A First Lady Who Might Have Been

Jessie Benton Fremont (National Park Service)

Several blogs past I wrote about some “also rans” for United States President, which could lead to speculation of “what if” the loser had won. I overlooked at least one name, that of John Fremont. He isn’t well-known or taught much about in history classes, although his experience and leadership matched many of the time.

His wife, Jessie, most certainly would have been an impressive first lady.

Jessie Benton Fremont was the daughter of Thomas Hart Benton, (not to be confused with an artist of the same name) who is taught about in history classes. He was a senator from Missouri before the Civil War, an advocate for western expansion and an opponent of slavery in the territories, and he let his daughter tag along with him when he had business at the Capitol and Executive Mansion.

At 17, while attending school in Washington, she eloped with Lieutenant John C. Fremont, ten years older. There was a period of estrangement between the two generations but eventually the Fremonts and the Bentons reconciled, and John became active in exploring the West with Kit Carson. Jessie stayed home and wrote for newspapers, also becoming well-known.

Jesie held a salon of writers, artists and spiritual leaders when they lived in San Francisco in the early 1860s. (National Park Service)

John became a senator from California, and then received the nomination for President in 1856 from the new Republican Party. Unmarried opponent Buchanan did not have an asset like Jessie. Crowds called her name and sang a song about her to the tune of Yankee Doodle. But “Mr. Fremont,” as she called him, lost, unable to sway the southern states. A newspaperman said they all regretted that she would not be “Mrs. President.”

Parents of five children, two of whom died in infancy, they moved to St. Louis during the Civil War where John was in command of the Western Department. But he ended a declaration of martial law by freeing slaves held by rebels in Missouri, which preceded the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln was not happy. Even though Jessie traveled to Washington to plead the case with the President, he fired her husband. She also worked with the Soldier’s Relief Society and the Western Sanitation Commission which were accepted roles for a woman.

With husband, John C. Fremont. (www.calisphere.org)

The family came into hard times when John’s railroad speculations failed. After his death Jessie lived another twelve years, aided by a widow’s army pension and her narratives, which were as popular as ever.

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One can see why readers anticipated her articles:

I look up at the little water-color which is my résumé of that time of severance from all I held indispensable to happiness—it was made for me on the spot, and gives my tent under the tall cotton-woods, already browned and growing bare with the coming winter winds.
Mr. Fremont was to make a winter crossing of the mountains, and I went with him in to his starting-point, the Delaware Indian reservation on the frontier of Missouri, to return when he left, and remain at home in Washington until my time came to start in March.
Of everything in the Centennial Exhibition, I think nothing interested me so much as the display made by Kansas. It seemed so few years since I had been there, when only a small settlement marked the steamboat landing where now Kansas City stands. Looking at its silk manufacturers, its produce of not only essentials, but luxuries, it was hard to realize the untracked prairie of my time, with only Indians and wolves for figures.

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My blog post receiving the most responses has been one about “little orange books” (subsequently with other covers) pubished by the Bobbs-Merrill Company. They were prevalent in elementary school libraries in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Many said these adapted biographies sparked a lifelong interest in history, as they did for me.

I remember reading Jessie Fremont’s story. One incident that stood out was when she befriended a girl at school whom everyone else shunned. That reflects the character of one who would have, by all accounts, been a knockout of a First Lady.


http://www.theatlantic.com, http://www.tile.loc.gov, http://www.civilwar.vt.edu, http://www.nps.gov, http://www.americanhistoryblog.org, http://www.historynet.com

The Atlantic piece is an excerpt from a book about the Fremonts, Imperfect Union, by Steve Inskeep, co-host of NPR’s Morning Edition.


The end of the deadliest war in American History occurred on April 9, 1865.  Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at the town of Appomattox Court House, Virginia, in a citizen’s home among sparse furnishings and a few soldiers.

Biographer Ron Chernow, in Grant, (Random House, 2017) reveals an amazing cache of research about the top Union general: his training, early experience in the military, conflict with his wife’s southern family, rise to leadership in the war, frustrated efforts as president, and final battle with lung cancer as he tried to finish his memoirs.  But the pages which fascinated me most were the ones pertaining to Appomattox.

Confederate prisoners being held under guard on April 2, 1865, after the Battle of Five Forks, Virginia, a pivotal event in the closing days of the Civil War.

Soldiers wait outside as Grant and Lee parley.  http://www.cnn.com

Lee was not ready to give up until General Sheridan’s army captured the South’s last railroad cars of food and supplies.  He knew his men could not last without them.  He was urged by others to continue guerilla warfare in the back country but refused.  His enemy, surprisingly to some, was remorseful.

My own feelings were sad and depressed.  I felt like anything than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for his cause.  -Ulysses S. Grant

Lee had said earlier that he never believed the South could make its independence good in the long run without help from other countries.

American Civil War: Appomattox Court House
The McLean House four months after the surrender; it burned in 1892 and was rebuilt. http://www.brittanica.com
From Chernow’s extensive narrative, here are some notable facts:
  • One of Grant’s closest friends was there – on the other side.  James Longstreet, aide to Lee, had attended West Point with the Union commander.  Afterwards Grant asked him to play a game of cards like they did in the old days.
  • Grant had a migraine headache until he received Lee’s letter agreeing to meet for terms of surrender.
  • Lee was dressed in a fine grey officer’s uniform, sword and sash given to him by a family from Baltimore.  Grant wore muddy boots with a soldier’s blouse and trousers; he had no sword with him.  He was embarrassed by his appearance.
  • Wilmer McLean, owner of the home, had moved from Bull Run at the start of the war to get away from the fighting.  Ironically, a battle occurred that morning close to town.
  • Confederate soldiers were allowed to keep their horses and mules to take home for work on the farm, so long as they observed their parole.  Officers were allowed to keep their sidearms.  All received free rides on the railroad to get home.
  • While Julia Grant wanted her husband to ride victoriously through Richmond, he replied, “Do not say another word on this subject.  I would not distress these people.”
  • In Washington, Abraham Lincoln said repeatedly, “Good!  All right.  Exactly the thing.”  His son, Robert, a member of Grant’s staff, was present at the signing of the documents.
  • Secretary of State William Seward, who’d been seriously injured in a carriage accident, said he’d been made to cry for the first time in his life.

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An artist’s rendering of the meeting of April 9, 1865.  http://www.constitutioncenter.org

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Inside the McLean House today.  The original furniture was taken or sold by soldiers for souvenirs.

In less than three months we will note the hundredth anniversary of the Armistice which ended World War 1.  It was not the surrender desired by Commander of the American Expeditionary Forces John J. Pershing, but a cease fire.

Germany and her allies were punished in many ways, resulting in horrible poverty, despair and animosity.  We should have learned something from the actions of Grant and Lee fifty years before.  Take their surrender, not their dignity.

War Chest

I’m not going to touch on the obvious cost of going to war: human lives.  As we were reminded last weekend, the sacrifice of those who die or are physically disabled in service to their country is immeasurable.  But it is interesting to look at the ways we have drummed up money to pay for our battles  – something I discovered when reading my grandparents’ letters about common folks selling bonds in 1918.


My great-uncle Guy had firsthand experience with those bonds.  “Scott Township has to raise $8,000 in the next few days,” he reported to his brother Jesse in June 1918.  “We have a few slackers whom we haven’t been able to collect from…I got $2 cash from —— and I pumped him for more till he pledged $3.  The next day I heard he said, ‘That Guy Covell is a damned hog …'”

It was the third of four separate World War 1 bond drives.  The strategy of William McAdoo, who was in charge, was to raise support by having patriotic rallies across the country.  My grandmother, at the time teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in a different county, wrote that someone there was planning a ride like Paul Revere’s to attract attention, but it didn’t happen.  She sold bonds to country neighbors, taking homemade cookies along to sweeten the deal.

Bank employees did not sell certificates for the Liberty Loan, so there were no commissions.  People thought it was their duty to raise the money.  And that they did — seventeen billion dollars worth, over half for $50.  Even those were monumental to the average worker who made 35 cents an hour.  But they could buy stamps for 25 cents each, paste them on a special card, and when they had enough cards filled could trade them for the lowest denomination.


The mass media of that time included posters to urge the Liberty Loan, foodconservation and soldier enlistment.  Today we marvel at their Art Nouveau style and vivid colors, at the same time realizing the sobering scope of the work of George Creel and his propaganda committee.

Over 125 years before, the American Revolution was funded with  loans from France and the Netherlands, and private loans from a few individuals.  Each colony was ultimately asked to equip its own soldiers.  The Continental Congress printed a lot of paper money, backed up by nothing, which Mercy Otis Warren called “immense heaps of paper trash.”   Consequently inflation rose to 30 per cent in 1783.

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The new Constitution gave the federal government power to regulate trade and commerce, print common currency, and have Congress tax citizens.  Until the peace treaty was signed, however, soldiers were given IOUs for back pay.  That was a pretty unpopular decision.  Alexander Hamilton got his way with the idea for the federal banking system, later losing his life in a duel surely connected to his spin on financial policy.

When the Civil War inevitably came, both sides doubted it would last long and didn’t plan to raise many taxes for their expense.  Instead, the Union printed “greenbacks,” doubling the North’s paper money supply.  A man named Jay Cooke engineered the “New National Banking System” in 1863, which favored large banks over small ones (It wasn’t a permanent benefit for him, though, as he went bankrupt in 1873) .

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In 1861 this note was worth $90; in 1865, $17.  http://www.usdollarbill.info

The Confederates printed their own paper money, too — to the tune of twenty times their supply.  You can see where this was going.  A dollar bill worth 90 cents at the beginning of the war shrank to 17 cents at the end.  They also tried selling “cotton bonds” to the British.  And then there are legends about gold from England hidden in the western United States, which was intended to help the South win the war.

During World War 2, the withholding tax was introduced and $186 billion in bonds sold.  The GI Bill compensated soldiers by providing education and job training (My dad took advantage of this program and earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering.  He was the first one from whom I heard that war could be good for the economy, and that times of recession could be good for education because unemployed people go back to school).

Costs of the Korean War took 15 per cent of the GDP (gross domestic product); Viet Nam 10 per cent and Iraq 1 per cent.  Pork barrel spending for the military keeps making increases to the national debt.  There is also the matter of veterans’ pensions.   The current generation continues to pay the debt for wars begun and fought before they were born; George Washington put it this way: “throwing on posterity the costs we ought to bear.”

And then  I remembered one more thing: what the colonists were so mad about in the first place.  England put the Stamp Tax on them to help pay for the French and Indian War.

Sources: cbsnews.com, businessinsider.com, allthingsliberty.com, federalreservehistory.org, Wikipedia, marginalrevolution.inc., letters of Jesse O. Covell and Margaret E. Beck.  Contact me if you’d like to hear more about their story, Folks on the Home Front.


John Hay

“. . . A little after midnight as I was writing . . . , the President came into the office laughing, with a volume of Hood’s works in his hand to show Nico[lay] & me the little Caricature ‘An unfortunate Bee-ing,’ seemingly utterly unconscious that he with his short shirt hanging about his long legs & setting out behind like the tail feathers of an enormous ostrich was infinitely funnier than anything in the book he was laughing at. What a man it is. Occupied all day with matters of vast moment, deeply anxious about the fate of the greatest army of the world, with his own fame & future hanging on the events of the passing hour, he yet has such a wealth of simple bonhomie & good fellow ship that he gets out of bed & perambulates the house in his shirt to find us that we may share with him the fun. . . . ”

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The short young man whose 1862 cabinet card showed him to be even younger was foremost a writer.  His diary entries, like the one above, and poems attest to it.  A long biography of our most revered president which he co-authored quickly sold 5,000 copies.  After becoming a top government official in later life, he must have thought himself a bad luck charm, because four chief executives whom he worked for were assassinated. He was John Hay.

John’s Uncle Milton worked next door to Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, and asked his nephew to work on the 1860 campaign.  Just a few years older than Lincoln’s son Robert, Hay became a favorite with the president-elect and was hired as a second secretary, in addition to John Nicolay.  Because there was only room in the budget for one position, his official paycheck came from the Agriculture Department.
One biographer has called him the “court jester” of the administration, as he could supply a little humor to soften the hard blows of the Civil War.  “Now John, just tell that thing again,” Lincoln said once when his young friend had brought up a joke.  They would ride together in the afternoon and dine at the Soldiers’ Home in the evening.
After Lincoln’s death Hay returned to journalism and worked for newspapers.  He married a girl from a wealthy Cleveland family, Clara Stone, and so had no financial worries thereafter.  For twenty years, with their diaries and private papers loaned to them by Robert Lincoln, he and Nicolay collaborated on the biography.  When it came out in 1895 it was sold door to door, a common practice then, and became an immediate classic.
 About the same time the ten-volume biography was published, John Hay built a mansion in Washington D.C.’s Lafayette Park at the corner of H and 16th Streets.  It was adjacent to his best friend’s place of equivalent architecture and cost.  He and Henry Adams hosted a salon of the most interesting people in the capital, including Theodore Roosevelt, who’d been a family friend to both before his fast-rising career in politics.

Hay was Secretary of State under William McKinley and was asked to remain when Roosevelt inherited the top position.  He famously referred to the Spanish-American conflict as “a splendid little war,” owing to its brief length.  The achievement he is remembered for is the Open Door Policy for all nations to trade with China.

Picture of John Hay

John Hay died in 1905 at age 66.  On the occasion of Theodore Roosevelt’s inauguration earlier in the year, he’d presented the president with a gold ring containing a strand of Abraham Lincoln’s hair.  He felt a responsibility to share what he’d experienced, stating in the introduction to Abraham Lincoln: A History, “The young men who have been born since Sumter was fired on have right to all their elders know of the important events they came too late to share.”
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At dinners at the Soldiers’ Home during the Civil War, Lincoln liked to read from Shakespeare’s Richard II.  Hay remembered that the terrible outbreak of grief and despair had a particular fascination for him:
“For heaven’s sake, let us sit upon the ground, and tell sad stories of the death of kings
All murdered from within the hollow crown that rounds the mortal temples…”
(The site of the H. H. Richardson mansions close to the White House is now occupied by the posh Hay-Adams Hotel, in which original paneling from Hay’s home may be seen in a meeting room. Theodore Roosevelt’s gold ring is on display at the Sagamore Hill Historic Site in Oyster Bay, Long Island.)

Old West Larnin’

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Old-fashioned swing outside a one-room schoolhouse built in 1867.

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There was a gold strike in the 1860s at Alder Gulch in central Montana.  It drew thousands of miners, who panned and dredged an estimated $30 million worth of the precious mineral.  At first, camps consisted of tents and primitive brush shelters, but soon small towns sprang up around the merchant trade.  The boom also drew Confederate sympathizers who schemed to send gold back to their people in the last days of the Civil War.

Fast forward 150 years.  The mining heyday lasted about ten years; people moved away and the towns fell into disrepair.  But history lovers have put two back together so the public could see the Old West in person.  Today one of the small downtown areas close to Alder Gulch is the popular Virginia City, where you can see Boot Hill above the main street and learn of vigilantes who went after cattle thieves (and be entertained by musicals, homemade ice cream, old time music machines and souvenier shopping).  The other is Nevada City, an outdoor living history museum of 90 restored buildings.  Here children and adults alike learn about pioneer life and the events that shaped it.

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Among the general store, livery, bootmaker and other structures stands a one-room schoolhouse which was dismantled from the town of Twin Bridges.  It is the oldest standing school in the state.  Beginning in 1867, pupils walked past the red door to read spellers, practice arithmetic on slates, and learn cursive writing. 

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In the next three months, a wooden sidewalk will lead thousands of visitors past the schoolhouse and other buildings which, combined, teach of a different time and way of life.  Thanks to the State of Montana, which owns it, and the Montana Heritage Commission, which keeps it going, the larnin’ goes on.




Thomas Nast

Image: Nast, Thomas. New Life in the Old House. I Don't Know When I've Felt so at Home Here. 1901. Sagamore Hill National Historic Site.


You know his crosshatched images like an old tune for which you cannot remember the words.  His symbols for the American political parties and, for that matter, America itself, will stay with us for all time.  He is credited with the reelection of presidents and the tumbling-down of one of our biggest political bad eggs.  And then there’s our common perception of Santa Claus.  All this from one artist?

His name was Thomas Nast.

Nast was born in Germany in 1840, emigrating to the United States when he was six.  By the age of fifteen, he was drawing for Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.  He became a war correspondent in Italy and then in the United States during the Civil War.

When he was in the field, he sent drawings to Harper’s Weekly, his new employer.  The art was transferred by engravers to wood blocks to be printed, appearing on double page spreads twenty inches wide.  But when he was in the New York office, he drew backwards directly on the blocks with a soft pencil.

After the war he set his sights on William Tweed of the Tammany Hall political machine.  Tweed, a New York state senator who blatently stole from the treasury and gave kickbacks to friends, said, “Stop them pictures.  I don’t care what the papers report about me.  My constituents can’t read.  But (bleep), they can see the pictures.”  The mission was successful and Boss Tweed was put out.

Nast continued creating illustrations for Harper’s Weekly through the 1880s, entertaining and persuading the public to take up social causes.  When the next generation took over, they disagreed on tactics: Nast preferred to “hit the enemy between the eyes” with his cartoons.  So about the time wood block printing was replaced with pen and ink drawings, he parted with the publication that had been his forum for so many years. 

A resident of Morristown, N.J., where the largest of his collections is now housed in a museum, Nast became wealthy and then lost most of his money to an investment firm.  He needed work at the beginning of the new century, and President Theodore Roosevelt gave him a job as U.S. consul in Ecuador.  When he went, he contracted yellow fever, dying in 1902.

His last Santa cartoon was inscribed: “New Life in the Old House.  Don’t Know When I’ve Felt So At Home Here.”  He gave it to the Roosevelt family in 1901, and it still hangs in the nursery at Sagamore Hill.


Sources: University of Southern Florida Libraries, www.osu.edu, www.macculochhall.org.


You’d think by now I would have covered most of the story of TR’s father, “Thee,” among posts about the rest of the immediate family.  But the elder Theodore’s influence was very, very, large.  It is hard to imagine it occured in a lifetime of only forty-six years, before telephones and motorized vehicles.  In his time he was mightily revered by the people of New York.

President Theodore Roosevelt kept a portrait of his father above his desk.

He was his parents’ youngest, born in 1831.  A friend of the family remembered that people would say, “There is lovely Mrs. Roosevelt with those five horrid boys.”  Coming from a Quaker background, she told her sons that along with greater wealth came greater responsibility to the less fortunate.  Thee took this to heart.

He didn’t attend college, which his father thought would ruin him, but instead traveled in Europe and became a junior partner in the family glass importing business.  He courted and won a southern girl for his wife.  After he brought her north to New York City to live, they had four children, but each one suffered from a physical malady: a defect of the spine, or asthma, or seizures.  In the meantime their father’s “troublesome conscience” was struck by the multitude of poor immigrants living in the city.

 Brooklyn newsboys, late Nineteenth Century.  New York Public Library photo.

The Children’s Aid Society had several divisions, one of which was the Newsboys’ Lodging House.  Thee visited the boys there every week, eating supper with them and talking with them as if they were his own.  He helped send many children to homes in the west, one of whom became the governor of Alaska.  In other charity work, he was careful to make inquiries into the actual conditions of the poor and not “do harm by teaching those who were independent to rely on others for their support.”

During the Civil War he did not join the army because of his wife’s Confederate sympathies, and regretted the decision the rest of his life.  He was away for weeks at a time in an organized effort to support families of soldiers.  With philanthropist William Dodge, he started the Allotment Commission to urge troops to send some of their paychecks home instead of wasting money on sutlers.  He stood out in cold, muddy fields enrolling men in the program with great success.  When he returned home himself, he did his best to help injured veterans get back into the workforce, finding jobs they could do without the use of an arm or a leg.

 .The Famous New York Seventh, Just after Reaching Washington in April, 1861.

Seventh Infantry of New York, 1861.

He taught a missions class, and when his sister-in-law saw him gathering his own little ones outside the church, it reminded her of the character “Greatheart,” protector of children, in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  He helped start a new building for the Children’s Orthopedic Hospital by inviting wealthy friends to his own parlor.  Children with spinal and bone defects were waiting there, along with braces and devices that might help them if funds were given.  When he entered friends’ offices, the checkbooks automatically came out.  “How much this time, Theodore?” they would ask.

Thee was neither solemn nor sad.  The Sunday School teacher who also gave daily Bible lessons to his young children was a strong, handsome man who dressed well and enjoyed life in general.  He danced at parties late into the night, never seeming to get tired, and drove fine horses.  He took his family on a Grand Tour of Europe not once, but twice.  In the cultural arena, he was in on the founding of both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and American Museum of Natural History.

It seemed he was the healthiest in the family, but he was the one who left first.  After a brief foray into politics, he died in horrific pain of cancer, in 1878.  Hundreds of men, women, and children waited outside his home at Six West Fifty-Seventh Street that February hoping for news of his recovery.  When he passed away, he was mourned and remembered from pulpits all over the city.  The son named for him tried his best to carry out his ideals as long as he lived: in the battlefield, in the state, the nation, and the world.  It is odd no one would have written a biography of such a man.  There is one, however, currently in the works by Keith Muchowski, an academic librarian and National Park Service volunteer.  Thee’s older son said many times, “He was the best man I ever knew.”  He was Greatheart, the first Theodore Roosevelt.

1861 Day

Today was 1861 Day at my favorite school, Lincoln Elementary.  It’s a yearly chance to go back to the “old days and old ways” of the Civil War, and study how Abraham Lincoln showed leadership and compassion toward others.

In previous years I had appeared as Elizabeth Grimsley, cousin of Mary Lincoln; and Mary Custis Lee, wife of Robert E.  This time I concentrated on Margaret Barnhill Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt’s paternal grandmother.  Rather than strictly impersonating her, I tried to tell the story through her eyes and experience.  She was a Pennsylvanian, a Quaker, married into a Dutch family.  Her husband was an importer of plate glass in New York City, and her sons worked in the business too.  They were all grown by 1861, with families of their own.  I taught the children the nursery song in Dutch that she’d sung them: “Trippe Trippe Tronjes, Kippen en da Bootjes.”  We sang it together, and then the English translation: “Peep, peep, peep, chickens in the beans.”  I had to wing it on the melody, though.


In the 1600s the Dutch, they learned, bought Manhattan Island from the Lenapi people for sixty guilders.  What was a guilder?  I showed them some silver cardboard replicas I’d printed from the Internet.  The Dutch called their settlement “New Amsterdam.”  About forty years later, the English renamed it “New York.”

Then I served them little pieces of pound cake, which Grandmother would always have ready in her cupboard for guests.  She sat next to the fireplace in their large home on Broadway Street, smiling, so I did that too.  I had some of the children help me wind the ball of yarn from my workbasket.  I brought in roses the gardener had cut from our large backyard garden, and told how the yellow ones were my son Theodore’s favorite.  I talked about him, and his brothers, and how we had told them that with wealth comes responsibility to others.  The children listened intently as I described the thousands of poor immigrants in the city, and the Newsboys’ Lodging House and Children’s Orthopedic Hospital which helped make their lives better.


Oh!  They didn’t think it was right for the Bulloch family in Georgia to own slaves, even though they treated them well.  They thought it was OK for the New York Roosevelts to employ servants, though, as long as they paid them and they could find another job if they wanted.  Then they thought about the dilemma my son Thee was having.  Should he do his duty and fight with the Union?  Some said no, and some said yes, even though his wife’s brothers were fighting on the other side and might meet him in battle.

We talked about the marvels of the 1860s, the telegraph and the steam locomotive.  I showed them photographs of my family from a studio, which wouldn’t have been around thirty years before.  I had pictures of one of my grandchildren, Teedie, an ornery boy who suffered with asthma.  We were worried about his health.  “I hope he turns out well.  He’s always getting into mischief.”

Students in Grades K-5 also went to sessions about cooking, spinning, farming, and soldier life, in indoor and outdoor areas of the school.  It came to a close with a “base ball” game played by the rules of 1860.  Many thanks to my friends who organized the event, and gave young citizens a chance to experience a bit of their country’s history.

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.”

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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!