Biography of Frederick Townsend


AMONG those who have taken a prominent part in the development of the military affairs of our state, and have also been conspicuous for gallantry in the war for the Union, is General Frederick Townsend, of Albany, where he was born on the 21st of September, 1825.

He comes from a line of ancestors noted for their independence of character, high moral principles and true devotion to the cause of liberty. He is a son of Isaiah Townsend, a prominent and wealthy merchant of this city, who married his cousin, Hannah Townsend, of New York, and died, at his residence in Albany in 1838, at the age of sixty-one. The general’s grandfather, on his father’s side, was Henry Townsend, of Cornwall, N. Y. , who married Mary Bennet and died in 181 5. The original ancestor of this branch of the Townsend family in America was old Henry Townsend, who was married to Annie Coles, and with his two brothers, John and Richard, came from Norfolk, Eng., to Massachusetts about the year 1640. They did not remain long in the old bay state, but set out through the primeval forests for the shores of Long Island, where they first located at Flushing, of which place they were among the original settlers. The patent was granted to John Townsend and others by Gov. Kieft, in 1645.

On account of political and religious difficulties with the old Dutch governor, Peter Stuyvesant, the pioneer Townsends did not find it altogether pleasant living at Flushing. In consequence, of the invasion of their rights in matters of a political and ecclesiastical nature they removed to Warwick, R. I., where they all became members of the provincial assembly and held, besides, municipal office. In 1656 they once more attempted to settle on Long Island, and during that year obtained, with others, the patent of Rustdorp, now Jamaica. But their liberty of conscience was not long to remain undisturbed. In the following year Henry, who seemed to have been the leading spirit among his brothers, was arrested, imprisoned and fined “one hundred pounds Flanders” for harboring Quakers in his house – so high did the spirit of persecution rage in those days against the denomination of Friends. This unjust treatment was too much for the resolute old Henry Townsend and his brothers to bear patiently, and the very next year we find them removing to Oyster Bay, L. I., which was then out of the jurisdiction of the Dutch hierarchy at New Amsterdam. Here Henry passed the remainder of his days, dying in 1695. The brothers Townsend were possessed of many sterling and heroic qualities, and were not afraid to do or to attempt to do what they deemed to be right. They manifested strong affection for each other, always clinging together amidst the storms and sunshine of their lives “like a three fold cord,” which is not easily broken. The descendants of these brothers were notable men, many of them elected repeatedly to offices of high trust and responsibility. The General’s great-great-great grandfather on his mother’s side, James Townsend, was deputy surveyor-general of the province. His great-grandfather, Samuel Townsend, ” was actively engaged in the English and West India trade, which he successfully prosecuted until the revolution, when, besides the unavoidable obstructions to business occasioned by the war, he, being a Whig, was subjected to many annoyances and interruptions from the British after they obtained possession of Oyster Bay. Before that time he was a member of the provincial congress, and at the close of the war resumed his seat and continued in public life until his death – 1790. He was also a state senator and a member of the first council of appointment under the constitution in 1789. While a member of the Fourth provincial congress (1776) he and thirteen others were appointed a committee ” to prepare a form of government for the state.” The committee reported March 12, 1777, which report was discussed until April 20th following, when the first constitution of the state of New York was adopted. The general’s grandfather, Solomon Townsend of New York, conducted a large iron business in that city, having extensive iron works at Chester, Orange County, and at Peconic River, Suffolk County. He frequently represented New York in the state legislature, and was a member thereof at the time of his death in 1811.

As soon as he was old enough Frederick Townsend, the subject of this sketch, was sent to a private infant school in this city, and afterward he attended the Boys’ academy here. His sprightly air, active temperament, and social disposition, made him popular among the young students, and the several terms of his academic life, excepting the two years he was at Bartlett’s Collegiate school, Poughkeepsie, were both pleasantly and profitably spent in his native city. All this time he was rapidly preparing himself for a collegiate course, and at the early age of fifteen he entered Union college, at Schenectady, where, during four years he carried on his regular studies, standing well in his classes, and earning moreover the reputation of being a first class, genial companion, among the college students. Graduating from old Union in 1844, at the age of nineteen, he soon afterward turned his attention to the study of the law. He became a student in the law office of Messrs. John V. L. Pruyn (subsequently chancellor of the University of the State) and the late Henry H. Martin (at the time of whose death president of the Albany Savings bank). He was admitted to the bar in 1849, at the general term of the Supreme Court in Albany.

With a view to enlarging his knowledge of the world and human nature, by study and observation, General Townsend, about this time, set out on quite an extensive line of travel, going to California when the gold fever there was just beginning to rage, and thence subsequently crossing the Atlantic and visiting the principal places of interest in literature, history and art. His keen perception and high appreciation of the beauties of nature and art, and his careful study of society in its various phases rendered his visits both home and foreign most interesting and profitable. Returning home with his tastes cultivated and his manners polished he settled down in 1856 in the practice of the law in Albany, the firm being Townsend, Jackson & Strong, in which he continued actively for only a year.

While interested in the general principles and literature of legal science, there was another subject for which he showed a stronger attachment, and that was military science. For this he always had a natural taste, and consequently, was not long in mastering the general details of military tactics. The more he studied this science the better he liked it; and he soon became an excellent authority on matters connected wit it. It just suited his young, ardent imagination, and filled his mind with pleasing thoughts of future usefulness and activity in the service of his country. Soon after his return from Europe he was made captain of Company B, Washington Continentals, of Albany. He also organized the Seventy-sixth regiment of militia, of which he was colonel, and later on, the Albany Zouave Cadets (Company A, Tenth battalion, National Guard). His admirable fitness to occupy some higher position in the military ranks becoming more widely known and more fully appreciated, he was appointed by Governor John A. King, in 1857, adjutant-general of the state of New York. This appointment was a most fortunate one, and one of its fruits was the far greater efficiency of the state troops for the coming storm of civil war. General Townsend found the New York state military as a whole in a very disordered and undeveloped condition, utterly unworthy of the power and renown of the empire state. He saw at once the many defects in our military system, and with strong hands, a brave heart, and settled purpose, he went to work to make it what it ought to be. He left the practice of the law and devoted his time as adjutant-general to making great reforms, infusing new life and vigor into our military organization, bringing order out of confusion and light out of chaos. He prepared an annual report to the commander-in-chief, the first issued in many years from his department, in which he clearly set forth his ideas, with various strong recommendations for a better military system, which he speedily put in practice. In 1859 he was reappointed adjutant-general by Gov. Edwin D. Morgan, and gave his undivided attention still in the same direction. And it may be truly asserted that it was principally owing to the efficiency of Gen. Townsend that so many New York troops were ready to take the field when the thunders of Fort Sumter’s guns first aroused the loyal men of the North to action and called them to arms.

In 1861 inspired with the patriotic fervor which then stirred all hearts, Gen. Townsend promptly tendered his services to his country at the beginning of the civil war; and organized the Third regiment of New York state volunteers, of which he was commissioned colonel in May and which he commanded at the battle of Big Bethel, June 10, 1861, on which field he was conspicuous for many acts of gallantry. He was appointed by President Lincoln a major of the Eighteenth infantry, one of the new three battalion regiments of the regular army, August 19, 1861, and was assigned to duty in the west. His command first joined the army of Gen. Buell and than that of Gen. Rosecrans. He commanded his battalion in the reconnaissance to Lick Creek, Miss., (sometimes called Pea Ridge), April 26, 1862; also in the siege of Corinth, April 30th, and in the occupation thereof May 30th after its evacuation by the enemy. On the 6th of October he was in the advance of the Third corps, army of the Ohio, with his battalion, driving the rear guard of the enemy from Springfield to near Texas, Ky.; and, also, with his battalion took part in the battle of Perryville or Chaplin Hill, Ky., on the 8th of that month. After the first day of the battle at Stone River, Tenn., December 31, 1862, to January 2, 1863, all his senior officers of the regular brigade having been shot except the brigade commander, he was placed by the latter in command of the left wing of the brigade. He was also in the affair of Eagleville, Tenn., March 2, 1863, with a large force supporting a foraging party. In all these various battles, engagements and affairs, Major Townsend proved himself to be a true and brave soldier, and on several occasions displayed great courage on these fields of carnage. He received, successively, the brevet of lieutenant-colonel, that of colonel, and that of brigadier-general, all in the regular army. In May, 1863, Gen. Townsend was detailed for duty at Albany, as acting assistant provost-marshal-general.

In 1867, on his return from Europe after a leave of absence, he was ordered to California (having been promoted in 1864, to be lieutenant-colonel of the Ninth United States Infantry), and placed by Gen. McDowell on his staff as acting assistant inspector-general of the department, in which capacity he made an inspection of all the government posts in Arizona. He resigned his commission in 1868. He is a member of the society of the Army of the Cumberland, of the Grand Army of the Republic, and of the military order of the Loyal Legion of the United States.

Gen. Townsend has been a director of the New York State National bank and trustee of the Albany and Bethlehem Turnpike company since 1864; a trustee of Vassar college since June 27, 1876; a trustee of the Albany Orphan Asylum since 1879; a trustee of the Dudley observatory since April 22, 1880, and a trustee of the Albany academy since May ri, 1886. He was elected brigadier-general of the Ninth brigade, National Guard, state of New York, in 1878, and resigned that position on the 1st of January, 1880, to accept the appointment of adjutant-general of the state of New York, tendered by Governor Cornell. In this post he again turned his attention to a long cherished idea of further developing the state troops, which, among other progressive measures, culminated in his establishing the “camp of instruction” near Peekskill, and providing the service dress uniform for all the troops of the state.

He was nominated by the republican state convention in 1880 for the office of elector of the president and vice-president, was elected, and cast his vote for James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur for those offices, respectively.

In the quietude of his handsome mansion on Elk street Gen. Townsend is now enjoying the fruits of his well-earned military laurels, the respect and esteem of his fellow-citizens, and surrounded by all that makes domestic life pleasing and attractive.

On November 19, 1863, he married Miss Sarah Rathbone, a lady of much culture of mind and gracefulness of manners, only daughter of the late Joel Rathbone, a prominent merchant and banker of Albany.

They have two children – a daughter, Miss Sarah Rathbone Townsend, and a son, Frederick Townsend, Jr., a graduate of the Albany academy, who in 1889 entered Harvard college with honors.

Gen. Townsend is tall, well-proportioned, of stately, soldierly bearing, active in his movements, gentlemanly in his manners, and endowed with a high order of conversational powers.


Noted living Albanians and state officials , A series of biographical sketches. 1891.

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