Wednesday, November 30, 2016

New York State History Month: Silas Arnold’s War of 1812 Musket

Silas Arnold’s musket on the right
As I was planning my blog posts for New York State History Month, I wanted to make sure that I covered a range of time periods and experiences with the three items I chose. Ending with the musket used in the War of 1812 by Silas Arnold of Keeseville seemed like the perfect conclusion. We’d have items worn overseas during World War I (Loren Bundy’s uniform) and items collected in Washington, D.C. and Virginia during the Civil War (Charles Moore’s photographs), and then finally an item used right here in Clinton County during the Battle of Plattsburgh: an 1804 Springfield Model 1795 flintlock musket with bayonet.

However, when I began to research the history of the musket, I found that things were not quite what they seemed. First, I wanted to know more about Silas Arnold himself. A quick search revealed that Arnold was born on May 4, 1801, which would have made him just thirteen years old at the time of the Battle of Plattsburgh on September 11, 1814. Of course, boys in their teens did participate in the battle—the students from Plattsburgh Academy who formed Aikin’s Rifle Company or Aikin’s Volunteers. But there’s no indication that Silas Arnold was part of this group; he was not one of the seventeen young men presented a rifle by the U.S. House of Representatives in 1826.

Engraved plate from rifle presented to Martin Ai(t)kin
The second thing I learned about Silas Arnold that made me question his participation in the Battle of Plattsburgh was his Quaker background. It isn’t entirely clear whether the Arnold family were formal members of the Society of Friends, but Silas’s parents, Elisha and Mary Arnold, were buried in the Quaker Union cemetery in Peru. Silas’s obituary notes that he had “inherit[ed] to a large degree some of the best of the principles of the Friends, among whom he was born, and his early years passed.” Pacifism is a key element of Quaker belief, and neither Elisha nor Silas Arnold are listed among the men of Peru who served in battle, as recorded in the History of Clinton and Franklin Counties

Silas Arnold House, Main Street, Keeseville
Perhaps the strongest evidence against Silas Arnold having fought in the Battle of Plattsburgh is that his obituaries do not mention it. When he died in January 1879, both the Essex County Republican and the Plattsburgh Republican published lengthy accounts of Arnold’s life, which seems to have been pleasantly uneventful. Of his early years, the Essex County Republican said only that he “passed his boyhood and youth upon the farm, and engaged in the business pursuits of his father.” Elisha Arnold had discovered a bed of iron ore on a tract of land between Peru and Schuyler Falls, the income from which gave Silas a comfortable start in life. In 1840, he moved to Keeseville with his wife, Gulielma (daughter of Richard Keese, another early Quaker settler), son Elias, and daughter Mary Anna. Here he continued in business and became president of the Essex County Bank and a trustee of the Keeseville Academy. He purchased a home that had been built around 1820 by Dr. Caleb Barton and had it remodeled in the fashionable Greek Revival style by local architects Seneca and Isaac Perry. 

According to the Plattsburgh Republican,He was a genial and kindly man, and had a vast deal of quiet humor.... He possessed a singularly even temperament, and though resolute, his voice was never raised in anger nor his pulse quickened by excitement.” In his later years, his greatest pleasure was to spend time in the Adirondacks, camping and fishing on Saranac Lake. His life was not without trouble—his beloved daughter Mary Anna died in 1862 at the age of 29, shortly after her marriage to Winslow C. Watson, Jr., and he lost his wife in 1875. The picture of Silas Arnold that emerges from these accounts that of a devoted husband and father, a respected and prosperous citizen—but not a soldier.

A. G. Fletcher’s notes regarding his donation
So where did this story originate? It seems to have started with the person who donated the musket to Alice T. Miner: A. G. Fletcher of Keeseville. A note in the museum’s files, written by Fletcher, states “Flint Lock Musket—carried in Battle of Plattsburgh by Arnold given to me by Silas Arnold Keeseville N.Y.” At the same time, he also donated a “Flint Lock Pistol same age & given by Arnold.” Was this a case of misunderstanding on Fletcher’s part? Did Silas Arnold give him a musket and pistol that had been used in the Battle of Plattsburgh, but by someone else? Did Fletcher believe that associating these items with Silas Arnold enhanced their value? Any early-19th century firearm would be of historical interest; one used in the region’s most significant military engagement would be even more so; and if it were used by a prominent local citizen, even better.

Muskets of this type were used during the War of 1812, so it’s not impossible that this one was in fact used during the Battle of Plattsburgh. Beyond that, we may never know for sure, unless additional information comes to light (and if you know anything, please contact us!). As it stands now, the musket, along with the pistol, serves as a cautionary tale about uncritically accepting the stories that come attached to so many historical relics. These stories may not necessarily be unreliable, but they do need to be verified using other sources.

This story brings us to the official end of New York State History Month for 2016, but we will continue to highlight the people and events of our region throughout the rest of the year, and into 2017!


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