During the American Civil War – which, despite attempts to argue otherwise, was in effect America’s crusade against slavery – several hundred thousand citizens from New York State enlisted in the United States Army.
Many from Saratoga County (and also some from Essex and Fulton Counties) joined the 77th Regiment, its unit number chosen to recall the 1777 Battle of Saratoga during the American Revolution. It was known as the “Bemis Heights Regiment,” the place so evocative of the “turning point” of the War of Independence.
On the morning of Thanksgiving Day in 1861 over 700 men departed their camp at a former fairground, and boarded trains which would transport them south. They took with them blankets collected by local women, and cloaks sewn by them, so that the men would be protected from the cold of the oncoming winter.
The 77th would see much action during the course of the war. In addition to those who returned to Saratoga County to live afterward, many former soldiers kept in touch be attending reunions, usually held in Saratoga Springs (in those years, a mere village).
Not attending these reunions were over 280 men who died fighting, or as a result of wounds or disease. The regiment underwent some consolidations and reorganizations during the course of the war, so that eventually around 1,500 men served in its ranks at some point or other. The regiment’s history is storied, and the list of battles in which it participated is extensive.
As early as 1871, six years after the regiment was mustered out of Federal service, a design for a monument was in the works. Such a project had been contemplated for some time. There was a bit of vagueness about the purpose of such a monument. Some believed it was meant to honor only those from the 77th who had fallen during the War, but a writer in the Saratogian newspaper felt that it should not be “limited to commemorating the deeds of the brave 77th alone, but that it will enshrine the names of all who fell, and of whatever regiment.” Generally, though, through the years it was understood that the honorees were the 77th’s war dead.
Seed money came from $500 which the government paid to the regiment because they were owed money for rations during their service. Put into an interest-bearing account, the fund had grown to $1,000 after ten years. Contributions from the public made up the remainder of the total cost, which amounted to $3,000. So it was a community effort.
The progress of the endeavor, being of interest to the general public as well as former soldiers, was traced by local newspapers. In 1873, when veterans of the regiment gathered in Saratoga, one object of their attention was raising money to fund the memorial. A committee had decided on the monument’s design – a granite base with a bronze figure of a soldier atop it – and it was reported that Maurice J. Power, who operated the National Fine Art Foundry in New York City, would make the figure.
(Some sources say it was done by J. W. Fiske, but that seems to be an error. Fiske was primarily known for his work with cast iron or cast zinc, sometimes with bronze plating applied. The oldest sources say the soldier was bronze, and Power was the founder.)
During his career, Power produced numerous similar monuments, many of them commemorating Civil War soldiers. He produced the Irish Brigade Irish Brigade Monument at Gettysburg and the New York City Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn.
Power also worked on the memorial that marks the grave of Elmer E. Ellsworth in nearby Mechanicville, New York. Ellsworth, the first fatality in the Civil War, lived in Saratoga County part of his life.
It is frustrating that there is no mention in contemporaneous newspapers of the artist who created the figure of the soldier. Local architect Gilbert P. Croft sketched the design, and W. H. Thomas, also from Saratoga, was contracted to make the base, using Quincy blue granite. It doesn’t seem that actually creating the image of the soldier was the sort of work that they, nor Power, normally did. It also is not clear whether the figure was meant to represent any particular person, though some historians feel the face was that of an actual man from the 77th.
Though funds were raised, and arrangements made for the creation of the monument, the location where it would stand was not finalized until late in the process. Not long before the memorial was installed, the proprietors of Congress Park gave up the corner where it would be placed, which would be come to be known as Monument Place.
On September 21, 1875 ceremonies were held in Saratoga to dedicate the monument. A parade started at the Town Hall, and participants included veterans of the 77th and other regiments, local officials, civic leaders, and citizens. They marched to the site of the monument at the Broadway side of the park. The Saratogian noted that both sides of Broadway were “fairly blockaded” with spectators, and estimated the crowd as numbering between 7,000 and 10,000 people. From a platform next to the monument, speakers reviewed the history of the regiment.
At a time signaled by the firing of a gun, the fabric that covered the bronze figure of a soldier dropped, and this was met with a great cheer from the crowd. The ceremony continued with more speeches and music, both appreciated by those present. When the dedication was completed, the veterans enjoyed an elegant meal back at the Town Hall.
A sketch, along with information on the monument, appeared in a national newspaper, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, on October 16, 1875. The write-up there made mention of some discs, depicting typical scenes from the life of a soldier, which were to be mounted on the sides of the base. There is no indication that such ornaments were ever put in place, however.
For decades the soldier guarded his corner of Congress Park. The sentinel watched as the park next to him was re-designed. But ultimately, the age of the automobile forced a change. At the time of its dedication, it was reported that the monument was located in a position that “will give ample walking and driving room on either side.” But things had become awkward for automobile traffic, and the monument needed to be moved further into the park. (In 1875, the park had extended into the present Broadway, but when the city acquired some of its square-footage, the street was widened, with the result that the monument was actually in the street, with cars trying to navigate around it.)
In the fall of 1921, bids were sought to accomplish the move, and the relocation was completed before the end of the year. No sort of time capsule was found in the original foundation, but two containers were left open for a time in the new one, so that members of the public could deposit items of significance.
The following September, members of the regiment gathered in Saratoga (fewer than 60 were still living, and only 20 of those were in attendance). In addition to talking over their war experiences over dinner, they passed a resolution thanking the city officials (Saratoga Springs having become a city by then) for their cooperation in relocating the monument.
If the sentry was dissatisfied with his new spot, no one ever heard a complaint. He was a good soldier. In just 18 months from the time of writing of this article, he would have occupied it for an entire century. This unknown soldier (for if the man depicted ever had a name, it has been lost to time) stood year after year, in fair weather and foul, reconnoitering the grounds of the park. Neither snow not ice, nor gusting winds, nor bolts of electricity from the skies could force him from his post. Instead, on a midsummer evening, just a week ago, he was brought down by uncaring – perhaps misguided – human hands, with the use, possibly, of a few dollars’ worth of rope.
Our “unknown” soldier was defeated by person or persons unknown, skulking about in the darkness. The Saratogian, in 1882, described the soldier as an “imperishable representative of the army which saved the Nation.” Those words were not meant to be ironic, but have now become so.
One of the sad realities of the human experience is that works created by men and women can generally be destroyed with less time and effort than it took to make them. Paintings that absorbed weeks, months or years of artists’ efforts can be ruined with a can of spray paint from a discount store. Buildings that may have required years to design and construct can be demolished, sometimes in a mere matter of days, when there is insufficient interest or financial wherewithal to preserve them.
And the statue of a soldier, whose lonely presence honored the sacrifices made when some men fought toward the ultimate outcome of liberating others – a statue whose existence was a result of the hard work of planners and artisans, as well as monetary contributions made by reverential citizens – can be brought down quickly and furtively – and perhaps with no accountability if the perpetrator or perpetrators are never caught.
The Saratoga Springs Department of Public Safety, in a press release issued July 20, 2020 advises that “a cash reward is being offered by a group of private citizens, for information leading to the arrest of those responsible for the destruction of the monument.” The reward amounts to $2,000, but will undoubtedly grow as additional contributions come in. Any person with information on the matter is asked to contact the Saratoga Springs Police, by calling (518) 584-1800.
Illustrations, from above: What’s left of the 77th Regiment Monument in Saratoga Springs (courtesy Saratoga Springs Department of Public Safety); what’s left of the 77th Infantry Regiment flag, carried during the Civil War; and the 77th Monument in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.