Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Irving Eaton, the last surviving Civil War veteran in Schenectady County

Irving Eaton, ca. 1940. From Grems-
Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.
"I may be old, but I'm still full of hell as ever." These were the words of Irving Eaton at the age of 97, as he was profiled by a reporter for the Schenectady Gazette in 1940. At the time, Eaton was the sole surviving Civil War veteran in Schenectady County and one of the few surviving Civil War veterans in New York State.

Eaton was born in Cold Springs, New York, to John Eaton and Emeline Parks. He grew up near Coxsackie. Eaton enlisted at Kingston, New York, on April 28, 1861. He served as a private in Company A, 80th Regiment of New York State Volunteers. In a 1933 Schenectady Gazette article, Eaton related that when he first enlisted as a private, he intended to be a drummer boy, but under some pressure from the lieutenant of his company, he entered the war as "a full-fledged fighting man" alongside his father. His brothers Sylvanus and Warren also served in the Ellsworth Zouaves and the 57th New York Infantry, respectively. Irving Eaton took part in the battles at Gettysburg, South Mountain, Fredericksburg, Antietam, Second Bull Run, Norman's Ford, Warrenton Springs, Gainesville, Groveton, Petersburg, and Chantilly. One of Eaton's most treasured memories of the war was seeing Abraham Lincoln on October 1862 following the battle at Antietam, when Lincoln, along with General George McClelland, came on horseback to inspect the camp. Irving and his father were honorably discharged at Portsmouth, Virginia on January 29, 1866.

After the war, Eaton returned to live with family in Coxsackie. He stayed in the Coxsackie area until approximately 1881, when he moved further north. In Malone, New York, he met and married Elizabeth Connors in 1883. The family moved to Casaville, Quebec, Canada, and had four children -- Ernest, Emeline, May, and Irving Barron. The family moved back to New York after Eaton learned that he could only apply for his Civil War pension as a United States resident. After living briefly in Franklin, New York, the Eatons moved to Schenectady around 1900.

Black-and-white photograph of portrait of Irving
Eaton, painted by Harold Mott-Smith. Photograph
from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.
While in Schenectady, Eaton worked for the American Locomotive Company as a foreman until his retirement around 1920. He also served as Commander of the Horsfall Post of the Grand Army of the Republic. He was known as the city's "grand old man" for his war record and activity as a grand marshal in Schenectady's Memorial Day parades. He attended reunions at Gettysburg in 1913 and 1938. In a 1941 WGY interview, Eaton remembered meeting Confederate veterans in 1913, saying, "They gave me as strong a handshake as any man ever got. I have the greatest respect for them, and for all the others who fought through the war."  Eaton was also a communicant at St. Luke's Church and a member of the church's Holy Name Society.

A dinner in Eaton's honor was held at the Hotel Van Curler in Schenectady on February 21, 1941. His portrait, painted that year by General Electric Company artist Harold Mott-Smith, was given by the American Legion to the city to hang in City Hall and was accepted by mayor Mills Ten Eyck. The portrait is now in the care of the Efner City Archives and History Center. During the last year of his life, he helped to urge Schenectadians to purchase defense savings bonds.

Eaton died at his home at 325 Division Street on October 15, 1941, following a brief illness. He is buried in Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery in Niskayuna.

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