Friday, February 14, 2020

The Glory Regiment


By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

What do Denzel Washington, Mathew Broderick, and Elmira have in common? The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry! Formed in February 1863, the regiment was the second African-American regiment formed in the north and by far the most famous. They participated in operations around Charleston, South Carolina, including the Second Battle of Fort Wagner (July 18, 1863), and in the Battle of Olustee (February 20, 1864) in Florida. Twenty-four Chemung County residents, mostly from Elmira with two from Horseheads, served in the regiment. 

Lithograph of the storming of Fort Wagner by the 54th Mass, 1890
 The men of the 54th were fighting a war on two fronts. At the time of their enlistment, they were promised pay equal to their white counterparts at $13 a month. Instead, once they were officially mustered into Federal service, they were paid $10 with $3 withheld for clothing, while white soldiers had nothing withheld for the cost of their uniforms. This was immediately protested, by the soldiers themselves, their white officers, and supporters back home. The state of Massachusetts promised to make up the difference, but the entire regiment, officers and enlisted both, instead refused to accept any pay but what they had been promised. Despite the hardship for their families back home, the regiment refused to back down, even marching into the Battle of Olustee to the cry of “For Massachusetts and seven dollars a month!” Eventually, Congress passed a law to ensure equal pay, including back pay, for all troops who had been free men prior to April 19, 1861. Following some creative oath-taking, the men of the 54th Massachusetts received their pay for the first time in eighteen months.

Twenty-four Chemung County men served in the regiment. The youngest, Miles Moore of Elmira, was 16. The two eldest, both 39, were also both blacksmiths: Wesley Armstrong of Horseheads and Andrew Miller of Elmira. Both men were wounded at the battle of Fort Wagner. Of the 600 members of the regiment at the start of the battle, 30 were killed outright, 24 died of wounds, 15 were captured, 149 were wounded, and 52 were missing in action and never accounted for. Of the Chemung County men, five were wounded and three of them later died as a result. George Moshroe was captured. Although the Confederacy had declared their intention to execute any Black man found in Union uniform, he survived and was exchanged two years later. Overall, all but three of the Chemung County men survived the war to return home.

One of the three dead was Private William R. Lee of Elmira. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, he’d worked as a weaver at an Elmira textile mill and married a local girl, Sarah J. Dunham of Corning. They had four children, Estella, Elva, Mary, and William. He wrote home throughout the war, updating Sarah on his activities, and also those on the other local men. His last letter was sent from a hospital in Beaufort, South Carolina, where he’d been sent after being wounded at Fort Wagner. “We must put our trust in that kind Providence which is able to bring good out of all our woes and will bring us together again, if not in this world, I trust in the Heavenly land. I pray God, my dear wife that we will be permitted to be again reunited,” he wrote in his final letter shortly before being loaded on a hospital ship bound for home. He never made it, dying at sea, two days into the voyage. The letters have remained in the family for three generations and they were kind enough to give the historical society copies. 

Letter from William Lee, 1863

Another Elmira man, Stephen Swailes, faired considerably better. At the time the unit was set up, only white men could serve as officers, but, on March 11, 1864, Swails was commissioned as second lieutenant in the 54th Massachusetts by Governor John Andrew himself. However, the War Department would not initially give him the discharge needed to be commissioned in Federal service, so he didn’t receive his official promotion until April 28, 1865. Following the war, Swails chose to remain in South Carolina, working for the Freedman’s Bureau, rather than return home to his wife and children in Elmira. He helped provide assistance and education to the newly freed, and they rewarded him by electing him to the South Carolina State Senate in 1868. From then until his death in 1900, he was a prominent member of the African American community of Williamsburg, South Carolina and a major player in the Republican Party. 

Stephen Swailes, ca. 1860s
 In 1989, the exploits of the 54th Massachusetts were immortalized in the Academy Award-winning film Glory starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Cary Elwes, and Andre Braugher. None of the Chemung County men were portrayed in the film, but it’s still worth a watch.  For Massachusetts and seven dollars a month!

Monday, February 10, 2020

Arnold Hager and His Famous Band

by Erin Doane, Curator

In June 1906, Hager’s Band of Elmira was the official band of the State of New York at the gigantic Old Home Week Celebration in Auburn. In just four years under the leadership of Arnold Hager, the band had gone from playing small, local performances to being one of the most celebrated musical groups in the state.  

Hager’s Band, early 1900s
Arnold Hager was interested in music from a young age. He was born in Elmira on November 26, 1873 to Frederick and Ida Hager who had come to the United States from Switzerland. His father was a musician, so it was natural for him to start taking piano lessons at age eight. He went on to learn the cornet and played with the 26th Separate Company Band before he was even a teenager. At 14 he started violin lessons and played in the YMCA orchestra. At age 17, he played his first theater engagement at the Madison Avenue Theater.

In 1892, Hager’s father died suddenly. So, at age 19, he took his music on the road to help support his family. He took a job as cornet player with the Sig Sawtelle Canal Boat Circus which traversed the Erie Canal. A year later he joined Lee’s London Circus out of Canton, Pennsylvania. Over the next few years he jumped from job to job playing music for theaters, circuses, and minstrel shows. Finally, in 1896 he returned to Elmira, took the civil service exam, and got a job as music instructor at the Elmira Reformatory.

Arnold Hager, c. 1936
When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Hager joined the Thirtieth Separate Company and was appointed leader of the regimental band. When asked by a newspaper reporter why he enlisted, he answered, “To charm or rather hypnotize the Spaniards with my reformatory band.” After his service, he returned to the Reformatory and was promoted to director of the music program.

In 1902, Hager got the opportunity to become leader of his own independent band. Ten years earlier, Haytt’s Military Band was popular around the city, playing at grand receptions and balls. In 1894, there was a schism in the band. Some members wanted Ralph Mulcare to become leader rather than Professor Haytt. So, Haytt and several of his most devoted followers left and the remaining musicians became Mulcare’s Band. The new band was very active through the late 1890s and early 1900s, but finances were a persistent problem. In 1902, Mrs. Julia S. Reynolds sued Mulcare for not paying rent for eight months on a room the band used for rehearsals. Mulcare settled the case out of court, but resigned as band director.

Program from a Mulcare’s Elmira Band concert, 1901
Hager was a member of Mulcare’s Band and when Mulcare stepped down, the other band members elected Hager as their new director. Thus, Hager’s Band was born. Their first engagement was playing at the annual military ball of the Thirtieth Separate Company on Thanksgiving night, 1902. From then on, Hager’s Band grew in popularity. They played at conventions, parades, parks, and fairs throughout the state, including their highly-lauded performance at Auburn’s Old Home Week Celebration. Under his direction, Hager’s Band became recognized as one of the foremost musical organizations in the country.

Hager’s Band, early 1900s
While Hager was leading his own band, he was also a member of the Grotto Band, and offered private musical lessons on the side. And on top of all of that, he was still musical instructor and director of the Elmira Reformatory Band. In order to devote more of his time to what would become a 40-year career at the Reformatory, Hager pulled back slightly from his outside musical interests. In 1922, Hager’s Band became the Elks’ Band. The Elmira Elks Lodge took over management of the band while Hager continued to carry the baton as leader. He remained director of the 35-person band until his death.

On April 13, 1936, after several months of ill health, Arnold Hager passed away. He was 62 years old. Hundreds of people came out for his funeral including family, friends, officers of the Elmira Elks Lodge, fraternal brothers, members of reformatory staff, former music students, and members of the general public who may not have known him personally but were touched by his music. Musicians who played under his direction in Hager’s Band played a funeral march as the procession moved through Woodlawn Cemetery to his family’s plot. It was a fitting tribute to the man who had devoted his life to music.

Members of Hager’s Band leading Arnold Hager’s funeral procession into Woodlawn Cemetery, Star-Gazette, April 17, 1936


Monday, February 3, 2020

Old news: The Pledge of Allegiance


by Susan Zehnder, Education Director
Flag with 45 stars from 1896


Once again, controversy over saying or not saying the pledge of allegiance is in the local news . For most of us, it’s a ritual we learned as young children, reciting it each morning in school. This practice didn’t start when the United States became a country but began a hundred years later in the 1890s. Using the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s landing in North America as inspiration, a magazine publisher set about looking for more subscribers. He promoted installing flags in every classroom and commissioned a pledge to recognize the event. Today a version of that original pledge is recited every morning in schools across the nation.

1892 was a presidential election year. Four years earlier, President Benjamin Harrison had won the electoral vote but had lost the popular vote to Grover Cleveland. Both were running again. Many in the US were experiencing economic prosperity as the country slowly recovered from the Civil War. Others, not so lucky, resented many of the immigrants brought in to work in the new factories. Columbus Day was primarily celebrated by Italian American and Catholic communities, both groups viewed with suspicion at the time. The climate was ripe for magazine publisher Daniel S. Ford to promote the idea of national unity.



Originally Ford had hoped to become a Baptist minister. Instead, he went into business with Baptist Rev. Dr. John Olmstead and published a weekly religious newspaper, The Christian Watchman & Reflector. The paper became such a success, they bought another publication called Youth’s Companion. This magazine was one of the first American publications written for children. It was known for its strident religious and moral instruction.


When the partnership dissolved, Ford drew the shorter straw in a contest. He now became the sole editor and owner of the modestly successful Youth’s Companion. Determined to make it more of a success, he changed its content to appeal to wider audiences by featuring popular writers like Booker T. Washington, Mark Twain and Emily Dickinson. He increased readership by offering prizes to those who sold the most subscriptions, and to reach even more people he hired his nephew-in-law James B. Upham to be in charge of circulation.

In addition to this business skills, Upham was known to be interested in promoting children’s patriotism. With Ford’s approval, he used the model of subscription incentives to start a campaign of placing a US flag in every school classroom. He encouraged students to request cards from the magazine to sell to their classmates for a dime a piece. By purchasing a card, buyers received “one share in the patriotic influence of the school flag” and with three hundred cards, earned a flag for their school. To add flourish and create more of a ceremony, Upham asked staff writer Francis J. Bellamy to write a short patriotic pledge for students to memorize and recite. Bellamy, in addition to being a journalist, was a Baptist minister and well-known Christian socialist. He wanted to include words like equality and fraternity, but these were soundly rejected on the reasoning that superintendents would never support words recognizing African Americans or women in 1892.

Bellamy’s finished pledge was twenty-two words that students could recite in under fifteen seconds. The Youth’s Companion edition of September 8, 1892 featured this pledge in anticipation of the upcoming anniversary.


Candidates President Harrison and Cleveland quickly endorsed Ford’s campaign to introduce the national flag and pledge into all schools to recognize Columbus Day. Perhaps they feared if they didn’t, voters might see them as unpatriotic. Thus for the first time on Columbus Day, 1892, the pledge was recited by thousands of school children. Despite the patriotic rush, it took another fifty-five years before Columbus Day became an officially recognized national holiday.

By the time each classroom in Elmira displayed a US flag, it was 1925. The local campaign was led by Mr. O. Wendell Hogue, Director of Grades for Elmira schools, and head of the Americanization Committee for the American Legion. By then, the original pledge had been changed. In 1923 “my” flag became “the flag of the United States” to eliminate fears that immigrants might pledge to their nation of origin instead of their new nation. Also in 1923, the American Legion led a movement to adopt a US Flag Code. This offered civic expectations on how to display and treat the national flag. In 1942 “of America” was added to the words “United States.”

Other adjustments included how the flag was saluted. Before the 1940s, students recited the pledge while standing. They extended their right arms straight ahead, pointing their fingers upwards in the direction of the flag. It was known as the Bellamy salute. In the mid-20th century, the posture began to resemble images of Nazis honoring Adolf Hitler.


The US was on the verge of entering WWII and Congress quickly adopted the American Legion’s flag code, and changed the way to salute. When reciting the pledge, people were asked to stand and place their hand over their hearts, as we do now.

For decades people have raised objections, some feeling they are unfairly forced to recite the pledge. Perhaps the most recent change made in the 1950s has created the most friction. It was then during the cold war era, that President Dwight D. Eisenhower pushed for the phrase “under God” to be added to the pledge.

Today’s version of Bellamy’s pledge contains thirty-one words.