The small town of Turin in Lewis County has some interesting historical connections to the Civil War. Among them is native son Selden Clobridge, who was born in January 1846 in the hamlet of Houseville. In official records, his enlistment age is 21, which means he would have joined the army in 1867, two years after the war ended. It’s no surprise that he’s among the thousands who lied about their age in order to join the fight.
When he joined the army in summer 1862, Selden was actually just 16 years old. For perspective, consider yourself at age 16. What were you doing? Perhaps chasing boyfriends or girlfriends, goofing around a lot, and maybe beginning to consider your future after leaving high school in a couple of years.
At age 18, a time typically characterized by major life decisions — getting a job, going to college, joining the military — Selden was already a hardened veteran whose active army career had been ended by enemy fire. After two years of long marches, terrible living conditions, and dozens of battles where friends and compatriots were killed by his side, he was a survivor of war’s horrors—not completely intact, but a survivor nonetheless.
Clobridge was still 16 when he and the rest of New York’s 115th Infantry Regiment were captured at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, in September 1862. It was an ignominious start to his time in the military, coming just 16 days after departing from New York. The defeat came courtesy of Stonewall Jackson, and was the largest Union surrender of the entire war: 12,700 prisoners were taken, while 200 wagons, 73 artillery pieces, and 13,000 small arms were lost to the South. The captured soldiers were paroled the next day and began marching to Annapolis, making the 100-mile trek in six days.
Within a week they were sent to Chicago, and from that point through the end of 1863, the 115th served in Washington, Virginia, and South Carolina. During most of that time, they were immobilized by illness running rampant through the regiment and causing many deaths.
General healthfulness returned during the winter months, and in February 1864 they were ordered to Florida. Near the end of the month, Clobridge suffered a serious leg wound below the knee during a fierce, bloody battle at Olustee, Florida, the only major engagement in that state during the war. It was a rough day for the North, with 1,861 soldiers—more than one-third of the Union men who fought there—listed as dead, wounded, or missing.
Clobridge was returned to Beaufort for recuperation, and rejoined the regiment in May at White House Landing, Virginia. Plenty of intense action followed, nearly all in the vicinity of Richmond, capital city of the Confederate States of America and the South’s main source of manpower and munitions.
He had suffered his first battle wound in Florida barely a month after his 18th birthday, but there were more to follow. In May he was wounded at Bermuda Hundred, about 14 miles southeast of Richmond. In mid-August, at Deep Bottom, five miles closer to the city, he suffered a shoulder injury when a bullet struck him in the upper back as he was bent over. Through it all, he remained with the 115th, taking only brief respites to heal.
Three and a half months shy of his 19th birthday, he had already been injured several times, having fought in eight battles, plus a three-day siege and an eleven-day siege. Finally, on September 29 at Fort Gilmore, about five miles outside of Richmond, he was severely wounded by a shell that struck between his wrist and elbow, virtually destroying his right forearm. Although his fighting days ended with amputation at the elbow, Selden held out hope for a comeback. In a surviving letter from years later, he wrote, “This disability, greatly aggravated by gangrene, prevented my return to the field.” Given the opportunity, he might well have rejoined the fight in some capacity.
Instead, he joined his wife in Saratoga and received immediate care at the Ira Harris U. S. Army General Hospital in Albany, followed by treatment and rehabilitation for the next ten months. In late April 1865, just a week before the war ended, he was commissioned a lieutenant. On July 18, he was discharged with the brevet rank of major (brevet signifies a higher rank awarded for bravery or special conduct).
New York Governor Reuben Fenton appointed him to a state position, and later hired him as military messenger in the governor’s office. During that time, he worked hard at adjusting to life with only one arm. Since the overwhelming majority of people were right-handed, an effort encouraging amputees to master new skills was sponsored by a New York City journal, The Soldier’s Friend, which conducted a writing contest called, “Exhibition of Left-Hand Penmanship.” In 1867, the second year it was held, ten premiums of $50 were offered, along with powerful incentives: each winner would receive a personally autographed letter from one of the nation’s ten greatest military leaders. Among them were Admiral David Farragut and Generals Ulysses S. Grant, Philip Sheridan, and William T. Sherman.
Entering the contest, Clobridge wrote his story beautifully and was awarded the Farragut Premium. The admiral was on an overseas trip when the award letters were presented, so General Grant stepped in to do the honors. For that reason, unlike the other winners, Selden Clobridge received a letter personally autographed by both Farragut and Grant, considered by most as the nation’s top two officers.
Among the lines in a poem written by another winning amputee, Alfred D. Whitehouse, were the following: “Give us work that we can do! And don’t be afraid of what we can’t do because an arm is not two.” Despite their personal sacrifices, the damaged soldiers asked only for a fair shake, a chance to show what they could accomplish in any job or profession.
When Governor Fenton left office for a senatorial seat in 1869, Selden was appointed assistant librarian for the New York State legislature. That was followed by 13 years in the New York City customs office, and then 14 years in Brooklyn’s tax department. He also remained very active in the National Guard, and in 1878 was appointed adjutant of the 14th Regiment in New York City. In 1883 he was commissioned a major, and by 1885 was a lieutenant-colonel. Thereafter he was referred to commonly as Colonel Clobridge, a leader popular among his men and well regarded across the city.
In 1893, to the shock of friends and associates, he was implicated in a tax-rebate scandal. He was arrested, released within a day, and eventually indicted in a case that was negotiated for about six months. No further details were made public, but he resigned from the tax office in February 1894 and ceased performing duties with the National Guard, which granted him an honorable discharge a year later.
In 1895 he settled in Herkimer, New York, the hometown of Evelyn, the third of his four wives. He operated a farm there, and in 1907 was appointed clerk of the Fourth Division of the Erie Canal. He won election to a couple of terms in the state assembly, where he was a member of the Military Affairs committee, chaired the committee on the Soldiers’ Home, and—ironically, considering the tax-fraud charges 20 years earlier in Brooklyn—was appointed to the Taxation and Retrenchment Committee.
Clobridge was a popular choice for grand marshal of Herkimer’s July 4th parade in 1907, appearing proudly with 15 mounted aides at his side. Two years later, at age 63, he received 89 percent of the vote and was elected captain of Company M, 1st Infantry Regiment at Mohawk. He was also commander of the Grand Army of the Republic Post at Herkimer, and president of the county’s Veterans’ Association.
Clobridge passed away in 1918 at the age of 72. Despite the flaw on his record related to Brooklyn’s tax department, he was still a hero to many for the sacrifices he made as a young man on behalf of preserving the Union, and his strong support of war veterans.
Photos: Colonel Selden Clobridge (1892); Penmanship Contest (Library of Congress, 1866); Farragut-Grant letter (LOC, 1867)