It was a memorable event in Utica’s celebrated history and it all began on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 1875.
Never before – and never since – was there such a gathering of distinguished men and women in Utica, except, perhaps, on the day of the funeral of James Schoolcraft Sherman, the Utican who was vice president of the United States when he died on Oct. 30, 1912.
The city’s guests during the three-day event in 1875 were greeted by hundreds of exploding fireworks in every section of the city and street handsomely decorated with thousands of flags, bunting and Chinese lanterns.
Many of the guests had made arrangements to stay at the Bagg’s Hotel on Bagg’s Square, the Butterfield House hotel on Genesee and Devereux streets and at U.S. Sen. Roscoe Conkling’s magnificent mansion at 3 Rutger Park. Large crowds gathered at the three places to get a glimpse of the well-known visitors.
After all, it wasn’t often that one could get a close-up look at U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia; U.S. Vice President Henry Wilson; New York Gov. Samuel Tilden; Civil War generals William Tecumseh Sherman, “Fighting Joe” Hooker and Henry Slocum; and Harrison Willard, famed singer and composer of one of the war’s most popular songs, “The Flag of the Free.” Gen. George Armstrong Custer (who was killed one year later at the Battle of the Little Bighorn) was invited, but was unable to attend.
The occasion was the ninth annual reunion of the Society of the Army of the Cumberland. Hundreds of its veterans and their families were is Utica, too, exchanging memories and swapping stories about the fierce battles they had fought during the Civil War against Confederate troops in Tennessee in such places as Chattanooga, Chickamauga and Lookout Mountain.
It remains a mystery why Utica was chosen for the reunion. It was the first time the reunion had taken place in a city in the Northeast. After all, few, if any, men from the Utica area had fought with the Cumberland. Perhaps Conkling’s close friendship with Grant has something to do with the decision.
Whatever, Utica was selected and was proud of it. The Utica Observer wrote on September 15: “They are here! Utica today welcomes the most distinguished men in the nation. The society’s ninth reunion is within our borders and to its sessions come those who proved our ablest and bravest in war. They have since become our heroes in peace.”
The Grants stayed at No. 3 Rutger Park as guests of the Conklings. The mansion was gaily decorated as were homes on Rutger Street from Howard Avenue to Park Avenue. Elegant carriages carrying the city’s notables could be seen rolling over the cobblestone street to the mansion to pay their respects to the couple from Washington.
Reporters for the Utica Observer were busy day and night gathering stories about the many events. One was at the Bagg’s Hotel when guests began to arrive on Wednesday morning. Hooker arrived at 10:50 and was escorted to a reception room where Sherman was. The two generals shook hands and Sherman spoke first. “Hello, Hooker. How are you? You’re looking well.”
“I’m first-rate,” Hooker replied. “You’re looking well for you, Sherman.”
The formal sessions of the reunion were held in the Utica Opera House, on the northeast corner of Lafayette and Washington streets.
At the opening session, the veterans and Uticans in the audience were welcomed by Grant and Sherman. Lt. Gen. Philip Sheridan, the society’s president, was unable to attend, but Grant read a wire from him wishing all a successful reunion.
Among the Uticans asked to speak were Mayor Charles Hutchinson; Ward Hunt, who was an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court; Thomas R. Proctor; Sen. Conkling; and Horatio Seymour, the Democrat who had unsuccessfully opposed Republican Grant in the 1868 presidential election.
Seymour, former mayor of Utica and governor of New York during the Civil War, walked onto the stage and embraced Grant. Then Seymour turned to the audience and said, “I trust my friend President Grant will admit that when I had a little combat with him, he ran a great deal faster – and farther – than I did.” Grant roared with laughter as the two shook hands.
The three days were filled with parades, concerts, dances and speeches. One morning, a special train took many of the visitors to Trenton Falls. Another morning, many went to Ilion to inspect the armory there.
Most of the music for the events was provided by the visiting Governor’s Island Band, the Marine Band and the Utica Band.
Among those in Utica for the festivities were 23 mayors of communities in New York and neighboring states.
When the reunion ended, one visitor wrote to the Observer: “I understand that nothing of the kind ever before attempted in Utica equaled the event; it reflected the greatest credit upon the city and its good people who tendered it with the most perfect cordiality to their honored guests and to the brave men of the Army of the Cumberland. It will be a long time ere the bright dream will be forgotten.”
Mohawk Valley Milestones is a history series written by O-D historian Frank Tomaino. It publishes Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays until June 15. Missed a chapter? Catch up at uticaod.com/topics/mvmilestones