Politics have taken up our front pages for months now, and now that the election is over, in the spirit of Tip O’Neill, who famously said “All politics is local,” I bring you the story of three politicians who ruled Brooklyn in the years after the Civil War. Two were Civil War veterans, highly decorated generals in the Union Army. The third was a civilian, a merchant and career civil servant, and a canny player in the game of politics since he was a teenager. As they took control of Republican Brooklyn, they were known as the “Three Graces,” a name that they probably didn’t like. The mythological Graces were goddesses symbolizing beauty, charm and joy, and Silas B. Dutcher, General Benjamin Franklin Tracy and General James Jourdan had little of any of those qualities. They were tough, determined and efficient. For Brooklyn, in the 1870s, that was enough.
Ulysses S. Grant was president, and the North was full of soldiers and officers of the victorious Union Army. Many of the officers were from upper middle class and privileged backgrounds. Before the War, they had been lawyers, businessmen and merchants. After the Civil War, some were looking forward to getting back to their old lives and businesses, and others wanted new challenges. The nation was growing, especially her cities, and Brooklyn, still an independent city, was growing by leaps and bounds. Rural Brooklyn was fast disappearing, and Brooklynites were spreading out as transportation improved to the far reaches of the city. The city needed a firm political hand, if one, or a group, was willing to grab it.
Silas B. Dutcher was the first to embrace politics. Like many of Brooklyn’s leaders, he too came from Dutch stock; his forefathers had emigrated from Holland to upstate New York in the seventeenth century. Born in 1829, he started his career at sixteen, teaching school while working on his father’s farm. During the 1840s, he was working on the railroad that ran between Elmira and Niagara Falls. In 1850, he came to New York and became a successful merchant. Once established, he immediately jumped into local politics.
That would have been no surprise to anyone that knew him. Dutcher had been a Whig, active in upstate politics, and had toured the state making stump speeches for Zachary Taylor, who became president in 1848. By the 1850s, the nation was divided over issues of states’ rights and slavery. In 1854, the passage of the Kansas Nebraska Act, which would extend slavery into the new territories, caused the formation of a new political party, the Republicans. Dutcher eagerly became a charter member, and would speak at every Republican convention until 1888. In 1858-59, he was president of the Young Men’s Republican Committee of New York City, and in 1860, the year the nation elected the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, Silas was president of the Wide-Awake Organization of New York, a Republican club.
In 1861, Silas Dutcher and his wife of two years, Rebecca Alwaise, moved to Brooklyn. He soon became president of the Kings County Republican Committee. Being well-connected never hurt, so before he even moved to Brooklyn, Dutcher had positioned himself as a member of the Board of Supervisors of New York County, which put him in the perfect position to be appointed the powerful Supervisor of Internal Revenue, the city’s tax collector, a position he held from 1868 until 1882.
James Jourdan was a Brooklyn man, having lived here since he was a small child. He was born in New Jersey in 1831. Little is known of his childhood, but we do know that he enlisted in the New York State Militia, and was a member of the 14th Regiment, also known as the “14th Brooklyn.” The 14th was established in 1848, and was made up of two companies of men. Their job was to protect Brooklyn, and their base was the armory that once stood at Cranberry and Henry Streets in Brooklyn Heights. James Jourdan joined up in 1854.
He took to military life easily, and by the time the Civil War broke out in 1861, he had been promoted to Major. Jourdan was transferred to the 56th Regiment of New York Volunteers as a Lt. Colonel. A year later, he was a commander of the 158th Regiment, New York Volunteers, and by the end of the war, achieved the rank of Major General, commanding a brigade of the 18th Army Corp. After the war, he was chosen to command the 13th Regiment of Brooklyn. He resigned in 1870, but was re-elected in 1873. He was a Brigadier General of the State troops in 1875, and in 1878 was made a brevet Major General in command of the Second Division.
General Jourdan’s military career came to an end there, but his life as a Brooklyn mover and shaker began in those years after 1870, when he was once again a civilian. In 1872, he was appointed President of the Police Department of the City of Brooklyn. He later became the sole Police Commissioner, and President of the Board of Excise, and then the Commissioner of the Board of Health, a position he held until 1884. The second of the “Three Graces” was now in position.
The third “Grace” was actually the most powerful, and most impressive, of the group. Benjamin Franklin Tracy was born in 1830, in upstate Owego. His father had fought in the War of 1812, and his son would also go into the military. But before that, B.F. Tracy would study the law. At the age of 21 he was admitted to the bar of the State of New York, after studying with the firm of David & Warner, in Owego. He was also interested in politics, and in 1853 was elected as District Attorney of Tioga County on the Whig ticket, the youngest district attorney ever elected in the State of New York. Interestingly, the rest of the large Whig ticket was roundly defeated. D.A. Tracy was on his way.
Like Silas Dutcher, Tracy became a founding member of the new Republican Party, upstate. He was elected Chairman of the Tioga County Republican Committee, the first County Committee established in New York State. He was the first representative of his county at the state convention, and was a member of the first committee that issued the first Republican address to the voters of the state. In 1856, he ran for district attorney again, and won. He also formed a law partnership with the man he defeated in the election, Gilbert C. Walker.
Again, like Silas Dutcher, Benjamin Tracy was a political animal. He loved it. In 1862, he waged a fierce battle to become party leader on the floor of the State Assembly, a fight so contentious it made the New York Times. He won. But it wouldn’t really matter, because real wars were taking place as the Civil War was becoming a drawn out series of bloody battles. In 1862 President Lincoln called for 300,000 new troops. Tracy volunteered, and in the process, raised the 109th and 137th Regiments of New York Volunteers in a month, and was appointed Colonel of the 109th. His first active service was under General Burnside.
The Battle of the Wilderness was fought in the woods of Virginia, in May of 1864. This would be General Ulysses S. Grant’s first sustained battle against the forces of General Robert E. Lee. Colonel Tracy was in charge of his 109th New Yorkers, and during the battle “seized the colors and led the regiment when other regiments had retired and then reformed his line and held it.” According to witnesses, he not only held the line, he rallied his flagging troops four times, and in the end, they captured the Confederate ramparts. For his bravery under fire, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. The quote was taken from his official citation.
The battle took its toll, however. Colonel Tracy was severely wounded. He was sent home to recover, and then made commandant of the Elmira prison of war camp, a post he held until the war’s end. Later, in 1864, he was also made Colonel of the 127th Infantry, U.S. Colored Troops. The next year, in 1865, he retired from the army. Two years later, President Andrew Johnson nominated Tracy for promotion to brevet grade Brigadier General, to rank from 1865, an appointment that was approved by the United States Senate on February 21, 1867.
Now a celebrated Brigadier General and war hero, he moved to Brooklyn and went back to the practice of law. Many people would have just retired and coasted on their laurels, but Benjamin Tracy wasn’t that kind of man. He immediately immersed himself into Republican politics. It didn’t hurt that he had been appointed United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, a post he held from 1866 to 1877. It was here he met General Jourdan and Silas Dutcher, and their partnership began.
By 1872, Silas Dutcher was Supervisor of Internal Revenue, James Jourdan was Police Commissioner, and Benjamin Tracy was the State’s Attorney for the entire Eastern District. They were the chief tax collector, top cop and head prosecutor. All three men lived in Brooklyn and were leaders of the local Republican Party. Their consolidation of power was almost inevitable. What did they do with it? That’s the story for next time.