Rebels in Our Midst

19 Leitch

:: The House ::

How much history can one house can hold?  After all, this is the house that came across the ice — built in 1823 where Roosevelt Hall now stands on the western shore of Skaneateles Lake, traded for a team of H.W. Allen’s horses in 1838, then purchased by James Gurdon Porter and moved in pieces, in the winter of 1839, across the frozen lake. A house so big, it made two houses on the other side: the center of the house and one wing hauled up the hill to what is today 19 Leitch Avenue, put back together there, and a second wing taken farther up the street to create a smaller house at 27 Leitch Avenue.

:: The Sandisfield Connection ::

The house has had many occupants, but Erastus Mills Beach is the one who interests me. His story begins in Sandisfield, Massachusetts, a small town in Berkshire County. There we start with children of Peter and Sarah Mills: Sarah Sage Mills (b. 1781), Drake Mills (b. 1792), Otis Mills (b.1794) and Celestia Mills (b.1798). Nearby lived the Smith family; they had a son named Reuel (b. 1789).

The eldest sibling, Sarah Sage Mills, married Erastus O. Beach, also of Sandisfield, in about 1800; their first son was Erastus Mills Beach, born in 1804. Celestia Mills, born 18 years after her sister Sarah, married Reuel Smith in 1824. Hence the Mills, Smith and Beach families were knit by ties of hometown and marriage.

This explains why, years later, we find Reuel Smith and Drake Mills, brothers-in-law, in business together on Front Street in New York City as grocers and importers, as “Smith & Mills.”  And Otis Mills and Erastus Mills Beach, uncle and nephew, in business together in Charleston, South Carolina, exporting grain (mostly rice) as “Mills & Beach.” And of course, they are each other’s customers, with Mills & Beach selling and shipping grain from the south to Smith & Mills who in turn sell it to New Yorkers.

Otis Mills and Erastus Mills Beach were members of the New England Society, founded in 1819 by Northern mill owners who bought cotton in Charleston. They were part owners of the Charleston & Savannah Railroad, and both owned real estate in Charleston, including wharves and buildings on the harbor. In 1853, Otis Mills built the Mills House, a Charleston landmark hotel.

:: Summers in Skaneateles ::

Erastus Mills Beach’s close friend and occasional business partner in Charleston was Henry Latrobe Roosevelt, from Skaneateles, where Beach’s uncle, Reuel Smith, had bought a farm. Roosevelt returned to Skaneateles in 1851, and Erastus Mills Beach came to visit Roosevelt and his Uncle Reuel in Skaneateles in 1853. Two years later, Beach bought the home that had crossed the ice.

E.N. Leslie, in his History of Skaneateles, notes, “The Beach family were very prominent here while they were residents during the summer season, and became famous for entertaining a great deal of company, composed principally of their friends in the village, of which they had many.” Leslie also tells us that Beach hosted many of his southern friends, including his uncle and partner, Otis Mills.

The Beach family attended St. James’ Episcopal Church, as did the Roosevelt and Smith families, and in 1857, Erastus Beach was a delegate to the Episcopalian convention from St. James’, along with Henry L. Roosevelt and William H. Jewett.

:: The War ::

All was rosy until April 12, 1861, when forces of the newly declared Confederacy opened fire on Union-held Fort Sumter in Charleston’s harbor. This did not bode well for Smith & Mills in New York, and Mills & Beach in Charleston, who suddenly had a war and a naval blockade interfering with their shipping. Leslie says that Erastus Beach continued to summer in Skaneateles, but we know from a letter from Drake Mills in New York that travel and communication were becoming difficult.

For Erastus Beach, matters in Skaneateles took a turn for the worse in early 1864, while he was in South Carolina. Leslie told the tale:

“Some mischievous person or persons circulated and sent to the Government at Washington a report (originating here) that Erastus M. Beach was a rebel, whereupon the Government immediately seized and held his property here in the village, and placed it in the charge of a Deputy United States Marshall (a resident).”

On 18 February 1864, Erasmus Darwin Beach, a younger brother of Erastus, wrote to Reuel Smith asking him to assist in defending his brother against suspicion of supporting the Confederacy and the confiscation of his property in Skaneateles. Smith, however, was apparently powerless to stop what happened next. Leslie wrote:

“During the time that this marshal had it in charge, Mr. Beach’s dwelling was allowed by this officer to be shamefully looted of all its furniture of every description, especially during the night. The general prejudice existing among many of the villagers against a rebel was such that the deputy marshal seemingly enjoyed the looting.

“Every closet throughout the house was looted of its contents. Every bureau, its drawers being locked, was broken open at the back and thence the contents were taken. A large manhole was cut through the floor in the front hall to reach the wine cellar, through which the looters reached and drank all the wines.”

Too easily we can imagine these patriotic men of Skaneateles, inspired by their love for the Union and an abhorrence for slavery, deciding the highest expression of their noble feelings would be to saw a hole in Erastus Beach’s floor and drain the cellar.

Leslie expressed outrage and in defense of his friend wrote:

“Erastus M. Beach had an irreproachable character in his business relations as well as in his private life, was possessed of a genial kindness of nature, a steadfast, reliable friend, and in every relation of life an admirable character. Before the extraordinary and shameful false reports circulated in the village by malicious persons affecting his character as a loyal American citizen, and the utter destruction of his property, for which the village of Skaneateles was responsible, his intercourse with his fellow citizens was at all times courteous and affable, always gentlemanly.”

Leslie, however, never touched upon Beach’s actual sympathies. Beach himself made those feelings clear in a letter to Reuel Smith, written from Charleston on January 24, 1861. Smith had suggested to Beach that the recent election of Lincoln was not sufficient grounds for secession. Beach replied:

“It is by no means the mere election of Lincoln which has aroused the South… It was openly announced there was to be no more slave territory, that we of the South are gradually to be driven to give up our slaves & adopt free labour — that we were to be deprived of our property by every means which men could devise, in open violation of The Constitution. The South felt the time had come when a separation must be had rather than submit to such a condition of things, and take the government of ourselves into our own keeping. We desire a peaceable separation. We are disposed to settle, upon the most honourable terms, all our national obligations, but we are determined not to submit to the rule of a party & power dominant, which does not hesitate to declare its hostility to us & our institution.”

Clearly, Beach’s sympathies were with the South, although they had not prevented him from keeping a northern summer home, now closed to him. By 1865, the war had also driven him out of Charleston. In a letter of May 29th to Reuel Smith in Skaneateles, Beach told of moving to Kirkwood, near Camden, South Carolina:

“The place has twenty acres, and has given me occupation and something to eat. We have found it very pleasant, being on all sides surrounded by very nice people. Sherman’s passage thro this portion of the State destroyed nearly all our means of communication, and mail facilities, so that we hear nothing from the outside world except occasionally some traveller passing thro is the bearer of letters & papers.”

Nor did the war go well for Beach’s business partner and uncle, Otis Mills. When he died in 1869, a Charleston newspaper wrote of his struggles:

“When the citizens of Charleston were called upon to aid the military authorities in erecting fortifications around the city, none responded more readily than Mr. Mills, and he and his slaves were at work incessantly day and night where their services were most needed. His practical faith in the success of our cause and his excessive generosity in risking his fortune therewith left him at the termination of the war almost penniless.”

And slave-less besides. Erastus Beach did eventually receive compensation for the confiscation of his home in Skaneateles. Leslie notes that he was also given a government job in the Customs House in New York City, by way of an apology, and he spent the rest of his life there. There is no mention of his ever returning to Skaneateles.

:: The Prince of Privateers ::

Before the war, Erastus Beach hosted John N. Maffitt in Skaneateles, surely his most famous guest. Between 1850 and 1855, Maffitt was an officer in the U.S. Navy, surveying the waters in and around Charleston, where he charted Maffitt’s Channel. It was probably at this time that Beach met Maffitt, who was much feted by the town’s grateful shippers.

Beginning in 1857, Maffitt commanded U.S. ships in the waters of the West Indies, intercepting slave ships and liberating hundreds of slaves. But in February of 1861, concerned that Maffitt was a southerner (he was raised in North Carolina) and might make off with his ship if war began, the U.S. Navy ordered him to return his ship to a U.S. port. He sailed to Mobile, Alabama, where he defended his ship from local citizens who wanted to seize it for the Confederacy. He next sailed to the naval base at Key West, where he helped to secure federal property there. There were no supplies to be had for the voyage north, so he provisioned the ship in Havana at his own expense and sailed it to New York. When he reported to Washington, the naval authorities refused to reimburse him for the expense. When Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, Maffitt’s course became clear. He slipped out of Washington, and made his way south to join the Confederate States Navy.

John Newland Maffitt

In the service of the Confederacy, Maffitt became truly famous. As a blockade runner, he was fearless and uncatchable. Approaching the harbor at Mobile Bay on one occasion, so weak with yellow fever that he was barely able to stand, and having no local pilot to guide him, he chose to run the Union blockade in daylight. For 19 minutes he took broadsides from the Union ships. His midshipman, G. Terry Sinclair, later wrote:

“The ravages of the fever had prevented our doing more than mounting our guns and securing them for sea; otherwise we should have returned the enemy’s fire. We received one 11-inch shell opposite our port gangway, near the water-line. It passed through our coal-bunker, painfully wounding one man and beheading another, thence to the berth deck, where our men had previously been ordered as a place of safety. Fortunately this shell did not explode, the fuse having been knocked out, probably by contact with the ship’s side. Another shell entered the cabin, and, passing through the pantry, raised havoc with the crockery. The ship to the day of her destruction bore the marks of upward of fourteen hundred shrapnel balls.”

As a commerce raider in the Atlantic, Maffitt captured and burnt more than 70 ships, worth $15 million, that were headed to or from the Union. But he always took the crews and passengers safely to neutral ports. The press dubbed him “The Prince of Privateers.” Although the title was erroneous — he was officially in the navy of  the Confederacy — it had a nice ring to it. Reading of his exploits, some in Skaneateles must have recalled his visit and his host.

:: Epilogue ::

Reuel and Celestia Mills Smith had three children: James Mills Smith, Sarah Celestia Smith and Edmond Reuel Smith. Reuel’s wife, Celestia, died in New York City, in 1829, three days after the birth of Edmond. Their daughter, Sarah Celestia Smith, died two months after the death of her mother; she was not yet two-years-old. Reuel Smith, the elder, died in 1873 in New York City. In 1860, Edmond Reuel Smith married Elizabeth DeCost Burnett of Skaneateles and began a new chapter in the life of the Smith family here.

:: Sources ::

I am grateful for the Reuel Smith letters collected at the University of South Carolina’s South Caroliniana Library; The Old Merchants of New York City (1885) by Walter Barrett a.k.a. Joseph A. Scoville; G. Terry Sinclair, Midshipman, C.S.N., in “Confederate Commerce-Destroyers: The Eventful Cruise of the ‘Florida’ ” in The Century Magazine, July 1898; History of Skaneateles (1902) by Edmund Norman Leslie; History of the New England Society of Charleston, South Carolina, for One Hundred Years, 1819-1919 Compiled from Original Sources by William Way, Rector of Grace Episcopal Church and Ninth President of the New England Society (1920); many genealogies and of course, The New York Times and Wikipedia.

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6 thoughts on “Rebels in Our Midst

  1. As a decendent of the Smith family of Skaneateles, I found this article to be very enlightning and also gave me some information for my family history. Thank you
    John Barnes

  2. I am pretty sure I am related to Erastus Beach in some way based on my family history placing us near Charleston during the Civil War. There was another Beach living in the area as well, a Joseph Beach, that I am definitely related to. Any idea whether and how he was related to Eratus?

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