Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Regiment of New York Frenchmen at Tenleytown

On January 8, 1862 President and Mrs. Lincoln attended a celebration hosted by the 55th New York Infantry at Tennalytown, D.C. to mark their receipt of a new regimental flag.  Newspaper reports from the winter of 1861-62 are full of stories about various regiments being presented with regimental flags in events attended by prominent home state politicians.  What made this particular  flag presentation unique was that the regiment was comprised heavily of French-born New Yorkers who had answered their adopted homeland's call for volunteers.  The flag presentation ceremony was scheduled for January 8th to coincide with the anniversary of the battle of New Orleans, a battle in which French Creoles had fought with Americans against the British.  This at a time when Washington was stridently trying to ensure that England and France did not intervene in the war on the Confederacy's behalf.  Besides, this regiment also knew how to dine.

Photograph of the camp of the 55th New York Infantry, near Tennallytown, D.C.  At the time, the regiment was part of General Peck's Division. Civil War era records often spell the area as "Tennallytown."   (Library of Congress)

The 55th New York had its roots in a state militia unit affectionately known as "Guard Lafayette," due to its large number of French emigres.  The regiment was organized and led by Colonel Baron Phillipe Regis de Trobirand, a French aristocrat who emigrated to the U.S. in 1841.  After initial training on Staten Island, the regiment departed southward, arriving in Washington in the fall of 1861.  It was soon assigned to garrison duty in the Defenses of Washington.  The unit was posted to Fort Gaines on what is now the campus of American University.  Today there are no extant remains of the fort which was approximately where AU's Katzen Arts Center now stands.  Constructed in the fall of 1861, the fort was armed with five 32-pounder seacoast guns and a single 4.5 inch rifled cannon.

Fort Gaines is shown on a Civil War era map of the Defenses of Washington that has been georectified over a modern commercial map.  The fort was located adjacent to what is now Ward Circle on the American University Campus in Tenleytown.  The NY 55th's commander described his unit's campground there as "hilly, uneven, with abrupt slopes."

Historian James Johnston writes that "the exotic-looking regiment marched out of the city to its band playing the French March, to its men singing the “Marseillaise” and the “Chant des Girondins,” and to the likely bewilderment and bemusement of Washingtonians."  In addition to its French Algerian-style Zouave uniforms, the regiment was also noted for exquisite French cuisine.   

 President Lincoln is said to have pronounced his dinner with the 55th as "the best meal he had had in Washington.  Other accounts quote the president as stating to the 55th that "if you fight as well as you treat your guests, victory is assured to us." Colonel de Trobriand recounted the banquet in a letter home:  "It was the pride of the regiment to serve nothing which had not been prepared by its culinary artists.  The triumph of the latter was complete but costly, in the sense that the cooks, having given too good proof of talent, were very soon carried off by the Generals, who had them detailed to their quarters.  I thus lot a half-dozen fighting men, whom the fires of the kitchen saved from the fire of the enemy."

This flag consisting of the French tricolor with embroidered "Gardes N.Y., 55" within a circular wreath, and "LAFAYETTE S.M." was presented to the 55th New York in a ceremony attended by President and Mrs. Lincoln at Camp Tennalytown on January 8, 1862.  Some of the men of the 55th had previous war experience, having served in French military campaigns including Algeria, the Crimean War and Italy. (New York State Military Museum)

Within a few months, the 55th would break camp in Tennallytown and board transports bound for the Peninsula.  There, the regiment participated in its first engagement during  the Battle of Williamsburg on May 5, 1862. The regiment and its commander would distinguish themselves in the Army of the Potomac's campaigns.  Shortly after the war ended, Trobriand published his war memoirs in French noting, "I relate them, not as a Frenchman who has taken part in a foreign war, but as an American who has fought for the country of his adoption and for the institutions of his choice."

Photograph of Regis de Trobriand after he had been promoted to the rank of Brigadier General (Library of Congress)


Cooling, Benjamin Franklin III and Walton H. Owen II. Mr. Lincoln's Forts:  A Guide to the Civil War Defenses of Washington.  Lanham, MD:  Scarecrow Press, 2010.
Johnston, James H.  "Lincoln's French Toast," The New York Times, Opinionator, Disunion, January 7, 2012.
Washington Evening Star, January 9, 1862.
Post, Marie Caroline.  The Life and memoirs of Comte Regis de Trobirand, Major-General in the Army of the United States.  E.P. Dutton & Company, 1910.

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