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This month we are digging into the story of Colonel William Jay and his trusted horse ‘Old Fred.’ William and Fred survived numerous harrowing battles together during the American Civil War. On the property at John Jay Homestead is a gravestone that William had made for Fred that provides us with a written record of many battles they during their service. Among them were the famous battles of Gettysburg and Appomattox.

William Jay, born in 1841, was the only son of John Jay II and Eleanor Field Jay. He and his sisters spent their winters in the family’s New York City home, and their summers playing and riding horses here in Bedford.  Like previous Jay generations, William became a lawyer after graduating from Columbia University in 1859. He abruptly put career plans on pause when he enlisted in the Union Army and went on to serve. William Jay II’s military service started in the Spring of 1861; he was originally assigned to General John E. Wool as his Senior Aide-de-Camp, but was promoted to Captain by President Abraham Lincoln only a few months later. Initially William did not see any real battle action at all. Instead, he mostly rode horses and ate what he described as lavish meals with General Wool and other ranking officers, read letters addressed to other soldiers, and escorted dignitaries through battle lines. With all the down time, he was able to write letters to multiple members of his family back home on an almost daily basis. He also had some of the comforts of home along with him. He was sent with several bottles of wine, cigars, a servant from home, and his trusted horse Old Fred to accompany him. You might think that this quiet service away from the dangers and horror of battle would have been a great relief for William, but his sense of patriotism made him crave the perceived glory of victory for his country.

At first, he was rather bored with military life, writing to one family member about Fort Monroe, “It was the most monotonous place I was ever in and I miss home very much. It is really quite doleful to sit all day reading Army regulations or some such other equally lively work waiting for the general to tell me to do something… this place was the dullest hole I was ever in… we constantly hope for an attack or something to cheer us.” Being only twenty at the time, William’s desire for combat and ardent patriotism can probably be attributed to a youthful idealism about his country. An idealism that often caused him to have an indifferent attitude about those that did not seek action in the war as much as he did. In one letter to his sister, he wrote about the execution of a group of five men who deserted the Union Army as though it were a good thing, saying “It’s effect on most men is salutary.”

In the hopes of seeing more combat, William wrote to his father asking for his influence and help in getting him a position closer to the action. However, it appears that John Jay II tried to do the opposite. William’s family wanted him to come home as soon as the war began to intensify, even imploring him to resign, but he refused, often telling his family the only reason he would abandon the war effort was if he were injured in combat. His attitude is perfectly demonstrated in a letter to his father, “Indeed it strikes me that the reasons for my remaining in the service are far stronger than they were for my entering it in the beginning.” While all this was going on, William was also concerned and involved with the planning for his sister Mary’s wedding to William H. Scheiffelin. He wrote to his sister in July 1863, that he would request leave to make it home for her wedding but writes, “… if I do not get home for that or if I never get home again my prayers for your happiness and for that of your betrothed husband will be not the less earnest and sincere.” Unfortunately, William was not able to attend the wedding as his request was denied due to impending military action.

During his service, William was present for some of the Civil War’s major battles. The letter to his sister Mary was about two months after William fought at the Battle of Chancellorsville under General George Meade. One of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, Chancellorsville lasted for six days and resulted in about 30,000 casualties between the two sides, the most notable of which was Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Despite the Union defeat, William and his horse Fred survived the battle and rode on to fight in the Battle of Gettysburg about a month after Chancellorsville. The Battle of Gettysburg was the deadliest of the war with over 60,000 casualties on both sides. This time however, General Meade’s Union forces defeated the armies of General Robert E. Lee and successfully caused his retreat. William and Fred continued on with General Meade and assisted with the military campaign that resulted in Lee’s surrender at the Appomattox courthouse on April 9, 1865. Throughout his career, William continued to rise in military rank; in 1864, he was commissioned a major by President Lincoln for his conduct in the field. In 1865, right before he resigned from the military, he was again promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel by President Andrew Johnson, earning the moniker “the Colonel.”

After the war, William was able to make a relatively smooth transition back into civilian life, following in his father’s footsteps by passing the bar and becoming an attorney in 1869. He brought Fred back here to live out his days on Bedford Farm. When Fred died at the age of 28, William decided to honor him with a headstone here on the property.