded soldiers. Lauded in her lifetime, she was immortalized with her likeness carved in the staircase of the New York State Capital building.
Woodall ends the book’s biographies with a very personal and poignant story of her great-great-grand uncle, Granville Sharp Woodall, “a foolish young boy who wanted to play at war and paid for his folly with his life.” He lied about his age (15) to a recruiter obviously desperate to enlist recruits in the latter years of the war. After he was dispatched with Company M of the 24th Cavalry, his parents persuaded his older brother John, who had already served two years in the war, to re-enlist “to look after Granville.” The 16-year-old Granville died at Cold Harbor, one of the bloodiest engagements of the war. He, however, succumbed to typhoid fever, not injuries from the battle. His heartbroken brother John was there to make arrangements for the body to be embalmed and returned to Oswego for burial. Elmina Spencer was vital to this effort, advancing John the money to have the body sent home. Woodall ends with a sad note, “This boy’s death was not glorious or noble nor was it beneficial to the union. If the recruiter had told him in no uncertain terms to go home and stay there, how much different the Woodall family history would have been.”
Were it not for the opening chapter outlining the abolition of slavery as a primary reason for the Civil War, this ending might have served as a condemnation of war in general. As it is, it reminds us of the delicate balance between the worthy goals and terrible consequences of war.
This is an excellent resource, scholarly, with citations for every fact and quotation. While satisfying a reader’s need for historic data and for compelling stories, it is also a great read.
Notable Civil War Veterans of Oswego County, New York is available at the river’s end bookstore in Oswego.
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