Male residents of Amsterdam, NY had two legitimate ways to avoid military service during the Civil War. According to the provisions of the conscription act the US Congress had passed in March of 1863, able-bodied young men between the ages of 20-45 could legally avoid being drafted into the Union Army by buying an exemption for $300 or finding a substitute to take their place. Amsterdam native Nicholas Jeremiah DeGraff would have had no problem coming up with the $300. His family was one of the largest and most influential landowners in this area of the Mohawk Valley and I’m sure if they wanted to come up with a substitute to take this young man’s place, they’d have had no problem with that either.
But young Nicholas, who was born on his family’s farm just east of Amsterdam on June 9, 1842, had no interest in either option. Eight months before the conscription act was put in place and just one month after he turned twenty years of age, he became the third generation of the DeGraff family with the first name of “Nicholas” to fight in a North American-based war. He enlisted in the Union Army, joining Company D of the 115th Regiment of New York State Volunteers. This contingent of fighting men, which would later earn the nickname “The Ironhearted Regiment” was raised from the counties of: Saratoga, Montgomery, Fulton, and Hamilton, and stationed just north of the village of Fonda, on land alongside present day Route 30A. DeGraff was one of 1,040 enlisted men who joined its ranks.
During the next three years, this brave native of Amsterdam took part in nineteen battles and skirmishes, was wounded in action and truly proved to be a great soldier. He was promoted from private to 1st sergeant , to 2nd lieutenant, to 1st lieutenant and finally after he was mustered out in October of 1865 and returned to Amsterdam, he discovered he had been breveted major for gallant and meritorious conduct in the field.
Back home, he and his brother, Edward Teller DeGraff pooled their resources and purchased their family’s farm in 1868. At that same time, DeGraff married a Tribes Hill native named Debbie Young. They would raise a son and a daughter who both ended up leaving the Amsterdam area. DeGraff worked the farm for his living until 1873 and then relocated to Amsterdam where he opened a shoe store at 29 East Main Street. He ran that business for the next 27 years.
He then spent his retirement years as a very active leader in Civil War veterans’ organizations, coordinating and appearing at their reunions throughout the upstate New York region. A tall and extremely handsome man, De Graff grew even more distinguished looking in his senior years. Though I have been unable to find the exact date of his death, I did find local newspaper accounts of him attending veteran soldiers’ reunions as late as 1926, at which time he would have already been 84-years-of age.
(Another military hero from Amsterdam was born on today’s date in 1921.)