Bids taken for beef cattle for the US government’s military use: Epilogue

Photo of the original letter John F. Erwin sent to Federal military officials to complain about alleged Confederate sympathizer Jacob Wagner being awarded the lucrative contract to supply beef to the local US Army Hospital. Scott Mingus Civil War Document Collection.

Photo of the letter York PA butcher John F. Erwin sent to Federal military officials to complain about alleged Confederate sympathizer Jacob Wagner being awarded the lucrative contract to supply beef to the local US Army Hospital. Original document from the Scott Mingus Civil War Collection.

York butcher John F. Erwin, who today might be known as a “whistle blower,” was frustrated that he had not received the government contract to supply beef cattle for the army’s local needs. He bitterly complained that the awardee, fellow Yorker Jacob Wagner, was a Confederate sympathizer and should not be rewarded for his disloyalty. He dug into the matter and supposedly uncovered a ring of corruption which included military officers and other York butchers, as well as a some side issues with another army officer who had stolen a government horse and saddle and traded them to a York man to repay some debts. Erwin documented his allegations in two more letters to Federal officials in Harrisburg.

Although any subsequent communication between Erwin and the Department of the Susquehanna has not been found, one can surmise from the existing military records that the government apparently ignored the accusations. Of the two officers accused of graft, more is known of Captain Brownell Granger. He had been the adjutant of the 11th Massachusetts Infantry before joining Major General Joseph Hooker’s staff as a commissary officer. Transferred to the Department of the Susquehanna on March 23, 1864, to work for Major General Darius N. Couch, he replaced the previous contracting officer, Captain J. H. Gilson. Granger awarded the beef contract to Jacob Wagner after conferring secretly with a Captain Meredith, whose identity remains uncertain. Brownell and Meredith allegedly charged Wagner and his partner, Henry Meyers, a fee to secure the contract. However, General Couch did not court martial, or even dismiss, Brownell Granger. Instead, Granger continued in his role for some time, and stayed in the army. After the war, he returned to New Breton (now Andover), Massachusetts, and became a leading citizen, including owning a copper mine and serving as a representative in the state’s General Assembly. He died a well respected veteran.

What about the others involved in the alleged scandal, in particular the York butchers?

Penn Common 022

View of modern Penn Park, the site of the U. S. Army Hospital. The beef in question was intended for the patients and staff members.

Lieutenant George R. Buffum, who Erwin claimed had illegally traded a government horse and saddle in exchange for the forgiveness of his debt remained in Harrisburg until the war ended in 1865, according to military records. He returned home to Philadelphia after the war. Nothing is known whether his family members ever found out he had kept a woman in York and palmed her off as his sister (assuming Erwin’s accusation was true).

Image of George R. Buffum's card from the Pennsylvania Civil War veteran's card file system (State Archives).

Image of Lt. George R. Buffum’s card from the Pennsylvania Civil War veteran’s card file system (State Archives). After recovering from his wounds and enrolling in the 16th Veteran Volunteer Reserve Corps, he stayed in York at Mrs. Eck’s boarding house and ran up quite a tab for whiskey, as well as for lodging.

The 31-year-old John F. Erwin had accused Jacob Wagner of being a Rebel sympathizer and told the government that Wagner’s wife had a baby during the Confederate occupation of York back the previous summer. The couple had named the baby boy Jubal Early Wagner in honor of the Southern general. That, however, was a bit of a stretch, so perhaps the government believed the rest of Erwin’ allegations were also exaggerated. Jacob Wagner’s son had been born in November 1861, not in 1863 as Erwin claimed, and he was named Jacob Earl Wagner, not Jubal Early. J. Earl Wagner, as the lad became known as, and his brother George stayed in the butcher business and opened a chain of very profitable meat markets in Philadelphia. Wagner bought and sold several professional baseball teams, including the Philadelphia Athletics and later the Washington Senators. He made almost a quarter of a million dollars in his various baseball business deals. Jacob Wagner quietly lived out his days in York, remaining in the butcher business.

John F. Erwin, a staunch Republican his entire life (which may help explain his denigration of the Democrat Jacob Wagner), later became a prominent politician and civic leader in the Third Ward. He served for several years as a judge, and was the vice president of the Spring Garden Band. In addition to his butcher shop and cattle business, he also owned a well-known local feed and fertilizer store, and his advertisements appeared for many years in the York Gazette in the postbellum years. He died in 1901 and is buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery.

Andrew Gressley continued in the butcher and grocery business until shortly before his death in November 1882. He lived at 219 West Market Street with his second wife and their children. When his son Henry J. Gresly returned from the U.S. Navy,  he worked in the family business and later became the proprietor. Henry also served two terms as York’s Chief Burgess beginning in 1879. He was a Republican and a pillar in the local Lutheran Church.

Henry Meyers, who Erwin accused of being a drunk and complicit with Wagner despite  being “a loyal man,” also remained in the local meat-cutting business. He trained his son Charles to also be a butcher.

The Wagners, Meyers, Gressleys, and John F. Erwin remained competitors throughout the years following the Civil War, and into the early 20th century in the case of their sons and other descendants.

One cannot help but wonder how much postbellum animosity  may have existed between John Erwin and the others, not only because of their professional rivalry but also because of Erwin’s repeated written claims that his competitors  illegally were in cahoots with army officers back during the war years to cheat the Federal government on beef contracts.

If anyone has more information on this army cattle  incident (or any other Civil War documents and stories that might interest the Cannonball readership), please feel free to contact me at scottmingus@yahoo.com.

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