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Chapter 3: from New York to Richmond

  • Quieting down to the study of law in New York
  • -- progress of the revolution -- Virginia's attempted mediation -- firing on Sumter -- back to New Haven -- a remarkable man and a strange, sad story -- off for Dixie -- in Richmond again.

At the close of this, my first visit South, I turned Northward, filled with admiration and affection for the Southern people and feeling that I had found my future home. Notwithstanding the dark shadow that impended, I little fancied that I would so soon again see the fair city of my choice and under circumstances changed so sadly. I was young, and as I turned my back upon Virginia and the John Brown raid, which were then the points of greatest tension, my strained nerves relaxed, and what I had seen and heard of evil portent faded away like a disturbing dream when one awakes.

I found my dear ones well and the practical New Englanders, at least most of them, deeply immersed in business and finance. Like many wiser men, I felt reassured by the comforting conviction that the material interests of this rapidly developing country were too vast, too solid and priceless to be shattered and sacrificed in these superficial popular excitements.

In the quiet of the family circle we discussed my plans and determined that I should enter the Law School of Columbia College in the approaching fall. I do not remember where I went or what I did during the summer vacation, but in the early autumn I came back thoroughly quieted, rested and refreshed, went promptly to New York City and entered with enthusiasm upon the study of my chosen profession under that admirable teacher, Professor Theodore W. Dwight, of Columbia. [34]

For a time all went well. True, the ground swell of a mighty revolution was gradually rising at the South, but no one about me believed it would ever break in the angry waves of actual war, and I was not wiser than my fellows. Indeed I purposely turned my thoughts away, which for the time was not difficult to do, enamored as I was of the law.

Three or four of us, Yale graduates and classmates, were in the same boarding-house on Washington Square. Ed. Carrington, a youth of uncommon power and promise, who lost his life during the war in an obscure skirmish in Florida, like myself, was studying law, but he roomed with Joe Twichell, who was then studying theology; dear Joe, who preached the bi-centennial sermon at Yale, and is to-day, as he has always been, the most admired and best beloved man of the class of 1859. My room-mate was Tom Lounsbury, then employed in literary work on one of the great encyclopedias, to-day the distinguished incumbent of the Chair of English in Yale University.

But this peace was not to last long. The election of Lincoln, the rapid secession of the Southern States, the formation of the Southern Confederacy, the inauguration of the Presidents, first of the new and then of the old federation; the adoption by the Southern States of a different and a permanent Constitution-all this tended strongly to convince thoughtful men that the two sections, or the two countries, were deeply in earnest and differed radically and irreconciliably as to the construction of the United States Constitution. Then came the strained situation in Charleston harbor, and the futile efforts of the Peace Congress called by Virginia, and later, of her commissioners and those appointed by the Confederate Government to wait upon President Lincoln.

It is unnecessary to say that, though striving hard to maintain my hold upon the law, I was yet far from an indifferent spectator of this majestic march of events. I went repeatedly to talk with two or three of the leading business men of New York, who had been friends and parishioners of my father while pastor of a church in that [35] city, and was delighted to find them hopeful; relying not only upon the weight and influence of material and business interests to avert actual war, but also, and especially, upon the noble intervention and mediation of Virginia.

It made my heart glow to hear how these great financiers and merchant princes spoke of my adopted State. They said in effect, that it had always been so; that Virginia was undoubtedly the greatest and most influential of all the States; that she had been the nursing mother of the Union and of the country and would prove their preserver; that Virginians had really made the United States in the olden days,--Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Marshall,--and Virginians would save the United States to-day. They deciared that they had always worshiped the Old Dominion, and now, more than ever, for the noble position she had assumed in this crisis.

How could I help glowing with pride and brightening with hope! Alas! the shriek of the first shell that burst over Sumter shattered these fair hopes-and pandemonium reigned in New York.

It is not within the province of this book to discuss the responsibility for that shell. I will, however, be candid enough to say that I never entertained a doubt as to the South having the best of the Constitutional argument; and yet, so strong was my love for the Union and my affection for my friends, at least nine-tenths of whom were on the Northern side, that I often felt, and more than once said, I could never strike a blow or fire a shot in the conflict, if it should come. Nevertheless, I was inexorably led in the sequel to give myself unreservedly and whole-heartedly to the defense of the South.

One link in the chain that led to this decision was the conviction that forced itself upon me that I could not remain in New York. After the firing upon Sumter the whole city was in an uproar. A wild enthusiasm for “the flag” seized and swept the entire population which surged through streets hung with banners and bunting, their own persons bedecked with small United States flags and other patriotic devices. It is not worth while to go further into these details. [36] Enough to say that it was manifestly as uncomfortable and impracticable, at that time, for me to remain in New York as for an able-bodied young man, of strong convictions on the Northern side of the controversy, to remain in Richmond.

Therefore I returned to New Haven, where, with the entire family assembled, we conferred over the situation and decided that father and his three boys must go South as soon as possible, leaving mother and the girls to follow when the way should be clear and we ready to receive them. As there was no assurance of reaching our destination in safety without passports, father, who knew General Scott well, applied to him for passes South for himself and his three boys. The General replied, sending my father a pass, but refusing to furnish passports for his sons, and it then became necessary for us boys to devise some route, other than the railroads, for reaching our Southern friends.

My next younger brother was an expert sailor, having followed the sea for years, and was recognized as perhaps the most daring and skilful manager of a small sailing craft to be found about New Haven harbor, or indeed anywhere in that part of Long Island Sound. As there seemed to be no other way to Virginia open to us, we bought a staunch, swift sail-boat, had her carefully caulked and overhauled, and set to work to make her some extra sails which my brother thought we might need during our voyage. We procured a copy of a detailed survey of the coast along that part of the Eastern Shore of Virginia where we proposed to land, and also letters to gentlemen living along that coast. The preparation of the boat and the working up of our expedition was a great relief, not only in giving us something to do, but also in holding out the prospect of interesting adventure accompanied by a reasonable spice of peril.

About this time I discovered, in taking a sort of spiritual inventory of myself, that I had passed to another and distinct stage of feeling and of purpose. I believed firmly my people in the South were right; I knew well they were weak; I saw clearly they were about to be invaded; and I was striving to get to them. To what end? With what purpose? To [37] give them another mouth to feed, or to give them another man to fight? Right, weakness, invasion!-how could there be any save one inference from such a trinity of propositions? I did not fully realize this process as it was wrought out in me; but when I came to find my scruples and my shrinking gone-though not my sorrow — I looked back and plainly saw the path along which I had been led. From that hour, throughout the four years of my service as a Confederate soldier, never did I entertain a doubt as to my being where I should be and doing what I should do.

While our boat was making ready for the trip, some one called at the house and asked for me, but sent no card, so I went to the reception-room, having no idea who my visitor was.

“Why, Beers!” I cried, “what are you doing here?” He was very pale, and had evidently been subjected to severe mental and moral tension-nevertheless, Yankee-like, he answered my question by asking another, “What are you going to do?” “O,” said I, “we are going South by sail-boat; General Scott won't let us go by railroad.” Instantly he replied, “I am going with you.”

Who was the man who thus, without hesitation, reservation or condition, cast in his lot with us?

The story is in every way so remarkable that I cannot forbear a full recital of it. It should not be forgotten, however, that while the peace of death has, years agone, passed upon the chief actor in this strange, sad drama, and probably also upon most of his relatives living when he died --there may yet be others now living to whom the record of his life and death must needs be somewhat painful; therefore I shall endeavor to tell the story simply and quietly.

When I first knew James H. Beers he was an intelligent young mechanic-originally, I think, from Bridgeport, Conn., but at the time living in New Haven, where I was a college student. We were both members of a Bible-class connected with a church of which my father was then pastor, and Mr. Gerard Hallock, of the New York Journal of Commerce, the most prominent member. [38]

Soon after my first acquaintance with Beers, Mr. Hallock became interested in him, attracted by his regular attendance at church and Bible-class, and his modest yet self-respectful and intelligent bearing, and he took him to New York in some subordinate capacity connected with his paper. This was a few years before the war, but Beers continued to visit New Haven often, perhaps regularly. We heard from time to time that he had exhibited unusual facility for journalism and had been rapidly advanced, until he had come to be an assistant to the night editor of Mr. Hallock's great paper. It was probably through his connection with the leading Democratic daily that he imbibed the views he held as to the construction of the Federal Constitution and the relations between the Federal Government and the States; views which he followed to their logical conclusion and in defense of which he ultimately laid down his life.

As the sectional excitement increased and civil war became more and more imminent, Beers grew more and more restless and unhappy, until actual hostilities began with the bombardment of Sumter, when he informed Mr. Hallock that it would be impossible for him to continue to discharge his duties upon the paper. Thereupon he left New York and appeared in New Haven, as above described.

When he announced his determination of going with us I discouraged it, reminding him that he was a Northern man and had, besides, a wife and two little girls to provide for; mentioning also his fine position and prospects, all of which would necessarily be sacrificed. He replied that he had some money which he would leave with our mother, trusting her to use it for his wife and children and to bring them South when she came; adding that God never gave a man a wife and children to stand in the way of the discharge of his plain duty, and that it was plainly his duty to go with us and aid the South in defense of her clear and clearly-violated rights.

I cut the matter short by referring him to my father, and he at once went to his room and saw him. Father afterwards told me it was obvious that Mr. Beers' mind was irrevocably made up and that it would be worse than useless to [39] resist him further; so it was settled he was to go with us. I do not remember whether his wife and children were then in New Haven, but they were committed by him to the care of our mother and sisters, and later followed Beers to Virginia, as I now recollect, in company with the ladies of our family.

Everything was arranged and we were to embark and sail on a certain night, but during the preceding day a telegram was received from a friend who was standing guard for us in Washington, which by a sort of prearranged cipher we understood to mean that we could slip through safely if we left New York by a certain train the next day. My recollection is that it was deemed best to divide the party — Beers, my next younger brother, and I getting off so as to catch the train indicated; father and my youngest brother, then below fighting age, following later.

We reached Washington and got safely across the river and to our destination, but, by some untoward accident, Beers was left behind and experienced some difficulty in dodging the provost guard and completing the last stage of his “on to Richmond.” We were very uneasy, met every train from the North, and were unspeakably relieved when he arrived. We had told his story to our friends and he was welcomed into the same hospitable family circle which was entertaining us. The city was crowded with people, but the sons of Virginia were flocking home to her defense and every heart and every door was open to receive them.

A day or two after his arrival a most unpleasant experience befell poor Beers. Walking by himself in the street, he was arrested as a spy and locked up in the negro jail. For hours we were unable to ascertain what had become of him, and when we did find out it was too late to procure his release on habeas corpus; so with profound mortification and profuse apologies we had to content ourselves with doing what we could to make him comfortable where he was, he protesting that he needed nothing and could suffer no real inconvenience that one night. Indeed, noble fellow that he was, he met me with a manly smile at the door of his cell, expressing mingled amusement and approbation; saying that [40] while the charge of his being a spy was a little wide of the mark, yet the mistake was a very natural one, that there were doubtless numbers of such characters about, and he was glad to see that we were on the alert for them.

Next morning when his case was called in the Mayor's Court something of the truth with regard to him had gotten abroad and the court-room was crowded with the first gentlemen of Richmond. I was the main witness, and it goes without saying that the dramatic points of Beers' strange story, especially those that would most commend him to the Southern people, lost nothing in the telling. He was not only honorably discharged, but he was vociferously cheered by the entire audience, and he walked out of the court-room the idol of the hour — the rest of the last rebel reinforcement from the North shining somewhat in his reflected light. Thus, to our great relief, the awkward contretemps of his arrest contributed rather to the reputation and advantage of our friend.

I recall this additional incident: Mr. John Randolph Tucker-“Ran. Tucker” --then Attorney-General of Virginia, was an intimate friend of my father, who had now arrived in Richmond, and suggested to him that Mr. Beers and I, as we were citizens of the State of Connecticut where I had recently cast my first vote, were in rather an exceptional position, as bearing upon a possible charge of treason, in case we should enlist in the military service. The suggestion was deemed of sufficient importance to refer to Mr. Benjamin, then Attorney-General of the Confederate States. and Mr. Tucker and I interviewed him about it. These two great lawyers. concurred in the view that the principles which protected citizens of the Southern and seceded States were, to say the least, of doubtful application to us, and that it would probably go rather hard with us if we should be captured. Notwithstanding, I enlisted, and Beers would probably have done so with equal promptness had he not been an expert mechanic-men so qualified being then very scarce in Richmond and very much needed. He was asked to assist in changing some old flintlocks belonging to the State of Virginia into percussion muskets, and all of us insisting that he [41] could thus render far more valuable service than by enlisting in the ranks, he reluctantly yielded and went to work.

How long he was thus employed I do not know. My youngest brother went on to our relatives in Georgia, but soon after his arrival there insisted upon enlisting in one of the battalions for coast defense. My sailor brother and I enlisted in Richmond and joined the army at Manassas. I saw but little of Beers after this. Just when he entered the Army I cannot say, but it must have been some time before the battles around Richmond in the early summer of 1862; for on the battle field of Malvern Hill I met some of the men of the “Letcher artillery,” to which he belonged, who told me that my “Yankee” was the finest gunner in the battery and fought like a Turk. Between Malvern Hill and Chancellorsville I saw Beers perhaps two or three times — I think once i; Richmond, after his wife and children and my mother and sisters arrived from the North.

I have seldom seen a better-looking soldier. He was about five feet eleven inches in height, had fine shoulders, chest and limbs, carried his head high, had clustering brown hair, a steel-gray eye and a splendid sweeping moustache. Every now and then I heard from some man or officer of his battery, or of Pegram's Battalion, some special praise of his gallantry in action, but as he was in A. P. Hill's command and I then in Longstreet's, we seldom met. I am confident there is no battle-scarred veteran of Pegram's Battalion living to-day but stands ready to vouch for Beers as the equal of any soldier in the command, and some of them tenderly recall him as a good and true soldier of Jesus Christ as well as of Robert Lee. He was in the habit of holding religious services with the men of his battalion on every fitting occasion-services which they highly appreciated.

Just after the battle of Chancellorsville I was in Richmond, having recently received an appointment in “engineer troops.” I am unable to recall the details, but I was notified to meet poor Beers' body at the train. Colonel, afterwards General, R. L. Walker (Lindsay Walker), commanding A. P. Hill's artillery, hearing that Beers had been killed on the 3d of May and buried upon the field, had the body exhumed and sent to me at Richmond. [42]

It is strange how everything connected with the burial, except the sad scene at the grave, seems to have faded out of my recollection. I know he was buried in our family lot in Hollywood, and as no one of us was buried there for long years after this, we must have bought the lot for the purpose. I remember, too, that we laid him to rest with military honors, Captain Gay's company, the “Virginia State guard,” acting as escort; and I must have ridden in the carriage with the stricken widow and his two little girls, for I distinctly recall standing between the children at the side of the open grave and holding a hand of each as the body of their hero-father was lowered to its last resting place. I remember, too, that not a muscle of their pale, sweet faces quivered as the three volleys were fired over the low mound that covered him. They were the daughters of a soldier.

There stands to-day over the grave a simple granite marker bearing this inscription: “James H. Beers,
of Connecticut,
Who Fell at Chancellorsville,
Fighting for Virginia and the South,
May 3, 1863.”

My story is done, and I feel that it is worthy of recital and remembrance. Indeed it embodies the most impressive instance I have ever known of trenchant, independent thought and uncalculating, unflinching obedience to the resulting conviction of duty-“obedience unto death.”

Observe, Beers had never been South and had no idea of ever going there until the Southern States were invaded. Observe again, he was not a man without ties, a homeless and heartless adventurer; but a complete man — a man blessed with wife and children and home, and withal a faithful and affectionate husband and father. Observe once more, he was not an unsuccessful or disappointed man. On the contrary, I have seldom known a man who had a position more perfectly congenial and satisfactory to him or whose prospects were brighter or more assured. It was simply and purely his conviction of right and of duty which led him to us and to his brave death. [43]

One feature of the poor fellow's story, of intense color, has been purposely omitted. I refer to his parting with his parents. It is my strong desire that this sketch shall not contain one word calculated to bring unnecessary pain to the heart of any relative of my dear friend under whose eye it may chance to fall. If being a Southerner you would pass just and charitable judgment upon his family, try for a moment to conceive what would have been the feelings of a Southern father and mother and family circle toward a son and brother who, in 1861, had proposed to go North for the purpose of fighting against his people and his State.

My recollection is that Mrs. Beers did not long survive her husband. It gives me pleasure to say that, so far as I know, the family of Mr. Beers did their duty by his children. I tried to have the little girls adopted in the South, and came very near succeeding, yet perhaps it was, after all, well that their friends sent for them and that they finally returned to the North.

It is well, too, that there are not more men like Beers in the world. The bands of organized society are not strong enough to endure many such. They are too trenchant, too independent, to be normal or safe. It is well that most of us believe and think and feel and act with the mass of our fellow-beings about us. If it were not so, quiet and harmonious society would be impossible; it would dissolve and perish in fierce internecine strife. And yet, when every now and then God turns out a man of different mould, a man brave enough and strong enough not to be dominated in opinion, in conscience, or in action by his associates-we ordinary men, of average human stature and strength, realize how almost pitifully small and weak we are.

The mound that covers James H. Beers is indeed low and humble, yet where will you dig in earth's surface to find richer dust? I rejoice that he lies where he does, hard by my dear ones and where my own body will soon rest, so that when the resurrection trump shall call us all forth, after running over the roll of my beloved and finding them “all present or accounted for,” I can turn my eyes to the right and greet the hero whose sacred dust I have guarded all these years.

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