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Oyster Bay’s Black Civil War History

History is made to be told, and black history in Oyster Bay had its turn as a panel of guests with ties to the Civil War spoke at the Koenig Center. The evening began with a commemoration at Pine Hollow Cemetery and continued with a pop-up Civil War exhibit and panel discussion.

Panel members included Elizabeth Roosevelt, whose grandfather, James Roosevelt, helped found the first black regiment in New York; Frank Carl of Maryland, a descendant of Civil War veteran David Carll; Brian Rapalyea, a descendant of Civil War veteran Simon Rapalyea; Ludger K. Ballon, USCT re-enactor; and Judith Burgess, Ph.D.,  who is researching black residents of Long Island who served in the United States Colored Troop and had connections with Oyster Bay. Elliot “Butch” Garrison, chair of the Oyster Bay Historical Society (OBHS) Athletic Hall of Fame Committee, rounded out the group.

The Union League

Elizabeth Roosevelt has donated to the OBHS collection Civil War memorabilia which documents the involvement of her grandfather, James Alfred Roosevelt. She told the group he was born in 1825 in NYC, bought land in Cove Neck in 1881 at $150 an acre, directed Roosevelt Hospital and Roosevelt Bank; and was a member of the Union League and Commissioner of the Western Sanitary Commission, the forerunner of the Red Cross. The Union League raised the 20th Regiment, since at the time states raised regiments, she explained. Her grandfather was also interested in the soldiers' welfare, helping them save money since there were no pensions.

Proving Citizenship

Ludger Ballon, United States Colored Troop (USCT) historian and a re-enactor in the 26th Regiment, came with his group’s suitcases of Civil War memorabilia—guns, bomb cases and ephemera—that created an instant museum exhibit. He said the men joining the USCT fought to prove themselves as citizens. They were fighting for equal rights under the American flag for the benefit of their children. The re-enactors are following in the footsteps of forgotten soldiers to tell their story.

A quote from Frederick Douglass, shown during the presentation by Judith Burgess, explained the motivation of these men: “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters 'U.S.,' let him get an eagle on his button and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on Earth that can deny that he had earned the right to citizenship.” Ballon said black sailors joined the regiment as did freemen from the north. “They were told they could pick up guns and fight against our oppressors, to care for future generations. More than half the black population of New York State joined,” he said.

David Carll Family

Speaker Frank Carl, now living in Maryland, is the great-great-grandson of David Carll of Oyster Bay. Frank was born in Glen Cove in 1965; his dad, Frank, was born in 1935; Frank's dad, Percy Carl, in 1900; Percy's dad, Frank Carl, in 1867; and Frank Carl's dad, David Carll, in 1845, all in Oyster Bay. Current Frank Carl said that in 1863, before enlisting, David Carll worked as a boatman. That was the year of the Draft Riots in New York City, he said, “When the Irish immigrants were opposed to being drafted when wealthy people were able to buy out of the draft.”

He said blacks were dragged out into the streets and some were lynched and burned. “It took a few days before the federal troops stopped the riots and by then over 100 blacks had been killed.”

Frank has been searching the Army’s archives in Washington, D.C. He said that on Dec. 3, 1863, the first colored regiment was formed, the 20th. At age 21, here in Oyster Bay, David Carll was recruited by Town Supervisor George S. Downing. David received $675 for enlisting: $300 up front [the rest was paid in installments] of which he used $200 to purchase land. He married an English girl, Mary Louisa Appleford, on Dec. 31, 1863 and on Jan. 2, he boarded a stagecoach at the Syosset Depot, accompanied by several friends including his brother-in-law Wellington Appleford, who “bid him farewell.”

The men went to Rikers Island for training. Frank Carl said it was cold and they lacked supplies, even tents; there was scarce drinking water with the river frozen. David Carll was hospitalized with “inflammation of the lungs,” something he could have used to leave the army, but didn’t, said Frank.

On Feb. 26, 1864, the official USCT was formed and David Carll and Alex Conklin (also buried at Pine Hollow Cemetery) were sent to Hart Island to train. David served as boat crew on trips from there to Willets Point until April when they were sent to Beaufort, South Carolina.

They fought in the Battle of Bloody Ridge from July 6 to 9. David Carll was sent on reconnaissance and when he hid behind a large tree during some gunfire, he lost fingers and a thumb. “The fingers were cut off with a dull knife, in cold blood and he was later sent to the hospital,” re-counted Frank.

He said David Carll observed the actions of the Confederate troops at John’s Island, where he saw them “put bayonets to wounded soldiers.” The USCT 26th were able to take over the South Carolina railroad, “the pride and joy of the south,” something that speaker Frank Carl took pride in himself.

Simon Rapalyea’s Family

Brian Rapalyea, a descendant of Simon Rapalyea who also served with the USCT in the Civil War, said he grew up in Garden City Park, moved to New Cassel, then to Queens, Brooklyn, Ohio, New York City and now lives “out east.” Brian is a teacher at the Wyandanch Elementary school.

Brian has both African-American and Indigenous-American blood in his genetic line. He is of the Matinecock Tribe, and his wife, Roxanne Sands, is Montauket.  [The Reverend Kenneth Nelson who recently retired form the Hood AME Zion Church of Oyster Bay is also a Montauket. The tribe is in the process of being recognized by the state, after it had been deemed extinct. They have been proving in court that many descendants of the tribe live today. Nelson is the current chief of the Montauket.]

Simon R. was a friend and neighbor of David Carll. Through the auspices of Oyster Bay Town Historian John Hammond, Brian has obtained a copy of a letter from Simon to his wife, written during the Civil War and found hidden in a wall during a renovation of the house in which they'd lived on Mill River Road.

Brian said his last name, Rapalyea, is a version of the name of his Dutch ancestors, who arrived in the New World in 1624: his ancestors worked for them. They lived in Fort Orange, Albany.  Brian’s African genes come from Angola. In 1792, his great grandfather was a free man.

In the letter Simon R. sent during the Civil War, he acknowledged that his wife sent him money. He and the other soldiers were always complaining about the lack of money. As a civilian, he worked on boats while his wife took in laundry.

In the Army, he received $7 a month [with a promise that the rest would come later, according to town records] while the white soldiers received $14 a month. Eventually, said Ballon, they received equal pay.

Anthropologist’s Project

Judith Burgess, Ph.D. is seeking out the history of the men from Oyster Bay who joined the army to fight in the Civil War. She went to Washington, D.C. to review the archives and their pension files. “It’s all a work in progress,” she said, as she showed slides of the information she has been gathering. She said John Hammond’s list of 35 African-Americans who joined the fight included nine who were from Suffolk County and she wondered why.

Her research began with the information that Oyster Bay gave the largest bounty in the area—and actually paid the money.

“A slave has no permanent place in the family but a son has a place in the family forever,” Burgess quoted from the Bible (John 8:34) Black people wanted a place in the American family, forever.

After listening to Burgess, it appears that black residents of Long Island left their jobs and joined the fight to preserve the union of the states. Their lives revolved around their churches, and those AME Zion churches on Long Island have kept records that reveal the lives of the men. [The AME Zion Church was a split-off from the white Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784. It done with the approval of the MEC, because of the existing race prejudice and to allow blacks to preach to their own groups, according to AME Zion Church history.]

American Legion Records

Burgess found another source of information at the Irving S. Hart Legion Hall, established in 1951, which has records on the men. One of them, Adam Brewster, 5’ 2.5” enlisted at the age of 44 on Jan. 14, 1864. Joining the army was a way to get money and to start a new life, she said. Also, the wives would receive a pension/payment from $7 to $30 while they served in the war. After the war the men had to fight to get their pensions, paying lawyers' fees to get their money, she said. She said black men were given the right to vote in 1870. [It took American women until 1920.]

Pine Hollow Restoration

Elliot “Butch” Garrison, who is spearheading the Pine Hollow Cemetery restoration, said he is working with the town and celebrity descendant of David Carll, former Miss America Vanessa Williams, to restore and renovate the cemetery to honor the Civil War volunteers.  He said appreciatively, “Oyster Bay has a rich history of everybody working together.”

Ludger Ballon was delighted to see the cemetery earlier that day. He said there is a birch forest there; it has an incredible atmosphere; and it is wonderful to see it conserved. Garrison said he calls Oyster Bay Town Historian John Hammond so often that he has him on speed dial. Many speakers expressed appreciation to Hammond for his invaluable publication of town Civil War records.

Later, Denice Evans-Sheppard said the USCT re-enactors are keen to march in the Oyster Bay Memorial Day Parade. American Legion Commander Reginald Butt, Jr. said he was delighted with the offer and looks forward to their involvement.

For local history buffs or just the history-curious: Oyster Bay Town Historian John Hammond has compiled and edited a booklet on Town of Oyster Bay Civil War records. It can be downloaded from the town website, oysterbaytown.com. Click on the "Brochures and Booklets" tab and then the "Civil War Records" link. It is free.