Department of New York

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The
Grand Army
of the Republic

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James B. McKean
Commander
Department of New York
1866 and 1867


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JAMES B. McKEAN:
     1st NY Department Commander,  1866-7
     1st Sr. Vice Commander-in-Chief, 1866-68

James Bedell McKean was born in Hoosic,
Rensselaer County, NY, on August 5, 1821. His
father, Rev. Andrew McKean, died some years
since, in the 87th year of his age. On his father's
side he is descended from the Mackians of
Glencoe, Scotland. His branch of the family
came to our country through Ireland, about the
middle of the last century. John McKean, his
great-grandfather, was the immigrant and settled
in Cecil Co., MD. There was born his
grandfather, James McKean, who was cousin to
Thomas McKean, one of the signers of the
Declaration of Independence.

On his mother's side, Mr. McKean's remote
ancestors were Huguenots, being from a branch
of the family that settle near New York City
about 250 years ago.

Mr. McKean has been heard jocularly to insist that it was his duty to raise a regiment, because,
through his mother, he escaped the massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day; through his father, he
escaped the massacre of Glencoe. The spot where he was born on the battlefield of
Bennington, midway between the positions taken up by the opposing armies. In his infancy his
parents removed with their family and settled down upon the battlefield of Saratoga, midway
between the point where Burgoyne was defeated and that where he surrendered; and, lastly,
because he though he could raise a regiment when almost everyone else thought he could not.

After residing some years in the town of Saratoga, the family removed to a farm in Half-moon,

near and southeast of Round Lake. The subject of this sketch is indebted for his education to
common schools, academies and to self-teaching. In his youth he taught in the district schools
and was for some time one of the professors in Jonesville Academy. While teaching and
studying he gave some attention to Blackstone, Kent, and other sages of the law. When 21 he
was elected Town Superintendent of common schools for Half-moon. When 23 he was elected
Colonel of the 144th regiment of New York State Militia, was commissioned by Governor Silas Wright and commanded that regiment for some years.

In June 1847, he entered the law office of Bullard and Cramer in Waterford and devoted himself

to the law. On March 5, 1849, he was admitted to practice in all courts of the State and opened
an office at Ballston Spa. On June 20, 1850, he married Katharine Hay, daughter of the late
Judge William Hay and sister to Mrs. Judge Bocks. In June 1851, he removed to Saratoga
Springs. In the fall of 1854, he was nominated for County Judge by the Republican Convention,
held in Ballston Spa, believed to have been the first Republican Convention held in the Sate. The
Whig candidate for County Judge was Gideon Putnam; one wing of the Democrats nominated
John A. Corey and the other Henry W. Merrill. The "American" or "Know-Nothings" had no
ticket distinct from the other parties but selected from these candidates such as they chose.
McKean was elected County Judge and served 4 years. Several of his judicial opinions can be
found in "Howard's Practice Reports."

In 1858, the 15th district elected him Representative in Congress and re-elected him in 1860.

The 77th Regiment New York State Volunteers, also called "The Bemis Heights Battalion,"

was organized in and largely recruited from Saratoga County. On the 21st day of August 1861,
Hon. James B. McKean, of Saratoga Springs, then being in Congress as a representative from
the 15th (now 20th) district, issued the following circular letter to his constituents:

     "Fellow-Citizens of the 15th Congressional District, Traitors in arms seek to overthrow our
      constitution and to seize our capitol. Let us go and help to defend them. Who will despond
      because we lost the battle of Bull Run? Our father lost the battle at Bunker Hill, but it taught
      them how to gain the victory at Bemis Heights. Let us learn wisdom from disaster and send
      overwhelming numbers into the field. Let farmers, mechanics, merchants and all classes -
      for the liberties of all are at stake - aid in organizing companies. I will cheerfully assist in
      procuring the necessary papers. Do not misunderstand me. I am not asking for an office at
      your hands. If you who have most at stake will go, I will willingly go with you as a private
      soldier. Let us organize a Bemis Heights Battalion and vie with each other in serving our
      country, thus showing we are inspired by the holy memoires of the Revolutionary battlefields
      upon and near which we are living."

James B. McKean was Colonel of the 77th New York State Volunteers from November 23, 1861

to July 27, 1863. He enrolled October 14, 1861 at Saratoga Springs to serve 3 years and was
discharged due to disability.

In the spring of 1865, believing that it would benefit his health, President Lincoln sent him to
Spanish America to exchange the ratification's of a treaty with the government of Honduras.
Afterwards, he was tendered  the appointment of counsel to San Domingo, which, however, he
declined. In the year 1870 President Grant appointed him chief justice of the Supreme Court of
Utah Territory, a position for which he was not a candidate. He was induced, however, to accept
the office and served in it 5 years.

He died at Salt Lake City, Utah, January 5, 1879 and his wife, Katherine Hay, 19 days later. He

was held in such high regard that Post No. 1, Grand Army of the Republic, Dept. of Utah, was named after him.

Sources:
Proceedings of the 51st NY Dept. Encampment, GAR, 1917
New York in the War of the Rebellion, 3rd Edition, 1909, Vol. 4
History of Saratoga County, New York by N.B. Sylvester, 1878

Submitted by Jerome Orton

 

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