Yankee Doodle “Dandies”: Silk Stocking Regiments

MilitaryHistoryThe Upper East Side is one of the most affluent neighborhoods in New York City and once referred to as the “Silk Stocking District”.  Within its boundaries lies some of the most expensive real estate in the country, home to some of the wealthiest people in the world.  Through the years the area has been home to Rockefellers, Roosevelts, Kennedys and Astors, just to name a few prominent families.

During the Civil War, the Confederate cause was often referred to as a “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight” since certain men of wealth and stature could pay someone to fight in their stead.  After the Enrollment Act was passed in Congress in 1863, that term applied throughout the North as well since the new law provided two ways to avoid the draft: substitution or commutation.

A commutation fee of three hundred dollars could be paid when one’s number came up in the draft lottery, although it was not a blanket exemption if one’s number came up in a future lottery.  Hiring a substitute might cost upwards of one thousand dollars, a sum most common laborers and farmers could not afford.  As members of privileged families, the young men of New York’s “Silk Stocking District” could have opted out of service altogether.

The Seventh Regiment of the New York Militia was often referred to as the “Silk Stocking Regiment” because many of the city’s elite accepted President Lincoln’s call to arms on April 19, 1861.  However, it wasn’t the first time the term was used.  During the Revolutionary War, Colonel Langdon’s Newport Light Infantry was often called the “Silk-Stockings”, composed of wealthy citizens who were commissioned officers in their local militias.

The New York Seventh was originally organized in companies (A-D) in the early nineteenth century to fend off British attacks on American vessels.  Until 1843 this local militia furnished its own weapons, but that year the state began furnishing weaponry and on July 27 changed the name to the Seventh Regiment.  From its founding to the call to arms in 1861, the militia had served both actively and in reserve, for instance in the case of riots.

During the Civil War the regiment was mustered in and out several times.  The regiment, known for its military efficiency, was mustered out for the last time on July 21, 1863.  The militia continued to serve the state in the ensuing years.

When the United States was swept into World War I, the Seventh, referred to as one of New York’s “Pet” regiments by the Journal News of Hamilton Ohio (20 Sep 1917), “marched down Fifth Avenue toward France between vocal walls of cheering friends.”  The “dandy Seventh” was commanded by Colonel Willard G. Fisk.

It was a rousing send-off for the 107th Infantry Regiment (the Seventh had been renamed) as the dense crowds that had gathered marched right along with the troops and sent their troops off with Auld Lang Syne.  The 107th was combined with the 108th and assigned to the 54th Brigade of the 27th Division which participated in the successful Somme Offensive, an attempt to overwhelm Germany’s Hindenburg defensive line.  By March 19, 1919 the entire division had returned home and was soon mustered out.  The 107th sustained almost two thousand casualties: 1,383 wounded, 437 killed and 98 later died of wounds.

The New York Seventh (107th) wasn’t the only militia called a “silk stocking regiment”.  The term appears to have at times been used pejoratively, as in the case of the First Regiment of Illinois’ National Guard.  On July 17, 1892 the Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago) reported the goings-on of the regiment’s annual outing at Camp Lincoln, described as one of the most beautiful places in the state.  Sporting a fine swimming pool and supplied with city water, it seemed to be more of a vacation spot, although reportedly the gentlemen soldiers had been hard at work that week.

Chicago_FirstRegThe accompanying cartoon-like depictions of the soldiers might have been meant to poke fun at this unit comprised of some of the most wealthy and esteemed citizenry of Illinois, but the regiment, well aware of such criticism and mockery, took it in stride.  The same could be said of the New York Seventh.  In 1922 they held a mock review, the motive given as “army discipline as it never was – and yet as some would have it.”

Harrisburg_Telegraph_Wed__Apr_26__1922_In 1936 the Kingsport Times (Tennessee) poked fun at New York’s National Guard, whose camp had been invaded by a skunk:

There’s a skunk in the New York national guard – in the very swank silk stocking regiment, at that.  The soldiers, encamped [t]here, thought at first the creature was a cat; but last night a soldier who knows a skunk when he sees one, announced with finality: “Boys, it’s a skunk.”  Came the problem of what to do about it.  The chief defense of a skunk,” one officer said, “is a strong offense.”  Col. Ralph C. Tobin, equalled to the emergency, ordered: “Feed the creature properly and he won’t bother us.”  That is why the skunk had filet mignon and strawberry shortcake for dinner tonight.  The silk stocking seventh regiment is taking no chances.

Despite the criticism and ribbing endured over the years, the “dandies” of New York’s Seventh Regiment served proudly and honorably.  The Seventh Regiment Armory, built in 1880 and now called the Park Avenue Armory (643 Park Avenue) is included on the United States National Register of Historic Places and also designated a United States Historic Landmark.

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2015.

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