IT WAS OBEDIENCE EVEN UNTO DEATH.
Grave in Hollywood Recalls a Story of Devotion to Duty.
GAME SOUTH TO FIGHT WITH US.
James H. Beers, of Connecticut, Who Fell at Chancellorsville-Ran the Gauntlet When He Left
Home-Services for the Confederacy.
Within the last few days there has been placed over a low mound in my family lot in
Hollywood, a simple granite marker bearing this inscription:
"JAMES H. BEERS,
WHO FELL AT CHANCELLORSVILLE
FIGHTING FOR VIRGINIA AND THE SOUTH,
The erection of this modest stone not only marks the discharge of an obligation, richly
merited and long deferred, but it also epitomizes a life not unworthy of record and of
remembrance. In the brief recital which follows, we shall endeavor to keep in mind
that-while the peace of death has, years agone, passed upon the chief actor in this
strange story and probably also upon most of his relatives living when he died-yet there
may be others now living to whom the record of his life and death must needs be somewhat
painful; therefore, we will tell the story simply and quietly, as far as possible, without
the exaggeration of passion or prejudice.
When I first knew Mr. Beers he was an intelligent young, mechanic-originally, I think,
from Bridgeport, but at the time living in New Haven, Conn., where I was a college
student, we both being members of a Bible class connected with a church of which may
father, Rev. Joseph C. Stiles, was then pastor, and Mr. Gerard Hallock, of the New York
Journal of Commerce, the most prominent member.
Shortly after my first acquaintance with Beers, Mr. Hallock became interested in him,
being attracted by his regular attendance upon the services of the church and Bible class
and his modest yet
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self-respectfully and intelligent bearing, and he soon took him to New York in some
subordinate capacity connected with his paper. This was, perhaps, a year or so before the
breaking out of the war, but Beers continued to visit New Haven from time to time-possibly
every Saturday with Mr. Hallock-and we learned that he had exhibited rather unusual
facility, not to say talent, 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 this leading Democratic daily, that he imbibed the views he
subsequently held as to the proper construction of the Federal Constitution and the
relations between the Federal Government and the States; view which he followed to their
logical conclusion, and in defense of which he ultimately laid down his life.
As the sectional exitement increased and Civil War became more and more imminent, Beers
became more and more restless and unhappy, until actual hostilities began with the
bombardment of Fort Sumter, when informed Mr. Hallock that it would be impossible for him
to continue to discharge his duties upon the paper. I do not remember how long it was
after this that he came up to New Haven to consult my father, I think, with the approval
of Mr. Hallock. Meanwhile, under the influence of like feelings, I had left New York,
where for some months I had been studying law, and had gone up to New Haven, preparatory
to going South.
My father had asked from General Scott passports to Virginia for himself and three sons,
and the General had replied, giving the desired permit for my father, but refusing it for
his boys, and we had thereupon determined to run down the coast in an open boat, which we
were preparing for the purpose, being actually at work upon the sails when Beers was
announced. He came directly up to the attic, which was our workshop, and, upon learning
our purpose, expressed greatest interest and went to work with a sail needle, declaring
that he would make the voyage with us. I rather discouraged him, calling attention to the
fact that he was a Northern man and had a wife and two children to support, mentioning, in
this connection, his fine position and prospects, all of which would necessarily be
sacrifice. He replied that he had some money which he would leave with our mother;
trusting her to expend 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
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of his plain duty, and that it was plainly his duty to go with us and aid the South in the
defense of her clear and clearly violated rights.
JOINED THE PARTY.
I cut the matter short by referring him to my father, and he at once went down stairs and
interviewed him. Father subsequently told me it was perfectly obvious that Mr. Beers' mind
was irrevocably made up, and that it would be more than useless to resist him-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 certainly committed by him to the care of our mother and sisters,
and subsequently followed Bees to Virginia, as I now recollect, in company with the ladies
of our family, but upon this point my memory is not entirely clear.
Our position upon the burning question of the day was well understood in New Haven, and
about this time all of us, especially the two boys of fighting age, were constantly and
most unpleasantly watched and really in danger of arrest or attack. We made a trial trip
of a day with our boat out into the Sound, ostensibly for fishing, and found we were
dogged by two or three boats of volunteer scouts and detectives; so that it was finally
determined to sent our boat several miles up the shore by a couple of trusty friends and
to drive up to that point at night, with our equipment of provisions, disguises, etc.
Everything had been arranged and we were to have embarked and sailed on a certain night,
but, during the preceding day, a telegram was received from a friend in Washington,
informing us that we could slip through safely if we could leave 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, and then noncombatant, brother following later. The United States Deputy
Marshal, in fact, came to the house to arrest us not long after we had left.
We reached Washington and got safely across the river to Alexandria; but, by some untoward
accident Beers was left behind there, and experienced some difficulty in dodging the
provost guard and completing the last stage of his "On to Richmond," but he
finally reached the promised land. We met him at the train and he was heartily welcomed
and hospitably entertained by Mr. Ben. Gray,
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in his attractive home, No.203 East Franklin street, with the balance of the last rebel
reinforcement from the North.
I wish I had at hand the means of determining the exact date of these occurrences, but can
only say we arrived in Richmond some times before the battle of Bethel, my brother and I
volunteering in what was called "Junior Company F," which was at that time
recruiting and drilling in a basement room under the Sportswood Hotel, the drill master of
our squad being the lamented John H., familiarly known as "Jock" Ellerson.
A day or two after his arrival another unfortunate and most unpleasant accident befel poor
Beers. He had gone out alone after dinner and did not return. He was not a man to be taken
at a disadvantage by an emergency, but the city was full of excitement and his position
was a delicate one, and as time passed and the runners we had sent out in every direction
failed to bring any news of him, we became anxious and apprehensive. At last, sometime
after dark, we heard that he had been arrested as "a Yankee spy" and locked up
in the negro jail. Two or three of us hurried to the spot to find the mortifying report
only too true.
I can never forget the impression made upon me by the bearing of the noble fellow, as I
attempted to express the pain and mortification I felt at the ignominious treatment he had
received. He uttered not one word of complaint, but met me with a manly smile and hearty
handshake, expressing mingled amusement and approbation, saying that while the charge was
rather wide of the mark, yet the mistake was very natural; that there were probably plenty
of such characters about,, and he was glad to see we were on the alert for them.
The most mortifying feature of the affair was that we were unable to secure his release
that night. The evening was quite far advanced when we ascertained where he was, and it
was deemed best to see Hon. Joseph Mayo, then mayor of the city, before resorting to
habeas corpus proceedings. Mr. Mayo was found, as I now recollect, at the house of a
friend, but he declined to interfere, insisting that the party should be brought regularly
before the court in the morning; indeed, he made the impression upon me that he was
originally responsible for the arrest, or, if not, that he willingly assumed
responsibility for it and had no idea of approving any short
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cut to liberty in the premises. It was now too late to apply for habeas corpus, and we,
therefore, proceeded to make Beers as comfortable as possible in the jail, providing him a
good supper and a comfortable bed, he protesting, meanwhile, that he needed nothing, or,
at least, could suffer no real inconvenience that one night.
In the morning the Mayor's Court room in the old City Hall was crowded, many gentlemen of
position, who had heard Beers' story, being in attendance. I do not remember whether the
papers made any report of the case, either that or the following morning. Mr. Ben. Gray
and I were the main witnesses for Beers. Of course, there could be no doubt as to his
discharge, and, but for a ludicrous and unexpected turn of affairs, the case would have
been disposed of in a few minutes. When the testimony was all in, his Honor proceeded to
deliver his decision discharging the prisoner, but, at the same time, justifying and
approving his arrest, concluding with the statement, uttered with all the emphasis of a
solemn proclamation, that he considered is his duty to arrest any and every man who
arrived in the city from the North, unless he was informed as to his antecedents and they
were entirely beyond and above suspicion, adding, with increased emphasis: "And this
duty I intend to discharge." A declaration which seemed to meet the approval of every
one present, save and except Mr. Edward Gray-dear old Ned-now and for years past in the
Commissioner's office with Bob Munford, a man as brave and true as God ever created, and
as quick to burst into flame, at what he considered injustice, especially to one of his
A HOT-HEADED CHAMPION.
Ned's hearing was then, as now, somewhat defective, and he did not quite catch the
limitations his Honor had embodied in his proclamation. He sprang to his feet, and,
looking toward Mr. Mayo and flinging out his right arm and shaking his right forefinger
threatningly, first toward Beers and then toward my brother and myself, he shouted
fiercely: "No, you won't, sir! No you won't! You arrested that man yesterday, who
left everything and came down here to fight for us against his own people. Now, sir; these
two came down with him, I dare you to arrest them."
The court-room was in an uproar on the instant, which we took advantage of to hustle Ned
out and away. When the hubbub had subsided, Mr. Ben Gray rose and made an admirable
statement, first apologizing for his brother's excitement, and then going into a full
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and very complimentary recital of the circumstances above narrated about Beers and
ourselves-in conclusion begging his honor not to notice this last episode. Mr. Mayo
yielded to this appeal, taking occasion, however, to deliver himself of another little
speech, at the conclusion of which Beers marched out a free man and a hero, being heartily
cheered as he passed through the crowd. I had never before seem Mr. Mayo, and he made a
strong, and, upon the whole, a very favorable impression upon me.
This account is lengthening out far beyond my original intention, yet the fundamental
facts are, so far as I know, quite unparalleled, and they are striking enough to justify a
full record of the surrounding circumstances.
I recall, this moment, this additional incident. Mr. Ran. Tucker, then, I believe,
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, being citizens, not only of the
United States, but 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 expressed the view that
the principles which protected citizens of the Southern 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 doubtless have done so
with equal promptness, had he not been an expert mechanic-men so qualified being the very
scarce in Richmond and very much needed. He was requested to assist in the work of
transferring some old flint-locks belonging to the State of Virginia into percussion
muskets, and all of us insisting that he could thus render far more valuable service than
by enlisting in the ranks, he rather reluctantly yielded and went to work.
How long he was thus employed I do not know. Things were moving on rapidly. The hostile
lines were facing each other at Manassas, and then great battle shocked and shook the
entire continent. "Junior Company F" hung fire too long; so, the morning after
the battle, my brother and I, without saying "by your leave" to any one, boarded
the train bound for Manassas Junction, in company with Billy Wait (son of Dr. J. G. Wait,
Page 23 It was Obedience Even Unto Death.
distinguished dentist of that day) and old Paul Michaux, of the First Company of Richmond
Howitzers-they undertaking to conceal us on the train until it started and to secure our
enrollment in the company when we arrived-both of which undertakings they most skilfully
and faithfully performed.
FINE GUNNER AND FIGHTER.
I saw but little of Beers after this. Just when he joined the army I cannot say, but I
know that it must have been some time before the battles around Richmond in the early
summer of 1862; for, on the battlefield of Malvern Hill, I met some of the men of the
"Letcher Artillery"-Greenlee Davidson's company, 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 tow or three times-I think
once in Richmond, shortly 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, a handsome manly figure, carried his head
high, had clustering brown hair, a steel grey eye and a splendid sweeping mustache. Every
now and then I heard, from some man or officer of his battery, or of Pegram's Battalion,
some special commendation of his gallantry in action; but, he being in the Third Corps and
I in the First, we seldom met. I am confident Tom Brander, John and Jim Tyler, Ferriter,
and other battle-scarred veterans of Pegram's Battalion, stand 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 and follower of Jesus Christ as well as of Robert Lee. I am told he was
in the habit of holding religious services with the men of his battery on every fitting
occasion-services which they highly appreciated.
Just after the battle of Chancellorsville I was in Richmond, for what purpose I cannot now
recall, unless it was that I had recently received an appointment in "engineer
troops," and visited the city in connection with my commissioned and orders. I am
unable to recall the details, but I was notified to meet poor Beer's body at the train.
General Lindsay Walker, learning that he had been killed on the 3rd of May, and buried
upon the field, had the body exhumed and sent to me at Richmond. It is strange how
Page 24 Southern Historical Society Papers.
nected with the matter, 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.
Yes; I remember, too, that we laid him to rest with military honors, Captain Gay's
company, the "Penitentiary Guard," acting as escort, and I must have ridden in
the carriage with the stricken widow and his two little girls, 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.
"OBEDIENCE UNTO DEATH."
My story is done, and I feet 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
position more perfectly congenial and satisfactory to him or whose prospects were brighter
or more assured. It was simply and purely and only his conviction of right and duty which
led him to us and to his gallant death.
One feature of the poor fellow's story of intense power and 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. It 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,
Page 25 It was Obedience Even Unto Death.
had proposed to go North for the purpose of fighting against his people and his State.
It gives me pleasure to say that, so far as I know, the family of Mr. Beers did their duty
by his wife and children. Mrs. Beers was a delicate little woman, with a pale, suffering,
resolved face, and my recollection is that she did not long survive her husband. I tried
hard 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, too exceptional, to be normal. It is well that most of us believe and think
and feel and act, with the mass of our fellow-beings abut 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
strong enough and independent enough not to be dominated in opinion, or in conscience, or
in action, by his associates; and, most of all, when such a man breasts and breaks away
from such a current, and, in spite of it, comes out on our side, giving up everything,
even life itself, for us-surely, we should be glad to know his story, and to do what honor
we may to his memory.
The mound that covers James H. Beers is indeed low and humble, yet, where will you dig in
earth's surface to find a handful of richter 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 accounted for, I can turn my eyes to the right and greet the hero whose sacred
dust I have guarded all these years.