hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News Feburary - March 2019


From Congress to the battlefield

Maury Thompson


It wasn’t a typical congressional message to constituents.
Instead of boasting about bringing home the bacon, U.S. Rep. James Bedell McKean, R-Saratoga Springs, called on his constituents to risk their own hides.

“Traitors in arms seek to overthrow our Constitution and to seize our Capitol. Let us go and defend them,” McKean wrote in an Aug. 21, 1861 “circular” to residents of what was then New York’s 15th Congressional District, urging them to join him in marching off to fight the Civil War.
The congressman, who represented Saratoga, Warren and Washington counties, had already been volunteering in a military unit guarding the White House. This service had been interspersed with his congressional duties, and now he felt compelled to do more for the Union cause.

The Confederate victory a month earlier at the First Battle of Bull Run, the opening land battle of the Civil War, had been a wake-up call, McKean suggested.

“Let us learn wisdom from disaster, and send overwhelming numbers into the field,” he wrote. “Let farmers, mechanics, merchants, and all classes, for the liberties of all are at stake, aid in organizing companies.”

McKean, a lawyer, former school superintendent and former county judge, had military experience. He organized the New York 77th Regiment, also known as the Bemis Heights Battalion, recruiting men from Saratoga, Fulton and Essex counties.

Members of the regiment unanimously elected him colonel, even though he did not seek the position.

“If you who have most at stake will go, I will willingly go with you as a private soldier,” he wrote in the constituent circular later published in The New York Herald on Nov. 16, 1861.

For the first couple of months, the regiment trained at Porter Mansion on the outskirts of Washington, according to the 1878 “History of Saratoga County” by Nathaniel Bartlett Sylvester.
McKean drilled the troops and slept with them in camp each night.

At 11:30 a.m., McKean would leave on horseback for the daily noon House session, returning afterward to the encampment.

When the regiment left Washington for combat in the spring, the second-term congressman was excused from his congressional duties, without giving up his seat, for the rest of the term. He did not seek re-election in 1862.

McKean drew respect from those under his command and from his superiors as well.
The Fort Edward Ledger quoted Adjutant Winsor B. French, who was on a mission to Saratoga Springs to recruit fresh manpower in August 1862, as saying: “Young men of Saratoga! Now is your time to fill up your noble regiment, led by as true, as fearless, and as brave a Colonel as there is in the field – Col. McKean. Let it be a pride to follow such a leader in this hour of our nation’s peril, and to make the name of the 77th Regiment famous in the history of Saratoga.”
Gen. Thomas Neill admiringly nicknamed the regiment “McKean’s Sunday School Boys,” because of the youthfulness of many of its members.

J. W. Alfred Cluett of Troy composed and published the march “Col. McKean’s Quickstep,” in honor of the regiment.

Decades later, Lt. William G. Gaw recalled McKean’s commanding presence at the Battle of Mechanicsville.

“Men of the 77th, now is the chance to cover yourselves with Glory, Charge!” Gaw quoted McKean’s command, according to proceedings of the regiment’s 50th anniversary reunion. “And we did charge and captured Mechanicsville and a small Rebel Flag on which was inscribed ‘Victory or Death!’”

The war took its toll. The regiment lost 286 men from combat deaths or disease, and all suffered fatigue and stress.

“We left Saratoga Springs Nov. 28, 1861, with cheerful hearts, young and vigorous bodies; we who returned came back broken in health, in bodies,” Gaw said in 1911. “So we ask in all seriousness that we be not begrudged a few more years in the country we saved, and under that flag we never disgraced.”

McKean reluctantly resigned from the military on July 26, 1863, after repeated bouts of typhoid fever and bowel disease, leaving the regiment to persevere without him.

“But brothers, I must leave you,” he said in his farewell address. “I address you from a bed of sickness to say what it is hard to say: ‘Farewell.’”

Surviving members of the unit were honorably discharged on June 25, 1865, at Washington.
It wasn’t the end of government service for McKean.

U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward appointed McKean as a special envoy to Honduras to negotiate a treaty of neutrality between the two nations – and to protect free access rights for construction of a railroad connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans for transport of bananas.
McKean became best known nationally when he served as chief justice of the Utah territory from 1870 to 1875. In that role, he ruled against polygamy, refused citizenship to Mormons, and granted alimony to Anna Eliza Young, one of Brigham Young’s wives.

McKean died of typhoid fever on Jan. 5, 1879. He is buried at Mount Olive Cemetery at Salt Lake City.


Maury Thompson retired in 2017 after 21 years as a reporter for The Post-Star of Glens Falls. He now is a freelance writer focusing on the history of politics, labor and media in the region.