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News From The Past

The Observer
Clayton, NY

April 23, 1908

Civil War Hero Joseph Lonsway recounts his story


Joseph Lonsway is one of Clayton's best known and respected residents, who as a private soldier during the Civil War performed an act of dare devil bravery of which there are but few instances of its equal on record, and for which he was complimented and offered a commission by his superior officers, besides having a medal bestowed on him by officials of the war Department at Washington, which immediately either through accident or design disappeared while in transmission and never since has been located.

For a year or more I have been trying to induce Joe to give an account of and allow me to write his story in which all during the past forty five years has not to my knowledge appeared in print; and after much urging and with reminders that his children and grandchildren ought to have to preserve as family record an account of his valorous deeds, he consented a few days ago to allow it to be published and invited me to his home, which by the way is to one of the neatest and best kept up in the village, where he related to me the following account which I give in his own words:

"Iin October, 1863, I was nineteen years of age, and I ran away and enlisted as a member of Company D that was commanded by Captain W. F. Ford, of Lafargeville, and that became part of the 20th N.Y. cavalry regiment commanded by Colonel Lord that was one of nine regiments under Brigadier General Getty.

"In the month of June, 1864, the Confederates succeeded in stampeding and capturing a drove of five hundred beef cattle that were for the use of the army and that were being driven towards the army examined stone encampment at City Point, Virginia.

Captain Ford, with companies K and D, the latter of which I was a member, was ordered to make a search and if possible to recapture the stolen cattle.  Just at daybreak on the morning of the 4th of July, we rode off by the Blackwater River.  There had been a force of Confederates stationed there for some time for the purpose of robbing the planters of the surrounding country of their produce for supplies for their army, but on our appearance they retreated and took their stand in a piece of woods with thick underbrush a few rods back from the water.

 We burned the buildings.  There was a freight train loaded with corn, bacon and other stores, standing on the track.  There was no one of us that knew anything about railroading but Jack Jenkins, of Clayton, had had some experience in running steamboat engines on the St. Lawrence, and he said he would try it.  He picked out several men for brakeman and firemen, and turned on steam, and they were off.  It was a quarter of a mile to the river bank, and as the train neared there it was discovered that the retreating Confederates had set the bridge on fire and it was nearly consumed.  Jack and his crew jumped off and the train plunged into the river.

There was a big flat scow with ropes fastened to each bank to pull it back and forth as a ferry, but the Confederates had tied it to the bank on their side.  Captain Ford called for volunteers to swim across and cut the rope. Mel Burton of Omar, Westel Parish of Clayton and several others started, but the bullets drove them back.  Then I said I would try, and to Captain Ford said, " Joe, I want that scow very much, but I hate to have you go, for the chances are a hundred to one you'll be killed." I stripped off my clothes and said to Jack: "if I don't come back you write to the old folks at home and tell them."

"I ran down the bank and plunged in.  I kept all of my body except nose and eyes under water and  swam on my back with head toward the enemy, with bullets thick as to raindrops chugging into the water all around me I reached the scow and climbed up on it and cut the ropes.  I was under the bank then where the Confederate bullets could not reach me, but one of their men crept through the brush on hands and knees and was just ready to pull the trigger on me when one of our men, I won't tell who, for he lives here in Clayton now and don't want it known that he killed a man, sent a bullet through the fellow's head and laid him out.

"We crossed on the scow, then took up our search for the cattle.  I had become separated from the rest and was riding alone along a country road when I heard a voice in the woods near by call out "whay"as if driving cattle and I rode in that direction to find a herd of our cattle, two hundred and seventy-five in all, with a couple of unarmed old men guarding them.  They showed fight at first, but I gave them each several good slaps with the flat of my sword, then rode around the cattle until I got them bunched together and started towards our lines.

"A few days later I was ordered to report to the headquarters of Gen Getty, who after some inquiries ordered me to report to General Ben Butler at City Point; and with Jack Jenkins as my body guard I appeared there. Gen. Butler complimented me and offered me a commission which for the reason I would not go to school and get an education when I was young I was obliged to decline.

"Shortly afterward, I was notified that a beautiful bronze medal by order of  the war department officials in Washington would be sent to me. It came and several of my comrades saw it, but it was not numbered rightly and I had it returned by the provost marshal to be corrected and I never saw it afterward.

"Well, I am an old man now, up toward seventy, but I have a good home and a
pension. We had some hard times in the army, and lots of excitement, and some fun by spells, but if I was a young fellow again, and there was war going on, you can bet I would be there."


From: "On the St. Lawrence"

 Article Contributed by Mr. Lonsway's great-great grandson Robert. 

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