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This biography is from HEROES OF ALBANY, by Rufus W. Clark, D. D.


Henry Van Rensselaer, the fourth son of the Hon. Stephen Van Rensselaer, by his second wife, Cornelia Paterson, the daughter of Chief Justice Paterson, of New Jersey, was born at the Manor House, Albany, May 14th, 1810.

His father and his ancestors, back to Killian Van Rensselaer, who came to this country as early as 1642, bore the title of Patroon. This title is derived from the Latin patronus, and in the time of the Roman republic was used to denote a patrician, who enjoyed certain civil rights and privileges, and had a number of people under his protection. With the growth of the empire, the jurisdiction of a Patroon in some instances extended, so as to embrace whole cities and provinces. In Holland the title designated the proprietor of a large estate in lands, occupied and cultivated by tenants, and having connected with it many of the privileges of the ancient feudal system.

For over two centuries this title has been transmitted down to the present day, through the proprietor and representative of the Van Rensselaer estate; and I may add that of our public citizens none have surpassed those who have borne this title, in their zeal to establish upon this continent constitutional liberty, and maintain the authority of the Federal Government supreme over all manorial privileges, and State sovereignties.

Among those who fought zealously for the adoption of the Federal Constitution in this State, was the Hon. Stephen Van Rensselaer, who was afterwards, in 1795, associated with the Hon. John Jay in the government of the State of New York. Notwithstanding the strong personal interest in his native State, that his ancestral associations would naturally excite, still he had the sagacity to see that there could be but one great nation upon this continent. He also had the patriotism to feel that in an hour of solicitude and trial like that, all personal aspirations should be laid upon the altar of the national life and prosperity.

The influences of Henry's home were such as to awaken in the youthful mind an admiration for those patriotic and private virtues which adorn human character, and which found so perfect an illustration in the lives of his parents.

When only seven years of age, he left home with his elder brother to attend Mr. McCullough's boarding school, at Morristown, N. J., and went afterwards with the same brother to Dr. Benjamin Allen's Academy, at Hyde Park. A few years later, it being then decided that he should enter the Academy at West Point, he was sent to begin his military education with Capt. Partridge, at Middletown. The pupils at this school, besides being instructed in the ordinary military exercises, were taught to prepare for the possible fatigues of a campaign by long pedestrian tours in different directions through the country, sometimes marching as much as thirty or forty miles a day. After leaving this school, Mr. Van Rensselaer held, for a short time, the honorary position of Aid to Gov. Clinton, and at the age of seventeen entered the Military Academy at West Point. Here he first evinced a marked trait of character, which influenced him in after life—a strong, ever-present sense of duty, which would not permit the neglect of an obligation once assumed, and which enabled him to form and hold resolutely to the purpose of complying, in all respects, as far as possible, with what was required of him. His love of order, diligence of application, and fidelity to the most minute, as well as the more important details of duty, enabled him to pass through the four years discipline of the Academy without a single demerit.

Mr. Van Rensselaer did not remain long in the army, but having married in 1833 Miss Elizabeth R. King, daughter of the Hon. John A. King, of Jamaica, L. I., he moved to Ogdensburgh to assume the charge of his father's estates in St. Lawrence county; and in 1839, on the death of his father, became himself the proprietor. For some years he devoted himself exclusively to the pursuitis of agriculture, and to the discharge of the numerous duties pertaining to his position. He was always ready to assist, often to his own injury, in any enterprise that promised to promote the good of the community. Generous, almost to a fault, his hand was open alike to the calls of public and private charity. His poor neighbor found in him a sincere and willing friend, and the settlers upon his lands were treated with a uniform liberality and consideration, which won their respect and affection.

Mr. Van Rensselaer was, from the period of his marriage, a communicant in the Protestant Episcopal Church, and devotedly attached to its interests. He allowed nothing to interfere with what was not only a duty, but his highest pleasure, the service of God; and no inclemency of weather ever prevented his punctual attendance in the sanctuary. Simple and unostentatious in manner, with a natural reserve, which shrank from disclosing the communings of his inner life, he commanded universal respect as a pure Christian gentleman; one whose constant endeavor was "to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with his God."

In 1841, Mr. Van Rensselaer was elected a member of the House of Representatives from his district, being the only Whigmember ever elected by the same constituency. He served through three sessions of the Twenty-seventh Congress with his accustomed punctuality and diligence. But political life had few attractions for him, and he gladly returned to his happy home and ordinary occupations.

In the fall of 1855, he removed with his family to New York, intending in the future to pass the winter there and the summer at his home on the St. Lawrence. But soon after his departure, his house at Woodford, on which he had lavished all the improvements that a refined taste could suggest, and where he delighted to dispense an elegant and liberal hospitality, was destroyed by fire, and New York became his permanent residence. There he led for some years a quiet and retired life, yet always taking a deep interest in the political questions of the day, and watching, with the sorrow of one devoted to his conntry, the growth of prejudice and treason, which culminated in the great rebellion.

But when the fall of Fort Sumter fired the patriotism of the north, true to his early training as a soldier, and to his instincts as a patriot, he at once wrote to Gen. Scott, then in command of our forces in Washington, to ask for an opportunity as a soldier, educated by the nation, to take some part in the impending struggle. He received, in reply, a telegram saying, "We shall be glad to be aided by your presence;" and hastily completing the arrangements for his departure, he left New York on the 26th of April, 1861. On reaching Washington, Gen, Scott received him immiediately into his military family; and, with the rank of Colonel, made him chief of his statf. Of this position he faithfully and intelligently performed the duties, until the relinquishment by Gen. Scott, under the pressure of physical infirmities, of his high command. He was, during these months, the constant companion of the Lieutenant General, who recognized his moral worth, and appreciated the aftectionate respect and consideration which he always received from him. Col. Van Rensselaer was an enthusiastic admirer of the old commander's personal character and military achievements, as may be seen from the following toast, which he proposed on the occasion of a dinner given by the staff otficers to Gen. Scott on his birth day: "The hero of 1812, and the conqueror of Mexico: Whilst Niagara's thunder hymn is raised to heaven, his fame will not want a voice; and while Mexico's snow-covered Popocatapetl props the sky, his glory needs no monument."

It was the General's special request, when he resigned his position, that the gentlemen of his staff, who had rendered him and their country efficient service, should receive subsequent appointments suitable to their merits. And he was assured by the President that his desire should be gratified, and that, "except the unavoidable privation of his society, which they had so long enjoyed, the provision made for them would be such, as to render their situation as agreeable as it had been before."

Col. Van Rensselaer accompanied Gen. Scott to New York, and received from him, as he was on the point of sailing for Europe, October 9th, 1861, an autograph note of farewell, as follows:

"Adieu, my dear Colonel Van Rensselaer. No General has ever had greater cause to be proud of his staff than I have had in you and my other dear friends—Cols. Townsend, Hamilton, Cullum and Wright—all dear friends.

Upon the advice of Gen. Scott, Col. Van Rensselaer applied for the position of Inspector General in the regular army, and received his commission to that position, dating August 5th,1861.

He was immediately ordered to make an inspection tour of the west, having his head-quarters at Cincinnati, and he visited, during the ensuing winter, most of the militaiy posts of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and Kansas.

In the spring of 1862, he received orders to report to Gen, McDowell, then in command of the Army of the Rappahannock, who was expected to take a prominent part, in cooperation with General McClellan, in the movement upon Richmond. They occupied Manassas and Fredericksburg, and were in daily anticipation of a farther advance, hoping, if possible, to reach Richmond before the Army of the Potomac. But after remaining inactive for some months, they were ordered back for the protection of Washington.

In August, 1862, Col. Van Rensselaer was again ordered to Cincinnati, and the following summer, in addition to his other duties, was appointed president of a board for the examination of officers for colored regiments, a position which he filled at the time of his death. His courteous, genial manners, and kindly heart, won for him the confidence and esteem of all who were connected with him, and during his residence in Cincinnati, he formed many friendships which were an unfailing source of pleasure to him in his leisure hours, and an unspeakable consolation and solace during his last illness.

Owing to an attack of sickness, which rendered him unable to discharge his duties, and which was probably the first symptom of the insidious disease which several months later caused his death, he obtained a leave of absence, dating December 21st, 1863, and hastened home to spend Christmas with his family, it being the first time since the beginning of the war that they had been together at that season. After several happy weeks, which seemed to restore him to his usual vigorous health, he returned to Cincinnati. But the separation from his family, the discomfort and loneliness of hotel life were peculiarly trying to his mind, already harassed by many cares, and the close confinement of his office exhausted his energies, until he had no strength left to struggle with the slow fever, which was gaining a fearful hold upon him. Yet, while contending against the double suffering of feverish days and sleepless nights, he could not be prevailed upon to neglect his official calls, which at that time were peculiarly urgent, or to apply for another furlough. And morning after morning found him seated at his desk, striving faithfully to fix his mind, then weakened by disease, for the business before him, until he was told by the attending surgeon that perfect rest and quiet were essential to his recovery.

On March 16th his wife received a telegram, advising her to come on, and although not apprehending any imminent danger, she hurried there at once. Her presence seemed the gratification of his only earthly desire, and, after listening to the many details of home news, with loving inquiries after all those nearest to his heart, he sank into a stupor, in which, with a few intervals of consciousness, he remained while life lasted.

In his last delirious moments his mind still ran upon the public interests which had so engrossed it—the state of the war, the condition of the troops, and his own unfinished work, with which were mingled words of advice and affection to the children, who could not be with him. There was also a precious, golden thread of higher thoughts, which showed where the mind instinctively turned for comfort, in the approach of death.

The clergyman whose church he attended in Cincinnati, and who was with him during his illness, gave a very touching account of some of his last interviews with him, and spoke of him with the utmost respect and affection, and as one whom he believed to be a sincere and humble follower of Christ. During his lonely hours of suffering, the consciousness of a Saviour's love was to his fainting soul as the "shadow of a great rock in a weary land," and the gloom of death was brightened by the presence of him who has said, "I will never leave thee nor forsake thee."

Col. Van Rensselaer died on the evening of Wednesday, March 23d, 1864, at the Burnet House, Cincinnati. He was buried in the churchyard of Grace Church, Jamaica, L. I., on the following Sunday, Easterday, in the peaceful twilight, with only his children and nearest relatives around his grave.

He sleeps in the Easter hope, that "they who have been baptized into the death of Christ and buried with him, may at last through the grave and gate of death, pass to their joyful resurrection."

This is a simple record of the life of a Christian soldier. We cannot tell of battles fought, of deeds of heroism to command silent admiration; but he did what he could. In his country's first need, he was willing to go forth wherever he should be sent, to give counsel or to aid in the camp or the field; and he unhesitatingly sacrificed all the comfort and happiness of domestic life to the simple instinct of duty, the duty every loyal man owes to his country. Surely such a sacrifice, ending in that of life itself, entitles the departed to the gratitude of a nation and the admiration of posterity.

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