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Elmira Prison Camp OnLine Library –

Submitted Information - Union Index - Union Officer Listing
Col. Benjamin F. Tracy

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Known to Civil War historians as the commandant of Elmira, Col. Tracy has a long carrier both before Elmira and afterwards.

Thomas Tracy (a veteran of the Revolutionary War) moved west from New England and settled in New York State, in the tiny village of Apalachin in Tioga County. One of his sons, Banjamin Tracy, would successfully establish himself as a farmer. Col. Tracy was born on April 26, 1830 in Owego, NY. During his childhood, Tracy was a great student and learner. During one afternoon, however, he lost sight in his left eye during an accident. Dispite this, Tracy completed school when he was 16 and took a job as a teacher in Tioga County, NY. At 19 he began his study of law and Tracy was admitted to the N.Y. Bar in 1851 (age 21). It was during that same year that Tracy met and married Delinda E. Catlin. Together, they had two daughters and a son.

Tracy also served as district attorney for the county of Tioga from 1853 to 1859. In 1854, he helped organize the Republican Party in his county and served for one year in the state assembly (1954).

Prior to accepting the post at the prison, he was the organizer of the 107th NY Infantry. The 109th New York Volunteer Infantry was organized at Binghampton, N. Y., August 27th, 1862, with Benjamin Tracy Colonel: Isaac S. Chatlin, Lieutenant- Colonel and Philo B. Stilson, Major. The Regiment left the state, August 30, 1862, and served at Annapolis Junction, Md., and in the Middle Department, 8th Army Corps, from September 1862. The Regiment was involved in the defense of Washington, 22d Army Corps as railroad guards, from October 1862. From March 1864, the Regiment was part of the 1st Brigade, 3rd Division, 9th Army Corps, Army of the Potomac and from August 1864 until April 1865, 1st Brigade, 1st Division, 9th Corps, Army of the Potomac. His duty record included:

Awarded the Civil War Medal of Honor with the following inscription:

Rank and organization: Colonel, 109th New York Infantry. Place and date: At Wilderness, Va., 6 May 1864. Entered service at: Owego, N.Y. Born: 26 April 1830, Owego, N.Y. Date of issue: 21 June 1895. Citation: Seized the colors and led the regiment when other regiments had retired and then reformed his line and held it.

Col. Tracy resigned from that position on May 20, 1864 and assumed command of the 127th U.C. Colored Troops, organized at Camp William Penn in Philadelphia, PA.

After the removed of Col. Seth Eastman, Col. Tracy took over the prison of Elmira. His record there is in debate. Letters to Washington, show him as a man who was concerned about the state of the prison. He was also at odds with the staff surgeon, Sanger, over the treatment of the prisoners.

His post Elmira years were also spent in civil service. Tracy served as 2nd U.S. district attorney (1866 to 76) for the eastern district of New York and was defense counsel to Henry Ward Beecher (step-brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe) in the adultery suit brought against him by Theodore Tilton. He was (1881 to 82) judge of the New York court of appeals before becoming Secretary of the Navy (1889 to 93) under President Benjamin Harrison.

Perhaps his greatest post-Elmira accomplishment was his appointment as Secretary of the Navy (March 6, 1889 to March 6, 1893) during the administration of President Benjamin Henry Harrison. It was during the administration of Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893) that the Navy's strategy began to change from defense and commerce protection to offensive fleet action. President Harrison called for the continued and rapid construction of modern warships and the acquisition of bases to maintain the U.S. fleet in foreign seas. He later urged Congress to authorize construction of battleships, giving support to Secretary of the Navy Benjamin F. Tracy's goal of making the U.S. fleet strong enough "to be able to divert an enemy's force from our coast by threatening his own, for a war, though defensive in principle, may be conducted most effectively by being offensive in its operations." Tracy proved to be an excellent administrator, and he marshaled allies for his expansionist policies in both Congress and the Navy.

One of his most famous public appearances was the launching of the U.S.S. Maine with his grand-daughter Alice Tracy Wilmerding (November 18, 1889). On January 25, 1899, the Maine was torn apart by an explosion while it was docked in Havannah Harbor, Cuba. This incident lead the United States declaring war with Spain on April 21, 1899. It has never been fully determined who planned or planted the explosives.

Col. Tracy was so instrumental in the restructuring and modernization of the Navy, that history has recorded him as the "Father of the Modern Navy." As noted by Ivan Musicant in Empire By Default: The Spanish American War and the Dawn of the American Century""

...Navy Secretary Benjamin Tracy was similarly absorbed in writing his first annual report. Released by the department in December 1889, it is one of the most revolutionary documents in the history of American naval policy. Defense, he cautioned, not conquest, was the object; but it required a "fighting force," and the navy didn't have one. The ABCD ships and their immediate successors--and even the big armored cruisers New York and Brooklyn, then nearing completion--were simply scouts and commerce destroyers, unable to "prevent a fleet of [hostile] ironclads from shelling our cities." To raise a blockade of its coasts, or to "beat off the enemy's fleet on its approach," America required "armored battleships." Embracing the as yet unpublished Mahanian principles, Tracy concluded that naval war, "though defensive in principle, may be conducted most effectively by being offensive in its operations."

On the theory that if he asked for everything, he would receive something, Tracy decided to risk all. He recommended building "two fleets of battleships," twelve for the Atlantic, eight for the Pacific, plus sixty fast cruisers. To stroke the ultra-conservatives in the department and the handwringers from congressional coastal districts, he further requested twenty useless monitor-type coast-defense vessels.

To put real bone and sinew into the fleet, the navy's congressional partisans endorsed the portion of Tracy's report that established battleship fleets in both oceans, but nowhere near the secretary's inflated numbers. The bill for the "Increase of the Navy" that came out of the Billion-Dollar Congress provided funds for three "sea-going coastline battle ships designed to carry the heaviest armor and most powerful ordnance," one commerce-raiding cruiser, and a torpedo boat. Following Tracy's dictum for a two-ocean fleet, the act stipulated that one battleship be constructed on the West Coast.

The reason for the battleships' oxymoronic "sea-going coast-line" designation was basely political. The "coast-line" designation was plugged into the bill to placate those who feared the advent of a truly offense-minded navy, those who would vote funds only for a service whose duties were strictly confined to coast defense. Indeed, strong opposition to the battleships came from a wide range of the politically conscious population: Quaker pacifists, midwestern and southern "small navy" congressmen, commerce-raiding enthusiasts with their eyes glued to the War of 1812 and the need for coastal and merchant shipping defenses, and anti-expansionist Democrats who knew an offensive weapon when they saw one.

Very few of the national legislators who voted for passage understood what they had actually done. Advocates still spoke in terms of coast defense and commerce raiding as the true mission of the navy. Republican senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, a leading expansionist posing as a naval authority, asserted with palpable inaccuracy that the battleships were no deviation from tradition, were "merely the continuance" of American naval policy from the War of 1812 "and consistently followed since."

Precisely the opposite: The naval appropriations act of 1890 irrevocably stamped congressional endorsement on a radical departure in America's philosophy of national security. No longer would the navy huddle in defense of seaports, nor dash out in cruisers to overhaul fat merchant prizes. The battleships were a giant stride, as Tracy and his allies frankly admitted, toward creating a fighting fleet to seize command offensively of the open sea and destroy the enemy in blue water.

When the Democratic administration of Grover Cleveland took office in March 1893, the critical post of navy secretary went to Congressman Hilary Herbert of Alabama, formerly chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee. Hitherto a typically southern small-navy man, he had been turned around by Mahan's writings, and now endorsed the battleship theory at least as strongly as his Republican predecessor. Under the Tracy-Herbert regimes, Republican and Democratic, the navy transformed itself from a newly awakened agency for national defense into an instrument of diplomatic and military power extending American interests over a significant portion of the globe.

Tracy was (1896) chairman of the commission that drafted the charter for Greater New York. After the defeat of President Harrison, Tracy found himself in several other arenas. He was the Republican candidate for New York City Mayor in 1897. In 1899, Harrison and Tracy participated in arbitration talks with Britain to determine the boundary between Venezuela and Guyana as counsel for Venezuela.

His thoughts on his government and his president can be summed up in his own words:

"The President of the United States is nothing more than an elective trustee or agent, chosen by the people to administer certain well-defined and specific trusts for them and as their representative. Our fathers formulated that portion of the Constitution which concerned the presidential office under a realizing sense of the evils they had suffered while subject to the caprices of a royal ruler, and guarded well against any assumption of power or prerogative by the individual which could threaten or endanger the liberty of the people. Over one hundred years of experience have proven the wisdom and foresight of the statesmen of the Revolution. They "planned wisely and built well." The President is still the servant of the people. His powers are great, but the fear of absolutism or of usurpation of supreme authority by him never disturbs us. The nation, even in time of war, rests secure in the consciousness of its power to confine within constitution limits, the exercise of executive authority."

Col. Tracy died on August 6, 1915 and is buried at Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.