The commencement of hostilities on April 12, 1861 with the bombardment of Fort Sumter changed the tenor of life for the entire country—both north and south—with Rochester being no exception. Until it's end in 1865, all everyday activities will be viewed through the prism of war; the news of the day was reported with a view toward how it would affect the war, and especially how it would affect Rochesterians.
Almost since the election of Lincoln in the previous November, when Rochester had given him a clear majority, the road to war with the rebel States seemed inevitable, and when it arrived the people of Rochester were as one in their unqualified support of the Union. They were unanimous in their unqualified support of a swift and vigorous prosecution of the war.
At the start of the war, the 54th Regiment was composed of six companies—four of infantry: the German Grenadiers, the Union Guards, the Rochester Light Guard, and the Lyons Light Guard; one of cavalry; the Rochester City Dragoons; and one of artillery; the Rochester Union Grays. The regimental officers met on the evening of the 15th and the reported result of that session was that Colonel Fairchild was authorized to say that the regiment was at the service of the Governor. Rather than wait for action by the Governor, the Rochester Light Guard, under Capt. Taylor, voted to enter the Federal service as a body.
However, it did not appear that the State contemplated mustering into service the existing uniformed militia units, such as the 54th. The legislature had enacted an act on the 16th of April defining a new organizational structure by which volunteers would enter the service. Similar to the procedure for organizing militia units, any individual could gather together a number of volunteers and petition the Governor to recognize the company. If recognized, the company would continue recruiting until it is comprised of at least sixty-four members. When at least six companies have been formed in a locality, the officers of the companies would elect a Regimental Colonel, Lieut. Colonel and Major, and the entire regiment would proceed to one of the State Depots where the entire regiment would be mustered into the Federal Service for a period of two years. As a result, the 54th began shrinking as individual members and entire companies took their leave of the 54th and entered into the volunteer units being organized.
Based on this new act, an effort was undertaken to organize a volunteer regiment under the leadership of Professor Isaac Quinby, of the University of Rochester, a graduate of the U. S. Military Academy at West Point. At the same time, several individuals and existing companies began the recruiting for volunteer companies. A company of German citizens was organized by Capt. Adolf Nolts; a company of Dragoons was organized under Capt. George W. Lewis; the Rochester Light Guards, under Capt. Robert F. Taylor, former Major of the 54th Regiment; and companies under Capt. Francis A. Schoeffel, Capt. Libbeus Brown, Capt. G. S. Jennings, Capt. Henry Williams, Capt. Thomas Davis, and Capt. William F. Tully.
It lost its colonel, Harrison Fairchild, when he resigned his commissioned in the 54th and accepted a colonelcy in the 89th New York Volunteers. Captain Louis Ernst, the regimental adjutant, had resigned the previous November, and later became a lieutenant-colonel in the 140th New York Volunteers, a local infantry regiment under Colonel Patrick O'Rourke reorganized as an artillery unit and gained fame at Gettysburg. (Captain Ernst was later replaced by G. W. Stebbins.) Finally, Capt. Nathaniel Thompson, of the Union Grays, had tendered his resignation for business reasons in January.
In addition to losses in the officer ranks, Company A, the Union Grays, sent 192 men to the mobilization camp at Elmira to organize as an artillery unit. The remaining members of the Grays remained in Rochester to build-up a two battery battalion of field artillery to become Batteries A and B of the 1st Independent Battalion Light Infantry, under Major William M. Lewis. When this artillery battalion was formed under Major Lewis there were two batteries, commanded by Captains Michael Heavy and Michael Quinn.
As a result of transfers out of the regiment into active duty units, the 54th found itself at the end of 1861 under the command of its senior captain, Captain Miller, of the German Grenadiers. Company E went out of existence as its members joined other active duty units, and the City Dragoons, then Company L, enrolled almost as a unit as Company G, 13th New York Volunteers.
What was to be of the 54th Regiment? The Union & Advertiser reported that General Fullerton, commanding the Seventh Division, of which the 54th was a component, had orders to take his Division into camp "at once," and noted that there was now a prospect of the 54th being called into service. The order promulgated by General Fullerton, while not specifically calling up the regiments under command, did order that they be put on a war footing at once:
GENERAL ORDERS NO. 1
Pursuant to special orders No. 82 by His Excellency, the Commander-in-Chief, issued April 23, 1861, Brigadier-General Lansing B. Swan commanding the 25th Brigade, and Brigadier-General R. B. Van Valkenburgh commanding the 20th Brigade in this Division, are hereby ordered without delay to perfect the organization of the Regiments under their respective commands, not to exceed ten companies in each Regiment, and to cause the same to parade without uniform, for muster and inspection, at such times and places as they shall respectively designate within the bounds of their respective Brigades, and hold the same in readiness for the service of the United States, on the shortest notice, and immediately thereupon report the condition of their respective Regiments to General Head-Quarters at Albany, and furnish duplicates thereof to Division Head-Quarters. By order of
Major General, W. S. Fullerton
Barney S. Chapin, Division Inspector
As a result of Gen. Fullerton's order, Gen. Swan ordered the regiments within the 25th Brigade, including the 54th, to immediately bring the strength of their respective companies up to seventy-four non-commissioned officers, musicians and privates. In addition they were ordered to form new companies filling the current vacancies. Although Gen. Swan pointed out in his order that "there be none but honorable rivalry [in their recruiting efforts] between the volunteers . . . and the organized militia," that was certainly the effect of the order, as the term of service in volunteer units was two years while any active service in the militia units was limited to three months.
On the 27th of that month, Colonel Fairchild issued his Regimental order, ordering the existing companies—Co. A (Lyons Light Guard), Co. B (German Grenadiers), Co. C (Rochester Light Guard), Co. D (Union Guards), Co. R (Union Grays), and Co. L (City Dragoons)—to bring their strength up to the required seventy-four members. In addition, his order noted the vacancy of Companies E, F. G and H, and requested applications to form the four companies. As a part of the effort to fill these vacancies, a company under Capt. Ansel I. Booth, to be called the Rover Guard, was organized for the 54th Regiment. Capt. Booth had previously been a member of the Union Grays, and the company's First Lieutenant, Henry S. Weldon, had been an old member of the Light Guard. The effort by this company to become a part of the 54th came to naught when they rejected by Gen. Swan based on the fact that the company was composed by members of Fire Co. 3, and Gen. Swan was of the opinion that it was not feasible for the men to do military and fire duty at the same time. They were given the opportunity to drop their affiliation with one or other of the organizations and they chose to continue with the Fire Company. As it turned out, there was an additional reason for the company not joining the 54th and that had to do with their demand that they be provided with arms and equipment immediately upon joining the regiment and that was not possible.
By the end of July of that year the Regiment had been expanded to nine companies with the addition of companies commanded by Captains Warner Wescott, Henry Cramer, and John McMahon, although not all companies were yet at required strength.
The end of August saw the the resignation of Capt. James Brackett, of the City Dragoons. Brackett, a member of the Common Council as Alderman for the First Ward, had been a member of the Dragoons since the early 1850s, rising to the rank of Lieutenant in 1852 and was chosen Captain two years later. He had come to Rochester in 1832 and established the wholesale firm of Brackett, Averill & Co. He had moved his business to New York City 1855, quickly sold it and returned to Rochester, but obtained an interest in a business in Adrain, MI. Because of the need to attend to his business interests in Michigan on a regular basis, he thought best that he resigned his post as Captain of the Dragoons.