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Uniforms & History

On the eve of the Civil War, the New York State Militia was beginning to reach an unparalleled degree of regimentation, drill and equipage. State authorities had sensed, to some extent, that the national unrest over slavery could cause hostilities. But their main motivation appears to have been a desire to make New York’s citizen soldiers more professional. The effort encountered much resistance, which had been in process since an 1847 reorganization that eliminated the common militia, and consolidated many formerly independent companies into new regiments.

The 1st Regiment converted from horse artillery to cavalry in that reorganization, and, by 1860, seemed to have successfully made the transition. Brigade Inspector Henry Smith wrote of the 1st in December 1860, “This regiment, since the adoption of a regimental uniform, has materially improved in soldierlike appearance, and too much praise cannot be awarded Lieutenant Colonel [Thomas C.] Devin, who has been in command for upwards of a year, for the care and painstaking which he has displayed in the drill of his regiment.” The accompanying albumen photograph of a lithograph still shows the raucous nature of the pre-Civil War citizen soldiery, despite Devin’s efforts—spilled beer and pet dog included.

The lithograph, signed “E. Meltzer, 1860,” incorporates facial photographs of members of the regiment in their distinctive uniform. None in the portrait are identified. Lithographers had begun using photo portraits in the 1840s as soon as they were available, and the style continued well after the Civil War. Although the photograph is sepia toned, we can speculate that the uniform coats and caps are dark blue with sky blue trousers and, as New York regulations specified for cavalry, with orange trim.

The 1st Regiment (Cavalry), New York State Militia, 1860, is the subject of this unusual albumen photograph of a lithograph. Author's collection. 

The 1st Regiment (Cavalry), New York State Militia, 1860, is the subject of this unusual albumen photograph of a lithograph. Author’s collection. 

With the outbreak of war the federal government reluctantly accepted volunteer cavalry. But it did accept a company amalgamated from the 1st for three months service. Devin, acting as captain of the company, saw it mustered in at Washington, D.C., on July 3, 1861. The company mustered out in New York City on Oct. 23, 1861, without seeing combat. Devin became colonel of the 6th New York Cavalry in November 1861. By war’s end, he had been promoted to brigadier and major general. Two other officers of the 1st saw service as volunteer majors: Dennis Minton of the 37th New York Infantry and Augustus Green of the 13th New York Cavalry. The 1st continued in the militia system until it disbanded in 1872.

MI Senior Editor and Advisory Board member Michael J. McAfee is a curator at the West Point Museum at the United States Military Academy, and author of numerous books. He has curated major museum exhibitions, and has contributed images and authoritative knowledge to other volumes and projects.

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