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Civil War

Former Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight Eisenhower. Photo on left from National Endowment for the Humanities website, photo on right from American Legion website

By Rich Acritelli

“The mission of this Allied Force was fulfilled at 0241, local time, May 7, 1945.”

It was at this moment 72 years ago that General Dwight Eisenhower flashed the victory sign to the free people of the world to signal the end of World War II against the Nazis in Europe. During the war, he was often criticized by other American generals as being too “pro-British,” or by the English as not having enough experience to run the war effort. But it was Eisenhower who was credited for seeing the big picture of the war effort to put aside the military differences of the British and Americans to achieve victory.

Some 152 years ago, General Ulysses S. Grant proudly watched his army completely defeat the Confederacy. Almost a year after President Abraham Lincoln made him the commanding general of all Union armies, he was at the cusp of a monumental victory. Grant was often criticized as a “butcher” who accepted extreme losses under his command, but he wrote a letter to Robert E. Lee expressing the need for his army to surrender. Grant told his adversary that all was lost and that peace must be restored to the divided nation. At Appomattox Court House, Grant offered Lee generous terms to prevent any further loss of life, to the surprise of the enemy. When northern artillery guns opened fire to celebrate the victory, Grant ordered them to stop because the Confederates were countrymen of the Union.

There are many similarities between Eisenhower and Grant. Both men were born in the Midwest — Eisenhower was from Kansas and Grant from Ohio. They both utilized West Point to leave a small town. Eisenhower was an outstanding football and baseball player. Grant was a superior horseman, who made one of the highest jumps ever recorded at the academy. They were both well-liked by their peers, as Eisenhower flashed a well-known grin and it was said at West Point, if you had a problem, Grant was seen as the fairest cadet to find a solution.

By the start of their respective wars, both men had not reached their professional goals. Grant earlier resigned his commission and he was later forced to work at his family store as a clerk in Galena, Illinois amid speculation about issues with alcohol. His first job for the Civil War was mustering soldiers into service for the Illinois government. Eisenhower always believed that he was cursed for not serving in France during World War I and he expected to retire as a colonel. But their senior officers and government officials found that these men could be counted on to carry out their military responsibilities.

These two officers were different politically than their commanders in chief. Grant voted as a Democrat before the war, but he openly wept at Lincoln’s funeral. Eisenhower was a Republican who did not support the New Deal. Perhaps due to the immense expectations that were placed on them, Eisenhower smoked five packs of cigarettes a day and Grant was believed to puff on thousands of cigars from 1861 to 1865.

Both men were known for their calm demeanors. During the Wilderness Campaign in 1864, Grant told his officers to stop thinking about the exploits of Lee and for them to create plans to hurt the southerners. At the height of Hitler’s failed attempt to overcome the Allies during the Battle of the Bulge, Eisenhower reorganized his armies and told his commanding generals that he expected to see only positive faces. He understood that the enemy had come out of their fortifications and they were now in the open where they could be destroyed. 

At the end of the war, Grant was concerned that Lee would move his army into the Appalachian Mountains where his men would conduct guerilla operations. Eisenhower had no interest in attacking Berlin. He refused to take a city that would have to be partially given back to the Soviet Union. Instead, he pushed his army southeast towards Austria, Czechoslovakia, and the Alps. Like Grant, he did not want any German forces prolonging the war in the mountains. Eisenhower and Grant were both from regular backgrounds. They evolved into two epic military figures in American history, and they were only interested in successfully carrying out their duties for the nation.

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College. Research for this story was contributed by the Rocky Point High School History Honor Society.

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Thanksgiving is arriving at the right time. With so much to be thankful for, it should be hard to remember one’s passions about the outcome of the recent presidential election. Yet there is talk about families who are calling off their Thanksgiving reunions around grandma’s richly laden table because they don’t want to talk politics with relatives who were on the “other” side. What a travesty, as if anything were more important or enduring than the safety net of family.

People have a right to think differently, even if they are related. There is, after all, no accounting for the distribution of genes, and anyway that’s not important in the scheme of things. What is important is the love family members feel for each other and the security that they have each other’s backs. If that is not the relationship one has with one’s family, I guess differing political opinions are a good enough reason to break off what was a meaningless business of just going through the kinship motions to begin with.

Even though the present situation is not nearly as dire, I am reminded of the Civil War or the War Between the States, which pitted brother against brother on the battlefield. That was a tragedy of deepest proportions. Right now, we are merely dealing with the outcome of an election whose consequences are perhaps feared or cheered but have not been actualized. If matters do get worse in our nation, we are going to need each other all the more to manage. And if they get better, then we can all cheer together.

Let’s wait and see — and break bread together, treasuring the love that binds us rather than the rhetoric that divides us.

As we go forward, we should remain vigilant about what is happening in our country and speak truth to those in power. The end of the election, at long last, is but the beginning of the next chapter. We have the right, as Americans, to speak our minds and expect those who represent us to hear us. Indeed, we have the obligation to remain active in our society, letting our lawmakers know how we feel even as we set an example of staying informed and engaged for our children and grandchildren.

What we should take great care to do, however, is work to separate fact from fiction. Communication in today’s world is infinitely more complicated than when our founding patriots read newspapers to learn what was happening. And even then, they had to be sure whose words they were reading and whether the writers could be trusted. By comparison today, there are so many different vehicles claiming to give the “facts.” Newspapers, radio and TV networks have been joined by cable, the Internet and dangerously, social media, where anyone can say anything without the benefit of fact-checking and their words can be transmitted to literally millions of people.

This is how jihadists woo recruits. This is also how politicians’ supporters win voters. So how can one tell if what one is reading is fact? The answer is obvious but hard. We must use that same Internet to check out what we have read on social media, not just assume that what we are told is correct because it comes from a good friend or loved one. Facts must be corroborated by multiple news sources, not just by opinions. Indeed, the more dramatic an assertion, the more likely it will be published in many places, not just on Facebook or Twitter.

Also, we need to talk with more than each other, by which I mean those with similar views. We need to talk to people on the “other” side of issues and ideology. At the least, we may learn how they come to the conclusions they do. And maybe we can hear something we might agree with, creating a bridge and not a wall. Some of those we talk with might even be our relatives. But that brings me back to grandma’s dining room table: Wait until everyone has finished and enjoyed dinner first before discussions commence.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Despite the threat of rain, the Farmingville Historical Society hosted a Civil War Encampment at the site of the 1823 Terry House and 1850 Bald Hill School House on Horseblock Road in Farmingville on Saturday.

The community was able to travel back in time to the 1860s to experience the daily lives of Civil War soldiers with members of the 88th New York State Volunteers and The 9th Virginia Infantry Company C. The Union and Confederate soldiers conducted military drills, fired muskets, demonstrated how soldier’s meals were prepared on an open fire and conducted a mock battle at Farmingville Hills County Park.

In addition, the one-room school house was in session, led by schoolmarm Susan Gill, who regaled the children with stories from the days of Laura Ingalls and life in the 1800s and answered questions.

If you would like more information on the Farmingville Historical Society and its programs, visit www.farmingvillehistoricalsociety.org.

Grave markers and headstones at the Lake Ronkonkoma Cemetery have been desecrated. Photo from SCPD

Historical grave markers and headstones were damaged earlier this month and police are searching for whomever is responsible.

Grave markers and headstones at the Lake Ronkonkoma Cemetery have been desecrated. Photo from SCPD
Grave markers and headstones at the Lake Ronkonkoma Cemetery have been desecrated. Photo from SCPD

The desecrated graves were at Lake Ronkonkoma Cemetery on Hawkins Avenue, according to the Suffolk County Police Department, and include some grave stones dating back to the Civil War.

Police said Tuesday that the suspect or suspects did the damage between Jan. 4 and 8, desecrating 14 grave makers and headstones.

Suffolk County Crime Stoppers and detectives from the SCPD’s 4th Squad are looking for the public’s help to identify and locate the cemetery vandals. Anyone with information is asked to call Crime Stoppers anonymously at 800-220-TIPS.

Crime Stoppers offers a cash reward of up to $5,000 for information leading to an arrest.

The cemetery is located at the corner of Hawkins Avenue and Smith Street in Lake Ronkonkoma, behind the United Methodist Church.

The Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Building. Photo by Elissa Kyle

The Huntington Historical Society recently unveiled its latest exhibit, The Civil War Comes Home, at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Building. This museum was built in 1892 to serve as the Huntington Public Library, a meeting place for the Civil War veterans from Huntington and as a memorial to the Huntington residents lost in the Civil War.

Part of the new Civil War exhibit in Huntington. Photo by Elissa Kyle
Part of the new Civil War exhibit in Huntington. Photo by Elissa Kyle

Stop in and visit this beautiful building and view the many artifacts on display, including a 150-year-old flag with its 35 stars that once flew over Fulton Street on July 8, 1865, when the 127th regiment returned and a photo of the Co. H 119th NY volunteers. Also featured is the diary of Amelia Brush dated Jan. 1, 1863, to Dec. 31, 1868, which mentions many national and local events such as the New York riots in 1893.

The Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Building, located at 228 Main Street, Huntington, is open Tuesday to Friday from 1 to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information call 631-351-3244.

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Members of the American Legion Wilson Ritch Post 432 stand at attenion in front of their headquarters on Port Jefferson’s East Main Street in the mid-20th century. The post is now based on Hallock Avenue in Port Jefferson Station. Photo from the Port Jefferson Village historical archive

Port Jefferson area residents have a history of serving their country, from the Civil War to more recent conflicts. The community also has a history of honoring veterans and military personnel.

The crew of the N-5 poses aboard the submarine. Photo from the Port Jefferson Village historical archive
The crew of the N-5 poses aboard the submarine. Photo from the Port Jefferson Village historical archive

Veterans Day has been celebrated since Nov. 11, 1919, when it was known as Armistice Day and marked the anniversary of the end of fighting in World War I.

It was expanded to honor all American war veterans in 1954, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Although the fighting in World War I was overseas, there was an impact close to home. Port Jefferson saw action through sailors aboard the U.S. Navy’s coastal defense submarine N-5, also known as the SS-57. According to the village’s historical archive, that submarine conducted engine trials nearby and later patrolled the Long Island Sound, keeping watch for German U-boats.

Other Navy ships from the Atlantic Fleet passed through during that time as well, including the battleships USS New York and USS Louisiana, both of which maneuvered on the Long Island Sound and anchored just outside Port Jefferson.

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President Dwight D. Eisenhower makes Veterans Day an official holiday. Photo in the public domain

By Rich Acritelli

Veterans Day is a time to remember all of our past, present and future members of the Armed Forces, but it was only about 60 years ago that President Dwight D. Eisenhower officially created the holiday we know today. Much happened on Nov. 11 even before it became a date of remembrance — there were significant losses and gains for our militaries during this month throughout history.

In the fall of 1776, Gen. George Washington was reeling from one loss after another that sent his army retreating from Long Island, Manhattan and across New Jersey toward Pennsylvania. It was a dark moment in the Revolutionary War for Washington to lose ground to the British, though he ultimately led the colonies to victory.

President George H.W. Bush rides in an armored jeep with Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. in Saudi Arabia, Nov. 22, 1990. Photo in the public domain
President George H.W. Bush rides in an armored jeep with Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. in Saudi Arabia, Nov. 22, 1990. Photo in the public domain

During the Civil War, in November 1863, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was summoned to Chattanooga, Tenn., to prevent a total collapse of Union forces against the Confederacy. As Grant headed into the beleaguered city, he saw northern forces terribly hurt from the nearby Battle of Chickamauga. President Abraham Lincoln sent 20,000 soldiers from the Army of the Potomac to aid the defensive and later offensive efforts of Grant to defeat the South in that region, and while the Confederates had been on the verge of gaining a huge victory, Grant opened up the “Cracker Line” to Chattanooga, with additional men, supplies and horses to deter the enemy. Grant’s calm and cool presence helped secure a much-needed victory for a thankful Lincoln, who saw the battle as one of the greatest tests of survival for the Union.

Eisenhower had his own recollections of this date through his experience leading the Allied Forces during World War II. As a new commanding general, he planned the mid-November 1942 allied landings of Operation Torch against the Germans and the Vichy French in North Africa. From Morocco to Algeria, untested American military troops drove to destroy the war machine of Germany. The chainsmoking Eisenhower eagerly waited in Gibraltar for news that his men had achieved all of their objectives against the enemy. Two years later, in the fall of 1944, Eisenhower looked eastward as his forces operated on a broad front against the Nazis in France. By that time, his armies were nearing the German frontier with the belief that their bitter enemy was about to surrender. Little did he know that Hitler was planning a final December offensive, which would later be called the Battle of the Bulge, to drive a wedge against the Allies on the Western Front.

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush led the American efforts to destroy the strength of Saddam Hussein. That dictator had invaded Kuwait and was poised to attack Saudi Arabia, but the U.S. aimed to protect the Saudis through Desert Shield. Two weeks after Veterans Day, Bush was eating Thanksgiving dinner in the desert with the American military forces that eventually led the fighting into Iraq and Kuwait to defeat Hussein’s Republican Guard army.

Over the last 15 years, the United States has been in a constant state of warfare against aggressor and terrorist forces. From the deserts of Iraq to the mountains of Afghanistan, American service members from across the country have tirelessly fought against an enemy bent on hurting our way of life. Currently, this mission has expanded over the skies of Northern Iraq and Syria to limit the growing expansion and influence of ISIS.

Americans should not neglect the “Forgotten War” veterans of the Korean conflict who bitterly fought against the communists during that Cold War battle, nor the Vietnam War veterans who honorably served for a decade in that Southeast Asian country.

May we always remember and honor our veterans from every American conflict, on Veterans Day and throughout the year.

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College. He was a staff sergeant in the New York Air National Guard 106th Rescue Wing in Westhampton Beach.

Northport Historical Society’s latest exhibit gets personal

Eight of Northport’s Civil War veterans, from left, Roy Ackerly, Gus Gerard, Charlie Smith, Bill Mulfort, unidentified man, unidentified man, A.G. Tillotson and Barney Fox.

By Rita J. Egan

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War, and to commemorate the sesquicentennial, the Northport Historical Society is hosting the exhibit Northport and the Civil War: A Few Good Men. Visitors to the historical society’s museum can follow the lives of 12 Northport men from when they mustered in until the war ended for them.

The historical society joins other organizations in the township of Huntington hosting Civil War events. Both historical society Director Heather Johnson and Terry Reid, consultant to the collections and member of the exhibit’s committee, said when town representatives first approached the organization about hosting an exhibit they were a bit hesitant. They admitted they weren’t confident if they could pull together a full exhibit since they weren’t aware of many Civil War artifacts in their collection. However, Reid said once the committee started culling through items, they found muster rolls with very detailed information about young men from Northport who fought in the war.

The consultant said the muster rolls not only include information about what battles the young men fought in but also if they were injured, their eye color and hair color, names of their parents and occupations. With the discovery of the muster rolls, Reid said the exhibit became a possibility as the committee began writing the stories of each man.

“I thought that here are these men we can focus on, telling their specific stories. So we did it as more of a storybook as opposed to here’s a bullet,” Reid said.

Some of the Civil War items on display at the Northport Historical Society’s Civil War exhibit. Photo by Rita Egan
Some of the Civil War items on display at the Northport Historical Society’s Civil War exhibit. Photo by Rita Egan

The committee, which in addition to Reid includes Candy Hamilton, Christine Doll-Wagner, Rhoda Wright and Darcy Little, then set out to find the artifacts to complement the stories. An email was sent out to members of the historical society asking if anyone owned memorabilia. Chris Cierski and Ben Meyburg, Civil War enthusiasts, stepped forward to lend some of the pieces from their collections, including a uniform Meyburg has used in reenactments.

Reid said once the society had artifacts to illustrate the men’s stories the exhibit really came together. Visitors to the museum will not only find photos and letters but also equipment the soldiers would have received such as canteens, belt buckles and guns.

Once the artifacts were in place, knowing that the men belonged to the 48th and 127th infantries, the consultant said the committee members were able to create maps for each cabinet to show the troops’ movements.

“One of our main goals in this whole exhibit was to get people to really stop and think what these men, these boys, did at their young age of 18, 19. They all enlisted and ran off to war immediately to help the cause. Unfortunately it didn’t end well for most of them,” Reid said.   

The consultant said there are arrows on the floor to help visitors view the cases in order so that they can follow each soldiers’ journey in chronological order, and at the end, find out their fate.

“It was a very bloody, awful war, and the things they went through. . . . So, my heart was just breaking when I would read what happened to each one of them. I got emotionally attached to these boys. It was heartbreaking really to imagine what they must have gone through,” Reid said.

The exhibit also touches on the contributions the survivors made to Northport after their discharges such as Alfred C. Tillotson who owned a dry goods store on Main Street in the village.

The subject of whether a soldier will return from war is one that Johnson said she believes still strongly resonates with people.

“The idea of coming home, or unfortunately not coming home, it’s been going on since war began and continues to go on, unfortunately. I think because of that though it’s a universal theme. It’s something that  we can all relate to even if you haven’t anyone really close to you or in your family who has fought in a war, you probably know someone who has or at least feel for those who are currently fighting,” Johnson said.

The director said visitors will find many interesting items on display including a metal heel plate with a shamrock cutout that Irish soldiers would use on their boots. Johnson said when she saw it she was touched by the fact that despite the horrors they faced, the soldiers still enjoyed some whimsy.

Some of the Civil War items on display at the Northport Historical Society’s Civil War exhibit. Photo by Heather Johnson
Some of the Civil War items on display at the Northport Historical Society’s Civil War exhibit. Photo by Heather Johnson

Johnson said visitors will also find letters from Francis Sammis to a friend in Northport. The solider wrote about his memories of the girls in Northport and the get-togethers the young people would have.

“He’s still a young man. He may be a soldier and he may be fighting in a horrible, horrible war, but he’s still thinking about those good times. Similar to what a young man might do today,” the director said.   

Both Johnson and Reid hope visitors will take the time out to experience each of the soldiers’ stories and that it will have the same impact on guests as it did on them. Johnson said while everyone at the historical society learned a lot, she said she noticed the biggest impact on Reid.

“Terry in particular became very connected to those soldiers. She had read enough about them and it took on a different meaning for her,” Johnson said.

Reid said she found herself feeling protective in a motherly way of the young men as the committee discovered more about each of them.

“I hope that other people will come away the same way, will have the same sort of change as well. How could you not after you see these men’s faces,” she said.

Northport and the Civil War: A Few Good Men will be on view at the Northport Historical Society, 215 Main Street, until the end of the year. For more information, visit www.northporthistorical.org or call 631-757-9859.

The barracks of the 124th Illinois Infantry in Vicksburg, Miss. Photo in the public domain

By Rich Acritelli

Independence Day commemorates the birth of our nation as well as a day when the Union Army notched a huge victory during the Civil War. It was a July 4 more than 150 years ago that saw some of the most serious fighting ever to take place on U.S. soil.

President Abraham Lincoln wanted desperately to end the Civil War and preserve the Union. By mid-1863, the only way to accomplish that goal was to destroy the southern will to fight. Lincoln’s most important leader was Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who in 1861 was a shop clerk in his family’s store in Illinois. Nobody, including Grant, could have foreseen his quick rise from obscurity to one of the best fighting figures the nation ever produced.

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant poses in Virginia in 1864. Photo in the public domain
Gen. Ulysses S. Grant poses in Virginia in 1864. Photo in the public domain

During the war, Lincoln grew increasingly bitter toward the officers tasked with attacking the South. He detested Gen. George B. McClellan and later fired him for his unwillingness to crush the rebellion in Northern Virginia. For two years, the Army of the Potomac became a revolving door for other officers who failed to defeat Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Lincoln had a limited military background, serving as a captain during the Black Hawk War between the U.S. and Native Americans three decades earlier, but took his job as commander-in-chief seriously. One of his most important decisions was keeping Grant as the head of the Army of the Tennessee after the 1862 Battle of Shiloh and in the face of rumors that Grant was an alcoholic and unable to carry out his duties.

Grant’s rise to commanding general began during the Battle of Vicksburg.

Vicksburg was known as the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy” and the “citadel” on the Mississippi River. Early in the Civil War, Grant understood taking that location would divide the Confederacy, open the river to Union naval and commerce shipping and prevent resources from reaching Lee in Northern Virginia. Grant was determined to destroy it.

In April 1863, he saw he would only gain a victory by moving his army south and attacking Vicksburg on the same side of the Mississippi held by the enemy. This was a risky decision — one that could win or lose the war in the West. The campaign involved Grant cutting off his own supply and communication lines, with he and his men living off the land using the lessons he learned while fighting in the Mexican-American War. If he and his fellow soldiers could survive in the deserts and heat of Mexico, the Civil War fighters could do the same with the hearty agriculture, cattle and poultry resources in Mississippi.

On April 16, with his wife and youngest son Frederick next to him, Grant ordered a naval flotilla of gunboats and barges to make the perilous journey south. The Confederacy opened up its vast armaments but failed to destroy the ships, and Grant turned his gamble into a string of victories that led to the demise of Vicksburg.

Through July 4, Lincoln watched in amazement as the general decisively drove against the enemy. When one politician suggested the operation was a failure and that Grant was again drinking too much, Lincoln retorted that Grant was engaged in some of the most serious and successful fighting the world had ever known.

It was a cunning campaign to operate within the Confederacy. Southern Gens. Joseph E. Johnston and John C. Pemberton both commanded larger forces but under the attack of Grant’s Union Army were unable to combine their forces in battle. In Washington, D.C., Lincoln watched Grant take Jackson, Miss., the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, thereby cutting off the supply, communication and transportation links that supported Vicksburg.

In late May 1863, Grant began a 48-day siege that trapped Pemberton, a native of Pennsylvania, and his forces on the Mississippi River. By July 4, Pemberton’s men were starving and had lost their morale; they surrendered. On our nation’s birthday, Grant took 31,000 Confederate soldiers as prisoners of war, and seized 172 cannons and 60,000 rifles.

Church bells rang out in northern cities to celebrate the Army of the Tennessee’s efforts to finally take Vicksburg in one of the most vital campaigns of the war, on the road to reuniting America.

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College. He was a staff sergeant in the New York Air National Guard 106th Rescue Wing in Westhampton Beach.