This is the story of John Kennedy. No, not that John Kennedy! I’m referring to John Wright Kennedy who I guarantee you know nothing about, nor should you. It’s about how a formative event in his life resulting in the naming of a town twenty years later. He was a farmer who underwent a harrowing ordeal, lived to tell about it, who went back to a quiet agrarian life and survived to a ripe old age.
Tangentially, I suppose it’s also about the huge paper trails we leave behind since every bit of information I discovered for this story I found online in less than an hour. If I could learn this much about someone who passed away nearly a century ago, imagine how much people will find out about you and I a hundred years from now in our digital wakes.
Mr. Kennedy was born in Stamford, New York (map), on April 18, 1838, a child of Scottish immigrants as the census records describe it. This put him at a prefect age to serve in the military when the U.S. Civil War broke out in 1861. Stamford straddled the line between Delaware and Schoharie Counties, and he joined many of his neighbors when they enrolled in the Union Army in nearby Schenectady to form Co. F of the 134th New York Infantry on August 22, 1862. He mustered in as a Private and worked his way up to Sergeant, then was commissioned as a Lieutenant and eventually gained a promotion to Captain.
The regiment was attached to XI Corps of Army of the Potomac, a corps best remembered for its role in the Battles of Chancellorsville in Virginia and Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, in mid-1863, and in not an entirely flattering light. The Eleventh Corps was caught unprepared at Chancellorsville and was routed on the first day of Gettysburg, retreating through the streets of the town before reaching the high ground of Cemetery Hill. They redeemed themselves somewhat on the second day with a valiant defense of the hill, although XI Corps never truly recovered its reputation and was later dismantled and spread amongst other units. The 134th New York was in the thick of the battle at Gettysburg and lost 42 killed 141 wounded and 59 missing. This put 242 of the regiment’s 400 soldiers out of action in a single battle.
John Kennedy never make it to Cemetery Hill. He became one of the 59 missing on July 1, 1863. It turned out he was captured by the Confederate army on the first day at Gettysburg. He became a prisoner of war and was moved to Richmond, Virginia. The story didn’t end there, however. Kennedy escaped imprisonment and rejoined his unit in Savannah, Georgia in December 1864. He then served in the Union army for the remainder of the war, finally mustering out with his company on June 10, 1865.
He relocated to South Dakota sometime after the war, establishing a home and a farm in Potter County. Others moved to the area and it was time to form a town. They needed a name for their new settlement. As Genealogy Trails explains,
The group [of Civil War veterans] sought to name the new town Meade in honor of General Meade, renowned for his leadership in the Battle of Gettysburg. When the Post Office rejected that name because it was already too popular, Captain John W. Kennedy, a member of Gen. Howard’s 11th Corps during the Battle of Gettysburg, submitted the name Gettysburg instead. That was accepted.
Gettysburg, South Dakota has more than 1,100 residents today and is the seat of government for Potter County. In 1991, the two Gettysburg towns became "sister cities." Kennedy passed away on February 13, 1918, in Gettysburg — the one in South Dakota — and was buried there. His tombstone noted that he fought at Gettysburg.
I can’t think of any other town named explicitly to commemorate a battle, by a veteran of the battle. I hope I can discover others.
The Confederate’s Army of Northern Virginia surrendered at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. That was essentially the end of the Civil War although others continued the fight briefly afterwards. The former Confederate states all regained representation in the United States Congress within the next few years. Eventually they all formally terminated their succession by decrees or legislation. The last place to officially rescind its succession was… Town Line, New York?!?
For the benefit of 12MC readers from outside of the United States, let’s turn to a map.
Notice the location of Town Line, NY. The nearest state that seceded from the Union was Virginia. A town just outside of Buffalo joining the Confederacy is downright confounding. It shouldn’t happen. It reminds me of Winston, Alabama, the southern town that wanted to remain with the Union, except in the opposite extreme. Town Line did not rejoin the United States formally until 1946, at least according to them. The U.S. Government would contend that they never had permission to leave so they never could have left, but that would ruin the story so I’m going to conveniently ignore that.
As the story goes, Town Line (so named because it was founded on the line between the towns of Lancaster and Alden) was a community of German descendants and recent immigrants, in a strongly Democratic pocket surrounded by Republicans. Residents differed culturally and politically from their neighbors. They were predisposed to be upset when Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, won the presidential election of 1860. There were a couple of incidents that might be more speculation or perhaps revisionist history than factual, including treatment of prisoners of war and the actions of runaway slaves at a nearby underground railroad site. Whatever the reasons, the town voted 84 to 40 to secede during the summer of 1861. Several men also left town to join the Confederate Army.
Things didn’t go so well for the Confederate sympathizers of Town Line as the war progressed. They were harassed and many of them fled across the nearby border into Canada. The whole secession vote had little meaning to the pro-Union residents who remained in Town Line by the end of the war and memories began to fade over ensuing decades. The hamlet’s unusual status wasn’t rediscovered for another sixty or seventy years.
There are few controversies that are not susceptible to a peace time resolution if examined in an atmosphere of tranquility and calm rather than strife and turmoil. I would suggest the possibility of roast veal as a vehicle of peace. Why don’t you run down the fattest calf in Erie County, barbecue it and serve it with fixin’s in the old blacksmith shop where the ruckus started? Who can tell? The dissidents might decide to resume citizenship.
This spurred the residents of Town Line to — finally! — rejoin the union on January 26, 1946, by a vote of 90 to 23. The last stronghold of the Confederacy fell.
My interest in history is probably as great as my interest in geography, a theme I’ve commonly woven into the Twelve Mile Circle. Keeping that in mind, I’ve grown ever-excited as events commemorating the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Civil War approach. Activities will escalate rapidly on April 12, 2011 with the anniversary of the Confederate attack on Ft. Sumter [my visit] and continue with intensity for another four years.
Commemorations will even take place in my little corner of the world. That website reminded me of a very basic geographic fact: the capital of the United States had the misfortune of finding itself suddenly bordering enemy territory. A line of artillery placed atop Virginia’s Potomac River ridgeline — the very home of the Confederate’s leading general, Robert E. Lee — would have reduced the city of Washington and all its iconic structures to rubble. That’s exactly why the Union army marched across the river within 12 hours of Virginia’s secession and seized the highlands for the duration of the war. They then constructed a ring of 68 forts completely around the city [my visit to one] and dug in for the next four years.
This got me thinking about what would happen geographically if one or more states decided to secede today. Could a split ever replicate the situation of a capital city suddenly abutting "enemy" territory? I considered that as a purely hypothetical scenario. I don’t know of any reasons why this would ever happen. Neither would I wish to trivialize or diminish the very serious causes behind the Civil War a century and a half ago, so I hope nobody takes it that way.
However, if we were to start splitting individual states from each other for whatever reason, which state (now national) capitals would suddenly appear vulnerably along a border? I know it doesn’t make much difference today with bombers and long-range missiles and such, but let’s suspend our disbelief for a moment and go with it. The list is smaller than I imagined.
Trenton seems to be the best example. Nothing but the Delaware River separates the capital of New Jersey from Pennsylvania. Technically the same is true for Carson City, Nevada although Lake Tahoe might serve as an effective buffer from California. Juneau, Alaska sits on an international border today (remember the trick question?) although the habitable portion clings to the Gastineau Channel with huge mountains and an icefield separating it from Canada. Plus, Canada doesn’t seem to have much of a desire to invade Alaska anytime soon.
A few others come close. Cheyenne, Wyoming is about ten miles from Colorado. St. Paul, Minnesota is maybe thirty miles from Wisconsin. Providence, Rhode Island extends nearly to Massachusetts but nearly everything in Rhode Island is near a border, so is it even a useful example?
An even better instance exists just a bit further north. This is all that separates Ottawa, the Canadian capital, in the province of Ontario from the province of Québec. Should Québec ever secede from Canada, well… let’s just hope it ended amicably.