Tompkins County Public Library

Monday, December 1, 2014

Tompkins County in a Time of War: Life on the Home Front and on the Battlefield

The exhibit Tompkins County in a Time of War: Life on the Home Front and on the Battlefield opens on Friday, September 26 and will be on display in the Avenue of the Friends through December 30.

Artifacts from The History Center in Tompkins County and the Seward House Museum in Auburn tell the story of local residents as they experienced life at home and on the battlefield. See the medical bag carried by Nurse Sophronia Bucklin as she ministered to the wounded and Groton resident Doctor Tarbell’s diary, open to the first page where he describes events on the first day of battle at Gettysburg. Also included are photographs illustrating the war-time lives of little Charlotte Seward and her parents, Lt. Col. and Mrs. William Seward Jr., who lived in a 2-room log cabin at Ft. Mansfield, where their encampment was named “Camp Nellie” in her honor. Rifles, swords, books, dresses, hats, flags, banners and much more are on display in this colorful, thought-provoking exhibit.

Following are excerts from some of the text panels incorporated in the exhibit.

Life On the Battlefield

From the beginning of the declaration of war in April 1861, Tompkins County residents were intimately involved in efforts to restore the Union. The young men who enlisted at the start of the war – some of whom were members of the DeWitt Guards – were the most recognizable outcome of local patriotism. Later, after the initial fervor waned and casualties mounted, a draft was instituted in 1863 that required service by all single men between the ages of 20 and 45. The Ithaca Journal listed draftees in its July 27, 1863 issue – over 1,000 young men from Ithaca, Groton, Ulysses, Caroline and all the surrounding towns in the county were named. In addition, after passage of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, colored regiments were formed to swell the ranks of the infantry.

Some of the most durable remnants of war time are armaments and the collection at The History Center in Tompkins County is no exception. Rifles and swords were, in the instance of members of the DeWitt Guards, provided by the State of New York. Other enlistees and drafted soldiers were armed by the U.S. Army. Regardless of origin, there are fine examples of rifled muskets, single edge swords, and a bayonet on display.
Most fabrics aren’t sturdy enough to last decades, let alone centuries, so uniforms are difficult to find in collections. The two Civil War-era hats on display include a traditional soldier’s cap, or kepi, and a knitted cap worn by G.R. Williams while serving at the Elmira Prison Camp. It is easy to picture this cap being made by a loving mother or sister.

The History Center is fortunate to have been given the Sophronia Bucklin collection, items related to her time as a nurse with the Hospital Service from 1863 to 1865. This includes a partial manuscript of her book, In Hospital and Camp: A Woman’s Record of the Thrilling Incidents among the Wounded in the Late War, published in 1869. Bucklin was one of several local women who volunteered to nurse soldiers on and near the battlefields. Many women contributed to the war effort at home through the Volunteer Aid Committee and other societies but women at the front were less common. 

Janet Seward of Auburn, New York lived with her husband, Lt. Col. William Seward Jr., at Fort Mansfield and Fort Foote, near Washington, D.C., while he aided the defense of the capital. 

Accounts of war time experiences are rare, many having been written afterwards like those of Sophronia Bucklin and Janet Seward. Groton resident Doctor (his first name) Tarbell’s diary is an eye-witness account; on the first page he describes what took place on at the battle of Gettysburg, July 1, 1863. Promoted several times, Capt. Tarbell was a prisoner of war in 1864-65, held in Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia for five months under intolerable conditions. His telegram home contained the following message: “Out of prison, Purgatory has no terrors.”

Life on the Home Front

In 1863 Ezra Cornell asked his friend and lawyer, Francis M. Finch, to help him prepare a charter for a Library Association. The “Cornell Public Library” was incorporated on April 5, 1864 and a handsome brick three-story library building was constructed at Tioga and Seneca Streets, completed and dedicated on December 20, 1866.
It is to Ezra Cornell’s credit – and our county’s lasting benefit – that while he was taking care of business affairs, serving in the New York State Senate, and remaining involved in local charities, he could spare the time to establish a public library. All while Ithaca and the surrounding towns were actively engaged in supporting the war effort.

Hundreds of local young men enlisted after President Lincoln called for volunteers in April, 1861, when Fort Sumter surrendered to Confederate forces. One of these was Doctor Tarbell of Groton, who joined the first military unit to leave Tompkins County. Ezra Cornell himself headed a citizens’ committee to organize aid for the dependents of volunteers, contributing $1,000 to that effort. And his wife, Mary Ann Cornell, was president of the Ladies Volunteer Aid Association, which, like the Ladies Aid Society of Auburn, New York, sewed clothes, knitted socks, and purchased blankets for local men serving at the front.
Those left behind continued their daily lives but in an atmosphere of anticipation, doom and sorrow as war news made its way onto the front pages of the Ithaca Journal and into the homes of local families through personal correspondence. Mary L. Conant, Doctor Tarbell’s childhood sweetheart, heard no news of him while he was held prisoner by Confederate forces, and feared he was dead. Their story is one of the happy ones: Doctor was released and was granted leave to return home, where they were married, a union that would last for 30 years.

As the artifacts in these cases illustrate, beautiful dresses were worn to parties, patent medicines were taken, spices were ground by mortar and pestle, 14-year-old girls embroidered banners in support of the Lincoln-Johnson ticket, and the Peculiars played the Forest City team in baseball. These items are what remain of the everyday lives of Tompkins County residents during the 1860s; it is as fascinating to speculate about what is missing as what was preserved.  

This is exhibit is made possible through the generosity of the History Center in Tompkins County and the Seward House Museum in Auburn in loaning the artifacts on display.

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