Thursday, July 21, 2022

Centennial of Washington's Birthday in Albany NY

via The New York Public Library Digital Collections

The centennial of George Washington's birthday on February 22, 1832 was celebrated in grand style by the citizens of Albany, New York.  

Great preparations were made in Albany, as well as elsewhere throughout the country, to celebrate the centennial of Washington's birthday in 1832. That day was long a red-letter day in the memory of many of the older inhabitants of the city, of a generation now unhappily extinct. The City Hall was to be decorated in honor of the occasion, and Mr. [John] Meads was chosen to perform the task. He accepted the charge, and the result of his artistic efforts was so pleasing that he was presented with a silver water service, inscribed as follows: Presented by the Managers of the Washington Centennial Ball to Mr. John Meads, in compliment to his taste and classic design for the decoration of the City Hall on the evening of the 22d inst. Albany, February, 1S32. -- Bi-centennial history of Albany (New York, 1886).

Stephen Van Rensselaer IV, a major general in the state militia and the son of patriarch Stephen Van Rensselaer III, served as marshal for the "high festival" as it was called the Albany Argus of February 28, 1832:


The celebration, in this city, of the one hundredth anniversary of the Birth of the Father of his Country, was in all respects suited to the occasion. It was a high festival, in which all participated with a common feeling of gratitude and love of country, and a common veneration for the illustrious man, whose name is identified with the freedom and glory of his country, and with the cause of Liberty all over the world.

A national salute at sunrise announced the commencement of the festivities. At 10 A. M. the two houses of the legislature assembled in their respective chambers, whence, after prayers and the reading of the minutes of the previous day, they proceeded, with their presiding and other officers, under a military escort, to the place of rendezvous opposite the Mansion House and City Hotel in North Market-street. Having been joined here by the governor and suite, judicial and state officers, the mayor, recorder and members of the common council, the several military corps, civic societies, citizens, strangers, &c., the procession was formed agreeably to the published order of arrangement, under the direction of maj. gen. S. Van Rensselaer, jr. who officiated as marshal of the day, assisted by col. J. O. Cole, col. P. V. Shankland, col. C. A. Hopkins and maj. W. Fry, and moved through several streets to the North Dutch Church, which had been politely offered for the exercises of the occasion.

In the church, after an impressive and appropriate prayer by the Rev. Mr. Ferris, an oration was pronounced by the Hon. O. G. OTIS, of the Assembly. Of this eloquent and classic effort, it is not too much to say that it was worthy of the occasion and of the subject, and of the high reputation of the orator; notwithstanding it was prepared and delivered under the effects of severe indisposition. The approbation of the numerous auditory,--for every part of the church was crowded,--was manifested by reiterated bursts of applause, which neither the place nor the occasion could restrain, and which broke out, at the termination, in three distinct rounds. The exercises were concluded by a benediction by the Rev. Dr. Sprague.

The procession being again formed, moved through N. Market and State-streets to the Capitol park, where salutes and a feu de joie were fired, and the procession dismissed.

Owing to some misunderstanding, the military were not out in their usual number; though we should do injustice to such as were present, if we omitted to say that they were so in their usual soldier-like and fine appearance. Among the military corps, was the Washington Volunteer Guards, composed of the officers and privates of the 89th and 246th regiments of infantry, equipped by order of the Governor from the state arsenal, and commanded by cols. Fryer and Osborn. Their voluntary appearance was creditable to them as soldiers and as citizens.

Our respected fellow-citizens, gen. Wendell, Mr. Gregory, Mr. Ryckman, and other venerable survivors of the revolution, the companions of our illustrious countryman, formed a part of the procession.

The societies were in the line, with their appropriate banners and standards. The appearance of the butchers, mounted, with their neat white aprons, was also highly creditable. In the procession also, was a horse, richly caparisoned with military housings, led by two blacks, in Turkish costume. This appropriate addition, was the voluntary act of Mr. James Lawliss, saddler, of Washington street.

In the evening, the contrast between the Capitol, which was illuminated, in every part of it, with great brilliancy; and the studied absence of external light from the City Hall, which, except the dome, presented only a mass of dark marble; was particularly striking. The Museum, the tasteful proportions and location of which render it highly conspicuous, was also brilliantly illuminated; and from the front, above the circular colonade, was exhibited a transparency, representing the full length statue of Washington, by Chantry. The Theatre also, the dwelling-house of col. A. V. Fryer, and several dwellings in North Market-street, were illuminated, and a full length transparency of Washington, exhibited from the former.  --Albany Argus, Tuesday, February 28, 1832.

The centennial ball that night, brilliantly engineered by John Meads, proved to be even more magnificent and memorable than the birthday formalities of the daytime.

March 23. The managers of the Washington centennial ball presented John Meads with a silver pitcher ornamented with an appropriate inscription, and a silver salver having an engraved head of Washington in the centre, as a testimonial of their approbation of the refined taste and architectural skill which he evinced in decorating the City Hall on the 22d of February. The ball of that evening far surpassed any thing of that kind which had ever been witnessed in the city.  -- Joel Munsell, Annals of Albany volume 9 (Albany, 1858).
Albany Argus - February 24, 1832
via GenealogyBank

In the first volume of Herman Melville: A Half Known Life (Wiley Blackwell, 2021) John Bryant imaginatively makes Melville's uncle Peter Gansevoort the center of public attention on George Washington's 100th birthday: 

Rising on a platform above the crowd in Albany on 22 February 1832 was Herman's uncle Peter Gansevoort... In fact, Uncle Peter was not rising on the stage to praise Washington but to recall for the rowdy but suddenly solemn crowd the memory of his father. He was also there to give the city a drum. ... 

... Peter's son Peter was now donating it to Albany's Republican Artillery Company. As Herman's uncle rose to speak, the crowd roared with approval at the gift he was about to bestow....

... Still in mourning for his less distinguished father, Herman was not allowed in public to partake in the celebration that Uncle Peter conducted at the center of town... He did not hear the triumphant roar when his Uncle Peter finished the encomium to his grandfather, "the Hero of Fort Stanwix," router of the British, fighter of Indians, and emblem of the Revolution. (Herman Melville: A Half Known Life, pages 120-123).

The idea that Peter Gansevoort "conducted" the centennial celebration in the heart of Albany is a biographer's fantasy. The featured speaker on George Washington's 100th birthday was not Herman Melville's distinguished uncle but Oran G. Otis of Saratoga County who soldiered on despite his being physically ill. In real life it was State Assemblyman O. G. Otis not Uncle Peter who got appreciative "bursts of applause" in the crowded North Dutch Church. The well-received oration by Oran G. Otis was later printed as No. 306 in Documents of the Assembly of the State of New York, 55th session, Volume 4 (Albany, 1832).

Digitized versions of Volume 4 with the complete centennial speech by Oran G. Otis are accessible online courtesy of HathiTrust Digital Library


And the imposing presence of New York Governor Enos Thompson Throop "and suite" (along with militia Major General Stephen Van Rensselaer, Jr. the son and namesake of the Last Patroon and a few "venerable survivors of the revolution") must have overshadowed that of any one local politico. Individually, counsellor-at-law Peter Gansevoort performed no official role in the civic procession. 

Writing in the 1930's, Harold Atkins Larrabee accurately described the real historical setting for the address by Peter Gansevoort, whose
family pride, and that "smug and shallow optimism" against which Herman Melville was later to rebel, are best displayed in a speech at the Centennial Anniversary of the birth of George Washington in 1832. On that occasion he presented to the Albany Republican Artillery at a dinner in Foot's Fort Orange Hotel a large brass drum, captured from the British at Fort Stanwix by his father, then a colonel....
Larrabee, Harold A. “HERMAN MELVILLE’S EARLY YEARS IN ALBANY.” New York History 15, no. 2 (1934): 144–59 at 150-1.

Peter's audience was comprised of "Citizen Soldiers" from one of several militia units, this one happily assembled for dinner at Elisha Foot's Fort Orange Hotel, located at 549 South Market street.

We published yesterday the toasts of the Washington Volunteer Guards, and the Albany Republican Artillery, on the late Centennial Birthday anniversary. We designed to have said then that they were such as became the reputation of an old and patriotic republican corps, and the public spirit and love of country which animated a portion of our citizens, the bone and muscle of our militia, to volunteer an association for that occasion. The Republican Artillery, founded by a gallant officer, who fell in the late war, bravely fighting for his country—honored by the confidence of Tompkins—and retaining its republican principles and its republican spirit—was surely in its place in doing honor to the illustrious Chief of the Revolution. This elegant and well disciplined company, after performing the arduous duties allotted them by the committee of the day, in a manner highly creditable to them as soldiers, celebrated the centennial anniversary, by partaking of a dinner at the “Fort Orange Hotel;” and it is but justice to say, that Mr. Foot, the proprietor of this establishment, furnished the table not only with every thing that heart could wish but in a style corresponding with the glorious occasion. -- Albany Argus, February 29, 1832

Two different militia groups gathered for dinner afterwards, at different Albany hotels. Here "dinner" means the midday meal, usually served around 1 or 2 o'clock in the afternoon. The Washington Volunteer Guards met in the "Long Room" of Crosby's Hotel, corner of Beaver and South Pearl. Melville's uncle Peter Gansevoort attended the banquet for the Albany Republican Artillery at the Fort Orange Hotel on South Market street, opposite the steamboat landing. Not part of the civic program but more of a military and after-dinner affair, the speech he made when bestowing a British drum captured during the Battle of Oriskany and Siege of Fort Stanwix occurred in between the two main events of the centennial celebration, the morning birthday bash and evening ball. 

Albany Argus - February 28, 1832

"The proceedings and toasts of the Albany Republican Artillery, on the 22nd, together with the eloquent and pertinent address of gen. GANSEVOORT, delivered on presenting to the company a brass drum, captured by his ancestor at the seige of Fort Stanwix, and the reply of capt. IGGET, we shall take a pleasure in publishing to-morrow. The toasts, &c. of the "Washington Volunteer Guards," will also appear tomorrow."  --Albany Argus, February 28, 1832.

Peter Gansevoort's 1832 "address" remains interesting and important for Melville geeks since that same brass drum will show up in Melville's seventh book Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, barely fictionalized:

... Or how think you it would be if every time he [Pierre Glendinning] heard the band of the military company of the village, he should distinctly recognize the peculiar tap of a British kettle-drum also captured by his grandfather in fair fight, and afterwards suitably inscribed on the brass and bestowed upon the Saddle Meadows Artillery Corps?

In 1877 Melville's cousin, Uncle Peter Gansevoort's daughter Catherine (Kate) Gansevoort Lansing procured the drum for the centennial celebration of the Battle of Oriskany:

Mr. SEYMOUR exhibited the revolutionary relics. Among these was the brass snare drum, sent up from Albany by Mrs. LANSING. On the brass coat of the drum was the following inscription : 

" Presented by Peter Gansevoort, of the city of Albany, counsellor-at-law, to the Albany Republican Artillery Company, on the 22d February, 1832."

"Taken from the enemy on the 22d Aug., 1777, when the British army under Gen. St. Leger, raised the siege of Fort Stanwix, which fortress had been valiantly defended by the garrison under the command of Colonel Peter Gansevoort for 21 days."  -- The Centennial Celebrations of the State of New York (Albany, 1879) "Oriskany" page 97.

Where I wonder is the actual captured British kettle drum today? With other donated artifacts in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History? No. Re-gifted to the State of New York in 1882 on Washington's 150th birthday (as promptly and elaborately reported in the Albany Times for Wednesday Evening, February 22, 1882) the trophy-drum today would more likely be found at the New York State Museum in Albany or New York State Military Museum and Veteran's Research Center in Saratoga Springs. Henry Murray in the Hendricks House edition of Pierre only notes "photographs" of such "trophies, belonging once to General Gansevoort" (Herman's grandfather) in the Gansevoort-Lansing Collection of the New York Public Library. 

Drum Update: Found it! On display at the NYS Military Museum in Saratoga Springs:

In another post I hope to transcribe Peter's full speech to the Albany Artillery Company, with associated remarks and toasts from the account in the Argus on February 29, 1832. 

[Done, here:]

For now though, let's enjoy the stupendous Centennial Ball at the new City Hall, as described in the Albany Argus on February 28, 1832.

Albany City Hall 1832


The City Hall, on the evening of the 22d., was the scene of the most splendid and magnificent fΓͺte we may venture to say, ever got up in this city, if not in this country. Indeed we have the assurance of several foreign gentlemen who were present, that it has not been surpassed by the more brilliant of the modern pageants in other countries.

The spacious apartments of this vast structure were all thrown open to the festivities of the evening, and thronged with the elite of beauty and fashion. The areas of the second and third floors in the rotunda,--the centre of the building and the centre of attraction,--was devoted to the more immediate business of the occasion, the suites of rooms communicating with it, being used as subordinate. The Common Council chamber and Mayor's court room on the north, served as withdrawing rooms, furnished with sophas, ottomans, candelabras and every convenience for relaxation from the fatigue of the dance. The county court room on the opposite side, was converted into a grand saloon--stretching from one end of the building to the other, and answered the double purpose of a promenade and withdrawing room. On the next floor above were similar suites of rooms opening on the rotunda--the spacious hall on the north, at present occupied by the Academy of Arts,--furnished the managers with abundant space to accommodate their numerous guests at the collation: here also were withdrawing rooms and the green room of the managers.-- The Mayor's and Recorder's room on the basement floor, and that of the Supervisors, served as attiring rooms: the area on the basement was brilliantly lighted and served as a place of concourse for the officers in attendance. 

Nothing could have been more appropriately conceived than the device occupying the arched window, looking down the grand staircase leading from the basement to the principal floor or rotunda. It was the key to the pageant--representing in the centre, a finely wrought column, surmounted by a bust of the "Father of his country"--the trophies of peace and war in either of the subordinate compartments--the plinth inscribed with the name of "Washington," within a laurel wreath, and over the whole was emblazoned the memorable words in which the ardent admiration of Lord Chatham found utterance,--"Clarum et venerabile nomen"! This device arrested attention by the dazzling concentration of light which was brought to bear upon it from innumerable variegated lights, upon the paling of the staircase and on the arch of the window above.-- These last were of a deep purple color, which combined with the yellow light of the lamps to give to the bust an unearthly look, not unaptly representing the apotheosis of the dead.

 A full blaze of light, which threw no shadow, gleamed from a thousand dazzling lamps, and pervaded every part of the rotunda--above, below and out into the withdrawing rooms. Opposite the staircase a powerful and well disciplined band occupied a temporary orchestra, erected in the space at the end of the vista formed by the colonade which enfilades the rotunda from east to west,--and supports the circular gallery on the third floor, opening through a similar gallery above, to the dome in the centre of the hall. The orchestra bore emblazoned on its front the arms of the city; with its supporters on either side, nearly the size of life, overshadowed by the wide-spread wings of our American eagle.--The windows at that end of the rotunda were tastefully decorated, as were also the large mirrors on each side, with civic and military standards arranged saltirewise, after the military fashion, many of them associated honorably with the battle strife of the revolution. The beautifully wrought columns, entwined with a wreath of evergreen, on a scarlet ground, from the scientific and violent contrast of the two colours, were the simplest as well as the most striking and effective of the decorations. Above the doors opening on the rotunda, and in every niche where a bust could be seen to advantage, were placed some of the rarest specimens of antique and modern statuary; the Apollo Belvidere--the Venus de Medicis and the Venus of Canova--Laocoon--Adonis, &c. &c. In the same classical taste were the designs in arabesque which decorated the pannels on the circular galleries and over the entrances into the rotunda on the third floor. The spirited and effective execution of these designs was beyond all praise, as was also the gorgeous coloring of the figures on the floor. Both areas of the rotunda were laid out into magic circles and figures of various kinds, wrought in water colors, and corresponding in size and shape with the different architectural subdivisions of the floor, forming in appearance, over the whole, a rich and beautifully variegated carpeting of the most brilliant dyes. For the skill and science with which these different colours were contrasted and brought out with such effect in the strong light of so many  lamps, and for the arabesques, we are indebted to Mr. Haake, a foreigner, who with the name has also adopted the feelings of an American, and for the general design and arrangement of the decorations, to Mr. John Meads, under the active superintendence of the managers.

The main point of attraction remains yet to be noticed. In the very apex of the dome, was suspended a transparency, sufficiently large to conceal the sky-light, and, in its decorations, the counterpart of the figure on the floor below, hung round with variegated lights that twinkled like stars in the mimic firmament. The subdued light thrown upon the immense vault by this simple device, gave to the whole an effect of distance which was quite magical; an effect which was enhanced by the surpassing brilliancy and vivid distinctness of the triple row of variegated lights on the paling of the circular galleries, set off as they were, by the gorgeous array of parti-coloured stuffs. The grandeur and magnificence of the effect, compared with the simplicity of the conception, were the subject of general remark.

Of the collation prepared under the direction of Mr. Drake, of the American, it is sufficient to say that ample justice was done to the viands on the spot. The tables were loaded with an elegant profusion of every delicacy of the season, faultlessly arranged and served up in the best manner.

 The dancing was prolonged far into the night, and the company separated with a reluctance which spoke with approbation of the exertions of the managers and all concerned in the direction of the festivities. 

Last evening, the decorations being permitted to remain entire, and the whole interior of the Hall being again lighted up, a vast concourse of citizens, thronged the rooms from 6 until 9 o'clock. From eight to ten thousand persons were attracted thither in the course of the evening. -- Albany Argus, February 28, 1832.

George Washington
by James Thomson after Sir Francis Leggatt Chantrey NPG D37877
© National Portrait Gallery, London 
Related posts:
  • Drum update

No comments:

Post a Comment