In the first week of April, 1865, as the Civil War drew to a close, Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, fell to the Union. Upon hearing the news, Skaneateles attorney George Barrow attempted to enter St. James’ Episcopal to ring the church bell in celebration. After finding the front door locked, he was informed by a young boy that a back window was broken; Barrow and the boy crawled through the window, and began ringing the bell. But when Barrow heard someone else rattling the front door, he retraced his steps to the window and, in his own words, “left the boy to ring the bell.”
Leaving someone else to face the music was vintage George Barrow. In his twenties when the Civil War began, Barrow heard the call for troops and loudly called for others to respond. In August of 1863, a draft lottery was held at the Onondaga County Court House in Syracuse. Barrow was one of the officials present to run the lottery, and during the drawing his name was chosen. However, draftees had the option of paying $300 “commutation money” or hiring another to go in their place. Barrow exercised his option; he had other priorities.
Moments after leaving St. James’ by the back window, Barrow was stopped and chided for breaking into the church and using its bell for a secular celebration. Barrow got into his carriage, rode off in a huff and, once safely home, penned an anonymous letter to the Skaneateles Democrat in which he said the ruling spirit of St. James’ was “in sympathy with Southern chivalry.”
This was a thinly veiled reference to the fact that some St. James’ members had family and friends in the Confederate states, as indeed they did.
Reuel Smith Sr. of St. James’ had been a partner with Drake Mills, his wife Celestia’s brother, in a New York City grocery business importing grain from Otis Mills (another brother) and Erastus Mills Beach (a nephew) in Charleston, South Carolina.
Henry Latrobe Roosevelt, also of St. James’ parish, had lived in Charleston, where his close friend and occasional business partner was the same Erastus Mills Beach. In 1853, Beach came to Skaneateles to visit his friend Henry and his uncle Reuel, and in 1855, he bought a summer home atop the hill on Leitch Avenue.
E.N. Leslie, also of St. James’, later wrote, “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.”
Erastus Mills Beach attended St. James’, and in 1857 joined H.L. Roosevelt as a delegate from St. James’ to the Episcopalian convention.
It is no surprise then, that when the Civil War came, some members of St. James’ found their enthusiasm for a Union victory tempered by a concern for friends and family in the South. But George Barrow, whose patriotism was confined to words and unhindered by other concerns, felt free to condemn anyone less enthusiastic than himself.
In reply to Barrow’s original, anonymous letter, E. Reuel Smith, then the Senior Warden of St. James’, wrote, “Whenever it may please kind Providence to give a final victory to our Aims and restore Peace and Union to our distracted country, though some may be more noisy and fiercely exultant, there will be found none more thankful than the Congregation, Rector and Vestry at St. James.” The church’s rector, the Rev. Edward Moyses, also wrote a letter to the newspaper, in which he noted the division of church and state.
Barrow then wrote a second letter, under his own name, charging the Rev. Moyses with “ignorance or the attempt to deceive,” and adding, “Those whose hearts have ached with anxiety for the overthrow of treason in this land, turn to the congregation of St. James and say with truth… this is evidence that not only you are disloyal, but your whole Church.”
The last “your whole church” line was perhaps a reference to the General Episcopal Convention of 1862 which declined to adopt resolutions denouncing the Southern Churchmen as seditious.
Building up steam, Barrow continued:
“I have never been one of those turbulent individuals, Mr. Editor, who are in favor of carrying political questions into the Pulpit or even into the Church, but I have ever been in favor of carrying love of country there. Now of late, Mr. Editor, this love of country has been excluded from St. James Church… The Rector, I think, has felt that if he uttered any word of condemnation for Southern traitors, or any word of commendation for the lawful Government of the land, he would incur the displeasure of many attendants of St. James.”
Certainly the Rev. Moyses knew he had parishioners with friends and family in the South. Indeed, the North-South conflict existed not just in the church, but even within its families. Lt. Ben Porter was serving in the Union Navy and Army Pvt. Stanley Porter had already died in the Union cause, while their older brother, Capt. Seth Grosvenor Porter, was a blockade runner for the Confederacy.
But George Barrow had no such conflicts, and could exercise his patriotism at no expense to himself, safe and sound in Skaneateles.
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George Barrow’s tirade in the Skaneateles Democrat was not the first local salvo aimed at Erastus Mills Beach. In early 1864, with Beach living in South Carolina, village patriots took aim at his house.
E.N. Leslie described what happened:
“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). 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.”
Erastus Mills Beach never returned to Skaneateles.
The Porter brothers’ histories played out in an even sadder fashion. In April of 1863, Capt. Seth Grosvenor Porter took the Merrimac, a fast sidewheel steamship, from St. George, Bermuda, and ran the Union blockade into Wilmington, North Carolina. His cargo included 1,100 barrels of gunpowder and three 8-inch Blakely rifled cannon; one cannon was sent to Vicksburg and the other two were kept for the defense of Wilmington, one being placed at Fort Fisher. In January of 1865, Lt. Benjamin H. Porter died in the Union assault on Fort Fisher.