Cortland County's 'Honest Ghost'
Product of Civil War
By Richard Palmer

This is a tale of an "honest ghost" who rose again and again to plague the Cortland County Board of Supervisors over a period of 10 years and a series of court actions to recover money paid by the town of Solon for the " purchase" of 13 Blacks in the south to fill its Civil War draft quota.

They had enlisted at Newbern, N.C., through the efforts of Judge A.P. Smith for Cortland county at large, but as all quotas for the county were filled, except for Solon, the county War Committee "sold" them to that town.

"The purchase was real," reported the Cortland Democrat of May 6, 1870, "the soldiers were of flesh and blood, 'gentlemen of African descent,' not of paper but actually in the field and enlisted for three years," except two; one of these for one year and the other for two years."

Solon became entitled by the state bounty law passed in February, 1865, to reimbursement of about $6,000 for "excess of one year services" credited to her quota on the draft call of Dec. 19, 1864.

The $6,000 reimbursement was drawn from the state bounty fund by the county War Committee and distributed to all Cortland county towns except Solon which had raised money through a special tax to "buy" her soldiers. After five long years Solon had yet to see any of the money rightfully due her and all other methods failing, she brought suit against other towns for recovery.

The Board of Supervisors were repeatedly asked during the five years to force the other towns to pay Solon her bounty money. The supervisors always refused, yet never claimed but what the money belonged to Solon, but relied on the questions: "Can Solon get it legally out of our hands? Is there any law by which it can be wrested from us?"

The entire problem was caused by faulty bookkeeping in the office of the Provost Marshal in Syracuse where the 13 soldiers were entered to the credit of the entire county. No correction was made after Solon "bought" them.

A suit of Solon against the town of Homer was brought to trial and the judge directed the jury to find a verdict for Solon for $707.85. In a subsequent suit against Cortlandville in 1871, the judge told the attorney for the Board of Supervisors:

"Why do not the supervisors pay over the money? There will be no peace in this community until this claim is settled. You might as well try to turn the waters of the Tioughnioga River from its course up over these hills, as to trample down justice. Try to put it down and the more times it will rise, like the ghost of Banquo. You may strangle and suppress it for a time but it will come up again for it is an honest ghost."

Solon had a difficult time showing that the other towns had received the bounty money. It had been paid to the county War Committee and this body had paid it over to the board of supervisors. The claims of Solon against 10 of her sister towns were $450 each and against Lapeer $200, or a total of $5,000, plus interest from Nov. 24, 1865. Lapeer was paid for a "one-year man."

In 11 separate actions in New York State Supreme Court, two of them reaching the Court of Appeals, full judgment was finally rendered in favor of the wronged town. Costs and judgments totaled $15,271.73 before the cases were settled. Horatio Ballard was attorney for the plaintiff in all cases and received $855 for his services. Colonel Calvin L. Hatheway of Solon later said:

"The triumph of Solon is essentially owing to the perseverance of Attorney Ballard in preparing the actions for trial, paying the expenses of journeys to procure testimony, his heavy expense for attendance of witnesses at the several circuits and his devotion of his time on the trials."

I don't know really what happened to these black troops. By that time the 76th was about finished so they may have gone into the "fill-in" unit, the 185th Infantry, which was largely draftees and conscripts. This all occurred after Smith three or four years after Smith was out of the unit, but he and some others were involved in the county War Committee and went south to recruit the Blacks.

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- Last Updated January 24, 1999