Mount Vernon church's Civil War role traced

Civil War artifacts on display at St. Paul's

Civil War artifacts on display at St. Paul's Church in Mount Vernon as part of a new exhibit opening Monday, “A Conservative Union Parish: St. Paul’s Church and the Civil War.” The exhibit traces the church’s Civil War history. (Feb. 15, 2013). (Credit: Elizabeth Daza)

Pvt. Hiram Slagle, originally from Ossining, served during the Civil War as part of the 17th New York Volunteer Infantry.

After surviving combat, he was discharged in 1863, only to come home to Mount Vernon and have trouble adjusting to civilian life. Slagle left his wife and children and wandered Mount Vernon homeless, selling clams and oysters on the street, until in 1901 he tumbled down the stairs of a back alley, according to David Osborn, site manager of the St. Paul's Church National Historic Site.

Slagle's story is part of a new exhibit opening Monday at St. Paul's titled "A Conservative Union Parish: St. Paul's Church and the Civil War." The exhibit traces the church's Civil War history, sharing the stories of the men who are buried there and how then-burgeoning Mount Vernon handled the national crisis 150 years ago.

As Slagle was taken to Mount Vernon Hospital in a horse-drawn ambulance, doctors rummaged through his pockets to find his crumpled honorable discharge papers. At 62, he was buried in the cemetery at St. Paul's in a pauper's grave.

About four years ago, Osborn contacted the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and got a veteran's gravestone added to Slagle's grave.

One of New York's oldest parishes, St. Paul's is best remembered for its role in the American Revolution, serving as a hospital for the militia that fought in the Battle at Pell's Point in 1776. The adjoining cemetery has burials dating to 1704.

However, interred at the Episcopal church are some 60 Civil War veterans who volunteered to fight for the Union. They left their families, joined a regiment, saw combat and came home to live out their lives. They are buried at St. Paul's with veterans' tombstones because they prayed there, lived in the community or had a connection to Mount Vernon.

"This was a volunteer Army of citizen soldiers who joined these regimens and saved the Union," Osborn said. "None of these men stayed in the Army; as soon as the war was over, they mustered out.

"Because we are at the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, we got interested, even though we are not a Civil War site, to help people increase their appreciation of the Civil War and the Civil War era," Osborn added. "What is St. Paul's Civil War history?"

The Georgian-style church is on the Natinal Registry of Historic Places. The stone and brick structure was transferred from the Episcopal Dioceses of New York to the National Park Service in 1980.

St. Paul's Church was a conservative parish deeply afraid that the North-South conflict over slavery would break its denomination -- and its church -- apart, Osborn said. Although horrified by the tone and tenor the Southern rebels were using about slavery and the Union, the clergy would not speak about so as to not agitate the issue.

In fact, Mount Vernon, which at the time was a small village in the Town of Eastchester, in general was more conservative, perhaps getting its cue from New York City, which as a center of commerce was fearful that a disruption in the Union could be disastrous for the economy. The Eastchester electorate had voted against Abraham Lincoln in both the 1860 and 1864 presidential elections.

"It was never a Copperhead neighborhood," Osborn said. "It was not a pro-South community. It was just a little different than other communities in the North."

In 1861, after Confederate Gen. Pierre Beauregard opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C., ringing in the first shots of the Civil War, President Lincoln made a call for volunteer regimens to fight for the Union. Communities throughout the state started raising regiments in a hurry, but not Mount Vernon and neighboring Eastchester. There, leaders said that if anyone were interested in enlisting, they could just take the New Haven line to New York City, Osborn said.

By the second call for regiments a year later, though, attitudes started to shift. With the Union still in peril and no end in sight, men decided to leave their homes, families and businesses and join in the fight to save the Union.

Some of those men are buried in the cemetery. Some spent only their post-combat lives in Mount Vernon.

One of them was George Carter. Born in 1842 in Virginia as a slave, he escaped his bondage in 1861 in the chaos of combat in the northern part of the state, where he lived, and found a refuge camp with the Union Army. In 1863, he joined the 10th Infantry of the U.S. Colored Troops and fought for the last year and a half. When the war was over, he, his wife and their four children moved to Mount Vernon via Babylon, where he lived his life as a janitor and gardener. He's buried at St. Paul's with a veteran's stone.

"It's hard to see it any other way than that's how they wanted to be remembered," Osborn said. "It was the government's debt of gratitude to the men who bore arms. They didn't have to take it, but the fact that so many took it says something about how they wanted posterity to remember them."

IF YOU GO

Who: St. Paul's Church National Historic Site

What: The opening of the exhibit, "A Conservative Union Parish: St. Paul's and the Civil War," and a commemoration of President's Day and Black History Month

Where: 97 S. Columbus Ave., Mount Vernon

When: Monday, Feb. 18. The National Historic Site is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; the official opening begins at 12:20 p.m. Features a visit from actors portraying Gen. George Washington and Lincoln; a performance of "What About Us?", a drama about African-Americans and the Revolutionary War; an exhibit opening; a lecture by Dr. Robert T. Valentine of Lehman College on "The Episcopal Church and the Civil War;" and historic children's crafts and activities.

Cost: Free admission and parking

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