Help me identify a forgotten hero
July 4, 2011 9:13 PM   Subscribe

Has this mystery of the war of 1812 been solved already? Or can it be?

Governor Seymour once told Chauncey Depew about a hero from the war of 1812 whose remains were brought home from Canada to Albany, with tributes by big-wigs all along the way, and buried at the NY state capitol, but soon forgotten about: No marker was erected to tell visitors about his accomplishments. Sadly, his remains were dug up but no one seemed able to remember details on the man or his heroic deeds.

Here is the passage I'm referring to, from My Memories of Eighty Years:
"As we were returning home he said to me...'The country is full of men who have made brilliant careers in the public service and then been suddenly dropped and forgotten. The number of such men who have climbed the hill up State Street to the capitol in Albany, with the applause of admiring crowds whom none now can recall, would make a great army.'

He continued by telling this story: 'In the war of 1812 the governor and the legislature decided to bring from Canada to Albany the remains of a hero whose deeds had excited the admiration of the whole State. There was an imposing and continuous procession, with local celebrations all along the route, from the frontier to the capital. The ceremonies in Albany were attended by the governor, State officers, legislature, and judges, and the remains were buried in the capitol park. No monument was erected. The incident is entirely forgotten, no one remembers who the hero was, what were his deeds, nor the spot where he rests.'

Years afterwards, when the State was building a new capitol and I was one of the commissioners, in excavating the grounds a skeleton was found. It was undoubtedly the forgotten hero of Governor Seymour's story."
When I read that, I wondered: Is this a true story? If so, has the information about this hero since become more accessible to the public, through the aggregation of so many news items etc. on the Internet?

Is it possible that the rest of the story can be tracked down?

Any tips or help would be appreciated.
posted by circular to Law & Government (5 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
As Seymour was born in 1810, I would put some measure of skepticism on the details of this story. For another, while the US did briefly attempt landings across the Niagara River, their forces were summarily repelled.

I suspect that an explanation was sought for the human remains found at the Capitol site, but I find it hard to imagine there was no obvious record of this hero. The attacking forces at Queenston heights were New York militia, so would have had a hometown ready to honor their own.
posted by dhartung at 10:38 PM on July 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

The story doesn't hold together. If this:
The ceremonies in Albany were attended by the governor, State officers, legislature, and judges, and the remains were buried in the capitol park.
then this:
No monument was erected.
makes no sense. Statewide hoopla and a big final ceremony but no one remembered to put up a marker? Did they all stand around a hole in the dirt, say their bits about the great man, and then cover it over and forget all about it until the grass grew over the bare patch? Not likely.

It's the sort of apocryphal story (like the welfare queen) politicians would latch on to because it reaffirms their beliefs. When even the greatest among us are tossed aside and forgotten, what chance have I -- I, who have done so much for this great land! -- to be properly recognized by this ungrateful government?
posted by pracowity at 3:01 AM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

For another, while the US did briefly attempt landings across the Niagara River, their forces were summarily repelled.

Apropos of nothing, when I lived in Canada, I was greatly amused to discover that, since Canada didn't get to play in our Civil War, the sort of people who in this country are drawn to Civil War reenactment instead reenact the War of 1812. Every year they dress up in historical garb, the alarm is given, and-as tourists look on and snap photos- they charge the shore with muskets blazing and successfully rout the Americans.

(Though I think I'm with pracowity, I suppose if this story were real, there might also be some Canadian records and there is at least a community of people there who take an interest in that war and its history.)
posted by Naberius at 6:48 AM on July 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Perhaps the History section of the Albany Public Library can help?
posted by kuppajava at 8:49 AM on July 5, 2011

The most appropriate place to start research would be the NY State Archives -- although some very old records were lost during a 1911 fire at the Capitol. I would first see if there is anything confirming the discovery of skeletal remains during the construction in ca. 1867-1868. This would have been on the rear grounds of the former capitol, which was subsequently demolished. This could then have lead to some coverage in the city's newspapers, especially if there had been a former reinterment, as Seymour implies.

I would imagine that if there were any sort of honors for a war hero, at any point during the war, a record would appear in the minutes of the legislature. But I would only pursue that once I ascertained the rediscovery of remains. The tale is just a bit too Washington Irving for me. If there's anything I know from being steeped in the history of my hometown, it's that our ancestors were inveterate memorial putter-uppers.

Another resource: the General Society of the War of 1812. Finally, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the Pentagon likely all have some of the relevant records.
posted by dhartung at 1:13 PM on July 5, 2011

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