The 123rd New York Volunteer Infantry represented Washington County, New York, in the Civil War. Final casualty totals were about 166 dead (69 on the battlefield) and 158 wounded. Among those were 16 killed and 16 wounded from the town of Whitehall. The dead represent 16 grieving families and great loss for the community, a theme replayed again and again across the country.
Among the key words defining America is union, as in the opening words of the Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union…,” and as in pledging “allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.” Yes, it’s even in our name—not America, but the United States of America.
This is not to debate the issues that led to or caused the Civil War — that argument will never end. The founding fathers built into our government various methods of addressing all issues. Argue, filibuster, vote, veto, appeal, appeal further — but above all, the Union must be preserved. Secession was the only non-option, for it eliminates a union, just like divorce eliminates the union of marriage. Carried to fruition, secession meant the end of the United States. Rather than accept the Semi-Committed States of America, a war was fought to restore the Union.
Men went off to battle, and like all communities, Whitehall dealt with the consequences, burying the dead and welcoming the survivors. Not every town installs a monument to honor their veterans, but Whitehall did. On Cliff Street, overlooking the village for the past 116 years, is the Soldiers and Sailors Monument to Civil War Veterans, a daily reminder of 32 brave citizens, 16 of whom died to preserve the Union. It was dedicated at a gathering of Washington County Veterans in 1899.
Yet just a few minutes away from the monument flies the Stars and Bars, Robert E. Lee’s battle flag, displayed by a local business. Perhaps it expresses the carefree attitude of Bo and Luke Duke and the good ol’ General Lee. Perhaps it’s an insult to the service of men from Whitehall and Washington County. Perhaps the flag of the 123rd New York Volunteer Infantry would better represent the area’s heritage.
But hey, it’s a free country. Honoring the army that sent 16 Whitehall soldiers home in boxes is a personal right guaranteed by the Union that was preserved.
And no one can own the person flying that flag — at least not anymore.
Photos: The Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Whitehall (by Jill Jones); flag of the 123rd (by Todd Hoffay, taken at the Skenesborough Museum in Whitehall)