Troy’s Oakwood Cemetery: Burial Place of Uncle Sam

Photography and text by George Cassidy Payne

While getting lost trying to find the Herman Melville house in Troy, NY, my father and I stumbled upon a cemetery that I had read about but had no intentions of visiting prior to my trip. Boy am I glad that we got lost!

Surrounded by dense foliage and rolling lawns, Oakwood Cemetery is one of America’s largest rural cemeteries. In addition to its beautiful natural landscapes, Oakwood is the final resting place of many of the area’s most prominent citizens, including “Uncle Sam” Wilson, progenitor of the famous Uncle Sam icon, Emma Williard, a pioneer of the women’s rights movement, Russell Sage, the railroad executive and partner of Jay Gould, and Civil War medal of honor recipient William Henry Freeman.

But the real jewel of the cemetery is the Earl Memorial and Chapel, which is arguably the most architecturally and technologically sophisticated of the nation’s early public crematoria. Trust me, it’s well worth a stopover if you are anywhere near the Capital District. Not only is the stone masonry a superb example of the Romanesque style, it boasts extraordinary views of the Hudson River Valley.

Uncle Sam (initials U.S.) is a common national personification of the American government or the United States in general that, according to legend, came into use during the War of 1812 and was supposedly named for Troy resident Samuel Wilson.

The Jewel of Oakwood, and a National Historic Landmark “A stunning example of Romanesque architecture, the Gardner Earl Memorial Chapel is Oakwood Cemetery’s most significant structure, providing an elegant setting for memorial services, weddings and special events. Opened in 1890, this gorgeous edifice celebrates the Victorian notion of grandeur in death—and offers a window onto the unthinkable affluence of a select few.The chapel’s namesake, Gardner Earl, was the son of a fabulously wealthy Troy shirt-collar maker who died young and left a bequest that he be cremated. Cremation as a form of final disposition was then nearly unknown in the United States, though it was popular in Europe, where Earl had learned of it during his travels.After taking their son’s body to Buffalo to be cremated, the Earls decided to build the historic chapel and crematorium, sparing no expense. They gave Albert Fuller, a well known Albany architect, a free hand to design the chapel. They asked him to make the building the most modern, artistically beautiful and enduringly strong crematory in the world. The building’s exterior is faced with pink-tinted Westerly granite. A loggia of three massive arches connects the chapel with its towers, from which one can view a magnificent 100-mile view of the Hudson River Valley. The sumptuous interior, virtually unchanged in its 120 years, features eight Tiffany stained-glass windows. Marble mosaics in delicate tints adorn the floor and altars. Wainscoting is crafted of pink African marble. The ceilings and pews are all hand-carved quarter-sawn oak. In the reception room, there are two breathtaking Maitland Armstrong stained glass windows. The walls are covered with Siena marble from Italy, and the lower walls covered in marble mosaics. Columns are cut from green Brazilian onyx. The Earl Chapel and Crematorium has been designated a National Historic Landmark, and is listed in its own right on the National Register of Historic Places.” http://oakwoodcemetery.org/wordpress/index.php/the-gardner-earl-chapel/

Oakwood is one of New York State’s most distinguished and well-preserved 19th century rural cemeteries.

Established in 1848, Oakwood is a pinnacle achievement in the rural cemetery movement.

14 members of the House of Representatives are buried here

“Freeman was employed as a brass molder before enlisting in Company B of the 169th NY Volunteer Infantry (known as “The Second Troy Regiment”) in early 1863. Among other campaigns, that regiment participated in the 1864 operations against Fort Fisher, NC, which was an immense sand fortification that guarded the inlet to Wilmington, NC, the last major open Confederate port on the Atlantic coast. At the final attack on that fortress on January 15, 1865, Alonzo Alden, the Colonel of the 169th NY was acting as commander of the brigade that was attacking the land wall of the fort. After the bearer of Alden’s personal flag was shot down, Private Freeman threw down his weapon and carried the brigadier’s flag through the remainder of the battle, making himself a prominent target.Returning to Troy after his discharge, Freeman resumed his career as a molder, and was later employed as a janitor in the Post Office. On May 27, 1905, more than 40 years after the fact, Private William Freeman was awarded a Medal of Honor for his service at Fort Fisher. The official citation reads “Volunteered to carry the brigade flag after the bearer was wounded.”https://oakwoodcemetery.org/wordpress/index.php/william-h-freeman/

The cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.

Tiffany glass

“Many historically important sculptors are represented on the grounds of Oakwood. Robert E. Launitz, creator of the memorial urn for A.J. Downing on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., sculpted the memorial for Major General George H. Thomas. William Henry Rinehart‘s final work, a life-size sculpture of Julia Taylor Paine, resides in Oakwood. J. Massey Rhind, known for his statue of Crawford W. Long in the National Statuary Hall Collection is the artist behind the Robert Ross Monument.One of the most significant monuments is that to Major General John E. Wool. The 75.5-foot (23.0 m) monolithic obelisk which was a technological marvel in its day is constructed from granite quarried and shaped by the Bodwell Granite Company, and at 650 tons was believed to be the largest shaft quarried in the United States up to that time.”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oakwood_Cemetery_(Troy,_New_York)

View shed from the top of Oakwood Cemetery “The Troy Cemetery Association claims that the view offers the “most concentrated and complete overview of American history anywhere in America”. It shows evidence of paleolithic rocks, Native Americans, the Dutch, the British, the French and Indian Wars, the American Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and the “Way West” movement resulting in the creation of the Erie Canal. “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oakwood_Cemetery_(Troy,_New_York)

“On March 6, 1894 during an election riot between pollwatchers and operatives of the local Democratic political ward boss who were engaged in repeat voting, a young poll watcher, Robert Ross, was shot and killed. His brother, William, was also shot but survived.Bartholomew Shea and John McGough were at the polling booth of the third district of the Thirteenth Ward. William and Robert Ross were present as poll watchers. “The row started when one of the Shea gang sought to vote upon another citizen’s name and in a twinkling clubs and revolvers were flourished. Many shots were fired and when the fight closed it was found that Robert Ross had been fatally shot, that his brother, William, [sic] received a bullet in the neck and that Shea and McGough, who fled from the scene, had each been slightly wounded.” Shea and McGough were caught and arrested, at which time McGough initially claimed he had fired the shot that killed Ross, but later apparently withdrew this claim, only to repeat the claim years later, after Shea’s execution in 1896.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Robert_Ross

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