"The Catskill Knight"
Written and contributed by Doug Thomsen, former Town Historian of Durham
William Plimley, the first and only known Congressional Medal of Honor recipient from Greene County, New York, was born in a house on Broad Street, in Catskill, August 12, 1839. His parents Jacob Plimley and Julia Stocking, were both native born American citizens. William was five feet six and one half inches tall with a light complexion and dark hair.
Prior to the year 1862, in the town of Catskill, his trade was a printer. He started his apprenticeship at the age of thirteen. He worked in the offices of the "American Eagle" and then the "Catskill Examiner", two local newspapers. Then our nation was thrown into a great Civil War. In the summer of 1862, President Lincoln called for volunteers; and on August 12, 1862, William’s twenty-third birthday, William enrolled at Cairo, New York as a private in Company K 120th New York State Volunteer Infantry.
William had a very distinguished military career. He was promoted to sergeant November 1, 1862. He took the rank of sergeant after Sergeant John B. McWilliams of Cairo became ill and died of disease at Fairfax Hospital, Virginia, December 11, 1862. On May 1, 1863 William went on detail to the Quartermaster and on July 2, 1863 was promoted to Quartermaster Sergeant. Then came another promotion on August 23, 1864 as Second Lieutenant, and First Lieutenant October 27, 1864. He finished his military career as a Brevet Captain as Aide-de-Camp on the Staff of General Robert McAllister, Commander of the 3rd Brigade, 3rd division, 2nd Army Corps. Captain Plimley and the 120th New York State Volunteers participated in most of the fiercest fighting with the Army of the Potomac. They were engaged in such battles as Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, The Wilderness, Cold Harbor, Petersburg and were at the Appomattox Court House for the surrender.
During the war William made it home on two occasions. He received a few days leave in early November 1863, and I quote from the "Catskill Examiner", November 7, 1863, Volume 36, Number 20, "Bill is a true son of Hail Columbia and has the constancy, courage, and enthusiasm of a true soldier. His return is hailed with great satisfaction by his large circle of friends and acquaintances in this village." His second absence was when he requested a leave on January 10, 1865 to return to Catskill to take care of family business matters and get married. He received his leave and came home and married Catherine A. Wolford on January 19, 1865 at the First Reformed Church of Catskill. They were married by Reverend John A. Lansing and Catherine joined this church on confession in 1864. With his honeymoon and leave over, William returned to this unit which was involved in the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia.
In a letter to his wife dated February 2, 1865, General Robert McAllister mentions William’s return. The General makes reference that William is a very brave officer and just returned from a twenty day leave. He mentioned that William got married and came back very happy. He also stated that William was handsomely received by the citizens of Catskill and they had given him a splendid serenade. William also told the General about all the young men of Catskill laying around doing nothing and how he urged them to join the army, but all these young men resisted that suggestion.
In another letter General McAllister stated, "Lieutenant Plimley has shown his devotion to this country by risking his life in many battles; always more anxious to gain a victory that to save himself, and would, as my personal Aide, carry my orders out to the letter, though he would have to go through a storm of lead and iron to accomplish it. He has ability of a high order, and is in every way qualified for a higher military position." General McAllister was not the only general to make reference to William’s bravery. He was also mentioned by Generals Hooker, Hancock, Mott’s general orders for his deeds.
It was at Hatcher’s Run at the siege of Petersburg, Virginia that William’s name was placed in the annals of history. On April 2, 1865 General McAllister received orders to regain ground that the Confederates had taken the night before. The General could not find a volunteer to take command of the left wing of the regiment to make the charge. Lieutenant Plimley suffering from lack of sleep after working all night, said he would take the command. The regiment was the 8th New Jersey Volunteers and Plimley led them to victory, by regaining the lost ground and capturing 118 prisoners.
When William confronted the Confederate Officer and asked for his sword the latter broke his sword and threw it to the embattled field. William picked up the broken weapon and demanded the Confederate’s belt and scabbard. While leading his prisoners back to Union lines the shells and shot coming in heavily, a tree was hit and a falling limb hit Lieutenant Plimley, driving him to the ground. The Staff watching said that he should be recognized for his deeds and he was made a Brevet Captain and later Major.
One week later, on Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865 the war came to an end. Through four long years and much suffering by a nations fortunate sons who survived the many onslaughts could now go home and start life anew. William was one of these men and he mustered out of the army at Kingston, New York, June 3, 1865. He came home to Catskill and his new young bride.
The Plimley’s then moved to New York city, where William obtained a position as a clerk in the United States Post Office, July 21, 1865. William and Catherine had a daughter Lelia McAllister, born April 15, 1866. After making New York City their residence, Catherine terminated her membership in her church at Catskill in 1867.
William’s civilian life paralleled that of military career. In his twenty-eight years with the post office he went from clerk to General Superintendent of the Money Order Department. The Post Office in Washington found him to be a very conservative, safe, and valuable employed authority in money order matters. He saved the Government considerable sums through his efficient re-organizing. He was involved in International business and foreign trade. After retiring from the Post Office he was Financial Supervisor of the Mutual Reserve Life Insurance Company.
Even in retirement William could not sit still. He went on to become Commissioner of Jurous. Mayor elect William L. Strong appointed Mr. Plimley to this position after much advice from the city’s banker, merchants, and insurance men. His job performance as the commissioner resulted in high accolades from member of the Bench, Bar, and the general public.
William received the Medal of Honor by order of President William McKinley, April 4, 1898. The Government was made aware of William’s gallant deed by the efforts of John L. Parker, of Lynn, Massachusetts. Mr. Parker was a First Lieutenant in the 11th Massachusetts Infantry. He was also an eyewitness to the charge made by William at Hatcher’s Run.
Mr. Plimley did not got to Washington and receive the Medal from the President, but received it through the mail. This lack of decorum in presentation was a severe oversight on behalf of the government; William deserved full pomp and circumstance.
In 1904 the government changed the design of the original Medal and issued new ones. They requested that the original Medals be returned before distributing the new ones. William returned his Medal and upon finding that he could keep the original, he wrote to William Howard Taft, who was the Secretary of State, and asked for his first Medal. The Government sent him the new one and later returned the original.
William also led a very busy life in his spare time. He was President of the 3rd Army Corps Association, a member of the New York City West Side Republican Club, Alternate at the New York State Republican Convention, September 25, 1912, in Saratoga, and the Grand Army of the Republic. He attended McKinley’s inauguration in Washington D. C., March 4, 1897. He was a member of The American Protective Tariff League, Grant Monument Committee, The Committee for the Reception of Admiral Dewy in New York City. He also attended many reunions of his proud days in the army. Journeying to Fredericksburg, Virginia, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and other battlefields.
William remembered with fondness his place of birth, Catskill, New York. Thus he belonged to the Greene County Society in New York City, an organization of Greene County people who moved to the city and made their life there. He was very active member and also held the office of President. The Plimley’s front door was always opened to their friends from Greene County.
On Thursday October 2, 1913, at 6: 00 P. M. the Lord told William it was time to come home, ending a very productive life. He was 74 year of age and was working at this desk at the Board of Elections in New York City. He had been enjoying good health when he died of Cerebral Apoplexy. He was sent home and buried in the Catskill Village Cemetery. Catherine moved back to Catskill and lived in an apartment in The Heidelberg, which is located at the end of Clark Street and was once the old Greene County Jail. Catherine died March 8, 1915 and was laid to rest next to William on March 9, 1915.
William Plimley is a person whom Catskill, Greene County, New York, and the United States should be proud of. He was the type of man when he stumbled, he got up and ran harder. Second place did not suffice for William. It was this type of man, a William Plimley, who made this the Greatest nation in the World. We as people from a rural county in a great State and Nation should be proud of Major Plimley, and never forget him.
To bring the Major’s family to present. Lelia married George P. Breckenridge in the year 1900. George was a lawyer from St. Louis, Missouri, who was a descendant of John Caleb Breckenridge, Vice President under James Buchanan (Presidency, 1857-1861). John C. Breckenridge ran against Lincoln for President. When the Civil War broke out he was a Major General and Secretary of War for the Confederacy. Lelia and George settled in Pelham Manor, New York where Lelia gave birth to Robert Plimley Breckenridge, May 8, 1907, William’s only grandchild.
Robert Plimley Breckenbridge married Nancy Linn Smith. Robert and Nancy had two daughters, Lee and Gail. Robert died in 1964. Like his grandfather, he also was a Major in the Army during World War Two. Nancy Linn Breckenridge now lives in Ashville, North Carolina.
Lee Breckenridge married George Jocoby Jr. and they live in Marblehead, Massachusetts with their children, Robert Breckenridge and Sarah Hieatt. Gail Breckenridge married Darrell K. Adams and they live in Castle Rock, Colorado.
I would like to end the Major’s story with two letters that he wrote during the war and was sent to the Catskill Examiner. One after a Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg and the other when Lincoln was running for a second term.
After many months of pleasurable
Work and research, historically,
Douglas S. Thomsen, July 31, 1984
A letter from William Plimley to the Catskill Examiner
Vol. 36 Number 4, July 18, 1863
For the first time since the Battle of Gettysburg I have a few leisure moments, and in them I will give you a correct list of the killed and wounded in the Greene Country Companies, comprising Companies F., K. and D.
Never did any troops behave more bravely than did the 120th in the late battle. The Brigade to which we are attached (the Excelsior) complimented us very highly on the gallant conduct displayed, we have suffered fearfully, the day after the battle we numbered 165 men, rank and file.
The conduct of both officers and men is worthy the commendation they have received. I will try and give you a full detail of the battles, as soon as we remain in one place long enough. The Regiment has been on the march ever since the battle. We are investing the Rebels closely, and you may expect a heavy battle ere long.
Remember me, with kind regards, to all my Union friends. We are looking forward to victory and the restoration of the Union. When we do come home we will come crowned with laurels. The welcome news of the surrender of Vicksburg, on the ever memorable 4th, was hailed with tremendous cheers by the troops, and inspired them with new hope.
Yours and c.,
Quartermaster Sergeant, 120th N. Y. S. V.
Head Quarters, 3rd Brigade, 3rd Div.
2nd Army Corps in front to Petersburg
October 19, 1864
Marcus H. Trowbridge
Some days ago I cast my vote for Lincoln and the
constitution, and forwarded it to you. I trust that those at home will give as
full a vote for him as the soldiers in the field. You can depend on the Army
vote for a majority that will make Copperheads howl. Little Mac is what the boys
term it, utterly "played out".
We have had such encouraging news from Indiana and Ohio that we feel confident of final success. The aspect of military affairs is growing brighter every day, and creates great enthusiasm among the men. They all seem to realize what they are fighting for and are bound to be victorious or die on the fields. The Rebellion is now on its last legs and I am looking forward to the day when I shall (with Providence permitting) return to my home and friends, and there rest in peace, feeling that I have done my whole duty to my country.
I will be proud to say, as did our noble Gen. Joe Hooker, that "I too, belonged to the Army of the Potomac."
Very respectfully yours, & c
Lieut. William Plimley