This series often cites the amazing achievements of Buffalonians in the years from its 1812 burning to its incorporation in 1832, and those of the years following, to make a national and international presence among shipping, railroads, architecture and the artful endeavors of building a first class city.
All of these strides were interrupted when the Civil War broke out in 1861. National territory issues and other political forces exploded, taking on myriad and tragic turns. Slavery may have been at the root, but there were an ongoing series of economic, moral and political differences that led to turmoil and then horror as the country split into two. All forms of resource control issues and states’ rights embroiled many into a frenzy. Then came the shocking secession of seven states. Four more states then seceeded by way of protest against Lincoln’s Southern invasion.
Robert E. Lee would be 200 this year; and Lincoln only a couple years younger. That’s really not too many lifetimes removed from when Buffalo fell into this bloody mess.
In early 1861, the Union rallied soldiers and Buffalo answered the call on several levels. There were the young recruits, and there were also the Buffalo City Guards (these were a private home guard dating back to the Patriot War of 1837.) While blood was spilling all over the country, these seasoned and well-to-do Buffalo men saw the young lads off to war and they themselves took their old muskets out to protect the city and their families. This Buffalo guard would also provide troop escort.
Organized on April 27, 1861, the city guards were made up of our retired military officers. Its first commander was Captain Millard Fillmore. They would be called “The Union Continentals.” Their uniforms included a “black frock coat, black cravat or stock, buff military vest, white cotton gloves, black pantaloons, and the continental cocked hat with union cockade.” The officers wore “an entire blue navy uniform” complete with epaulettes, sash, and sword.
Fillmore and his retired boys were reminiscient of 50 years earlier when Buffalo was burned by the British, and they aimed to keep our city free from flames again. They designated a whole downtown business block in Buffalo they called The Kremlin—yes, in 1861. It was so named after the Russian hold of military strength against Napolean.
On this day, May 21, 1861, the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser reported that of the 150 of Buffalo’s Union Continentals, they “included four ex-generals of militia, 16 ex-colonels, 33 ex-majors, 60 ex-captains, and 35 honorary members.” Captain Millard’s men included judges, doctors, lawyers, bankers—some born before 1812, many afterward in the 20’s, but all of them seasoned with a military backgrounded and, collectively, quite wealthy.
Records show that “the company’s membership represented a cash capital of twenty millions of dollars.” That would amount to well over a billion today. Imagine Wilmers, Buffet, Rich, Snyder and other city residents today taking up muskets, and you get a picture of what it was like here in Buffalo back then.
Buffalo’s Kremlin Hall filled with more than 150 men during two required evenings a week, each in hats and gloves and with a readiness to fight. On May 3rd, the papers wrote, “Captain Fillmore’s men escorted four companies of the 21 st New York Volunteers to their departure for Elmira from the Exchange Street station of the NY & Erie Railroad. Six more companies of the 21 st NYV were accompanied to the depot on May 11. On May 17, Major Fillmore’s men performed the same duty for Captain Elihu Faxon’s company of Buffalonians bound for their rendezvous with the 36th NYV.”
There are those military historians who can claim to tell you why the North, or why the South, did what they each did. The truth lies deeper, in the facts of a war that pitted brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor. It was one of the bloodiest civil wars the world has ever seen. It has been clearly declared that it wasn’t about slavery, and that slavery was on its way out regardless. It was just “all about the economy.”
Nowadays, generic federal highways lined by gated communities and same-old strip mall plazas dot the map where the world witnessed a war’s horror not too long ago. The more we learn about the American Civil War, the less romantic it becomes, the more unstable it grows in its logic of greed, and the sadder we become for it ever happening at all.
Photo of Millard Fillmore courtesy of Chuck LaChiusa’s Buffalo history site