Explore or Leave this Island
Word on the IslandEdit
The command of Major General Henry Warner Slocum (above) included the 123rd Regt. NYSV whose Company K Lieut. George Washington Baker wrote the Rikers letter quoted here.
The steamboat that burned in the East River and that beached on North Brother Island June 15, 1904, with 1020 lives lost, had been named for Gen. Slocum.
Inmates and staff from nearby Rikers Island helped save Slocum passenger lives and recover bodies. Click image for more on the 123rd Regiment NYSV.
“Tuesday morning come, and with it the day that saw us leave for Riker’s Island on board a couple of steam tugs and an old barge.
It was an exceedingly cold, raw day, and when we arrived at the island, we found it minus a single stove, and we had to ‘grin and bear’ it through all that day and night.
Most of the men went to bed to keep warm, but they found it freezing under the blankets, as clothing was rather sparse. The barracks, too, were built loosely, for summer rather than winter use.
The island, which has become notorious as the resort of knights of the muscle and pugilists generally .... comprises about 90 acres of good soil, an orchard, and one dilapidated old house, hired by one Harry, who keeps inside of it a bar and a family, the number of representatives deponent knoweth not.
Its climate is miserable cold, uncomfortable, disagreeable and lonely, and its chief productions, so far as I was able to practically demonstrate, were oysters, clams ... which the boys amused themselves by digging.
In the summer time it would be a capital place to recreate, to hunt and fish, as wild ducks abound delightIy, and fish can be obtained in any quantity, but it’s not exactly the spot for delicate wildlife in the tedious winter time, as the wind whistles Yankee Doodle and keeps the men dancing an Irish jig continually.”
Of the same mind was A. I. Grover who wrote that
“The hardships of our men began at Albany, in barracks insufficiently warmed, and where food was provided most disgustingly cooked, and served up in a most disgusting place. The chapter of hardships was “continued in Rickers Island.”
But at times and for some life on the island was not particularly bad. H. D. Smith wrote that “we dig clams an Bake them and when we want Oysters we go Down when the tide is out and knock them off the rocks.”
Levi Havens, belonging to an unspecified unit and writing in August, 1863, to a brother and sister, was decidedly more upbeat in the following letter’s excerpts~ in spite of his illness:
“I think you would like to hear from me so I will write a few lines to let you know how I am and where I am. I am not very well now but am getting better every day.
Last week on Tuesday I was taken sick with the dysentery and was very sick Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I could not eat anything. I had three doctors tend me Sunday. They gave me some liquor to drink and it did me good. I began to get hungry and they gave me some rice to eat, so I am getting better now.
I am on Riker’s Island four miles from New York City. I have a board for my bed, a blanket to roll myself up in, a nice tent to sleep in, and plenty to eat - - beef and bread, effey [difficult transcription but perhaps coffee] and sometimes ham and potatoes and sometimes cheese...
In 1863 and again in 1864 Lieut. George Washington Baker, a member of Company K of the 123rd New York Volunteers, wrote letters from Riker's Island, but the circumstances of his being there are not clear. Draft riot occurred in 1863 in New York City as well as in Troy and Boston, and on July 13 James N. Fry, Provost
Major Andrew J. Grover
Born in W.Dryden, Tompkins County, Dec. 22, 1830. Orphaned at 7. Enlisted at 16, served in Mexican War. Sickness left him lame. Funds from war service paid for Methodist Seminary education. Entered ministry in 1852. In 1861, helped organize the 76th Regiment. Commissioned captain Jan. 17, 1862. Took part in battles at Rappahannock Station, Sulphur Springs, and Gainesville. Seriously wounded, resigned commission, but recovered, and commissioned a major in February 1863. Killed in at Gettysburg July 1, days before he would have become colonel.
THE GAZETTE AND BANNER
MAY 1, 1862 VOL 1, NO. 31 Pg 2, COL 3,4,
NOTES FROM THE 76TH. FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT.
FORT DE RUSSY, D.C., APRIL 25TH, 1862
FRIENDS AT HOME:
The story of our camp life has no doubt been often told in the numerous letters which our men have written to anxious friends at home; and it may be a needless repetition for me to refer at all to the subject. But I imagine, that what seems to us who are in camp so commonplace, still arrays itself in the enchantment of novelty to those who are at a distance. . . .
The hardships of our men began at Albany, in barracks insufficiently warmed, and where food was provided most disgustingly cooked, and served up in a most disgusting place. The chapter of hardships was "continued" in Ricker's Island. But the climax was reached during our first week in Washington.
We arrived in Washington January 31st, about midnight, and were marched to a place called ironically the Soldiers' Rest - so called because troops remained there after there arrival in the Capital city, before marching in camp. We were marched into a large room which we were told was the place where the Regiment was to rest for a time. After super - for supper was in readiness even at the late hour, - the men made their arrangements for sleep; and after a little the floor, - the bare, dirty, muddy floor, - was actually covered with only one layer of sleeping soldiers. For a few days the men enjoyed, or rather endured, this fatiguing rest, many of them contracting the disease which has since sent them to their long home. We were soon ordered out to Meridian Hill. . . .
I take my pen in hand to write a few lines to you I presume Elon has writen to you that I was not agoin to write you again while I was in Albany as we left so suddenly I told him to write you I should not I dont know what he has written about the ride to New York and here but I will write some to and before that I will some to Nettie; Well, Nettie how do you do, pretty aint you, what do you do this cold weather, dont your fingers and nose and ears get cold little
now I will tell you what I saw and heard in Albany; well I went to the Grand Concert they had in Albany a little while before we left. . . .
This is terrible day, the wind blows huricane, this forenoon and its very lonely and disagreeable; we have had our pay I had 35 dollars and ten cents and sent 30 dollars home I intend to make as much as I can for I say its worth it.
We had a mighty nice time freezing and such like coming from Albany, to NY City a very fine time to the city and the beautiful airy ride we had comeing up to this Lone isle as for me I am determined to be as contented as I can and take what comes and make the best of it Elon has written all about the ride and the Isle and I have to say is what the Drum Major said although a pious man and one who has seen service and been in battle he says we aint but a short sail from hell more than half right and now I have written quite a little and guess I'll close by telling what I saw coming up hear as we passed Blackwell Island we saw the prison for the culprets of the city they were dressed in their uniforms which were Striped the stripes running round the body and arm and legs and they looked like a damned pack of hornets
we have seen great sights and things that I should never have seen had I not went a soldiering we have seen very hard times I think what times we are to see God onely
as for me let come what will come I must meet it an what is more I expect to meet whatever may happen so let it come . . . .
Dear father I thought that I would write A few lines to let you know that I am well and hope this will find you the same I Dont know but you think that I write to often but it dont cost me enything but the envelops and paper and that is not much to me ... only write Mother would you like to see me I should like to see you and I hope the time is not far distant when I shall return home if the Lord spares my life for our armey is ridling them Sutherners like thunder now I dont think that they can hold out much longer if our men serves them as they have lately for they have given them fits lately but I am afraid that I shall never get a Chance at them for thare is so meney ahead of us now and the Officers hae been trying to get the Col out of his office and he sed if thy succeded in doing it he should disband the reg and I hope they will for if I am discharged here I Shall join Charley Gralets reg of Cavelry for I like that vary much .
write and what litle I Do write you Cant Read I Dont Expect but if you Cnt Read it Sent it back and I will Read it for you but enough of that ... the other night thare was A Ship wrecked upon the iland but they was nobody hurt thare was four men and A Boy on Board they had on board tub barels of beer and the boys went Down and Tapped one of them and got all the beer they wanted to Drink but I Did not for I thought that it warnt mine and so I let it be ... tomorow morning wee lave here for Dixe and I am glad of it for I want to be Down thare A Doing Something for my Country for I have not Done eny thing for it yet but it is becase I have not had A Chance to but when I Do get at it I will fight the harder... Please write soon to me no more at present
John F. Potter
Once again I seat myself upon my cloth's valise, to let you know that the gallant and loyal Seventy-Sixth still lives and to tell you of its welfare and its progress in the art of war. . . .
We left Albany as you are aware some three weeks since, amid a beautiful snow storm, and as we marched through the town, cheered at, gazed at by an immense and wondering crowd, the gentle and light winged messengers from the skies would light softly upon the men, and when they reached the Depot, every soldier was beautifully ornamented and "coated all o'er with snow." The cars left about 7 o'clock Friday night, and arrived in the great metropolis about 7 the next morning, being 12 hours on the road. . . .
With our entrance into the city it commenced raining, and kept up a perfect drizzle for three or four days. When the last train got in, the men left the cars at the 31st at depot, and marched down Broadway to the City Hall Park Barracks. . . .These barracks were the best built of any that we have been in yet, and the food we received here was good, much better than our Albany fare. The men were loath to leave this rendezvous, so convenient was it to see the elephant. If a man was lucky enough to get a pass, it was amusing to hear him tell of all he had seen in his short town. You's think he had been round the world!
By way of rarity, allow me to say that the first Sabbath, I had the pleasure of listening to Henry Ward Beecher in the morning. . . . In the afternoon I visited the Cathedral, and in the evening, the Unitarian church on Broadway. The pulpit is occupied by Dr. Osgood, the author. . . . The Sunday evening following, hearing that Dr. Cheaver was going to preach a "war sermon," I repaired thither. . . . The latest fashion in New York is to cheer the preacher whenever he says anything good and patriotic, and it was so on this occasion. . . . Tuesday morning came, and with it the day that saw us leave for Riker's Island, on board a couple of steam tugs and an old barge. It was an exceedingly cold, raw day, and when we arrived at the Island, we found it minus a single stove, and we had to "grin and bear" it through all that day and night. Most of the men went to bed to keep warm, but they found it freezing under the blankets, as clothing was rather sparse. The barracks, too, were built loosely, for summer rather than winter use. The Island, which has become notorious as the resort of Knights of the muscle and pugilists generally, is situated about 12 miles above New York, on the East River, just above Blackwell Island, and adjacent to Long Island.
It comprises about 90 acres of good soil, an orchard, and one dilapidated old house, hired by one Harry, who keeps inside of it a bar and a family, the number of representatives deponent knoweth not. Its climate is miserable cold, uncomfortable, disagreeable and lonely, and its chief productions, so far as I was able to practically demonstrate, were oysters, clams, salt water and ------- which the boys amused themselves by digging.
In summer time, it wo'd be a capital place to recreate, to hunt and fish, as wild docks abound delightly, and fish can be obtained in any quantity, but it's not exactly the spot for delicate wildlife in the tedious winter time, as the wind whistles Yankee Doodle and keeps the men dancing an Irish jig continually.
The second day after our debut on this Island - the 23d of January, 1862, - was the happiest day the regiment has experienced yet. It will always be known as the great pay day, and when the history of the Seventy-Sixth shall have been written, this day will stand out in letters of shining gold, pure silver and nice treasury notes! The boys were perfectly happy, but what were they to do? they couldn't get off the Island to invest, and like good boys and true soldiers, sent home two-thirds of their money to their wives and parents. Out of $40,000, which was paid the Regiment, full $30,000 was sent home. This speaks well for the boys, and more eloquent in their praise than words.
But what was kept back burnt their pockets so that they were not satisfied until they had got rid o the most of it. If anything came on the Island, no matter of what ingredients, quality, quantity, or substance, it would go like wildfire. The boys hadn't had any money in so long a time, that it seemed more like an Eastern carnival, than a cold imprisoned Island. I overheard the Colonel tell some of the men who were anxious to visit the beach, that they could do so, but that it was against the orders to swim off! . . . Until Saturday, the 25th ult., the weather although cold, was comparatively fine; the day and night following, however, "old boreah," and the elements generally, seemed out on a bender, roaring and howling with all the characteristic roughness of the play-fellows of father Neptune. Any one wishing to go to New York, would have to cross the East River to Port Morris, and then take the Harlem cars. But the storm had been so severe that no one had attempted to go over for 24 hours. The 26th ultimo came, and as some business must be done, so must some one go over the River - a distance of about one mile. Accordingly, about half a dozen of us decided we would brave the waves at a venture. The boatmen told us we must prepare for a wetting, but wetting or no wetting, we must go, so off we started. The crew consisted of three orsmen, one steersman, two jolly Lieutenants, George and myself - eight - all told, if I except two empty blankets, one empty trunks and a box full of letters. . . . The frail boat rolled and pitched about on the heavy seas like a half-empty cask on the top of a high flood. . . . Soon we gained the opposite shore, very greatly to the delight, not one of us but what was wet through. We immediately made for the first place where there was a stove. We had received a whole month's ration of salt water, inwardly and outwardly, and it was some minutes before we could fairly get dry. . . .
Two days after we embarked on board the Atlas, en route for Washington, a description of which I will give you in my next. . .
Yours, for our country,