Robert Minturn Grinnell

The Grinnell family came to Skaneateles in 1877, and brought with them quite a history.

Robert M. Grinnell was the son of Henry Grinnell, of the Grinnell, Minturn & Co. shipping line, owners of the famous Flying Cloud clipper ship. Robert grew up in the shipping business, and was member #4 of the New York Yacht Club. In 1852, he shipped his sloop Truant to England and won seven races out of eight, prompting the English to put the boat in its own category so it would have nothing to race against.

In 1857, Robert Grinnell was living in Liverpool, England, and active in shipping. And it is here that his story takes an interesting turn.

At the time, 60% of the cotton grown in the American South was being shipped across the sea to Liverpool, and thence to the textile mills of Lancashire. This was a huge business, with principals on both sides of the Atlantic making enormous sums of money, and thoroughly dependent upon one another. When the American Civil War broke out, the British stance was officially neutral, but the city of Liverpool was ardently pro-Confederacy. The fortunes of its shipping and textile industries were at stake, and they faced ruin if the Union blockade of Confederate ports was successful.

So, although from New York and living in England, Robert Grinnell was surrounded by Confederate sympathizers. (A literary note: Just as Kenneth Robert’s Rabble in Arms (1933) and Oliver Wiswell (1940) help one to understand the feelings of colonists who remained loyal to the Crown during the American Revolution, so Jules Verne’s The Blockade Runners (1871) helps one to understand how the British, merchants in particular, viewed the American Civil War.)

One of Grinnell’s business associates in Liverpool was Charles Kuhn Prioleau, who arrived in Liverpool in 1856 from Charleston, S.C., to serve as the resident manager for the shipping firm Fraser, Trenholm & Company. Prioleau, essentially, went for broke betting on the Confederacy. Even before the war began, he was sending British artillery pieces to Charleston, one of which was aimed directly at Fort Sumter, the Union stronghold in Charleston harbor.

When the war began in earnest, Prioleau became the primary financier and blockade runner for the Confederacy. He built ships at his own expense, had those of the firm already in service transferred to British registry, and ran cotton through the blockade, “laundering” it in Nassau or Bermuda before its arrival in Liverpool, and sending his ships back to Charleston loaded with gunpowder and weapons, and whatever else the South required.

Robert Grinnell, meanwhile, dissolved two shipping partnerships he had in London, and sailed for New Orleans, where he would enlist in the Confederate army. He was no doubt encouraged by his English wife, Isabella Musgrave, who he married in 1860. Although English, she volunteered to serve as a nurse at a hospital in Richmond, Virginia. Her son from an earlier marriage, Linus Musgrave, went into the Confederate navy. And in June of 1861, her husband was mustered into service as a 1st Lieutenant in Maj. Chatham Roberdeau Wheat’s Battalion, also known as the Louisiana Tigers.

Wheat’s Battalion traveled north to Virginia just in time to participate in the First Battle of Bull Run, and served in “Stonewall” Jackson’s Valley Campaign. At the Battle of Front Royal on May 23, 1862, Lt. Grinnell was wounded in the hand, losing two fingers, and captured. He was sent as a prisoner to Washington D.C. in July, and then to Fort Monroe, Virginia, where he was exchanged for a Union officer on August 5, 1862. After his exchange, he was promoted to Captain, then Major, while serving on the staff of Gen. Henry Heth in the Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Writing to Charles Prioleau from Richmond in June 1863, Major Grinnell said that he was still confident of victory, but added that he had lived on bacon and corn for the last year.

Also in Richmond, Isabella Grinnell was looking for work. On April 8, 1863, she wrote to Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, as follows:

“In consequence of the Hospital being closed, in which I was employed, and as I came 5,000 miles in hopes of being of service to this Confederacy, I do not wish to remain idle. I therefore tender to your Excellency the use of my services, to be employed in any way you may see fit. I should be willing to undertake to carry dispatches to be delivered on this continent or in Europe, and I feel confident that I should be able to deliver them to whomever they might be sent… I will only add that if I am employed in any way, I will not fail, for I do not know the word.”

In October of 1863, the diary of Samuel Pearce Richards, a bookseller in Atlanta, Georgia, notes:

“Tonight we went to Mr. Root’s to sing and found there Mrs. Grinnell, an English lady who has come to our country as a ‘Florence Nightingale’ and has made herself very useful in the hospitals near the battlefields. She is an educated lady and a very entertaining talker indeed and we all enjoyed her society for an hour or two very much, singing to fill up the pauses. Mr. Grinnell is an officer in the Confederate Service.”

Sidney Root, at whose home Mrs. Grinnell was staying, was a merchant who began a career as a blockade runner at the personal request of Jefferson Davis, a close friend. Root opened a shipping office in Charleston and another in Liverpool. Root’s partner, John N. Beach, managed the office in Liverpool and became a British subject. At the peak of their success, Root and Beach had a fleet of 20 British steamers. It seems likely that these connections are what brought Mrs. Grinnell to Root’s home, and perhaps it was Jefferson Davis himself who suggested it.

History gives us one more glimpse of Mrs. Grinnell: In May of 1864, the journal of Rachel Wilson Moore notes that Isabella Grinnell was a passenger on a boat bound from the island of St. Thomas to the island of Bermuda. With or without a message from President Davis, she was most probably on her way back to England. And there, I lose track of her.

At the end of the war, many secessionists with wealth and European connections chose to take advantage of them. There was, after all, talk of hanging secessionists for treason. Charles Prioleau, for example, had become a British subject in 1863, and never returned to Charleston, never saw his family again. Robert Minturn Grinnell was said to have spent considerable time in Europe after the war. Whether he divorced Isabella, or was widowed, I do not know.

But in 1873 he was back in the United States, marrying Sophia “Sophie” Van Alen of Newport, Rhode Island; in 1876, their daughter Josephine Lucy “Daisy” Grinnell was born in New York City.


In 1877, the Grinnell family came here and bought a large plot of land on West Lake Street, essentially all of the land between today’s Westgate estate and the Skaneateles Country Club. They sold the northern half of the land to Sophie’s sister, Lucy Hurd, wife of Dr. Samuel Hurd, and both families built houses they would use as summer residences. (The Grinnell property eventually became C.D. Beebe’s “Lone Oak” estate, and has since been owned by the Foley, Winkelman and Ruston families. The Hurd property was later owned by the Fitzgerald, Hazard and Parker families.)

Robert and Sophie Grinnell summered in Skaneateles, and spent their winters in Europe. In 1898, they went to Nice, France, to the villa of Robert’s sister, Sarah (Grinnell) Watts, where Robert became ill and died. He was buried at the Cimetière des Anglais Caucade (British Cemetery) in Nice. Sophia Van Alen Grinnell died in 1916 and is interred in the Hurd family vault in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.

Robert Minturn Grinnell is remembered today in Skaneateles by the chancel area of St. James’ Episcopal Church, enlarged in his memory in 1901, and by the “school of Tiffany” window put in place at that time, both gifts of Sophie Van Alen Grinnell.



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