From the winter 1812 “Camp Saranac” (Pike’s Cantonment) to the fortifications built for the defense and protection of the village of Plattsburgh and the important military stores in 1814 (Forts Brown, Moreau, and Scott, the wooden barracks and two additional forts – Forts Gaines and Tompkins – in 1815), the Plattsburgh Stone Barracks in 1838, the brick “brownstones” of the 1890s, to the establishment of the Army’s “Plattsburgh Barracks” in 1945 and the “new base” of the Air Force in the 1950s, the military presence in Plattsburgh have had a long and interesting past.
In November of 1866, just after the Civil War, two companies known as the 42nd U.S. Infantry Veterans’ Reserve Corps were organized “to be none but men who have been wounded in the line of their duty while serving… and were found on medical exam not unfitted for garrison or other light duty.” They were sent to Plattsburgh and garrisoned in the stone barracks built in 1838.
A year later, more severely or wounded individuals began to arrive. On May 17, 1867, soldiers Henry McKay and John Rigby, suffering from their injuries, passed away. They were buried in the grounds just to the west of the barracks, an area thereafter known as the Post Cemetery.
In 1868, during the construction of the Whitehall and Plattsburgh Railroad, the remains of 91 soldiers who fought for the United States in the War of 1812 were unearthed near the wharf just north of the location of Fort Scott and re-interred in the first of what would be twenty-some of the Old Post Cemetery’s northwestern plots marked with marble headstones identifying them as “Unknown. (Several other deaths and interments occurred there before the 42nd was transferred to the Madison Barracks at Sackets Harbor in 1869.)
In 1892, the graves of 25 soldiers were unearthed during the destruction of Fort Moreau and the remains of a believed Revolutionary War soldier discovered during 1933 excavations at the Post were unearthed; both were re-interred in the same cemetery.
The U.S. Army maintained a presence in Plattsburgh until 1944 when the U.S. Navy’s “Camp Macdonough” Officer Training School was established here. The Army returned in 1945 establishing the “Plattsburgh Barracks,” only to relinquish control of what is known as the Old Base to the NY State Education Department’s “Champlain College” to benefit returning veterans of the Second World War.
Faced with dwindling enrollment, the college was closed and the base was returned to the United States in 1953. In 1955, Plattsburgh Air Force Base began its history with the assignment of the 380th Bombardment Wing, later joined by the 556th Strategic Missile Squadron.
In recent years scholars have stated that memorials to unknown soldiers are a 20th century phenomenon, “allowing a focus of grief” for the massive losses in wars since the First World War. Among those mentioned are the 1931 “Memorial to Four Unknown Soldiers” at Lake George, NY; the 1932 “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier” at Arlington National Cemetery (perhaps the most famous of such memorials); and the 1957 “Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier” at Washington Square in Philadelphia, PA. (The Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers of the American Revolution in Rome, Oneida County, NY, was dedicated in 1976).
In 1888, the Secretary of War directed that three federal monuments be installed to mark the graves of unknown American soldiers in the cemeteries at Plattsburgh, Sackets Harbor’s Madison Barracks, and Fort Niagara.
On June 1st of that year, the “Monument to the Memory of Unknown Soldiers and Sailors Killed in the Action at the Battles of Plattsburgh on September 11th, 1814,” which is believed to be the first national monument to the unknowns, was installed.
Photos: from above: The 1888 memorial to Unknown Soldiers in Plattsburgh’s Old Post Cemetery; and an Old Post Cemetery historical marker.
Keith A. Herkalo has a M.A. in Archaeology and Heritage and is President of the Battle of Plattsburgh Association.