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Wettingfeld on History: Slocum catastrophe mirrors general’s war loss

The victims, or at least most of them, lie buried in the Lutheran Cemetery in Middle Village. One of the people who kept the memory of these victims before the public was the late Thomas Schweitzer, whom I was privileged to know. He devoted his time selflessly to honoring the memory of the victims of that ill-fated catastrophe.

As a young student attending Columbia, my father had served during the summer hiatus as a passenger steward on a similar vessel of the Hudson River Dayline in about 1915, though fortunately by that time the boats plying the rivers had been much improved.

Researching this story of the ill-fated trip in 1904, I became curious about why the tragic vessel had been named "General Slocum." In the beginning, before its launching, a number of names had been considered, including "Columbus," "Knickerbocker," "Rockaway" and "Brooklyn." The owners of the vessel, the Knickerbocker Co., finally decided on "General Slocum." Henry Warner Slocum (1827-1904) was a major general who had commanded the right wing of the Union Army at Gettysburg. He later lived in Brooklyn and was to serve that area in Congress for three years.

After the General Slocum was launched in 1894, its career was untroubled for a time and it was a popular and fashionable vessel very much in demand by spectators. Large sums were bid in those days for chartering vessels to view events such as the International Yacht Races off Sandy Hook. However, the Slocum was to experience a number of mishaps. New and improved ships were launched in competition and the older ship was not considered top-notch, fashionable or of the yachting class.

We have mentioned General Slocum's ties to Brooklyn; however, his life began in Delphi, N.Y., where he later taught school before entering West Point, graduating in 1822. After serving in the military for a few years, he resigned to practice law in Syracuse, N.Y. While there, he gained experience as county treasurer, state legislator and state militia officer.

After the fall of Fort Sumter in 1861 Slocum joined the 27th New York infantry and became a colonel. He was wounded in the Battle of Bull Run, and after recovering he was given a brigade and then moved on to a divisional command. On July 4, 1862 he was commissioned major general of volunteers and fought in a number of campaigns: Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorville and Gettysburg, where he commanded the 12th Corps, Army of the Potomac. Later he was given command of the 20th Corps and eventually led the Army of Georgia in 1864 in the March to the Sea.

After he resigned from the Army in 1865, Slocum returned for a time to Syracuse and ran unsuccessfully for New York secretary of state. Soon after his defeat he moved to Brooklyn and there practiced law. Eventually he was elected to the House of Representatives and served three full terms. He also was appointed to the Gettysburg Monument Commission.

His detailed report on the Battle of the Chancellorville Campaign, where he commanded the Army of the Potomac's 12th Corps, is published in full and reveals the severe casualties for the period covering April 27 to the May 6, 1863. Slocum ended his report by noting, "My losses were about 30 percent of my entire effective force, or 2,883 killed, wounded or listed as missing." A tragic loss mirroring the tragic end of the vessel named for him many years later.

Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian and free-lance writer. She can be reached via e-mail at JBBAY@aol.com.

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