One of the more attractive New York monuments on the battlefield has to be the 80th New York Volunteers-20th New York State Militia monument on Reynolds Avenue. A pre-war organization that mustered into Federal service in 1861, the “Ulster Guard”- named for the county in New York where it was raised- served the first three months in Federal volunteer service as the 20th New York State Militia until mustered out in August 1861. Reorganized for Federal service as a three month volunteer regiment, the 20th mustered back into Federal service that fall and, like other New York militia regiments, believed their designation as state militia would remain intact as a three years regiment. Much to the chagrin of the officers of the regiment, the unit received the numerical designation of “80th Regiment of New York Volunteers”, the title it was assumed, to be carried by the regiment throughout its three years of ensuing service. Case closed.
“It’s not that simple,” states Seward Osborne, author of The Three-month Service of the 20th New York State Militia, April 28 – August 2, 1861. (Longstreet House, Hightstown, NJ, 1988), and keeper of the sacred trust of the history of the 20th NYSM. The new designation came with some baggage and had, in all probability, cancelled out the 20th’s officers dates of commissions, reducing their seniority among fellow officers and also causing quite a stir among the enlisted men whose loyalty lay to their state and original designation as a regiment of the State Militia.
According to the new muster date at Kingston, New York on October 25, 1861, the regiment left for Washington still bearing the title of 20th NYSM until two months later when that somewhat mystical “80th NY Volunteers” began to appear. A somewhat perturbed Colonel George Pratt wrote to Captain George Ruggles, the Assistant Adjutant General of the Army of the Potomac, the following April from the regimental camp at Bailey’s Cross Roads, Virginia:
“I have no commission, nor has any other person in this camp any commission or authority, to my knowledge to act in and for the 80th N.Y. Volunteers: the officers of the 20th Regt, expressly refused any ‘Volunteer’ designation before the regt quitted Kingston, N.Y. and its present status, was accepted and determined by the governor himself and it is therefore part of the contract.”
The regiment’s indignation was briefly silent after Colonel Pratt’s death at Second Bull Run, but later that fall the regiment’s new commander, Colonel Theodore B. Gates, re-initiated the campaign to have the state delegated decision reversed and for the original militia designation restored. Persistence paid off. On January 22, 1863, New York’s Adjutant General, Isaac Vanderpool, wrote to Colonel Gates:
“The Governor has received a communication from Genl. (Henry) Samson under date of the 19th Jan. with reference to the preservation of the number and organization of your regiment as it left for the Seat of War. He has forwarded a copy of this communication to the General in Chief of the Army Major Genl. Halleck accompanied by his own request that nothing should be done to alter the position or number of the Regiment. It will be regarded at this office as the 20th N.Y.S. Militia; but to avoid any difficulty which might arise as to its rights in the Volunteer Service, the words ‘20th Militia’ will be inserted in brackets in each commission after the words 80th Volunteers.
“The Governor feels a warm interest in the welfare of the 20th,” Vanderpool added, “and will endeavor, that the honors it has won in the field, shall be preserved to it under its Militia designation.”
Gates and his officers won their case- designation restored and commissions preserved. “The document (from Vanderpool) makes my case for me,” Osborne wrote to the park last year. “In the so-called volunteer service, the Federal government paid the regiment by Federal paymasters, on Federal paymaster stationary, as the 20th N. Y. S. Militia, and you still continue to have the real name and designation.”
But wait- the words “20th Militia’…inserted in brackets in each commission after… 80th Volunteers”? Was this truly the restoration of the proper title for Gates and his men? On the muster sheets and pay roll of the regiment, the title is 20th NY State Militia and, as Osborne is also quick to point out, the men still carried the old flag with “20th NYSM” and wore the number 20 on their caps. Did that truly cancel the state’s volunteer regimental number? In similar fashion, the 14th Brooklyn ferociously guarded its original title rather than accept the designation 84th New York Volunteer Infantry, though the 9th New York State Militia may not have been so upset when its three year service title was changed to 83rd New York Volunteer Infantry, though the title “Ninth Regiment” was a necessary addition to the regiment’s monument.
We can think of this as simple matter of unit pride but that was only part of it. The primary concern was preservation of the original regiment and those all-important commissions on file in the state attorney general’s office. Even so, the designation of 80th New York Volunteers was never completely scrubbed from the rolls of the state returns nor from the official monthly rosters compiled by the adjutant general of the Army of the Potomac, so it must have been with some mild disgust when veterans of the regiment, following the rules of the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association, dedicated their monument on Reynolds Avenue in 1888 with the inscription of “80th New York Volunteers” prominent on the face of the stone base. Yet above all is what Colonel Pratt and his fellow officers and men would have wanted- the open hand as borne on the regimental flags surrounded by the title “Ulster Guard” and “20th N.Y. State Militia”, this time without the brackets.
John Heiser, Gettysburg NMP