Mittie (Part One)

She was a dainty, dark-haired southern girl in white.  Her pale complexion seemed to exhale fragrance from the peach trees on Georgia’s hills.  With her blue eyes flashing, she could be funny, poetic or reproachful, but one thing she could never be: a Yankee.  She loved the plantation and its way of life until she died, when they were just memories.

If you are thinking of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, it is not an accident.  For a newspaper story Margaret Mitchell once interviewed a woman nearing ninety who reminisced about dances, picnics, and riding parties before the Civil War.  Evelyn King Baker also told of being a bridesmaid in a beautiful wedding at nearby Bulloch Hall.  It is believed Mitchell used details from that interview in her famous story of the Old South (the movie celebrates its 75th anniversary this year).  In real life, Mrs. Baker had been the attendant in white muslin; Martha Bulloch the vivacious bride in white satin; and Theodore Roosevelt of New York, the groom.  Mr. Roosevelt, she said, was “firm against slavery.”

File:Mittie Bulloch.jpg

National Park Service photo.

Martha was called “Mittie.”  Descended from the Scots, she grew to her adult height of just five feet in a big house fronted with pillars and surrounded by white oaks near Roswell, Georgia.  Besides Mittie’s childhood nurse Mom Grace, her widowed mother owned about twenty slaves who worked in the house and fields.  Theodore Roosevelt, also called “Thee,” came calling in the early 1850s, having heard of Mittie through his brother’s wife.  They courted, and the southern belle and northern gentlemen were married and moved to New York.  Her world changed forever.

In 1854 the Roosevelts moved into a Manhattan townhouse that was a gift from his parents, Cornelius Van Schaach and Margaret Barnhill Roosevelt.  The Roosevelts followed Dutch traditions.  The father and five brothers imported plate glass for city storefronts and buildings elsewhere.  Margaret, herself a gentle Quaker from Pennsylvania, had married into a family different than her own and probably felt empathy for her southern daughter-in-law.  It was a rather stiff group with which to spend Sunday evenings.

Thee and Mittie’s first child was a girl, Anna, also called “Bamie” for “bambino.”  Their second was a little boy who was born on October 27, 1858.  He looked like a terrapin, his mother said to her own mother and sister who’d come to help out.  The son was named Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.  Mittie couldn’t bear for her family to return to Georgia and pleaded with them to stay.   So they did.  They remained in New York City for the births of two more babies, a son, Elliott, in 1860 and a daughter, Corinne, in 1861.  By the last child’s September arrival, the nation was at war.

How did three southern women cope with that?  They were caught, living with the people who were destroying their past.  But Mittie loved Thee, and it was his love for her that kept him from enlisting as he wanted to (a decision that he later regretted).  He thought it would destroy her if he fought against her brothers.  He hired two substitutes in his place and joined the home guard.  Then he helped create the Allottment Commission, which urged soldiers to send some of their pay home to their families instead of wasting it on sutlers.  While Thee was away in Washington and various fighting fields talking to troops, Grandmama, Mittie and her sister Anna sent supplies past the Union blockade to their family.  Then came news that General Sherman’s army had surrounded Bulloch Hall.  It was spared, probably because of a Masonic emblem on the house.  Soldiers on the offense could not burn the home of a fraternal brother, even if he lived on the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Bulloch Hall today.
In the meantime the children were growing and learning.  Aunt Annie was their tutor, teaching them letters and numbers, but more special, telling stories as their mother did about the Georgia home.  The sisters were experts at mimicry and music.  They spent long evenings remembering their old way of life for the children who would never see it.  There were mysterious tales of slave quarters, Indian fighters, men of valor, and duels.  The strain of life far from her people’s sympathies and four rambunctious children with various infirmities took its toll on Mittie, but she stayed a vibrant force in everyone’s lives.  Soon she would, along with her husband and children, become a traveler and connoisseur of the world.
Don’t miss Ken Burns’ new documentary, The Roosevelts, which begins on PBS this Sunday, September 14!

2 Replies to “Mittie (Part One)”

  1. I think so! We got to visit Bulloch Hall in 2006 with Mom and Aunt Catherine. They loved touring the southern home, and we had a buffet supper on the grounds. Good memories.


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