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NEWS | Oct. 5, 2021

New York Air Guard honors former President Chester Arthur

By Eric Durr, New York National Guard

MENANDS, N.Y. – The commander of the New York Air National Guard marked the 192nd birthday of President Chester Arthur Oct. 5 by placing a wreath from President Joseph Biden at his grave.

Maj. Gen. Timothy LaBarge presented the presidential wreath during a short ceremony to honor the 21st president at the historic Albany Rural Cemetery in Menands.

LaBarge was joined by Command Chief Master Sgt. Jeffrey Trottier, the senior enlisted leader for the 109th Airlift Wing, in laying the wreath.

Each year, former presidents are honored on their birthday with the presentation of a wreath from the current president at their gravesite by military leaders.

The New York National Guard recognizes Arthur, who died at age 57 in 1886; as well as Martin Van Buren, whose grave is in Kinderhook, N.Y.; and Millard Fillmore, who is buried in Buffalo.

The ceremony featured remarks by LaBarge and cemetery officials and concluded with the laying of the wreath and the playing of taps and a bagpiper sounding "Amazing Grace."

Airmen from the New York Air National Guard's 109th Airlift Wing provided a color guard and honor cordon for the event, as well as the bugler who played taps.

"It is a great honor to represent the president and to be here today," LaBarge said.

Chester Arthur, who served from 1881 to 1885, was charged with providing leadership to a country in transition, LaBarge said in his remarks.

The country was still dealing with the changes brought by the Civil War and the period known as Reconstruction.

Arthur took over from President James Garfield, who had died after being shot by an assassin.

Arthur had served in the New York State Militia as a military lawyer. He then was given the job of ensuring that New York City's harbor fortifications were in shape when the Civil War started. Eventually, he became the quartermaster general of New York, responsible for equipping 70,000 Soldiers who went off to war.

When he became president, Chester Arthur used those military leadership skills and provided strong leadership, LaBarge said.

He is credited with approving the first federal civil service law and creating the modern U.S. Navy by approving the construction of steel battleships.

Arthur oversaw the implementation of the first federal law governing immigration, and organized an international conference that set the prime meridian - used for determining a place on Earth and for timekeeping - as running through Greenwich, England. Setting that standard was critical in ensuring uniform time zones around the world.

Arthur also had the unusual duty of determining how a federal budget surplus should be spent, LaBarge said.

Arthur was raised in Washington County, New York, and attended Union College in Schenectady. He taught school in rural Vermont and New York, then became a lawyer in New York City.

In 1855, as a 24-year old lawyer, Chester Arthur won a lawsuit that resulted in the New York State Supreme Court ruling that African Americans could not be excluded from the city's horse car transit system.

Arthur had represented Elizabeth Jennings, a Black woman booted off a whites-only horse car in New York City while on her way to her job as a church organist July 16, 1854. She was awarded $225 in damages.

While considered a successful president, Arthur served only one term in office.

In the second year of his presidency, Arthur was diagnosed with Bright's disease, which was then a fatal kidney condition that caused fatigue.

He kept this a secret and kept his name in the running for president in 1884 to keep himself politically viable. But historians say he did not run very hard, and the Republican Party did not nominate him for reelection.

Arthur died in 1886 and was buried next to his wife, Ellen, who had died of pneumonia in 1880, shortly after Arthur was elected vice president.