Civil War Soldier, The Untold Story Behind The Mission
The Return of Our Native Son
From September 15th through the 17th The New York Patriot Guard Riders were intimately involved in a historic mission to return the remains of an unknown New York Soldier, who sacrificed his life at the Civil War battle of Antietam, to a final resting place at Saratoga National Cemetery.
Bill Schaaf, who worked tirelessly on this mission, now tells the story of how this history was made:
It’s has now been two weeks since the Patriot Guard participated in what was one of the most impactful Missions that we shall ever see. Over three days the PGR was there to escort home to New York a Union Soldier who lost his life on the Antietam battlefield on September 17, 1862 – A Soldier Known But To God.
These last 14 days I’ve had my regular job to do as well as being a part of three other PGR missions but I didn’t want another day to go by without remarking on this wonderful experience.
This mission actually started some 5 months ago when I learned that Saratoga National Cemetery would most likely have a Civil War soldier to bury sometime this year. I thought to myself – if ever there was a Patriot Guard Riders mission to be a part of, this would be it. I broke a cardinal rule of the PGR – we don’t “mission shop” – we don’t request of others Patriot Guard Rider involvement in a funeral, we must be asked.
Ed. Note: In Bill’s defense, since the soldier was ‘unknown’ with no family to contact, Bill, in effect, ‘adopted’ this soldier into the PGR family. Therefore, the PGR family stood in for this soldier’s natural family whoever and wherever they may be. In the end I think they would be proud of his efforts.
I started to make inquires to learn more about the Civil War soldier slated to come home to New York. I met with Mike Aikey, the Director of the Saratoga Military Museum who in turn directed me to Don Roy, Director of the Military Services Honor Guard. I introduced myself and explained who we were (PGR) and asked if they would consider having the PGR provide an escort from Antietam.
It wasn’t as much of a long shot as I had thought – Don Roy was in charge of bringing the soldier home to New York and I saw a picture of his Harley behind the desk. I was honored that he invited me to be a part of the planning for this ceremony.
We waited a long time for the Smithsonian and/or the Antietam Battlefield Park professionals to tell us something about whether we were ever going to get this soldier home.
Late in August we got word to come and get our soldier.
The Mission Planning:
Don Roy made the right call when he said the Honor Guard would be there to pick our soldier up at Antietam on Tuesday, 9/15 so that we could honor him with a burial in Saratoga National Cemetery on Thursday, 9/17 – 147 years to the day he was killed in Millers Cornfield.
A planning meeting came together quickly, with representatives of the Military Honor Guard and their Public Relations people along with representatives of the Civil War Re-enactors, Saratoga Military Museum, Saratoga National Cemetery Director and staff and I representing the PGR.
This was a brainstorming session about how to put all the various puzzle parts together for this ceremony. I was fortunate to have funeral home clients that could provide the horse drawn carriage, the bagpipe and drum band and a hearse.
The whole mission started to come together pretty smoothly (although I didn’t know I had the horses for the carriage until we were leaving Camp Smith on Wednesday morning – not going to bore you with why its difficult to get horses in Saratoga but it has to do with bagpipes and 21 gun salutes).
One little wrinkle did occur. The Honor Guard was just going to be part of a small, respectful transfer ceremony down in Antietam. As the word got out many PGR members were telling me they were going to Antietam for the ceremony – hadn’t planned on this and finally the Maryland PGR was able to get a Ride Captain over there to RC this part.
Although I wasn’t present at the transfer ceremony in Antietam National Battlefield, from the videos I have seen and from talking to those that were there, it was obvious that the staff at the Park were profoundly moved by what was taking place. In some way, shape or form, Antietam National Battlefield, that place, had been the custodian of this soldier for 147 years. Once discovered, the Antietam National Battlefield Park staff, led by Park Superintendent John Howard, was diligent in their care for the remains. They carried out a very dignified, honorable and respectful transfer to the New York Military Forces Honor Guard. Although the staff at Antietam fully supported the return of this soldier, this was personal to them – it’s not hard to believe that there’s a little hole in their hearts.
I can’t say enough about how well law enforcement agencies stepped up for us. I made over 25 calls to all the appropriate police agencies from Antietam to Saratoga Springs. Once I told them who we were and what the mission was about they couldn’t have been more supportive. For some police communities it was all hands on deck – it was really impressive to see, in community after community, as we made our way home, the blinking red, white and blue police lights escorting us along and making sure we got thru all the traffic. Hats off to them (which reminds me I have about 25 letters to write).
On Tuesday the PGR escort out of Antietam started off with 8 motorcycles. By the time the escort hit our staging area in Haskell NJ the escort had grown to 25. When we left Haskell we had over 50 bikes for the trip to Camp Smith where our soldier would lay in state overnight at Father Duffy Chapel.
Wednesday morning our long escort up Rt-9 to Saratoga Springs began with about 25 motorcycles. More and more bikes joined the procession as we traveled up Rt-9. About 40 bikes entered the staging area in Hudson, New York, were we met up with PGR and others that came down to join us. As we rolled thru downtown Albany on our way to Saratoga Springs we were 90+ strong – ¾ of a mile long.
I should mention that at all the staging areas and fuel stops along the way, Don Roy opened up the back of his escort vehicle to display for the public the 34 star flag draped coffin that had been prepared in Antietam with a wonderful garland ribbon around flowers – the ribbon’s words “Known But To God”
Thursday, Sept 17, our escort from the museum to Saratoga National Cemetery again was 90+ motorcycles. I’ve been told that the 500 or so people waiting for us at the cemetery became stone cold silent when our motorcycles rumbled into the cemetery signaling the arrival of our soldier.
The procession of Civil War Re-enactor Honor Guards, US Military Honor Guards, bagpipers and drums playing “Going Home” and then the beautiful horse drawn carriage with the flag draped coffin inside was as awe inspiring a sight as I have ever seen. The whole ceremony at the cemetery, from start to finish, was emotional, professional, dignified, respectful, precise and done with great care and affection.
- Seeing the riders from the others states join in our mission, especially the contingent that joined the escort at the PA/NJ border. Thanks to State Captain Bill “Hawk” Connelly for helping with this.
- Being at Camp Smith, early in the morning, alone with the soldier and your thoughts.
- Dave Taylor came to Antietam from Missouri –was to also to make the trip from Antietam to Saratoga but near Hershey, PA his cell phone summons him home on important business. He’s home safe with wonderful memories of what happened at Antietam Battlefield that morning.
- Another PGR member came all the way from Georgia. Dave Shreckengost made it to Antietam and then onto New York. His bike transmission shredded on him just into New York.. Ed Kornowski, who made the trip from Buffalo, rode back to get Dave and brought Dave up to Camp Smith. Bob Kepler and friend were “caging” it from Peekskill with the escort and stayed thru the ceremonies at Saratoga National. Dave Shreckengost was able to ride up with Bob and then return to Peekskill later to see about his bike repairs – which were costly. At the briefing on Thursday morning, at the suggestion of PGR member Scott Smoke, we took up a number of collections for Dave and I think we were able to pretty much make a big dent in his repair problem. Dave was blown away and just couldn’t thank us enough. Motorcycle brothers taking care of another brother – outstanding.
- As the escort moved up Rt-9 in the Hudson Valley; seeing how some communities turned out to show their respect. School children by the side of the road waving flags. Military and police contingents lined up and saluting. An American Legion Post lining both sides of the road – a bugler in the middle of the road playing taps while they fired a 21 gun salute. Some people with tears in their eyes for the return of this young soldier.
- Seeing and hearing the rumble of motorcycles as we made our way thru Saratoga Springs to the Military Museum and seeing hundreds of people lined up there to witness the transfer of our soldier to the museum where he was to lay in state for the rest of the day. The bagpiper playing as that transfer happened (15 yr old Michael Miller Jr.)
- Best seat in the house – looking in my mirrors and seeing a string of motorcycle headlights for as far back as I could see – pretty impressive.
- Just inside the entrance to the cemetery the procession was halted for a bit before we proceeded. Paul Lyman, on staff with the cemetery, met me and the first thing I asked was “Please tell me we have horses and a carriage” He said “Oh yeah – we got big horses and wait until you see the people that are here – this is huge”. How right he was
- Getting to meet and speak with Karen L. Orrence, an archeologist with the National Park Service. Not just any archeologist but one of two that were involved in the excavation and examination of the soldiers remains. By her own admission she had “bonded” with the soldier and had come to Saratoga to see how and where he was to be buried. Karen had her “closure”.
- Being with “bikers” with colors and leathers, many of them with watery eyes and when they did try to speak, a few words barely got out before many had to stop and re-compose themselves.
People who helped make this happen:
Don Roy, Director Military Forces Honor Guard, Latham, New York. Don was the guy who was responsible for making all this happen. It was Don Roy who allowed the Patriot Guard Riders to not only participate but have a hand in some of the planning for these ceremonies.
Mike DeMarco, DeMarco-Stone Funeral Home, Schenectady, New York. Mike was pleased to be able to provide his beautiful horse drawn carriage for the soldier’s final trip.
Michael Miller and his son, Mike Jr (literally a World Class Piper), Brewer Funeral Home, Lake Luzerne, NY for getting members of his pipe band, Galloway Gaelic of Glens Falls to come and march and play – what a soundtrack for these ceremonies.
Joseph Turcotte, Flynn Brothers Funeral Home, Schuylerville, NY – for providing his hearse that was used from the Museum on Wednesday morning over to the cemetery then transfer to the horse drawn carriage.
Parker Brothers Funeral Home, Watervliet, NY. They provided the Civil War era pine box casket that was used to inter our Civil War Soldier.
Ernie Bessette, Teamster from Ft Edward, NY. Last minute hero who stepped up big time in getting those beautiful draft horses for the pulling of the carriage. Ernie validated his reputation as a top notch driver as he handled those big horses beautifully. (Ernie one time drove a team from Ft. Edward out to California).
I know all of them and they’re great people.
A big thank you goes out to the American Legion Post # 278 in Schuylerville for hosting a very nice luncheon for all those who participated in the ceremonies on Thursday. They got there early and stayed well into the day to make sure we were fed and nourished.
Last but not least, I also wish to thank all of the Patriot Guard Riders and members of the other motorcycle clubs (Rolling Thunder, American Legion Riders, Combat Vets, Leathernecks MC and others) that participated over the three days. Your participation, presence and dignity made an impact on all of those who were witness to what we did.
Special thanks go out to PGR NYS Ride Captains who were a great help along the way. John Tibbs – Senior Ride Captain for Region 7 and who took care of the staging location in Haskell, NJ. Region 6 Senior Ride Captain Ray McCarthy and his RC Brian Terralavoro (who “helped” LEO’s during escort). Region 4 Senior Ride Captain Ken “PK” Hedden, Sr who managed the staging area in Hudson, NY and brought about 50 bikes down with him – along with his RC’s Big Dan Nolin, Jack “Rabbit” Demers and Rick “Rickster” Moore. It’s a comforting feeling to know I have these people to put my faith and trust in.
I have again included the link that was put together by a group called the Gathering of Eagles. This link contains some beautiful videos and links to other articles and pictures of the three day event.
I want to thank all of the PGR members who have sent me CD’s/DVD’s of pictures and videos of these ceremonies. Some day soon I’ll get them in order and see about getting them posted on a site where we can all have access – they’re wonderful.
The New York State Department of Military and Naval Affairs have just released their video – you can see it here:
I have included this next link – from the movie Glory – it begins with the Battle at Antietam. It’s a very sobering look at just what our young soldier must have experienced prior to his death on that battlefield………..it’s difficult to imagine the horror.
If I have failed to acknowledge anyone, it’s certainly not intentional but a function old age and a bad memory.
I am proud & honored to be associated with such fine men and women as that of the Patriot Guard Riders. Those that were there for these ceremonies experienced something we may never see again in our lifetimes. May God bless us and keep us safe.
One final thought – something that I feel sums up most of our feelings those three days.
At the Museum, one of our PGR riders witnessed a very young Cub Scout who approached and touched the coffin and said,
“It’s OK, you’re home now. You don’t have to be scared anymore”.
Patriot Guard Riders – Senior Ride Captain – Region 5
MIAP/VRP Coordinator Regions 4,5,6,7
V.P. PGRNY Board of Directors
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