A J Schenkman had some big shoes to fill when he took the post of Gardiner’s town historian in 2015: His predecessor, Carleton Mabee, who had died six days shy of his 100th birthday, was a professor emeritus in the History Department at SUNY New Paltz. Mabee had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1944 for his biography of Samuel F. B. Morse and authored a well-regarded book on Sojourner Truth.
A middle school social studies teacher in the Wallkill School District, Schenkman wasn’t quite in the same league, academically. But he took his history hobby seriously, volunteering and consulting for a variety of historic sites in the region. He had worked as a guide and interpreter, often in period costume, at Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh and the New Windsor Cantonment, in addition to Historic Huguenot Street. He founded the Times Herald-Record’s history blog and ran it for four years, and has been a regular contributor to such online magazines as New York History and New York Almanack.
By the time of his Gardiner appointment, Schenkman had also written several history books, including Wicked Ulster: Tales of Desperadoes, Gangs and More (History Press, 2012) and Murder and Mayhem in Ulster County (History Press, 2013). Right now, he has two new volumes out, on the Globe Pequot imprint of the Maryland-based Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group. Unexpected Bravery: Women and Children of the Civil War came out in November 2021. Brand-new in hardcover, with an official publication date of February 1, 2022, is Patriots and Spies in Revolutionary New York.
Schenkman has decided to donate the royalties from Patriots and Spies to a favorite local charity, People’s Place in Kingston. The organization’s executive director, Christine Hein, describes herself as “beyond grateful…This generosity allows us to continue our mission of providing essential needs to those in our Ulster County community who are struggling. This act of kindness towards our community members shows he is not just an amazing author, but a truly benevolent individual who cares deeply for his hometown area.
“Along with the financial benefit, he is shining a light on People’s Place and the services we offer for free throughout Ulster County. Because of his actions, those who never knew about us may learn of our 22+ programs and either support us through volunteering or donating or may reach out to us for assistance.”
Readers looking for a thematic connection between Schenkman’s historical writings and People’s Place’s mission to assist the needy, especially the homeless, can easily find it in the author’s emphasis on the postwar lives of participants in both the Revolution and the Civil War. The acronym PTSD hadn’t been coined yet, but the long-term psychological impacts of their battlefield experiences are well-documented in the applications to the federal government for pension increases, on which Schenkman relies heavily as a primary source.
These postwar accounts come to especially vivid life in Unexpected Bravery, which shares the stories of some of the estimated 400 women who served in the Civil War, on both sides, disguised as men, and of the 200,000 or so soldiers who were under the legal enlisting age of 18. It was a time when military bureaucracy was disorganized enough, and the need for recruits desperate enough, to let people sign up without proof of age or a physical examination. Children as young as 12 were exposed to unspeakable carnage – often close up, since the smallest sometimes led the line of march into battle, as drummers or standard-bearers, or served as couriers dodging hails of bullets to carry messages to and from the frontlines. Many were maimed or killed, or died of typhus, malaria or starvation in horrific prison camps such as the notorious Andersonville.
Of the women who ran away to war, some were fleeing abusive homes or simply seeking adventure; many wanted to stay close to husbands or fiancés who had been conscripted. Some of those who reassumed their female identities after the war were able to capitalize on their experiences by writing sensational (and sometimes exaggerated) memoirs. But a few are known to have been genuinely transgender, and many more such identities have undoubtedly been lost to history, either because they died in the war or continued living undetected as men afterwards. One of the most tragic tales that Schenkman relates is that of Albert D. J. Cashier, born in Ireland as Jennie Hodgers, whose female anatomy was not revealed until he was near death and in dire need of medical examination.
Cashier earned a reputation in the Union Army as a hard worker and fierce fighter who was fond of “dirty talk,” digging canals in Louisiana and seeing much action, including the Siege of Vicksburg, the Red River Campaign and the Battle of Guntown. He endured short rations and dysentery and is estimated to have traveled 10,000 miles in his three years in the military. Chronic illness, injuries and the secret he needed to hide took their toll in the decades that followed. By the 1890s, when he sought a pension increase, Cashier was emaciated, destitute and mentally unstable. His PTSD manifested as extreme paranoia that someone wanted to rob or poison him. Even when he lived in a hovel, he was obsessive about installing multiple locks on the doors.
The Revolutionary War is not so thoroughly documented as the Civil War, so Schenkman’s stories in Patriots and Spies rely more often on accounts by famous participants. Some of the scenarios and characters are already well-known. The near-mutiny by underpaid soldiers, foiled by George Washington at his Newburgh headquarters near the end of the war, receives ample attention – unsurprisingly, as the author has written two previous books on the subject.
But curiously, the less-famous spies were often much more successful and interesting than such household names as Nathan Hale, who accomplished next to nothing in the less than three weeks before he got caught and hanged. Most notable is Enoch Crosby of Putnam County, on whom James Fenimore Cooper based the protagonist in his novel The Spy, although they never met. Posing as an itinerant shoemaker, Crosby managed to insinuate himself efficiently into one ring of Loyalist plotters after another and get their meetings raided, their leaders imprisoned.
Tory activity was rife in then-infant New York State; one plot on Long Island to assassinate Washington involved the mayor of New York City, the new governor and a couple of members of the general’s elite personal guard. The City was a magnet for disgruntled Loyalists from upstate. What was then the Colonial frontier, the western flank of the Shawangunks, saw frequent raids by Tory paramilitary gangs, with one uprising centered in Marbletown in 1777. In the early 1780s, Loyalists made an alliance with Mohawk fighters led by a chief named Thayendanegea, known to the English as Joseph Brant, and went on to massacre settlers who supported the cause of independence from Britain in Wawarsing and Fantine Kill.
While Unexpected Bravery provides fascinating reading about less-familiar participants in the Civil War, Patriots and Spies brings Revolutionary history closer to home and sheds unaccustomed light on hair-raising plots, counterplots and heroic resistance that most of us never knew took place so close by. It’s an engaging read that Hudson Valley history buffs will welcome. And part of the price – $26.95 in hardcover, $25.50 as an e-book – will go to help support an excellent local charitable organization. To order from the publisher, visit https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781493047048.
Due to the ever-evolving COVID variant situation, no book tour has yet been announced. For updates on future book events, visit www.ajschenkman.com.