Monday, August 3, 2009

Admiral Farragut: Legends of a Hastings Hero

Part I: How Farragut Came to Hastings

"Damn the torpedoes! Full steam ahead!" Admiral Farragut in the rigging of his flagship, the 'Hartford', at the Battle of Mobile Bay. (Click on any of the photographs for more information.)

Before Billie Burke arrived to dazzle the village with the glamour of the theater, Hastings’ most famous resident was Civil War hero, David Glasgow Farragut. The Farragut family lived in Hastings for barely five years, and for most of that time Farragut himself was at sea. But those years, 1861 to 1865, spanned the Civil War, during which Captain (from 1862 Rear Admiral) Farragut became an American legend.

“Interest in and appreciation of Admiral David Glasgow Farragut increases at Hastings from year to year,” wrote a local reporter in the early 20th century. “There is no place in this broad country that has a better right to claim his citizenship and reverence his memory.” The Historical Society is full of memorabilia and articles about the great man and his time in Hastings, enough to fill many blogs. We have selected a handful of these stories to share with you over the next couple of weeks.

The verifiable facts about Farragut’s time in Hastings can be stated in just a few sentences. Before the Civil War, Farragut, who was a captain in the Navy, lived in Norfolk, Virginia. But he was a loyalist, and when Virginia seceded from the Union in April of 1861, Farragut moved with his wife and son to Hastings-on-Hudson. For a time, they lived at 60 Main Street. Farragut also rented from John William Draper half of a two-family cottage at the corner of Washington Avenue and Broadway. Over time, the number and order of these residences has become confused. Perhaps they lived in two houses; perhaps it was three. In 1865 the war came to an end. At about the same time, the city of New York presented the Farraguts with money to buy a house in town, and the family moved into Manhattan, ending their brief connection with Hastings.

A.C. Langmuir's 1939 photograph of the Draper cottage occupied by Farragut. In the 1910s, most of the locals claimed that this, and not the house on Main Street, was where the Farraguts spent most of their time while in Hastings.

But having an American hero in Hastings, even for a short time, fired the local imagination. 60 Main Street became known as “the Farragut house.” An oak tree on Main Street became “the tree under which Admiral Farragut used to sit.” In the early 20th century, reporters sought out Hastings old-timers and wrote up anything they could remember about Farragut. Many of these old-timers had been children during the Civil War, and their stories often appear to change from one article to the next. The Society has two scrapbooks, one compiled by journalist J. Otis Swift in the 1910s and 1920s, and another by A.C. Langmuir in the 1930s, that include such articles. Are they “memories” or “tall tales”? After all this time, it’s hard to say.

An article from 1919 tells one story of how the Admiral came to choose Hastings-on-Hudson for his residence.

“It was just before the beginning of the Civil War, when there were many Southerners and Southern sympathizers in New York, that young Farragut came up from the South to visit New York. The Government of Washington, hearing that its favorite young naval officer was on his way to the city, and fearing some Southerner would kill him, sent word to him to get out of New York city instantly. Farragut got the message as he was crossing from Jersey to the city, and promptly transferred to a small sloop, which came up to Hastings and landed at the old dock where the cable factory is. Hastings was a secluded place, cut off from New York by a ravine and miles of country road, and he stayed here for some time, making many friends, so that he afterward decided to live here, and took the house on Main Street known now as the Farragut house….”

Potscard of 60 Main Street with the caption "Admiral Farragut's Home" produced by HC Todd ca. 1905. Todd included both a photograph of this house and of Farragut himself in his booklet of historic photographs of Hastings. There is also a photograph of Grace Episcopal Chapel with the caption "Farragut worshipped here."

An earlier article from March of 1911 gives a slightly different version.

“When [Farragut] first came among the people, he was treated with coolness, as a southern refugee. An absurd story was circulated that he was an emissary sent to Hastings to blow up the Croton Aqueduct where it crosses the deep ravine near the Farragut House.”

A 1933 article adds a story told by Miss Emma Dorland, whose mother bought 60 Main Street in the 1870s: “…the northern troops that were patrolling the aqueduct in 1861, making sure that New York’s water supply was safe, had destroyed a sextant which [Farragut] had left one day on his lawn on the grounds that it was an ‘infernal machine’ which might blow up the aqueduct!”

A reporter for the Dobbs Ferry Register in 1919 relates another tale, which even he cannot bring himself to believe – that Farragut and John William Draper were attempting to photograph the heavens when soldiers destroyed their camera, imagining it to be some kind of bomb.

But as the war progressed and news of Farragut’s naval exploits reached Hastings, the tide of Farragut’s popularity turned. Local residents became tolerant, and even enthusiastic, about “their” Admiral Farragut. Tune in next week for Part II of the saga of Admiral Farragut in Hastings.

Carte-de-visite photograph produced as a souvenir around 1865 after the Battle of Mobile Bay by photographer Charles C. Fredericks of New York City. This particular card comes to us through the Draper family. John William Draper remained a close friend of the Farraguts, even after they left Hastings.

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