St. Helena’s young men responded quickly when their country called for volunteers during the Civil War, 1861-65. Among them were: Charles Buckley, Eugene Buckley, Milton Burnap, Emerson Crowley, George Crowley, Franklin Eddy, George Green, James Green, Fitch Merithew, Hiram Merithew, Philander Merithew, Chauncey Orsburn, Albert Piper, George Piper, Henry Piper, John Piper, Myron Powell, Hugh Skillin, Sherman Streeter, George Westbrook and Emmett Wood.
Many of those boys drilled on fields near Portage High Bridge. There were such large numbers of volunteers that the hastily built barracks could not house all of them. It is said that old buildings, used for the overflow, still stand in Portageville.
Today, four historical markers point the way to the “Drill and Parade Grounds,” reminders of the part which the area played in the great war tragedy.
All of St. Helena’s boys saw fierce fighting and suffered the horror and pain of war. Among the most seriously wounded was John Piper, whose left arm was severed during the Battle of Fredericksburg. In 1863, he was given a Surgeon’s Certificate of Discharge and returned to St. Helena. However, he re-enlisted in 1864 for a three-year period and served as clerk for a general on the battlefield until the end of the war, and for the balance of the term in the War Department at Washington, D.C.
Shortly after the close of the war in 1865, its survivors formed the “Grand Army of the Republic” Encampment. Posts were organized, and in 1869 western New York’s “Boys in Blue” began to hold annual reunions to commemorate the day that they marched away from the “old campground” at Portage.
Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross and at that time a resident of Dansville, addressed the group on August 26, 1880, at their reunion at Portage. She told them that the names of twenty boys, who had prepared for battle in that very area, appeared in her records as having died in Andersonville Prison. She had visited the graves in the prison cemetery, had had the last resting places of those valiant heroes covered properly, enclosed, marked and suitable burial rites performed for each one.
That information was very comforting to the bereaved families and showed Clara Barton’s great compassion.
In 1885, the annual reunion was held at Nunda and was a colorful and enthusiastic gathering. Several of St. Helena’s veterans attended; among them was Chauncey Orsburn, the oldest member of Craig W. Wadsworth Post, at Nunda.
Appropriate services to honor Castile’s soldier dead were held on Memorial Day in 1890. As the name of each of the fifty deceased heroes was read, a little girl, dressed in white, stepped forward to present a bouquet of flowers.
The following from St. Helena were thus honored: Charles Buckley, James Green, Albert Piper, George Piper, and Emmett Wood, all of whom died in Andersonville Prison, and Franklin Eddy, who died in 1884 at his home.
Many of the Valley Veterans were charter members of George G. Pierce Post when it was organized at Castile. Mr. Pierce, in whose honor it was named, was wounded during the war and died, in 1874, in the Army Hospital at Washington, D.C.
The group’s new rooms over Bush’s store (Cummings Pharmacy) were opened in 1891 with Harvey Castle as Commander. The two rooms were newly carpeted and pleasantly furnished. The place of honor was given to an American flag, now tattered and torn, which had been presented to the regiment during the war by the ladies of Castile and Gainesville. Comrade Matthew Harrington, who carried the banner at one time, was at the meeting.
The bountiful refreshments, consisting of baked beans, biscuits, coffee and cake, were enjoyed by one hundred people.
In 1892, a “Sons of Veterans” Camp was organized at Castile. It was named in honor of Dr. D. W. Harrington of Buffalo, a former resident and Civil War veteran. He was unable to attend the first meeting, but sent a letter of appreciation and included a gift of fifty dollars, which he called the well-known “hardtack” of Army days.
Among the officers elected by the Camp in 1894 were: First Sergeant, John E. Eddy; Corporal of the Guard, Roger N. Piper; and Camp Guard, John A. Streeter.
When the annual G.A.R. Encampment was held in 1897, two hundred and sixty veterans were guests of Dr. Harrington at the old Methodist Church in Buffalo.
The men were quartered in true Army style, sleeping on cots and hearing “taps” sounded every fifteen minutes all night. If a guest showed inclination to sleep, he was quickly surrounded by comrades who told him “what happened at Shenandoah” and similar war stories. The Buffalo meeting was the jolliest “Camp” that the men ever attended. Several St. Helena ex-soldiers enjoyed happy reunions with their 1861-6^ buddies.
Source: Anderson, Mildred L. H, and Marian P. Willey. St. Helena, Ghost Town of the Genesee, 1797-1954. Castile, N.Y, 1954. Print.