An Albany African American in a “White” Civil War Regiment

William Topp Lattimore was an African American, born in Albany in 1844.

His grandfather Ben Lattimore Sr. had been one of the few Black men who served in the Revolutionary War.

His father Ben Jr. was a key player in the Underground Railroad (UGRR) in Albany, working as early as 1828 to keep 2 Black children in the city from being sold into slavery in the South. William was named after his father’s good friend, William Topp, another Black man in Albany who was part of the UGRR.

By 1847 he moved the family from Albany to Moreau NY, just south of Glens Falls, where he bought an orchard and established an UGRR station. It was a family affair – and included the oldest of the 11 Lattimore children.

In late Summer 1861, when the call went out for volunteers for the Union Army William, known as Billy, enlisted in the 77th NY, the Saratoga regiment. (He lied about his age.) He served alongside his friends and neighbors who clearly knew he was African Anerican.

Billy’s service was extraordinarily rare. We’ve yet to find another story like his. At that time Black men were prohibited from serving in the Union Army. Yet it appears no one cared that he was African American.

Billy was one of the first men wounded at the Battle of Fort Stevens, in defense of Washington D.C. (President Lincoln and his wife Mary went to observe battle and were told to take cover.) Billy recovered from his severe wound and re-joined his Regiment in late 1864. He mustered out at the end of the War.

(Had he been captured wethink the Confederates would have treated him brutally; they loathed Black Union soldiers.)

After the War Billy went to live in NYC, working as a waiter. But on the death of his father in 1871 returned to take care of the orchard and Mother and sisters.

He joined the GAR (Union Veterans Organization. – Grand Army of the Republic) in Saratoga Springs in the mid 1880s. The entire family moved to that city about 1888. For the rest of his life Billy was a proud member of the GAR, attending all re-unions and serving as an officer on a number of occasions until his death in 1915. He’s indicated in the photo below by the blue arrow.

Billy buried in Greenridge Cemetery in Saratoga Springs with his mother, father and other family members.

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

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