Eulogy for Union soldier infuriates Guilderland Copperhead

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

The scene of William Crounse’s Memorial Service was at the Helderberg Reformed Church at Osborn Corners, which stood on the Schoharie Turnpike (now Route 146) and Osborn Road.

William Crounse was among the numerous Guilderland volunteers who answered the call to fight for the Union during the Civil War.

Published in Albany in 1866 shortly after the war’s end was a volume entitled “The Heroes of Albany: A Memorial of the Patriot — Martyrs of The City and County of Albany.” Its author, the Reverend Rufus Clark, had written a series of brief sketches about local men who perished in the conflict, describing their early lives, their war experiences, and the circumstances of their deaths.

Sadly, Guilderland’s William Crounse was among the heroes he eulogized.

Clark characterized  Crounse as a typical country lad growing up on the farm owned by his father, Abraham Crounse, probably the “A. Crounse” appearing on the 1866 Beers Map in the vicinity of Gardner Road.

Born in 1830, one of four sons, he grew up on the family farm. William Crounse’s pious mother was influential in forming his character and he reciprocated by having great love for his parents. At 21, he married, continuing to help manage his father’s farm. In 1855, William Crounse moved to Albany, joining his brother in business.

With the outbreak of the rebellion, William Crounse was determined to serve his country. Mustering into the 177th Regiment New York State Volunteers in October 1862, he was one of several Guilderland men who had also joined this regiment, spending two months training with them at Albany.

In December 1862, Crounse departed with his regiment, sailing in an overcrowded ship to New Orleans. His health had been so poor that his friends attempted to persuade him to apply for a discharge before the regiment left Albany, but he persisted, replying to their concern, “My country needs every man she can get, and it is my duty to assist all I can.”

On their arrival at New Orleans, the soldiers in the 177th were assigned to help reinforce the defenses around the city. When he reached camp at Bonnet Carre up the Mississippi from New Orleans, Crounse’s health had improved enough for him to be promoted to the rank of orderly sergeant and detailed to duty as assistant provost marshall.

Although William Crounse did not profess any particular religious denomination, he regularly attended divine service in camp, keeping apart from “the vices and abuses, which from a social and lively temperament, he was particularly exposed.” Moralistic author Rev. Clark wanted the home folks to know that Crounse didn’t play cards, gamble, drink or worse as so many of the Civil War soldiers did.

Alas, in the humid, warm climate where malaria and dysentery was prevalent, Crounse became ill and grew weaker, eventually draining his strength. He was unable to campaign with his regiment when they left for Port Hudson and active duty. Instead, forced to remain behind at Camp Bonnet Carre, he entered the camp hospital.

Death came quietly and peacefully with Crounse relying “on the infinite mercy of his Redeemer and possessing a firm conviction of his acceptance.” He died June 28, 1863.

The next day, E.H. Merrihew, Captain of Co. B, wrote a letter of sympathy to Crounse’s brother, informing him of William’s death, which he claimed had cast a deep gloom over camp and that William would be missed. For some reason, Merrihew contacted William Crounse’s brother with this sad news, requesting that he tell “her” (Crounse’s wife?) of this tragic event instead of writing to her directly.

Burial was in the regimental cemetery at Bonnet Carre, Louisiana.

By mid-July, Albany newspapers carried notices of his death. The Albany Evening Journal reported on July 13 in its listing of Civil War deaths, “DIED” WM. CROUNSE, Orderly “Sergeant of Co. B, 177th Regiment, age 33 years at Camp Bonnet Carre, La. of fever, June 28th.” The Albany Argus carried a similar notice.


Controversial sermon

William Crounse’s death may have had no effect in the conflict between North and South, but it certainly resulted in major conflict in the town of Guilderland.

On Sunday, Oct. 25, 1863, the Reverend William P. Davis, long-time minister of the Helderberg Reformed Church at Osborn Corners, preached a lengthy sermon “occasioned by the death of William Crounse who died at Port Hudson in the service of his country.”

His words caused such a controversy that Reverend Davis commissioned Albany publisher J. Munsell to print his remarks in a pamphlet entitled “A Sermon Preached on the Fourth Sabbath of Oct., 25th,1863, occasioned by the DEATH OF WILLIAM CCROUNSE who Died at Port Hudson in The Service of His Country by Rev. William P. Davis, A.M., Pastor of the Ref. Prot. Dutch Church, Guilderland.”

A copy of Davis’s sermon pamphlet survives today in the files of the Guilderland Historical Society.

Modern Americans consider Lincoln one of our greatest presidents due to his political skill and patriotism as he led the war against Southern rebellion and issued the Emancipation Proclamation, forgetting that at the time not all Northerners supported the war aims of the administration.

While the Republican Party led by Lincoln gave its support to the conduct of the war, Democrats were split into two factions, the War Democrats who more or less supported the war effort and the Peace Democrats.

The Peace Democrats wished to negotiate a peaceful end to the war to restore the Union as it was. The Peace Democrats opposed the war, were outraged by the newly instituted military draft, and sought to elect a similar-minded Democrat as president in 1864.

They publicly proclaimed their feelings by wearing an emblem made from cutting the head of liberty from an old-style penny and pinning it in their lapel. They became known as “Copperheads,” both in reference to the penny and to the poisonous snake.

In the preface to his sermon, Reverend Davis claimed that he prepared his “discourse” at the request of William Crounse’s friends. What Davis claimed he was attempting to show was that Crounse died “in a noble cause; in defense of a divinely instituted government” and to “instruct” those “who were loud in their assertions of the unlawful acts and arbitrary power assumed by the administration, with threats of resistance.”

While not likely every Guilderland Democrat was a Copperhead, that Sunday there was at least one in attendance at William Crounse’s memorial service who did not take kindly to being lectured about Union politics in the guise of a sermon and eulogy. His infuriated reaction was chronicled by the late Town Historian Arthur Gregg.

Storming out of the church in the midst of Reverend Davis’s remarks, this man, prominent in the congregation, returned later that day. In an era when individual families paid rent for “their” church pews, this hot tempered church member entered the Helderberg Reformed Church carrying his tools with him, tearing out “his” pew to remove it from the building.

Later he bragged to friends, “It came out easy.”

Gregg quoted John D. Ogsbury, long ago editor of The Altamont Enterprise, who as a child attended that church the next Sunday, saying, “We all looked with consternation at the gaping hole made in the block of seats across from us.”

After later meetings of the church’s consistory, the man who was not named by Gregg, was found “guilty of public schism, of desecrating the house of God, and of contumacy, and that he be and hereby is suspended from communion of the church.”

Reverend Davis in the preface to his lengthy sermon admitted that some were deeply offended on hearing it. He mentioned “misrepresentations which are already afloat.”

For a time, this whole incident must have been the talk of Guilderland accompanied by the bitter feelings that can erupt from intense political opinions.

In the meantime, William Crounse’s grieving family had his body disinterred from the Bonnet Carre cemetery in December and brought home to be buried in Albany Cemetery. While others continued to fight political and military battles, William Crounse was at peace.