Boy soldier's story rises from old headstone
MENANDS, N.Y. — Among the compelling stories unearthed by a historian at St. Agnes Cemetery is that of an extremely young soldier who marched for years in the Civil War as "Albany's Little Drummer Boy."
Kelly Grimaldi, the historian at St. Agnes Cemetery, discovered the sad but inspiring story of the boy in 2009 while spearheading a project to locate and identify all Civil War veterans interred at the 114-acre burial ground. Workers found the faded and broken remains of his headstone while surveying the grounds.
Private Bernard Ross, the eldest of six children from a family of poor Irish immigrants, enlisted in the Union Army at the raw age of 12 on April 19, 1861, according to military records. The 4-foot- 10-inch boy from Albany became a musician, tasked with keeping the beat of a drum in time with the marching boots of soldiers in his company.
"Barney" grew up among cannons, muskets, death and disease, and drummed his way across the divided United States. He witnessed brutal warfare at key Civil War battles. At the age of 15, he re-enlisted in the 3rd Infantry of the New York State Volunteer Army for three additional years. After nearly 39 months of war, in which he saw 122 men in his company die, the ragged teenager fell severely ill. He was hospitalized for months before returning to Albany in late 1864.
At St. Agnes, Grimaldi uses a shovel to probe the earth for old marble stones. Since starting the task five years ago, the workers and volunteers have discovered 260 Civil War veterans in addition to the 248 they knew were buried there. Grimaldi thinks there are many more unmarked vets in the cemetery.
"I'll find the corner of a memorial stone sticking out of the sod, and a lot of times, it's a soldier," said Grimaldi, who started as a volunteer and was hired as full-time historian in 2010. "The goal is to get every single soldier properly memorialized."
The project also calls for restoring or replacing damaged gravestones belonging to Civil War veterans. A highlight of the effort is the refurbishment of an area in the southeast section of the cemetery that contains the graves of 82 Civil War veterans. Cemetery workers and members of the Union Civil War Soldiers Camp 154 landscaped the area, cleaned headstones and found sponsors for new markers to replace those that couldn't be saved. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs pays for new gravestones, and family members or sponsors pay $100 to install them.
Finding the graves and identifying Civil War soldiers in the cemetery became an issue because of the cemetery's history. St. Agnes opened in 1867 — two years after the Civil War ended — and accepted bodies from the State Street Burial Ground in Albany that year, and from St. Mary's Cemetery in Albany in 1875. Many of the reburials were done with unmarked or privately purchased headstones that did not reference military service, and some stones had deteriorated over decades.
Grimaldi discovered the Ross family burial lot in Section 23. Barney's gravestone was faded and broken, lying on the ground next to where his father, Simon Ross, who was also a Civil War soldier, and his mother, Mary Ross, were buried. Grimaldi researched Barney's military record.
"I was completely shocked this was a 12-year-old kid," Grimaldi said on a recent cold and gray morning. She suspects Barney joined the Army to earn a military stipend for his family, which she said amounted to around $8 to $12 a month back then.
Barney left Albany for the war front as what today would be a seventh-grader. He saw intense fighting in South Carolina before witnessing the bloody Battle of Cold Harbor near Richmond, Va., where thousands of Union soldiers were killed or wounded in a poorly planned battle against Confederate forces in June of 1864. Barney followed Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to the battle at Petersburg, Va., where Union and rebel forces clashed in trench warfare over several months as Grant tried to root out adversaries from Richmond less than a year before the war's end.
On July 3, 1864, more than three years after he first left Albany, Barney came down with an unknown disease and a fever at Petersburg that silenced his drum and nearly killed him. He never really recovered, said Grimaldi, 50, of Wynantskill.
There are no known pictures of Barney, but he is described as having gray eyes, brown hair and a fair complexion. Albany County Census data in 1880 shows the young veteran unmarried and still living with his parents at age 33. Five years later, Barney predeceased his parents.
The young military drummer, who lost his innocence and, perhaps, ultimately his life in service to his country, recently received a new headstone that sparkles. Jeanne Qualters, the director of family services at St. Agnes Cemetery, became enchanted with his life and donated the $100 installation fee.
"She saved Barney," Grimaldi said.