Fancy Skater. Andersonville Prisoner of War. Chief of Police. One of “The Boys”

A Note to My Readers:

I am an avid reader of old newspapers.  There is so much history…personal and unsung…glorious and ignoble…in those old archival documents.  And just plain thought provoking.  This story was gleaned from Auburn area newspapers and is a retrospective of the life of my paternal great grand uncle.

Charles Wallace Jennings (1846 – 1901)

Fancy Skater.  Andersonville Prisoner of War.  Chief of Police.  One of  “The Boys”.

Charles Wallace Jennings was born in Caroline, Tompkins County, New York in 1846.  He was the second child of Daniel and Harriet James Jennings who had migrated from the Quaker dominated town of New Bedford, Massachusetts to New York State shortly before Charles’ birth.  New Bedford’s former thriving economy was waning as the whaling industry began to decline and indeed the United States in the 1840’s was suffering from its first economic depression.  So the young family made its way into central New York to establish a more secure way of life than was possible in New Bedford.

By 1852 Charles, his parents and siblings, Emily, Daniel, William Henry and Harriet Jane were living in Auburn, New York.  Harriet Jane was born in Auburn that year and the Jennings family had begun to permanently settle into life in their new hometown.  They joined the First Methodist Church and Daniel established himself as a carriage maker in the livery area located on Water and Dill Streets.  By 1858, the Jennings had added their youngest child to the family…Lillian, my great grandmother.

1853 Auburn NY Map Dill and Water Streets

The nation continued its westward expansion…and Auburn…though it had lost its preeminence to Syracuse…was still experiencing modest growth.  Political and economic conditions in the Cayuga County seat made Auburn a dynamic though small town environment.   The United States was moving toward civil war as the Northeast struggled with economic depression and the debate over Free states versus Slave states aggravated an ever widening rift between the states.  Auburn, New York, home of Harriet Tubman and the Freedom Fighters which included her contemporary, Frederick Douglass and former Presidential candidate William Henry Seward, had a special stake in the outcome of the debate. Upon reading accounts of Mr. Douglass, it was not lost on me that New Bedford, Massachusetts and Auburn, New York were pivotal stages in Frederick Douglass’ journey from slavery to the heights of the abolitionist movement and so, too, were they central to the life and times of Charles Wallace Jennings.

A description of the sentiments of Auburn speaks of its state of mind in President Lincoln’s 1861.

“Mr. Seward had been Mr. Lincoln’s most formidable competitor for the presidential nomination. While the Chicago convention was balloting for its candidate the population of Auburn was in the streets. On the first ballot Mr. Seward was in the lead with Mr. Lincoln second. On the second ballot each had gained at the expense of the other candidates, and the telegraph announced that Mr. Seward would be nominated on the next ballot. All the people of Auburn held Mr. Seward in high honor, and now they were waiting in the highest pitch of excitement, with cannon and cartridges in readiness to fire a “presidential salute” of one hundred guns. In various places in the city they had collected material for immense bonfires for a night celebration. With eager expectation they waited to hear the result of the third ballot. Soon the clicking of the telegraph announced that the ballot had been taken and the nominee was,—Abraham Lincoln, of Illinois. Without a cheer they sullenly wheeled their cannon back to the armory. That afternoon was like a Sunday in Auburn. No business was done. In their grievous disappointment men did not feel like talking. The darkness of the night was not relieved by any bonfires. Mr. Seward in the afternoon of the day of the nomination invited a number of his friends to his house, and after a light lunch spoke freely of his and their disappointment, but expressed his belief that in the condition of the country and in the probability of a conflict over the slavery question, the nomination of Mr. Lincoln was probably the best that could have been made. He proposed to do all he could to insure Mr. Lincoln’s election and to support him if elected, and he urged his friends to do the same.

In the campaign that followed Mr. Seward made some of his ablest speeches. The evening before the election he made his final and greatest speech to his own neighbors, whose enthusiasm attested their devotion to the statesman and patriot who could forget his own disappointment in his zeal to serve the best interests of his country. And now, in April, 1861, these neighbors of Mr. Seward answered the call of the President with the utmost promptness. The Sunday following the issue of the proclamation was a memorable one. The professors in the Theological Seminary assisted the pastors of the churches in the services of the day. Some of them venerable, with hoary heads, descended from New England ancestry, seemed young again in the fervor of their loyalty. The appeals of these ministers thrilled the hearts of the listeners. One of them, recognizing the duty of fighting now as well as in the times of David, the warrior king, prayed fervently for the Lieutenant General of the United States. “Thou hast given him victory in times past; grant him victory now in the cause of the Union.” In the Catholic church the priest had an enrollment paper already prepared. He appealed to the men of his congregation to sign their names before leaving the church. He reminded them of the oppression they had endured in their native land, and of the freedom they had enjoyed in this home of their adoption, telling them they were not worthy of their privileges under this free government unless they were willing to fight in maintaining it. As he pronounced the benediction, stalwart men, enough to form a company, stepped forward to the altar and were enrolled. In the Protestant Episcopal church the first lesson in the morning service was from Joel III., 9, 10,—”Proclaim ye this among the Gentiles; Prepare war, wake up the mighty men, let all the men of war draw near; let them come up. Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weak say, I am strong.”

This passage from the Prophet occurring in the lesson of the day was regarded as a significant coincidence, pointing to the duty of the hour.

Public meetings were held at which liberal contributions were made for the equipment of the volunteers and for the support of families that might be left in need. During the period of uncertainty there had been varying opinions and much discussion.[i]

In 1862 the 16 year old boy, Charles, shared his love of fishing with his father and brothers, but there was one sport that Charles excelled at…figure and fancy skating as it was called…an exposition sport he and younger brother, Daniel, would  still engage in as men in their fifties.  He presented a dashing figure in the winter landscape of central New York much to the delight of the local young ladies.  It was a good time for a vibrant young man to be alive.  His father was doing well and all of the siblings were healthy.

Then on July 2nd 1862 President Lincoln issued a call for 300,000 3-year enlistments.  July 19, 1862, Gen. Jesse Segoine, as Colonel, received authority to recruit this regiment in the counties of Cayuga and Wayne; it was organized at Auburn and there mustered in the service of the United States for three years August 20, 1862.[i]

The 111th Regiment New York State Volunteers

111th Infantry Civil War Adjutant General Roster

Young Charles enlisted on July 22, 1862.  He was barely 16 years old, claiming to be 18 and wouldn’t see his home or family for over three years.  He would fight at Harper’s Ferry where the ill prepared 111th surrendered and was unjustly branded as the Harper’s Ferry Cowards.  He would suffer the deplorable conditions at Libby and Andersonville Prisons and waiting to be officially exchanged, spent a difficult winter at the infamous Camp Douglas in Chicago known as “80 Acres of Hell”.  The boys went on to fight the horrific Battle of Gettysburg determined to prove their mettle and proved themselves to be more than heroic.  Over a period of 3 years the boy Charles became a man in the fields of some of the hardest fighting of the Civil War including the decisive Battle of Appomattox.

“It seems that the call to volunteers was done at a time of chaos and confusion. The government seemed unprepared and disorganized at the time that the 111th mustered into service on August 20, 1862. For example, on August 21 they were all put onto railroad cars and sent to Washington D.C. where they were to begin basic training. They had no weapons on them at that time. Then on August 22, without any training whatsoever, they were all transferred to barges and taken down the Hudson River to New York Harbor where they were again transferred to steamships. From there they went to Amboy, New Jersey, where they were once again transferred to rail cars, and then taken to Philadelphia and then on to Baltimore.

In Baltimore they received new orders to board still another train that would take them to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia and, under Miles’ command, they were to face the Confederate General, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. During battle on September 13, 1862 the veteran (trained) Union Troops fled the scene, and then pinned the subsequent miserable loss on the new recruits of the 111th who had received no weapons, training, nor support by the time that they were left to face Jackson. They were captured, imprisoned, and then later paroled on September 16. On September 24, 1862 the 111th marched to Annapolis, Maryland to board trains to Camp Douglas near Chicago, Illinois. Their duty in Chicago was to guard Confederate prisoners. On November 19, 1862 they were sent back to Washington D.C. where they finally received training. By June 24, 1863 the Gettysburg battle began to build when the 111th and other regiments were sent.

On June 25, 1863 they were attached to the 2nd Army Corps. And on July 1, the 111th with 390 men reached the battlefield in the late evening. They camped behind the Big and Little Round Tops, and prepared to march into Gettysburg on July the 2nd. On the morning of July 2 they joined the rest of the 2nd Corps at Cemetery Ridge, and were put into the rear as reserves. Ironically, they were used as a priority force to battle the same unit of troops that had beat them so badly when they faced them in Harper’s Ferry. Only this time the 111th beat them so badly that they prevented the Confederates from dividing the Union line into separate areas. On July 3 the units were all repositioned with the 2nd Corps at “The Angle” where together they were able to repel the Confederates at “Pickett’s Charge.”

One can only imagine how the Civil War must have affected the young men who were mostly all small town boys and farmers and who most probably lived very sheltered lives.  Artillery fire, shouts and cries of the wounded must have filled the air in deafening clamor. It was not a day to be soon forgotten. And still the job was not over for the 111th. After Gettysburg they had other battles that included such action as chasing General Lee to Manassas Gap, VA, and many others. The 111th was mustered out of Service June 3, 1865.” [iii]

“The regiment bore an honorable part in 22 great battles. Its total enrollment during service was 1,780, of whom 10 officers and 210 men were killed and mortally wounded; its total of 220 killed and died of wounds is only exceeded by four other N. Y. regiments—the 69th, 40th, 48th and 121st—and is only exceeded by 24 other regiments in the Union armies. It lost 2 officers and 177 men by disease and other causes—total deaths, 404— of whom 2 officers and 74 men died in Confederate prisons.”[iv]

Charles was mustered out in 1865 when he was just 19 years old with the sights and sounds of the Civil War permanently etched within his young man’s heart.  He and his “boys” headed immediately home to Auburn.  At first, as I researched through the Civil War veteran organizations and newspaper clippings of their post war activities, I could not grasp the real meaning behind the old men referring to each other as “boys” until I started reading the personal accounts of their Civil War experiences and the boys they were…not a nickname or endearment…but the true representation of the soldiers in the field.  Boys.

The Boys Return Home

When Charles returned, the population of Auburn had grown.  His siblings had grown, too.  Emily was a pretty young woman and brother, William Henry, was a young merchant with an art shop of his own…established with his partner, John Trowbridge, who would later marry Emily.  Brother, Daniel at 14 was helping his father at the carriage making shop on Dill Street and little sisters Harriet and Lillian had left their babyhood behind.

By 1870 he had married Mary Augusta Nichols and was working as a carpenter…a trade he had learned at his carriage maker father’s side.  He and Mary were expecting their daughter, Nellie and the country was healing, the economy was better and Charles and the “boys” were members of  a militia and law and order organization formed before the Civil War, The Willard Guard.   The Guard outfitted the veterans and new members with special uniforms.   Over the next few years Charles spent a good deal of his free time associating with his fellow veterans eventually becoming an active member and officer in the 49th Regiment and the Crocker Post No. 45 and the Royal Arcanum.

As Charles matured, he left his carpenter trade behind in favor of jobs which served his community.  His father, Daniel, had been a staunch member of the Whig Party back in the days of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore.  Following the leadership of Auburnian William H. Seward and the late President Abraham Lincoln (a former Whig party member in Illinois),   Charles belonged to the Republican Party organizing events and after all of the speeches, conducting drills as the “Drill Master”.   On 3 March 1873 Congress granted burial rights in national military cemeteries to all honorably discharged veterans of the Civil War (17 Stat. 625). An act of Congress of 3 February 1879 (20 Stat. 281) extended the privilege of government-provided gravestones to soldiers buried in private cemeteries.  Charles and his “boys” personally documented all veterans buried in Auburn cemeteries to ensure that the resting places of their brave comrades were properly marked. Twice he served as a Street Superintendent in Auburn…an important job while Auburn was paving new streets and improving Genesee Street as more and more enterprises were opening up and sewers and gas lines were being run to modernize the city.  He also worked for a time as the Money Order Clerk at the Post Office.  He was elected as a delegate to the Tenth Ward.  But the most controversial moment in his public career came when he was appointed as Auburn’s Chief of Police.

Auburn Chief of Police

In 1879, his brother-in-law…John Trowbridge…by now a successful and well-connected Auburn businessman…suggested to the Auburn Commission of Charities and Police that Charles could fill the open position of Chief of Police.  The position became open when the aging Chief of Police Charles E. Cootes retired. The commission had several possibilities…all from the force, but Charles was an involved citizen, a Civil War Veteran, a member in good standing of the GAR and Willard Guard…a good Republican and the brother-in-law of a very important man.  There were two stumbling blocks.  The requirements for the position stated that the Chief of Police had to be a police officer and that no candidate could be a member of a military organization.  After some legal wrangling and warping of the rules and Charles’ resignation from his beloved veterans’ organizations, he was appointed. Politics aside, it was widely accepted that he did a good job.  And the men that served under him  enjoyed his utmost support.   He was exceedingly loyal to them and they to him.  They were his “boys”.

Lightfoot Obituary Syracuse Daily

In late April 1881 a highly inciting moment occurred when the Auburn Commission of Charities and Police decided to hire George B. Lightfoot…a “strapping negro” as the newspaper characterized him…a phrase that followed George to his obituary in 1896.   He was a man that was deemed worthy by many Auburnians. Distinguished Republican men with the names of Seward and Osborne wrote glowing letters of recommendations.  Lightfoot had been tenacious and applied numerous times for the position of patrolman.  Some citizens worried that there would be riots and bloodshed and were obviously frightened of the idea.  Republicans were sure that the fall elections would be a disaster. The other great concern was the morale of the police officers and the rumor that they would all resign if Lightfoot was hired.

Newspaper reports of possible massive resignations in the ranks were considered by the Commission and it was decided that would be dealt with when and if they occurred.  After much consideration and consulting other communities that had hired “colored” police officers to the benefit of their citizenry and police force, the Commission agreed with men like Seward and Osborne and hired Mr. Lightfoot.  Charles in the meantime had suggested several candidates and was not consulted about the hiring.  He only learned of the Commission’s decision to hire Mr. Lightfoot when the payroll was presented to him on May 3rd which included George B. Lightfoot.

After completing a full day of the city’s business, the newly elected Republican mayor, Cyrenus Wheeler, Jr., had taken to sitting on the steps of City Hall in the evenings with the aldermen of the city.

Old Auburn City Hall

In the twilight of May 3rd 1881, Jennings and Officer Henry McDonough exited the building. Charles Jennings stopped at the top step to light a cigar, and then approached the seated Wheeler.  He laid two envelopes into the mayor’s hands without a word and continued his walk home in the waning light of the evening. Puzzled, the mayor watched the figure of Jennings reappearing in a distant pool of streetlight and broke the seal on the envelopes.  He studied the enclosed letters, folded them neatly and placed them back in their envelopes and tucked the contents into his coat pocket.  Chief of Police Charles Wallace Jennings and one of his police officers had resigned.

McDonough had been given a temporary assignment as Captain to fill a vacancy.  During the Commissions deliberations, it was learned that McDonough had boasted that he would resign if Lightfoot were hired.  He sealed his fate and was ordered back on the beat within days.  This was an obvious case of racism and clearly illustrated his false sense of security when he voiced his controversial views to his fellow officers and anyone else within earshot.

The newspaper coverage made it unclear as to just why Jennings resigned…it was inferred two ways.   At the time of his resignation, when asked by a local reporter, he had no statement to make and “didn’t care to discuss the subject”.  He made one final comment before excusing the reporter. He declared that there were other considerations other than Lightfoot’s appointment and that he was perfectly satisfied to find other employment.  One unidentified individual…characterized as “a gentleman well posted in police matters” stated that Jennings was hurt at not being consulted and that it was right that he should have a say in the “kind of timber” that he was to work with. The story was recounted in a New York Times brief.

The less attractive inference was that he had a hatred for “coloreds”.  Only one reference to that possibility was made…in his Syracuse, NY obituary in 1902.  In all of his commitments and loyalties that ran deep in Jennings family history…Quaker Methodist anti-slavery sympathies, his Republican political party affiliation and admiration of Abraham Lincoln…his public service and, most of all, his three year stint as a Union soldier makes the allegation questionable. Charles went back to work at the Post Office and regained his vigorous involvement in his GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) activities and the activities of his fellow veterans.  It was odd to think that a man who had risked his life in the fiercest battles and had suffered POW imprisonment in the infamous Libby Prison as a Union soldier would be a racist, but it is not hard to imagine how he felt about his obligations as Police Chief to his men…his “boys”.

Soldiers develop a tight sense of commitment to one another and he carried it into his civilian life.   But the other known fact was that many Yanks did have a dislike for “coloreds” and one account of Andersonville inmates stated many of the men began to blame “coloreds” for the war…and their own suffering.  The controversy and the true nature of Charles’ motive never made the light of day.  It remained on the neatly folded paper in the dark pocket of Mayor Wheeler and in the secret heart of Charles Jennings.  He never spoke of the matter again.

Back with the Boys

It didn’t take long before Charles picked up his life in political office and was deep into veteran affairs.  In July of 1895 he was among two dozen members of the 111th to visit Gettysburg on the 30th anniversary of the battle. Below is a photograph of the “boys” gathered in 1895 around the 111th New York Volunteer Infantry monument in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

111th 30th Reunion at Gettysburg

In 1896 he was a city delegate representing the Tenth Ward and by 1897 he was once again serving in the position of Street Supervisor.  Auburn was undergoing more expansion and repairs and his previous experience made it a perfect fit.  He continued his work with fellow veterans and dove into his spiritual life in the Presbyterian Church attending functions for the Y.P.S.C. E (Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor).  He was known to favor his fellow attendees with his prized possession- a graphophone with an hour and a half of “selections of vocal music as well as instrumental and orations”  as one newspaper reported.

By 1900, the 54 year old Jennings was living at 7 Beach Avenue in a four- square style house with his wife, Mary, along with his widowed 80 year old father, Daniel, and his son, Nathan Lewis and his wife, Eugenia.    In 1901 55 year old Charles and his brother, Daniel, performed a fancy skating exhibition to benefit the YMCA.  But Charles’ health was failing and he had to step down from his job as Superintendent.  He briefly worked as an executive for a new manufacturing company named Birdsall which made steam engines until his health finally and completely failed him .

On November 14, 1902, Charles Wallace Jennings suffered a series of strokes and died…finally joining his “boys”.  He was buried in the historic North Street Cemetery in Auburn, New York.  Ironically the man that personally walked the cemeteries and saw to it that all graves of fellow Civil War Veterans received a marker has no marker of his own.  In the tradition for Auburn veterans the Old Wheeler Bell rang at his funeral procession…the bell manufactured by the family of the man that had accepted his resignation in 1881.


Charles W Jennings Pension Card

Widow Mary Augusta Nichols Jennings was left with a little money…Charles’ pension and their home on 7 Beach Avenue.  Mary‘s spinster sister, Ella Lucy, moved to the Beach Avenue home shortly after Charles’ death and the children’s departure.  Soon the two women took up with a spiritualist group known as “The Kingdom” and by 1903 they had moved to the Shiloh colony in Durham, Maine.  She and her sister lived their remaining days at the Kingdom site and are buried there.

Their daughter, Nellie had married a young Englishman named William Simmons years before and had moved to Philadelphia with her husband and children, William and Mary Augusta.

Shortly after his father’s death, Nathan Lewis and his wife, Eugenia Smith Jennings would move to Golden,  Colorado where he pursued his career as a mining engineer.  In the early 1900’s, he was an engineer at the Colorado School of Mining.     Eugenia died in Colorado and Nathan remarried to Ida, a Colorado native,  who was fourteen years his junior.

Nathan Lewis Jennings Obituary Syracuse Post Standard

Nathan had ruined his health…handling chemicals and working in the mines and for his health moved to Long Beach,  California with his wife and only daughter.  In 1916 at the age of 44, Nathan accidentally killed himself handling chloroform leaving his second wife, Ida, and 16 year old daughter, Eloise.

[i] The first New York (Lincoln) cavalry from April 19, 1861, to July 7, 1865 By William Harrison Beach    [ii] New York in the War of the Rebellion, 3rd ed. Frederick Phisterer. Albany: J. B. Lyon Company, 1912

[iii] Dyer, Frederick H. 1959, A compendium of the War of Rebellion; Regimental Histories. Thomas Yoseloff, Publisher.
Scott, Robert N. 1889. The War of Rebellion of the Union and Confederate Armies, Washington Government Printing Office.
Murray, R. L. 1994. The Redemption of “Harper’s Ferry Cowards

[iv] The Union army: a history of military affairs in the loyal states, 1861-65 — records of the regiments in the Union army — cyclopedia of battles — memoirs of commanders and soldiers. Madison, WI: Federal Pub. Co., 1908. volume II.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2010.  All Rights Reserved


2 thoughts on “Fancy Skater. Andersonville Prisoner of War. Chief of Police. One of “The Boys”

  1. Nice glimpse into the past.

    I am 99% certain that Mary Augusta Nichols was my great grandfather’s sister. I am trying to track the movements of her parents (my great-great grandparents)Edward Nichols and Abba (Abbie) Backus Nichols from MI after 1850. I think they returned to NY about 1860. Both were born in NY. I believe that Abbie Nichols listed in the Auburn directories of 1900 and 1902 was Mary Augusta’s mother.

    If you have any info on Edward or Abbie, I would be most appreciative. I have located the graves of Mary Augusta and her sister.

    Thank you.

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