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Resurrecting A Regiment

By Mark Dunkelman


August 2006

Among Civil War enthusiasts, preservation usually signifies the fight to keep battlefields safe from increasingly rapacious developers. But other preservation efforts safeguard important legacies of the war.

Public repositories at the national, state, and local levels preserve extensive documentation and countless artifacts. Private collectors and soldiers' descendants preserve an immense trove of memorabilia.

For more than 30 years, I've relied on both public sources and private parties in striving to resurrect and preserve the memory of a single Union regiment, the 154th New York Volunteer Infantry.

The 154th New York was raised in the summer of 1862, eight companies in Cattaraugus County, the other two in neighboring Chautauqua County. Serving in the Army of the Potomac's Eleventh Corps, the regiment fought at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg; casualties in the two battles totaled more than 440.

After the Eleventh Corps was transferred to the Western Theater, the 154th fought at Lookout Valley and Chatta-nooga, with minimal casualties, and made a tough march to the relief of Knoxville and back.

In the spring of 1864 the Eleventh and Twelfth Corps were merged to form the Twentieth, and with that command the regiment fought in the Atlanta campaign "" losing almost half of its force "" and made the marches under Sherman through Georgia and the Carolinas. Following the Grand Review in Washington, the 154th was mustered out near Bladensburg, Md., in June 1865.

In the postwar years, the 154th's veterans participated in typical commemorative activities "" erecting soldiers' monuments in their hometowns, joining their local Grand Army of the Republic posts, attending annual regimental reunions and visiting their old battlefields. During that era, an outsider named E.D. Northrup undertook to write a history of the 154th. He worked on it for more than 20 years, but failed to have it published.

When the last member of the regiment died, the veterans' individual legacies were preserved by their families in attics and albums. But as the years passed, collective remembrance of the 154th New York was forgotten. Then Mike Winey and I came along.

As a boy growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., I was fascinated by my father's stories of his grandfather, John Langhans, a veteran of the 154th. Augmenting my interest were relics of my great-grandfather's service and veteranhood "" cotton bolls he had picked in Georgia, his silver star Twentieth Corps badge, his G.A.R. badges and regimental re-union ribbons.

My interest soon expanded beyond John Langhans' individual service to that of his regiment as a whole. Pub-lished sources told only bits and pieces of the 154th's story, so I resolved to write a full-length regimental history. On my birthday in 1970, I happened to be passing through Cooperstown, N.Y., and stopped at the library of the New York State Historical Association.

There I was astonished to find a master's thesis on the 154th written by Michael J. Winey, who had pursued the subject after happening upon some regimental records. I was soon in touch with Mike and we agreed to collaborate on a history of the 154th New York.

Spurred by knowledge of Northrup's failed history, I began a series of annual summer research trips to western New York. Throughout Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties, I met descendants who kindly shared their ancestors' diaries, letters, relics and portraits for use in our history. The resulting book, The Hardtack Regiment, was published in 1981. In subsequent years I've published other books and dozens of articles on various aspects of the 154th's history.

About 30 years ago, while visiting Gettysburg, I noticed a roofing company was building a concrete block ware-house 10 feet behind the 154th's monument on Coster Avenue, a largely neglected portion of the Gettysburg Na-tional Military Park.

As an artist, I knew the unsightly wall could be made to disappear and the Civil War scene be brought to life by means of a mural. After years of research and design work, I painted the final 80-foot mural with Rhode Island artist Johan Bjurman. It was dedicated on July 1, 1988, the 125th anniversary of the fighting it portrays.

An ongoing commemorative effort is extra special to me. Since 1986, descendants of members of the 154th have gathered every summer in western New York to honor the service of our ancestors in annual reunions. Our gather-ings are unusual "" only a handful out of approximately 2,000 Union regiments are being commemorated in such a manner on an annual basis.

The idea for the reunions came to me in 1984, when I gave a talk to the Allegany Area Historical Association in Cattaraugus County. There I was delighted to meet many descendants for the first time, and it occurred to me that such a gathering could be repeated on a regular basis.

In 1986 I announced our first 154th New York descendants reunion. Each year since then we have met in different towns in Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties "" the same towns where our veteran ancestors held their regimental reunions a century ago. Every year we've enjoyed a strong turnout, more descendants have been added to the rolls, and more memorabilia has been documented.

Invitations are mailed to more than 770 descendants spread from coast to coast, who represent more than 270 members of the 154th New York. Attendees receive souvenir ribbons similar to those our ancestors wore at their gatherings. Every year the reunion program centers on a different theme.

At our tenth reunion, in 1995, we inaugurated a drive to raise funds to erect a monument to the 154th on its bloodiest battlefield, Chancellorsville, where it suffered the fourth highest Union regiment casualty count in the bat-tle, a 40 percent loss. In less than a year we raised more than $5,000 and erected a granite monument at the edge of the field in which the 154th fought. It was dedicated on Memorial Day weekend in 1996.

For years, I wondered how to make my search for 154th descendants and material a national one. The Internet very conveniently solved that problem. In the past decade, I've heard from many descendants of members of the regiment via e-mail (nyvi154th@aol.com), most of whom have learned about my work from my Web site (http://hometown.aol.com/nyvi154th/hardtackregiment.html).

After 30 years of intensive research, the 154th New York, once forgotten, is now one of the best-documented of Union regiments. To date, more than 1,400 wartime letters, 25 diaries, and several accounts and memoirs written by members of the 154th have been located and transcribed.

Portraits of more than 230 members of the regiment have been copied. The regimental archives, including many original artifacts, fill a room. Mike Winey and I plan to leave our collections on the 154th to the library at St. Bonaventure University in Cattaraugus County.

In 1888, Maj. Alfred W. Benson delivered the main address at the 154th's first annual reunion. Scanning the crowd, he noted many youngsters in attendance. "God bless the children, and the grandchildren," Captain Benson prayed, "and may they never forget the story of the 154th, in which their fathers served."

We have not forgotten.

Mark Dunkelman lives in Providence, R.I. His other books of 154th New York history include Gettysburg's Unknown Soldier (1999), Brothers One and All (2004) and War's Relentless Hand (2006).

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