The London Branch of American Civil War Veterans, 1910-1933
by Michael Hammerson
(This article appeared as 'A Forgotten Centenary of a Forgotten Band of Comrades' in Crossfire, Summer 2010)
After the Civil War, most veterans returned to their home cities, towns, villages or farms, sought new lives in the expanding West. However, some dispersed across the globe - for example, Adolfo Farsari from Vicenza, Italy, late of the 24th New York Cavalry, who became a pioneer photographer of life in Japan - and were buried in their adopted, or native, countries. Many Englishmen fought in the war, on both sides; the Federal Pension list for 1899 gives over 350 veterans or widows living in England and receiving pensions and, at a guess - which is all we can hazard for the present - at least one thousand Civil War veterans, Union and Confederate, are buried in England.
When 29-year-old John Davis, who had left his home in Hampshire at the age of 14 to go to America, dragged himself from the waters of the Potomac on November 11, 1864, he was at a loss to know why God had allowed a dissolute and drunken debaucher such as he to be one of only two survivors of USS Tulip when her boilers exploded, while 62 other, better and worthier men died. The question would gnaw at him for the next ten years, in the Australian goldfields and after his return to England. Concluding at an 1874 mission meeting in London, where he had his "soul saved", that God must have work for him, he devoted the rest of his life to the London City Mission, founded in 1835 and still in existence today, saving souls and doing what he could to relieve hardship in the slums of the teeming and filthy docklands of east and south-east London.
In the course of this work, he came across other Civil War veterans who had returned to England and had fallen on hard times. With his personal experience of the wartime privations and sacrifices they had endured, he knew that they deserved the Federal pensions which other Civil War veterans, including himself, were receiving, and set about bringing them together, both for comradeship and for the more practical purpose of helping them to claim pensions. He found a number while visiting the poor lodging houses and workhouses along the London docks, gathered them together and, on September 20th, 1910 inaugurated the London Branch of American Civil War veterans, based at the Mission's HQ in Bermondsey, on Tower Bridge Road, with himself as member No. 1. Over the next two and a half decades, the English and American press regularly noted their activities, and also their dwindling numbers as the old veterans died.
A 1911 description of Davis survives: "Picture to yourself man between sixty and seventy, thick set, broad shouldered, slightly under medium height, with full moustache and bushy beard, rapidly turning grey. A full short neck bears up a well-shaped, massive head. The forehead is high and ample. The eyes deep-set, small and keen, can twinkle with mirth, fill with tender pity, or flash with righteous anger. The outer man is garbed in a reefer jacket on which the badge of the Lifeboat Rescue Crews shows. In conversation the voice is soft and pleasant, and the bearing, while manly, is marked by a gentle courtesy and humility... He had traversed many waters; seen many cities and climes; mingled with men of all nationalities; faced death a hundred times by sea and land... comrades had been shot down beside him; shipmates had been washed overboard, blown to fragments, or drowned during drunken debauches. His past is best described as kaleidoscopic. One day he was weighted with dollars, the next reduced to penury. He is commended for bravery by the Naval Secretary... a month later we find him in the haunts of shame, saturating his soul with whisky until he was mad. That such a one should eventually be converted... and become a pioneer missionary in one of the darkest areas of the great capital, is indeed a 'marvel of mercy' " - the title of Davis' biography - and perhaps argues that few were better qualified to understand the problems, and come to the aid, of the Civil War veterans living in straitened circumstances in London.
One of the earliest reports of its meeting was in the Fitchburg, Mass., Daily Sentinel for Dec. 21, 1910. The new organisation proposed to meet quarterly at its Bermondsey headquarters. John Davis was its first secretary, William Bell Assistant Secretary, and John Girand and John Westwood committee members; all were US Navy veterans. The Treasurer was R.K.Bevington, Colonel of the local Bermondsey Volunteer Battalion and a member of a leading local industrial family. His father was a Samuel Bevington; someone of that name served in the 44th Ohio Infantry, but records show five years' difference in their birth dates, so it is doubtful whether it is the same man, though the records from that time can be notoriously inconsistent. The famed actor-manager Sir Charles Wyndham, who had served under his real name, Charles Culverwell, as an Assistant Surgeon in a Black regiment during the 1864 Red River Campaign - and was, according to his own memoirs, recommended for a post by renowned showman Phineas T. Barnum to General Nathaniel P. Banks, a leading pre-war antislavery campaigner - was asked to be President, but work prevented him, and the post was filled by Seth Herrick, formerly Major, 2nd Maryland Eastern Shore Infantry, who noted in his speech at the first meeting, attended by 28 veterans - 20 of them English-born - that "The United States honours its soldiers to the end and does all it can for them, while in England the old soldiers suffer on account of the excessive consideration that is shown the officers."
Closer to home, on April 11, 1913 the local newspaper, the Southwark and Bermondsey Recorder, reported that "an interesting gathering of American Civil War Veterans took place at Bermondsey Ragged School Mission". It noted John Davis' report that the members paid dues of 1s. <5p> per quarter, though a few gave 2s. <10p>; that they had 93 members on their rolls, though no more than 49 had ever been able to afford to pay their quarterly shilling and the others were so ill and feeble that they were not expected to pay; that they were glad to announce that they had succeeded in securing a pension of $16 a month for Comrade Frederick Bates (who had served on USS Grand Gulf and Vermont), their ninth success to date, and were working for four more. Then "the company sat down to a substantial repast, which was much enjoyed."
The group soon had 118 members. The Pennsylvania Department of the Grand Army of the Republic, the powerful million-strong Union Veterans organisation in America, tried to persuade the London veterans to affiliate, but this came to nothing and they were never a part of the GAR.; there must have been problems in setting up official posts abroad, since despite the wide dispersal of veterans across the globe and the presence of numbers in some countries - notably England and Ireland, as well as France, Germany, Italy and others - there were none except in Canada, Hawaii, Mexico and Peru. However, the badge, which the London Veterans specially commissioned, was a one-piece copy of the official GAR medal; these are now extremely rare. However, close links were maintained with the Woman's Relief Corps, the auxiliary set up in the 1880s to enable women to participate in the work of supporting and caring for the veterans. The WRC sent the London group a donation of $50 towards their expenses every Christmas; in return, in 1916 the Veterans sent them "ten thousand good wishes", on a banknote with the President's portrait on it, together with a photograph showing twenty of the comrades following one of their members to a London cemetery.
Although membership was exclusively for Union veterans, the New York press reported that, at their annual gathering in 1913 at Frascati's celebrated restaurant at 32 Oxford Street, some fifty Union and Confederate veterans met to reminisce. In July that year, while 50,000 veterans of both sides were attending the great 50th anniversary reunion of the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania in July 1913 - a staggering 30% of the participants in the battle - there was a smaller gathering of 93 veterans in Bermondsey, London, the oldest being 104-year-old George Monroe, formerly of USS Augusta, and on September 8, the Veterans sat down to a lunch at Frascati's to once more celebrate the anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, afterwards going to the West End Cinema to see William Ince's silent film of that name; disappointingly, no surviving copies have been located.
Their activities were regularly reported in the U.S. and British press, as were their deaths, the funerals frequently attended by someone from the American Embassy and involving the placing of a small Stars and Stripes on the coffin as it was lowered into the grave. A well-known American resident in London normally gave the talk at meetings, also sometimes attended by Embassy representatives. The focus of talks was by no means always the Civil War; in 1918 the meeting, at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, was addressed by Ambrose Pomeroy-Cragg J.P. of the L.C.C., formerly a Bermondsey trader, who spoke on "1,000 nights with the soldiers at Victoria Station"!
By 1916, the original 118 members had already fallen to 68, many of them so infirm that they could not meet "in their little room decorated with Old Glory and many GAR badges, sent to them by the late Gen. John C. Black".
In 1917, the expected annual report to the WRC did not arrive. As their National President wrote in her annual report: "No letter came. Day after day I watched for the letter from England with the badge of the GAR on the envelope. One day a letter came, but with no badge, but the heavy black lines which told the story. It was from Charles Davis, announcing the death of his father, John Davis, on January 5, 1917, and stating: 'My father asked me to look after his poor veterans, which I did to the best of my ability. There were fifteen at the funeral, six at the cemetery. It was an impressive sight when the old men came up with their Flag and waved it over his grave and said: 'Here's the old Flag you fought under, John; God bless you, we will miss your dear face, but we know we will meet you in heaven.'" Sadly, he lies in an unmarked pauper's grave in Nunhead Cemetery, south London; I have located the spot as closely as possible.
The mantle of Secretary was assumed Arthur William Frazier Smith, formerly of the 80th New York Infantry, wounded at Petersburg and, remarkably, one of Davis' London City Mission colleagues, working as a missionary to City factories and, by his own account, another "sinner who saw the light". He joined the Mission in 1873, at about the same time as Davis.
In August, 1917, England welcomed the "Doughboys" on their way to join the Allied armies in France. Among the crowds cheering them as they marched through London were the London Veterans, whose photographs, with their banner, featured in the national press, one showing them grouped together and the other actually showing them marching with the troops. One soldier, writing home to his mother, related that he was in one of the first regiment the first to pass in front of the King and Queen, and that their escorts were United States Civil War veterans.
One of the photographs, however, presents a real mystery - one of the 14 men, wearing a ribbon or medal like the rest of them, very clearly appears to be a Sikh; no record of any practicing Sikh in the Union armies or navies has been found, and efforts to identify him have so far failed. Other photographs show at least one Black veteran, probably Private William Silkerd, 4th U.S.C.T.
After World War I, the Civil War veterans participated every year in the American Legion's annual memorial ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey or at St. Paul's, and also at the grave-decoration ceremonies of American World War I dead in the American Cemetery at Brookwood. They revered the memory of Abraham Lincoln, and when the now-familiar copy of St.-Gauden's statue of him was presented to the nation by America in 1920 and erected opposite the Houses of Parliament, they laid their own wreath at the unveiling by the Duke of Connaught on July 28th, and thereafter made their own annual pilgrimage there to lay a wreath on his birthday. The statue was presented by noted US politician, Elihu Root, Secretary of War under McKinley and Roosevelt and winner of the 1912 Nobel Peace Prize. In 1921, the Veterans acted as Guard of Honour at the unveiling of the statue of George Washington outside the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, presented by the State of Virginia, and in the 1922 Lincoln ceremony they were accompanied by world-famous entertainer Sir Harry Lauder, whose own son was killed in the World War. They also joined Independence Day celebrations, going on outings to London places of interest; in 1918 the oration was given in Westminster Abbey by George Haven Putnam, followed by an outing for 50 veterans to Kew Gardens. The event was repeated for the 1919 reunion, and Frazier Smith's own report of it gives a glimpse of how a typical Independence Day Event might have gone, and also shows how honoured the veterans were at the time.
"Thanks to the kindly thought of Col. Pierce of the U.S. Staff, seven motor cars were placed at our disposal, in which, after they had been decorated and beflagged, these warriors of other years (50 in number) were quickly and comfortably conveyed to Kew Gardens, the venue of the day's festivity. After lunch a short meeting was held under the Presidency of Ambrose Pomeroy Esq. J.P., supported by Gen. Hollis (N.Y. Consul), the Rev. Dr. and Mrs. Fort Newton, of the City Temple, and other friends of the Republic. His Excellency the American Ambassador (J.W.Davis Esq.) and the U.S. Naval Attaché sent greeting together with donations in aid of the day's enjoyment. The address by Dr. Fort Newton was a happy blend of humour, patriotism and wholesome teaching, showing how the American colonies, once dependent, became independent, and had now become with old England interdependent, and united in one grand endeavour to maintain the peace of the world. These and other points greatly delighted the war veterans who, from being a somewhat rough and neglected company are now well dressed, mostly devout, and thoroughly appreciative of the interest taken in their welfare. Speeches over, the party were chaperoned by a personal friend of the Director through a portion of the gardens least known to the general public.
There is no doubt that, as with veterans of most wars, their experiences left a deep and permanent mark on them. They were British; but their devotion to the memory of Abraham Lincoln, their supportive letters to American Presidents, their close links with the Woman's Relief Corps, their enthusiastic participation in ceremonies, their pride at having fought to save the Union, the evident closeness of the comrades of the London Branch and the crossed flags of Great Britain and America which was their logo, show that they felt a dual loyalty to both countries; as the WRC President noted in 1922, "The expression of gratitude
The April 1922 reunion was held, perhaps not unexpectedly, at the over the Lincoln Hall of Christ Church, Westminster Bridge Road, presided over during the Civil War by leading pro-Union supporter Rev. Newman Hall and named by him in Lincoln's honour; the Times reported that the combined ages of the fourteen veterans present was 1,157. In 1923 Frazier Smith was able to report that, following the passage of the Bursem Bill, the U.S. government had increased their pensions "substantially", from $50 to $72 a month, while widows would receive $50, an increase of $20. Seth Herrick having died in 1918, and been buried in Hendon, it is unclear who their President was at this time; in 1922 and 1923, The Times stated that it was Ambrose Pomeroy-Cragg, but in 1924 it was reporting that George Haven Putnam, "president for many years", had retired and one F.C.Workman taken his place; presumably only the location of the Branch's records will clarify such questions.
By 1925, a total of 146 members had enrolled over the years, though only 20 veterans were still living, as well as 21 widows, and their reports show that they were still engaged in relief work for their comrades and the widows. By the mid-20s, they were participating in the May 30th U.S. Memorial Day ceremonies, taking the role of laying wreaths on the Lincoln statue while the American Legion placed one at the Cenotaph and the U.S. Consul did so at the unknown Soldier's tomb in Westminster Abbey. Though membership inevitably dwindled during the 1920s, new members still joined - for example, William Hines, late of the 3rd Illinois Cavalry, who made his career in America, where he had emigrated in about 1855, aged 12, and only returned to England in 1928, aged 85, to spend his last years in his birthplace of Bushey, Hertfordshire; the house where he lived, 6 Falconer Road, still stands, looking essentially unchanged from when he lived there. He died there in 1933, the second last of the London veterans, and is buried close by, somewhat ironically in the same churchyard as John Roebuck, England's most passionately pro-Confederate Member of Parliament.
Frazier Smith was clearly an effective publicist for the veterans. In 1928, he wrote an article for the United Press news agency which must have been widely circulated, since it was picked up by the Waukesha (Wisconsin) Daily Freeman. This reported their regular meeting on Lincoln's birthday and Memorial Day, and explained the origins of the group.
During its existence, the group had about 150 members. By 1928, when the only surviving contemporary list of members was published, 11 remained alive, their ages ranging from 81 to 87, and in May, 1931, the New York press reported on "the fast-dwindling little group of American Civil War veterans in England", noting that eight had attended the Lincoln ceremony in 1929, but only two in 1930 - Frazier Smith, and Charles L.E. Wright, formerly of U.S.S. Vandalia - to lay their wreath at Brookwood that year. The next year, 1931, the New York Times reported that Smith was bedridden and that only Wright would lay the Lincoln wreath, though it may be that Hines was present too. Smith died early in 1932, and with the deaths of Hines in June 1933 and of Wright, its last member, the following September, "Taps" had sounded for the London Veterans for the last time.
However, it is interesting to note that an obscure 1945 article in an Oklahoma newspaper reported that, among the 240 GAR veterans still living, one lived in England; who he was is not yet known.
Research on this long-forgotten group of veterans is still at an early stage, and extensive inquiry has failed to show whether their records survive; therefore, any information about them is earnestly sought, so that a full history, together with the information currently being collated on the service records, lives and burial places of the veterans themselves, can be written.
Notes and acknowledgements:
- Thanks to Mrs. Marcia Butgereit, National President of the Woman's Relief Corps, for information from the archives of the WRC
- see George R. Kane, "The WRC and the London Branch", The Veteran
- see Michael Hammerson, "North and South in East and West: Links with the American Civil War (1861-1865) in Highgate Cemetery, North London", Highgate Cemetery booklet (forthcoming, 2010)