When rumbles of impending Civil War rolled through the North, New Yorkers were roused to volunteer even before Fort Sumter was taken and the President rallied troops.
After Sumter fell and Lincoln issued his proclamation, more New Yorkers offered their service to the Union. Likewise, men in other states sought to join the Union army both before and after the proclamation.
After the war, some of those early, quick volunteers also battled to be named the first volunteer for the Union. Months, years, and decades after the war, numerous claims and accolades for who had been the first volunteer began emerging across the North.
In the absence of standard volunteering procedures, uniform record-keeping methods, and official recognizing systems, individuals staked their own claims and groups gave accolades however they saw fit. As a result, today there are multiple historical displays, monuments, markers, and records that identify different veterans as the first volunteer with several from New York being among those named.
One of the earliest occasions for recognizing the first volunteer occurred not long after the war ended. In 1867, the Mabon G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic) Post in Sanborn, New York, presented a medal to William Wirt Bush of Lockport.
Before Lincoln was elected, Bush was a vocal supporter of Republican principles and intended to be first to enlist in the event of war. In the first issue of Union and Confederate Annals (1884), Bush recounted that after Fort Sumter fell on April 14, 1861, and news spread that Lincoln would call for troops the next day, he devised a plan to be the first volunteer.
Bush prepared his own enlistment papers and created a sign that said “Volunteers Wanted” and then waited with a friend, the telegraph operator, for the expected news on April 15th. At noon (Lockport time) the President’s proclamation started coming over the wire. Bush hurried to his nearby place of business, signed his enlistment paper, posted his sign, and commenced recruiting volunteers. It’s on that basis that was recognized as the first volunteer with a medal (currently is in the Niagara County Historical Society collection). However, Bush was not the only man in New York to quickly respond the day of Lincoln’s proclamation and receive recognition as the first volunteer.
When news of Lincoln’s proclamation reached Batavia, Genesee County, NY, on April 15th, Charles F. Rand promptly volunteered. A historical marker outside the Holland Land Company Museum in Batavia states that Congress recognized Rand as the first volunteer. Indeed, records of the 57th Congress show that Rand was recognized as “the first man from his county to answer the call for volunteers” but the report added that “it is claimed that he was the first man to enlist in the United States.”
Neither the Congressional record nor the historical marker provide the time when Rand volunteered on April 15, but material at the Holland Land Office Museum indicates that it occurred sometime in the morning. If Rand volunteered in the morning, then that means he preceded Bush. However, a claim was also made in Minnesota for someone who volunteered that same morning.
A historical marker stands in a patch of grass on the south side of Main Street in Anoka, Minnesota,. It states that Aaron Greenwald was the first man to volunteer for the Union when he did so “shortly after 10 am on April 15, 1861.”
On the opposite side of the same street is a display, constructed in 2013, which provides more details. However, traveling southeast a little over 20 miles from Anoka to the capital city of St. Paul one sees a statue atop a granite shaft near the Cathedral of St. Paul which recognizes Josias R. King as the first volunteer.
That statue, erected in 1903, was sculpted in the likeness of Josias King under protest from other veterans who argued the matter in local newspaper articles starting in 1885, in which several other Minnesota men were named as the first volunteer. Eventually, King and his supporters prevailed. At the unveiling it was said that King was the first to volunteer – on the evening of April 15th. Aaron Greenwald did not survive the war to stake his own claim (he died at Gettysburg) and there is an absence of records showing exactly when Greenwald and King volunteered. Nonetheless, those dueling first-volunteer monuments in Minnesota remain, with some contending that whoever was first to volunteer in Minnesota was de facto the first volunteer for the Union.
Minnesota’s governor was the first governor to offer troops to Lincoln, and so the reasoning goes, that means the first volunteer from Minnesota was the first for the Union. Minnesota’s Governor Ramsey happened to be in Washington D.C. when Fort Sumter came under attack and on April 14 he gave a written offer of Minnesota volunteers to the Secretary of War who passed it along to the President the same day.
While some think that bolsters a Minnesotan’s first-volunteer claim and narrows the focus to only Minnesota veterans, it actually broadens the field of possible claims to include other states and opens the competition to more veterans. Here’s why: Minnesota’s governor offered troops on April 14 prior to Lincoln’s call for volunteers on April 15 so, therefore, anyone from any state who volunteered before the President’s proclamation should also be in the running for recognition as the first volunteer, and some are.
Before the Proclamation
When William DeHart of Logansport, Indiana, heard about Rand’s recognition as the first volunteer, he touted his own claim. DeHart volunteered after Fort Sumter was attacked, but before Lincoln called for volunteers. When news of his challenge to Rand’s first-volunteer claim reached Batavia, an article in The Daily News argued that Rand’s “laurels are in danger.” However, DeHart was not the only veteran who volunteered before the proclamation and challenged Rand’s recognition.
John Kinnear was the first to respond in Cambridge, Massachusetts, after a notice was posted in January of 1861, recruiting volunteers. After hearing of Rand’s recognition as first volunteer, The Cambridge Tribune claimed that Kinnear preceded Rand and was, thus, the first volunteer. However, there was someone else from Massachusetts who volunteered a month earlier.
On December 18, 1860, Edward Winslow Hincks (also Hinks), wrote a letter from Boston to then-Major Robert Anderson at Fort Moultrie, South Carolina, volunteering to aid in its defense in the event of an attack. Hincks’ letter and Anderson’s response are reproduced in The History of Essex County Massachusetts (1888). It is also recorded in Massachusetts in the Rebellion (1866) that a few months after the Civil War, Anderson was at an assembly in Boston and announced that Hincks was the first volunteer.
There was a man from New York who volunteered even earlier. In War Anecdotes and Incidents of Army Life (Lawson, 1888), it is recorded that Terrence J. Kennedy of Auburn, New York, “claims to have been the first volunteer for the Union Army” because he “so early as November, 1860 … urged the immediate enlistment of men” and shortly thereafter began recruiting and drilling volunteers.
If there is a man who volunteered earlier than Kennedy, then I am not aware of it, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t. In that tumultuous time in America’s history, men all across the North took the initiative and signed makeshift rolls.
New York veterans feature prominently as early volunteers for the Union and two veterans from New York have a strong position for first-volunteer status – if it’s a question of who might have been first before the proclamation (Terrence Kennedy) or post-proclamation (Charles F. Rand).
Even if records were found that include the exact time of day when each soldier volunteered however, it would still be challenging to determine with certainty who preceded whom – time zones wouldn’t be standardized until nearly twenty years after the war.
The statues, monuments, and displays that recognize different veterans as the first volunteer are not proof of who actually was first, but are records of the many who received accolades as the first volunteer for the Union.
Behind every historical marker or exhibit are stories and exclusive claims, such as who was first to volunteer, should come under more scrutiny, especially in the absence of official records and the presence of competing recognition.
Photos, from above: Josias R. King Statue in St. Paul, Minnesota by Brenda Thomas; Charles F. Rand Monument in Batavia provided by Holland Land Office Museum blog; Aaron Greenwald Monument in Anoka, Minnesota by Brenda Thomas.