Marcus Crossman and Me: The 120-Year History Loop
"The band took possession of the big reunion tent at the Camp last night, and within a few minutes, 5,000 had gathered inside to listen to its music, while twice as many more gathered outside the canvas...They wept as they sang, some of these battle-scarred veterans, but they were happy to be together again." - Buffalo newspaper coverage of the 1897 Grand Army of the Republic reunion at "Camp Jewett"/Front Park in Buffalo, New York
He and Charlotte climbed slowly up the train's steep stairs at the Canton station. It was not easy for a man who'd once been hit with the same typhoid fever that killed two of his brothers, and later caught shrapnel in the Battle of Fort Gilmore. Yet he never complained. He'd left his post at his Pierrepont General Store for a bit of a respite, though he didn't expect much rest in the coming week. It was hot as the devil and he sweated through his linen shirt and woolen summer suit. Shortly, the steam engine would pull the cars out of the sleepy village, and southeast, through the North Country, around the Tug Hill Plateau, through Rochester and a number of other villages along the Erie Canal. Eventually, Marcus caught sight of Buffalo for the first time. Charlotte pushed to the window, her eyes widening at the sooty metropolis, bigger than anyplace she'd yet seen (Marcus had a bit more experience, having "visited" New York during his recuperation on Davids Island in Long Island Sound, alongside Confederate prisoners of war).
Some of the other boys from his Company were in the Grand Army Band of Canton and they'd have a time of it, leading the parade into the Camp after an hourslong march through the streets of the Queen City. The parade committee had spared no expense, constructing massive gateways and decorative arches, under which the worn-out soldiers would march. Camp Jewett was their objective; it was a temporary tent city - a replica of life during the War of the Rebellion- built alongside Fort Porter at the confluence of Lake Erie and the Niagara River. The Bidwell-Wilkeson Post was right- the camp looked remarkably similar to what they once experienced in Virginia. The only difference was, this time, some of their families were present.
Speeches, drills, music and memories were at the heart of the week's activities. Reinvigorated soldiers played pranks on one another like in the old days, and recalled the trials and frustrations of war. The wives gathered as well, commiserating over the days when their hardest farm workers - who'd gleefully signed their papers as soon as Lincoln would let them- marched away into an endless tide of late pay, boredom, and terror. The women and parents left behind had been responsible for taking in harvests, caring for the animals, collecting and boiling the maple sap, and often watched their own siblings die of typhoid just like the men in the field.
The hopelessness of those days was being erased by cameraderie here.
The Camp was situated in one of the loveliest parks of Buffalo- which opened to the people only twenty years prior. Fort Porter and its Old Stone Castle sat sentinel over the harbor tho it hadn't been used since the War. Once the home of the 74th, those boys were about to move their headquarters to a grand new Regimental Armory on Connecticut Street, within sight of Camp Jewett. Marcus felt a bit strange as he realized, on his morning strolls with Charlotte, that the fine folks who occupied the mansions adjacent the Park were being denied their pleasure ground due to the lowly GAR presence. Nonetheless they did enjoy these constitutionals, as they gave a chance to escape the chaos of Camp Jewett and admire the first-rate mansions built by the wealthy in these parts. What a sight!
Daily, they'd pass the house of Colonel Samuel Wilkeson, whom Marcus knew to be an important figure back during the War. He'd fought in that hellish Gettysburg and was partially responsible for the rascal Lee's surrender. To catch a glimpse of him was no hard feat, if you knew where to look- he departed his riverfront mansion at seven a.m. sharp each morning, in full Cavalry dress, with his white kidskin gloves and sword. The Camp lay directly in front of his property, and Marcus wondered if he resented the infantrymen blocking up his splendid view. In any case, they were just thrilled to be surrounded with old friends and the sights and sounds of the Union cause.
120 YEARS LATER...
For the last year, I've lived on Prospect Hill, north of Porter Avenue in Buffalo. Sometimes I don't see the Lake for days, because it's a pain to walk to it, with all the construction, and noise of the trucks on the Peace Bridge. I do, however, have a lovely view of the 74th Regimental Armory, which is imposing and European in style. Nearly every day, I walk or bicycle along leafy Prospect Park, which borders the campus of D'Youville College.
I once worked for a local preservation non-profit, which fought the demolition of the historic Wilkeson Mansion- just three blocks from where I now live. Sadly, it was lost to the wrecking ball about four years ago - our last architectural connection to the Wilkeson legacy in our city. I fought so hard on that cause, especially because Judge Samuel Wilkeson was the man who led the dredging of Buffalo's harbor, and won the terminus of the Erie Canal for our city. Our development might have been significantly different were it not for his actions.
Well, I'm a historian and artist and I often wander the neighborhood looking for inspiration. Today I found myself in Front Park (PARK being the operative word- it's a sea of asphalt with a little lawn!), photographing the statue of Commodore Perry looking lakeward. His view is interrupted by the 190 highway with its flyover ramps and loud trucks entering the Peace Bridge plaza. However, during the glorious sunset tonight, I think I caught a momentary glimpse of the former glory of the park- beautiful trees, the confluence of the Lake and Niagara River, and the cool breeze coming off the water. No wonder this place had once been the crown jewel in Olmsted's Buffalo parks plan.
I have a history of planning big art events in historic places...so I suppose it should be no surprise that I began to brainstorm ways to bring this once-idyllic park back- with a big, interesting creative event. My thoughts immediately went to the military history of Fort Porter, and the Civil War reenactors that I know. And didn't I have some relatives who once served in the Civil War, anyway?
As I walked back home through the park, I passed by the site of the former Wilkeson House and caught a small chill. It was probably just the cool night air, settling over the landscape.
(Marcus Crossman is my 3x-Great Grandfather).