GILES F. FILLEY–A BRIEF BIOGRAPHY
A presentation to the 1995 Annual Dinner of Company M, 1st Missouri Light Artillery
by Randy Baehr
The Civil War period raised to public prominence many persons who might otherwise have remained footnotes in American history. Conversely, the events of that period were also shaped by those who had already achieved a measure of fame or influence in their own time, but who are now largely forgotten. This is the story of one such man, whose 1900 obituary called him “one of the best-known of the older residents of St. Louis and one of its most prominent manufacturers”: Giles F. Filley.
Giles F. Filley was born in Connecticut on February 15, 1815. His father, Oliver Filley, was both a tinware manufacturer and a farmer and could trace his ancestry back to the Mayflower. Giles was educated in the common schools of Connecticut and spent three terms at the Wilbraham Academy in Massachusetts.
In 1834, 19-year-old Giles left New England for St. Louis to work in the tinware shop of his brother, Oliver D. Filley. Giles’s trip illustrates the rigors of cross-country travel in that era. After sailing by ship to New York, Giles traveled by way of the Erie Canal into Lake Erie, where he was shipwrecked and barely escaped with his life. He walked to Wellsville, Ohio, on the Ohio River, found no boat there, and continued on foot to Cincinnati. There Oliver joined him, and they booked passage on a riverboat to Cairo, Illinois. Just as the boat reached the harbor at Cairo, the boat exploded. The only passengers to survive were Giles and Oliver Filley. Finally arriving in St. Louis on another riverboat, they landed during a flood, at Locust Street and Commercial Alley.
After working in Oliver’s shop and becoming his partner, Giles sold his interest to his brother and started a crockery store in 1841. He also tried manufacturing earthenware and stone china using craftsmen he recruited in England, but these imported workers drifted away. He closed the factory and sold the retail part of the business to his cousins Edward A. and Samuel R. Filley in 1849. The pottery venture had been profitable overall, so Giles had the capital to start yet another business.
In 1849, Giles established the Excelsior Stove Works, starting with 25 molders and 20 men in other departments. Beginning production in September, the factory produced 644 cast iron stoves that year. The following year, nearly 6,000 stoves were produced, and sales continued to climb rapidly. In 1851, Giles invented a stove model named the Charter Oak Cooking Stove, which became the premier model of his line and a good seller, consistently making up about a third of all sales. Production of all models exceeded 12,000 in 1852, enough to require a large expansion of the factory in 1853. In 1859, nearly 23,000 stoves were produced. Material shortages may have contributed to lower production during the Civil War, since the iron was brought in from Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, but sales volume returned to prewar levels in 1865. That year, Giles and some associates incorporated the firm as the Excelsior Manufacturing Company. By 1869, annual production exceeded 33,000, and the factory covered 37,000 square feet, employed 255 men, and melted 175 tons of iron per week. In that same year, the factory began to use iron mined in Missouri almost exclusively, mixed with a portion of softer iron from Scotland to properly mold the ornamental designs in the stove castings. By 1893, the factory covered two square blocks in North St. Louis and employed 550 men, plus another 100 in related businesses, such as the distribution of tinner’s supplies. In 1895, Giles retired from active participation in the business. The company was then reorganized into the Charter Oak Range and Iron Company. This firm survived in St. Louis into the 1950s.
While building a successful enterprise, Giles Filley always took a strong interest in the public affairs of his city. Although he never sought public office, he was active in politics. His New England roots and education helped establish him as an uncompromising opponent of slavery. In 1848, he was one of the organizers of the Free Soil or Liberty Party in Missouri and prominently assisted in starting a Free Soil newspaper in St. Louis called the Barnburner. Through the Free Soilers, he began a long association with Frank P. Blair, later a powerful Republican leader. In 1856, Giles served as one of four electors from Missouri to cast electoral votes for Republican Presidential candidate John C. Fremont. In 1858, Giles’s brother Oliver D. Filley was elected mayor of St. Louis as a Republican, and he was reelected in 1859 and 1860.
With the election of Lincoln in November and the secession of South Carolina in December of 1860, sectional tensions flared quickly across the United States. While Missouri was a slave state and governed by a Democratic and pro-Southern state administration, St. Louis’s large German population and strong Republican organizations made for deep divisions within the city. Each side was extremely suspicious of the other’s intentions. At stake was control of the United States Arsenal at St. Louis and its store of weapons and ordnance.
In January 1861, Frank Blair, Mayor Oliver Filley, Giles Filley, and 11 other prominent pro-Union citizens secretly met to organize a body of Union men to repel any attack which might be made by Southern sympathizers. At a second meeting on February 1, they established a military organization called the Union Guards and enrolled a company of men for secret drill. Mayor Filley and four others were appointed a Committee of Safety, and Frank Blair was appointed captain. At the same time, the pro-Southern members of the city’s Democratic Clubs were forming groups of “Minute Men”, as they were called, which were mustered into the State Militia so they could be equipped by the State. The “Wide Awakes”, a Republican club which had worked to elect Lincoln and which had been disbanded in January, were reformed into Union Clubs, open to pro-Union men of all parties. Members of these Union Clubs were also enrolled into the Union Guards, formed into military companies, and secretly drilled at night at several locations including Giles Filley’s foundry and the German Turner Hall.
Having formed the Union Guards, the organizers now had to arm them. They decided that they could not ask the authorities at the Arsenal for arms, since this could expose their plans to secessionist leaders. Instead, Capt. Blair asked Edward and Samuel Filley to raise money to buy guns. Three hundred dollars were raised right away, $100 from Edward and Samuel, and $100 each from Oliver and Giles Filley. Blair added $25 of his own, and they bought 70 muskets from T. J. Albright for $407.90, making up the difference on credit. Gov. Yates of Illinois contributed about 200 muskets for use by Union men in St. Louis, shipped to Giles Filley care of Woodward and Company, hardware dealers. Upon taking delivery, Giles found that Woodward and Company also had 60 Sharps rifles in stock, which he immediately purchased to prevent them from falling into the hands of the secessionists and which he reserved for the company of men drilling at his foundry. Mr. Woodward gave another 50 guns to the Union Guard, and with those procured by other Union citizens, there were enough guns to arm a regiment. Samuel Filley and E. A. Fox acted as a committee to raise money to support the Union Guards, seeking at first $1,000. Oliver and Giles Filley each contributed another $100.
Following the attack on Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers on April 15, 1861, the Union Guards were quickly incorporated into the volunteer troops under the command of Capt. Nathaniel Lyon. On April 17, Missouri Governor Claiborne Jackson sent a reply to Lincoln’s call, refusing to supply troops, and on April 22, issued an order for the State militia to assemble in their respective military districts on May 3 and go into encampment for six days, as provided by law. Thus began what became known in St. Louis as the Camp Jackson incident.
Gen. Daniel M. Frost of the Missouri State Militia established Camp Jackson on May 3 in Lindell Grove at the intersection of Grand Avenue and Olive Street, now the site of Saint Louis University. Within a few days, he had 635 militiamen encamped, formed into two regiments. Capt. Lyon felt the camp was an affront to Union men, but the Committee of Safety felt that it posed no threat to the Arsenal and that it would be disbanded after its legal term of six days anyway. Lyon appealed to Frank Blair to urge the Committee to change its position. Blair accomplished this by informing the Committee that Gen. Harney, the pro-Southern commander of the Arsenal, would return in a few days from a trip to the East and take command of the Arsenal back from Lyon.
Lyon immediately began plans to capture Camp Jackson. His force was ample to achieve his goal: five regiments of volunteers, five regiments of Home Guards, several companies of Citizen’s Guards, and nearly 400 U.S. Regulars. Lyon made elaborate preparations, specifying every detail of the operation. On May 9, he sent a lieutenant with a note to Giles Filley requesting him to procure 36 horses and send them to him at the Arsenal by 4 p.m. Giles called James Harkness of Glasgow & Harkness for assistance. Twenty-two horses were purchased at the Glasgow & Harkness stables, while Filley and Harkness visited other places to get the rest. Giles and Oliver Filley signed their own names as securities to Harkness for payment. On May 10, Lyon surrounded and captured Camp Jackson without a shot. As the captured militiamen began to be marched to the Arsenal, a hostile crowd formed, hurling at first epithets, then rocks and bricks at Lyon’s men. Then shots were fired, and the Union troops fired into the crowd, killing over thirty persons, including a woman and a girl of fourteen. But the capture of Camp Jackson secured St. Louis as a Union stronghold during the Civil War.
Giles Filley continued to contribute to the war effort and pro-Union causes. In a note written to the Missouri Historical Society accompanying a donation in 1898, he described his gift:
The tube remains in the collection of the Society and was last on display in the History Museum’s special exhibit on “The Civil War in Missouri” until March 2013. The tube is 42.5″ long, with a bore of 2.125″.
[No other mention of these pieces has turned up so far in my research. The Official Records of The War of the Rebellion report an engagement at Bloomfield, Missouri, on January 27, 1863, in which Col. James Lindsay “of the 68th Regiment Enrolled Missouri Militia, with about 250 men and two small pieces of artillery, provided at private expense, dashed into the town…, capturing a large number of the enemy…breaking up the troublesome band of guerrillas which have for a long time infested that neighborhood.” It seemed possible that these pieces might have been Filleys. However, a search of the Ordnance Records of the Enrolled Missouri Militia shows that the 68th drew “round balls” and “mortar powder”. This is inconsistent with Filley’s report that his guns fired lead conical shot, which other evidence indicates were issued in unitary rounds (shot and powder bag attached). Mortar powder was issued in kegs. Lindsay’s guns have since been identified as Woodruff guns, the same Woodruff guns that ultimately ended up at Fort Davidson during the 1864 Battle of Pilot Knob, Missouri. Coincidentally, the Woodruff guns while at Fort Davidson were issued the same conical lead rounds made for the Filley guns, since they shared the same 2 1/8-inch bore. Filley said his guns were used against guerrillas, which was the role of the Enrolled Missouri Militia. However, the Ordnance Records show that every other EMM unit which drew artillery supplies also had 6-pounder guns in their inventory. Further research is required to determine exactly where Filley’s guns were employed.]
On August 28, 1862, Gen. Schofield, commanding the Military District of St. Louis, issued Special Orders No. 91, establishing a county board for St. Louis County “to assess and collect, without unnecessary delay, the sum of five hundred thousand dollars from the secessionists and Southern sympathizers in St. Louis County.” The money was to be “used in subsisting, clothing, and arming the enrolled militia while in active service, and in providing for the support of families of such militiamen and U.S. Volunteers as may be left destitute.” This order created great indignation among Southern sympathizers but also concern among many pro-Union men. The assessment was to be based on the individual’s wealth and his supposed degree of sympathy for the South. The board was instructed to ascertain the facts, examine witnesses, and specify the amounts to be paid by each party. Giles Filley was one of five members appointed to this board, and it was said that he accepted this appointment reluctantly. Several loyal Union men petitioned Missouri Gov. Gamble for his intervention to stop the assessments. The Governor forwarded the petition to President Lincoln, who instructed Gen. Halleck to rescind the order. After only one or two assessments, the assessments were ordered stopped on December 15, 1862.
During the war, Missouri’s lead deposits were a valuable resource to the Union for the production of bullets. A group called the “shot ring” managed to gain control of all the shot works in Missouri and attempted to jack prices up to the government. Giles Filley immediately offered to make bullets and shot at cost, and as an alternative proposition, offered to turn his factory over to the government free of cost. This broke the “shot ring”, and more reasonable bullet prices were restored.
Between 1864 and 1867, Giles Filley, among others, cosigned notes for a prominent and well-respected St. Louis businessman. When this businessman failed, Filley found that his personal obligations as cosigner approached one million dollars. Filley’s friends advised him to declare bankruptcy and promised to help him reestablish his business, but he refused, declaring his intention to pay back every dollar if the creditors would only give him reasonable time. This he was given, and in 1881 he completed paying back the entire obligation, which with interest totaled $1.3 million. During this time, he not only kept his company intact but expanded it. After the debts were repaid, his colleagues in the National Association of Stove Manufacturers presented him with a sterling silver bowl as a testimonial of the honor he had reflected upon the industry through his high devotion to principle.
These financial problems did not keep Giles Filley from participating in other business and civic pursuits. He was one of the key investors in the Kansas Pacific Railroad and took an active role in the project. He was a close friend of James B. Eads. When Eads asked him to invest in his project to build a bridge across the Mississippi at St. Louis, Filley refused. However, he did offer to supply all the rock needed for the bridge from a quarry that he owned north of the city at a price as near cost as possible. All the rock in the Eads Bridge piers did come from Filley’s quarry, at an estimated cost to him of over $200,000.
Filley’s obituary stated: “A marked characteristic of Mr. Filley’s personality was the tenacity with which he held to his opinions and the peculiarities of his views.” In other words, he was stubborn and eccentric. But he clearly contributed much to the economic and political growth of St. Louis in the 19th century. And he deserves to be remembered for that.
Click here for link to an article about Giles F. Filley by the Missouri History Museum.
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