My daughter Rachel and I embarked last Memorial Day weekend on a 3 day upstate tour in search of 8 graves of members of the 65th NY Volunteers, who we were honoring with flags this Memorial Day weekend. On the way home we also visited the grave site of the 121st NY commander, who briefly served as the 65th NY’s brigade commander during the tumult of the Battle of Cedar Creek, on Oct. 19, 1864.
The trip started with a picnic lunch at Binghamton University, so Rachel could hang out where she is going to school next year. My nephew had clued us in on a sandwich shop in downtown Binghamton, Alexander’s Cafe, which serves wonderful paninis. They lived up to the hype. After filling up on a delicious chicken panini with spinach and feta cheese, washed down with a chocolate milkshake, we hit the road towards our first two grave sites, in the Bath National Cemetery.
2 members of the 65th NY Volunteers were buried at the Bath National Cemetery after their time living at the Soldiers’ Home located there. Privates Erastus Owen and Theron Lapham’s graves were easily found at the beautifully located cemetery, with its clearly ordered rows of graves. Private Owen mustered in at Auburn, NY as a 25 year old in March 1865, near war’s end. Private Lapham, on the other hand, enlisted at Yonkers, NY in July 1861, re-enlisted as a veteran, and served with the regiment all the way to the end of the war. Possessing the known sites of the graves before we went in, using information gathered by researchers at the NY State Military History museum, and knowing the cemetery layout from study beforehand made quick work of finding the two graves. We took some pictures of the graves, along with the impressive 1893 obelisk erected to honor the Civil War veterans buried there, and then we were on to Arkport.
It took a bit longer to find Private Charles Bartlett’s grave, as we had no location other then the cemetery itself. Rachel and I have gotten skilled from experience at figuring out which part of a cemetery is most likely to find the graves of Civil War veterans, but Bartlett’s grave eluded us despite the relatively small size of the Heritage Hill cemetery in Arkport, outside of Hornell. In time, though, I stumbled upon Bartlett’s uniquely lettered grave stone, and its reference to his service with the 65th NY Volunteers. Private Bartlett transferred into the 65th when the 67th NY merged into the regiment on Sept. 1, 1864. He would thus shortly see battle in the Shenandoah Valley under Sheridan, at 3rd Winchester, Fisher’s Hill, and Cedar Creek.
As we were traveling in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rachel and I knew that we needed to stay socially distanced. Visiting rural cemeteries of course helped make that possible. We stayed at AirBnB sites where we knew we would have our own space without other guests nearby. In Hornell, it was a small house which backed up on a lovely woods, with large picture windows revealing the lush nature, and birds twittering away all around us. The family which owned the house did some farming and maple sugaring, and we bought a quart of maple syrup. The owner also generously gifted us with a bag of organically grown shitake mushrooms. I brought them home and sauteed them with garlic and olive oil, like my father used to do when I was a kid.
The next day we drove to Cattaraugus, in the western part of New York’s Southern Tier area. Route 86 goes through some beautiful countryside there, and we were thrilled to see two bald eagles in a tree adjoining the highway. Some country roads north and west of the Seneca reservation at Salamanca brought us to the Liberty Park cemetery in Cattaraugus. This pretty little cemetery featured more nature spotting for us, with a deer in the woods just beyond the cemetery’s edge, and a bluebird flying onto a large grave stone right near us. Rachel had never seen this state bird of New York, and we were each excited to spot it. Shortly after, we found Private Albert Sherman’s grave, and decorated it with our little flag, adding it to the flag already placed there for the holiday. Sherman enlisted at Hornellsville, near where we stayed the previous night, in Oct. 1864 and was wounded at the Petersburg breakthrough on April 2, 1865.
We were happy to be four out of four so far in terms of our grave searches, and seeing that East Aurora was close to our path to the next two graves in Avon, New York, we decided we would stop there for lunch and a quick visit to President Millard Fillmore’s home. I like to collect Presidents’ houses, and it was not that far out of our way, so even considering Fillmore’s relative insignificance, it was worth a stop. And the pulled pork tacos with mango slaw dressing which we got from Mikey Dee’s cafe were excellent.
Then to Avon Cemetery and St. Agnes Cemetery in Avon, NY, for our last two graves of the day. Driving along scenic old Federal Highway 20A, and on country roads to Avon, we admired New York state’s rural beauty. At the Avon Rural Cemetery Rachel spotted Surgeon John W. Gray’s grave early on, which was a godsend as we lacked a grave location and it was a bigger cemetery than I had figured. Having a photo of the grave from Findagrave.com was a big help. Gray was appointed to the regiment in Dec. 1864 after serving as an assistant surgeon in another regiment. We took more photos, and planted our flag, then it was on to the other side of town and St. Agnes Cemetery. A photo from Findagrave.com helped again, and we found Private Thomas Kelly’s grave quickly. Kelly joined the regiment in Auburn, NY on March 31, 1865, only days before the April 2, 1865 Breakthrough attack at Petersburg, and Lee’s subsequent surrender to Grant on April 9, 1865.
It was a relatively short drive on small rural roads to our AirBnB stay on the first floor of a lovely circa 1860 farmhouse in Mendon, New York. We liked the chickens and the two goats, and I even took a walk among the graves in the old graveyard across the street, as if I had not been in cemeteries enough for the past two days.
Day three of our trip was harder. Partly, the reality was setting in that we had spent a ton of time driving, and even as beautiful as upstate New York is in late May, I think we were both wearing down a bit. Having found all six of the graves we were looking for in the first two days, perhaps we were due for a challenge. I had purposely planned the trip with a shorter drive for this third day, anticipating just such fatigue. We had only two more graves to find, and we had no picture of either. Private John Bain’s grave, in the Fairville rural cemetery north of Newark, New York, was only about forty-five minutes away from where we stayed in Mendon. We saw a turtle crossing the road on the way there, and upon arrival at the cemetery we divided up and started scanning the graves, focusing on the older section of the cemetery where the grave was most likely to be located. Bluebirds flew among the graves. After a while, however, it became clear that there were many unmarked graves, or graves laid flat in the ground which the grass had grown almost completely over. In short, we never found Bain’s grave site, but we did leave a flag at another civil war veteran’s grave, likely close to the site of Bain’s own grave.
We were now not that far from Lake Ontario, which Rachel had never seen and I was not sure of ever having seen. So, as the road to our next grave took us nearby, we decided to lunch in Oswego, New York, the scene of a key battle of the French and Indian War, and view the lake. The drive took us past countless apple orchards with the white flowers in full bloom. Upon arrival in Oswego, we found a nice spot with some historical signs overlooking the lake, and we picnicked on local submarine sandwiches near the mouth of the Oswego River.
Our last grave was located in Adams Center, northeast of Fairville, and east of Lake Ontario. Unfortunately the information I had was vague enough that we searched fruitlessly in the wrong cemetery in Adams, New York even though we had the grave site information. Rachel figured out before me that we must have been at the wrong place, and luckily it was a short seven minute drive to the correct cemetery. Rachel, skillful grave searcher that she is, found the exact site of the grave according to the New York Military History museum information we had. But another larger grave was clearly not William H. Corey. However, a nearby small pair of worn grave stones was in the right place. No writing was legible on the stones, which was disheartening given our earlier struggles to find John Bain, but we planted a flag there and hoped that we had the right place. A relatively short drive to a lodge near the Salmon River reservoir outside Redfield was our place to stay for the third night. The night sky there was amazing given the lack of ambient light in this part of New York state. And I saw many goldfinches flying about as I sat outside the room the next morning as Rachel slept, and I heard the distinctive call of a loon as well.
It would be a long drive home to Mamaroneck, where I live, from Redfield. But knowing that the grave of Colonel Egbert Olcott was on the way home, if off the New York State Thruway for a while, made me ask Rachel if she was willing to make one more stop before ending this crazy trip. She was up for it. I love my girl. Olcott was actually the commander of the 121st New York Volunteers, which was brigaded with the Chasseurs (as the 65th NY soldiers called themselves, as members of the First United States Chasseurs) in late 1864, but he had stepped up to command the brigade when General Joseph Hamblin, the regular brigade commander who had moved up to that post from command of the Chasseurs, was wounded at the Battle of Cedar Creek. With ninety Chasseurs killed, wounded, or captured at Cedar Creek, including their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Higgenbotham killed, and my great-great grandfather 1st Sergeant Timothy Carroll wounded, it was a day fraught with havoc and death, and honoring Colonel Olcott on Memorial Day itself seemed appropriate even given how ready we both were to be back home. And the fact that I had a photo of his grave in the Cherry Valley Cemetery meant that we could, I hoped, avoid the frustrations of the previous day’s cemetery searches and end this trip on a high note. Sure enough, we found Olcott’s grave within five minutes of arrival in the lovely Cherry Valley Cemetery, whose local citizens had decorated veterans’ graves carefully with flags. Rachel and I closed out our trip with a few more pictures, and the knowledge that we had honored at least seven veterans associated with the Chasseurs with flags at their grave sites, and we hoped eight. And we had honored Private John Bain’s resting place in Fairville as well, after much searching, even if less exactly as the others.
It took 4 days of driving, with 3 nights spent at beautiful places scattered all across New York state. We had honored the Chasseurs over this Memorial Day weekend, and had paid our respects to the already so-honored Colonel Egbert Olcott. We drove over 950 miles. Rachel and I both wanted a road trip to break up the monotony of the COVID-19 quarantine, and we got one. And we stayed safe as well. We saw Lake Ontario from Oswego, and President Fillmore’s house, and so much of New York State that there was not much left in the state unseen to us. It had been an epic trip, one I hoped Rachel would never forget.