Thursday, November 1, 2018

On the Historical Trail: Camp Church

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about a Civil War training camp in Lockport at the old fairgrounds in the City of Lockport where one of my ancestors trained. I knew there were camps in Lockport to train the men from the area, including Orleans County, but I did not know many of the details. I had to research Camp Church to see what information was out there, and to see if there were any interesting stories.

During the Civil War and for decades after, the Niagara County Fairgrounds were located in Lockport, roughly bounded by Washburn, Willow, Grant Streets, and Beattie Avenue. There were actually two camps there, albeit not concurrently. Camp Niagara and Camp Church. There was also a third camp -- Camp Riley, located along the top of the escarpment near the present-day Outwater Park. This was initially used as a training ground for a local militia regiment during the two decades before the Civil War.

Camp Niagara was also in use well before the Civil War for use by the local militia. Beginning in the early 1850s, a portion of the fairgrounds became home to soldiers training in the event the militia was raised. During the spring of 1861, the fairgrounds were used by members of the 28th Infantry to drill those volunteers before they headed off to war. In all the articles about the status of the regiment, it was always referred to as “the fairgrounds camp.” In the case of Camp Church, the newspaper articles were very consistent in referring to “Camp Church.”

There have been some stories written where the two camps, Niagara and Church, were separated by ropes and that soldiers on each side would fraternize or taunt each other across the makeshift borders. In reality, this doesn’t actually seem to be the case. Camp Niagara, the first camp at the fairgrounds, was the training ground for the 28th Infantry in early 1861. Meanwhile, Camp Church was in another part of the grounds, and was the home for the 129th and 151st Infantry as well as some other, small units. It was in use from the beginning of August 1862 until late November of that same year.

In late July 1862, work was begun at the fairgrounds to prepare an area for a new training camp for the 129th Infantry. An article in the Lockport Daily Journal & Courier on August 2nd, says the “new camp on the Fair Grounds, are approaching a state of completion, with great rapidity. The barracks, when completed, will reflect great credit upon those who have the management of affairs. Nothing for the convenience of the temporary stay of our volunteers, will be neglected… On Monday next, the camp will be formally opened, and it is expected 500 men will be ready to march in.”

The first reference to the camp being referred to as “Camp Church” came in an article from August 4th in the Journal & Courier. “Things are moving on very finely at Camp Church today. The name of the camp is well chosen. Hon. S.E. Church has exhibited a measure of patriotism, truly commendable in aiding recruiting in his own county.”

Sanford E. Church
Sanford E. Church was born in Otsego County, New York on April 18, 1815. In 1835, he moved to Albion with his family, spending the rest of his life as a resident there. He studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1842, joining the practice of Benjamin L. Bessac. He later established his own firm, Church & Sawyer. In 1842, he was elected to serve in the New York State Assembly. He was appointed Orleans County District Attorney in 1845 and stayed in that position until 1850.

He was one of the original Barnburner Democrats, a faction of the Democratic Party in New York who were considered radical for their set of ideals as compared to the rest of the party. The Barnburners were against the expansion of slavery. They strongly opposed expanding the public debt and were opposed to large, government subsidized corporations. The believed in local control rather than federal control.

In 1850 he was nominated by the Democrats to run as lieutenant governor with Horatio Seymour. Although Seymour lost that election, Church was nominated to the lieutenant’s office with Washington Hunt as governor. In 1852, he was re-elected and Seymour held the governor’s seat. He left that position at the end of 1854. He was elected State Comptroller in 1857, but only served one term despite running for re-election in 1859 and 1863.

In 1860, he was a staunch supporter of Stephen Douglas over Abraham Lincoln in the Presidential election. He was highly critical of Lincoln’s administration for “seeking to absorb, centralize and consolidate the rights and powers of the loyal States in the general government.” While many of his former Barnburner brethren became abolitionists, Church instead focused on states’ rights and the strength of the union. When war broke out, he was a fervent supporter of the army and actively encouraged volunteers to join local regiments to preserve that union.  He was elected chairman of the Orleans County War Committee when it was formed in 1862. It was only fitting that the camp in Lockport was named in his honor for all the work he had done to encourage the regiments be formed.

Church died in Albion on May 14, 1880 in his home. After eating dinner, he complained of chest pain. His son-in-law, a doctor, was called to the house. As the doctor arrived, he “turned a shade of purple, fell over on his side and expired.” It was estimated that 6,000 people went to Albion for the funeral.  He is buried in Mount Albion Cemetery under a marble canopy with red, granite pillars.

The camp was formally dedicated on August 4th, with Judge Bowen opening the ceremony. Colonel Peter A. Porter then spoke for a few minutes about patriotism and officially named the camp after Judge Church. Former governor, Washington Hunt delivered the closing remarks. He told them, “Ever bear on mind that you are soldiers, representing a Christian nation, and while valor and decision must mark your efforts, yet mercy, such as christian soldiers should practice, should never be forgotten.”

That first day, there were about eighty tents, clean and new, waiting for occupants, with more ready to be erected. Porter said there were about 500 men already in camp, but that most of the soldiers had gone home for a week long furlough to finish off work there before heading off to war.

On August 8th, it was reported that nearly 400 men crossed the Suspension Bridge in Niagara Falls into Canada in an attempt to avoid a possible draft. The Journal & Courier described it as a stampede, and that several arrests were made. They opined that, “Those arrested should be pressed into the fight forthwith. Nevertheless, it seems like small business to pursue these myths of human souls -- these ungrateful traitors.”

A supposed photo of Camp Riley
photo courtesy Niagara County Historians Office
In response, a squad of soldiers from Camp Church were sent to Niagara Falls to guard the bridge from further surreptitious desertions. Sixteen of the men who were arrested were escorted to Camp Church for detainment. “One of the deserters was accompanied by his mother who seemed resolved to cleave to her truant boy.”

Rumors of an order to move out trickled in about that time. The Lockport Daily Journal & Courier asked about holding a supper for the soldiers before they left for the battlefield. The very next day, a letter to the editors of the paper queried whether there was a way the soldiers could be furnished with milk and butter each day they remained at the camp. “The steward informs me that 100 quarts of milk and 100 pounds of butter are sufficient for each day. Some of these men may never return from the battle scene.”

As the day drew closer for the 129th to leave, arrangements were being made for the local community to honor them on their day of departure. The Continental Home Guard was called upon the escort the regiment to the train station.

The village of Lockport came out in full force on the evening of August 19th, when they finally hosted a supper for the soldiers at Camp Church. It took two days for the ladies of Lockport to plan the grand picnic. “There were not less than 8,000 people on the campground during the afternoon. Many of the guests had friends among the volunteers, and much of the afternoon seemed to be devoted to friendly visitation previous to their departure for the war.”

The 129th Regiment was scheduled to leave Lockport at 10am on August 23rd. They would leave by railroad for Elmira, from which they would move on to Washington, DC. Because of large crowds in the morning, the departing time was delayed until 2pm. Marching to Main Street and to the depot, the route was filled with people. The crowd at the train station was estimated to be about 10,000 people. It took 21 cars to move the troops to Elmira.

Almost immediately, a company of sharpshooters from Medina took up residence in the empty camp. Hezekiah Bowen was authorized to recruit an Independent Rifle Company. This company eventually became Company A of the 151st Infantry, the next regiment to call Camp Church a temporary home. By September 4th, there were tents being erected for the arriving soldiers. Captain Frederic Coleman came in from Niagara Falls with the men from Company B. Colonel William Emerson was put in charge of running the camp.

The rest of the regiment was mostly in camp by September 9th. With a mostly full camp, there were a lot of requirements to keep the place running. Mr. Murray, the camp’s cook, described what it took to feed 900 men each day:

15 bushels of potatoes
3 bushels of tomatoes
45 bushels of cut bread
1500 pounds of meat
1 ½ bushels of beans for soup
½ bushel of onions
660 quarts of pudding
70 heads of cabbage
60 dozen ears of corn
3 bushels pickled beets
45 pounds of rice
120 pounds of butter
90 gallons of soup
12 barrels of liquid coffee

An article from the September 27th edition of the Lockport Daily Journal & Courier stated that the guard house at the camp was mostly full for “various deviations.” One of the soldiers was incarcerated there for “kissing his girl across the line.”
Orders came down that the 151st were due to break camp and head to Baltimore on October 15th. By the time Wednesday rolled around, there had been a drastic change in the weather, leading to a slight delay in departure until Saturday, the 18th. Men were in winter overcoats and drilling at double-quick to keep warm in the early western New York winter. The morning before they were expected to leave, the regiment learned that they would not be leaving and the paymaster had not yet made an appearance.

Tensions were high as their days at Camp Church wound down. A melee broke out on the evening of the 19th on the Pine Street Bridge crossing the Erie Canal. A patrol guard from Camp Church, led by P.S. Williams stopped a carriage coming up Lock Street, believing that it carried soldiers who were out of camp without permission. As he demanded papers from the occupants, a group of citizens surrounded the soldiers and attacked them. The ensuing fracas lasted 15-20 minutes and resulted in several injuries for the detachment from Camp Church.

During the fight, a couple of the soldiers were in danger of being thrown over the bridge railing into the locks below. Shelden Weatherbee and Edward S. Atkins were seriously hurt, with Atkins in serious condition with internal injuries. The Lockport Daily Journal & Courier made the claim that the melee was in response to the soldiers capturing deserters.

The 151st Regiment left for Baltimore on October 23rd. Between 10 and 11 in the morning, tents were struck and packed. Some of the soldiers refused to pack up until they were paid. According to reports in the Daily Journal & Courier, some men steadfastly refused to get on the train until their full bounties had been paid. In at least one instance, revolvers were drawn. By 5pm, 1,000 members of the regiment left on the train. The independent batteries were delayed and did not leave until 8pm on a special train.

Upon their departure, Camp Church was home to Captain John A. Grow’s Billinghurst Battery, which ended up being the 25th Independent Battery of Light Artillery. After sharing the camp with the 151st for about a month, this battery was the lone occupant at the fairgrounds until they left on November 18th. The Daily Journal & Courier wrote, upon their departure, “For about four months, this Camp has been the scene of lovely military operations. It is now deserted. About 2,500 men, brave and true, have gone from it to the field of battle.” The final mention of Camp Church in the newspapers appeared on November 24th, directed people who were owed money where to make their claims.

Camp Church was a mere blink in time of our local history, yet it proved to have a lasting effect on the community. Thousands of soldiers made it their temporary home before shipping off to war, some never to return. When I started writing about ancestors who had served in the Civil War, I had no idea what I would learn. There are so many stories out there waiting to be uncovered. I’m glad I could find this one.

Craig Bacon is the Deputy Niagara County Historian. The office is located at 139 Niagara Street, on the corner of Niagara and Hawley Streets. Office hours are Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, 8:30-4:30.