J.D.R. Hawkins

One bullet can make a man a hero… or a casualty.

Archive for the tag “New York City”

Women of the Confederacy (Pt. 13)

Today is the final day of Confederate Heritage/History Month, as well as Women’s History Month. Likewise, this post is the last one in my series about Confederate Women. The last installation of this series is about the most famous Confederate woman of all, President Jefferson Davis’ wife.

Varina Davis

Varina Howell Davis 

     The namesake of my UDC chapter is one of the most famous women of the Confederacy. Yet, she didn’t wish to be. 

     Varina Banks Howell was born on May 7, 1826 at her family’s plantation, the Briars, near Natchez, Mississippi. She was one of eight surviving children. Her parents were a unique pair, in that her father was a Yankee from New Jersey, and her mother, a Southern Belle, was the daughter of a wealthy planter. Because of that, the First Lady of the Confederacy was an irony, referring to herself as a “half-breed.” Varina’s father managed to provide for his family, but prosperity was intermittent, as he squandered his wife’s inheritance and made poor investment decisions. 

     Varina was not considered attractive by nineteenth century standards: she was tall, thin, and had an olive complexion. She was very well educated, however, and learned to play the piano beautifully. She was able to attend Madame Greenland’s School in Philadelphia, but the money soon ran out, so she returned home to complete her education with a private tutor. She established the reputation of being highly intelligent but outspoken, which was frowned upon in Victorian society.  

     Seven years later, when Varina was seventeen, she was invited to spend the Christmas season with an old family friend, “Uncle Joe” Davis, at his plantation, the Hurricane. While there, she met his much younger brother, Jefferson. It was the first time she had met any of Joseph’s extended family, and although Jefferson was immediately smitten with her, Varina was reluctant. She wrote to her mother: 

He impresses me as a remarkable kind of man, but of uncertain temper, and has a way of taking for granted that everybody agrees with him when he expresses an opinion, which offends me; yet he is most agreeable and has a peculiarly sweet voice and a winning manner of asserting himself. The fact is, he is the kind of person I should expect to rescue one from a mad dog at any risk, but to insist upon a stoical indifference to the fright afterward. 

     After Varina returned home, Jefferson asked her parents’ permission to court her, but Varina’s mother objected. She was concerned that Jefferson was far too old for her daughter (eighteen years her senior), that he was still in love with his deceased wife, Sarah Knox Taylor (daughter of President Zachary Taylor), that he was too devoted to his relatives (his older brother, Joseph, raised him after their father died and financially supported him), and that his political views were different (he was a member of the new Democratic Party, but Varina’s family were Whigs). She eventually gave in, and the two were engaged. An enormous wedding was scheduled to take place at the Hurricane, but just before the event happened, the wedding was cancelled. Varina fell ill, and out of concern, Jefferson frequented her home. The two managed to reconcile, and were wed on February 26, 1845 at the Briars with only a small group of the bride’s family in attendance. Their honeymoon was spent visiting Jefferson’s aged mother and the grave of his deceased wife. 

     The newlyweds set up housekeeping in a two-room cottage on the Brierfield plantation, which was adjacent to the Hurricane. Trouble soon appeared in the form of Jefferson’s widowed sister and her seven children, who moved in without Varina’s approval or consent. Her own family’s financial reliance on them was also an embarrassment to her. Addition problems arose when Jefferson left to campaign for Congress and serve in the Mexican War, leaving Varina to deal with domineering Joseph herself.  

Jefferson was elected to the Senate, so he and Varina moved to Washington, where she thrived. She adored the city and was intrigued by politics. As her husband rose in his political career, she rose in Washington elite society, becoming one of the city’s youngest and most popular hostesses. But when the Civil War broke out, Jefferson resigned his Senate seat, and the two returned to the South. It wasn’t long before Jefferson learned that he had been selected as the new president of the Confederacy. This dismayed Varina deeply, for she knew that her husband didn’t want the job, and that the South would most likely lose the war. However, she dutifully supported him. 

     During the first two years as First Lady, she held extravagant parties. Her friend, Mary Boykin Chesnut, enjoyed and admired her, but others weren’t so supportive. Varina received criticism for being over-extravagant, for not being extravagant enough, for playing favorites, for meddling in politics where she didn’t belong, and for influencing her husband’s decisions. Despite the reticule, she supported the troops by knitting clothing for them, donating rugs for blankets, making shoes from scraps, and visiting wounded Yankee and Confederate soldiers in the hospitals, but she resisted her husband’s insistence to become a volunteer nurse.  

     Jefferson and Varina lost one of their children in the spring of 1864 when he fell from a second-story window of the White House of the Confederacy. A few weeks later, Varina gave birth to a daughter, and nicknamed her Winnie, who later became known as the “Daughter of the Confederacy.” Varina also rescued a young slave boy named Jim Limber, and took him in as her own. In early 1865, Jefferson ordered her to flee Richmond with their children. She financed the trip by selling everything they owned, which came to $8,000 in gold. The family was reunited in Georgia, but Jefferson was soon captured and sent to Fort Monroe prison, where he remained for two years. In the meantime, Varina was prohibited from leaving Georgia. Jim Limber was taken from her, never to be heard of again. After a freed slave threatened one of her children with a gun, Varina sent them to Canada with her mother, and petitioned relentlessly for Jefferson’s release. Finally, he was freed, but he was sickly and frail. 

     The family traveled to Canada and Europe for several years. Jefferson was never convicted of war crimes, but was never able to make a go of any financial endeavors, either. High strung Varina suffered from a nervous breakdown in 1876. While she recovered in Europe and their children studied abroad, Jefferson returned home. He established an insurance company in Memphis, but the business went belly up. He sought the companionship of the wife of a fellow inmate, but the press leaked the news, and Varina, of course, was enraged. Somehow, the two managed to reconcile again, probably because they lost two of their sons (bringing the total to four lost sons). 

     An old friend, Sarah Dorsey, invited Jefferson to live with her at her beachfront home, Beauvoir, in Biloxi. He accepted, thinking that the sea air would do his ailments good, and Varina later joined him. Before Mrs. Dorsey died, she bequeathed Beauvoir to them. Jefferson proceeded to write his memoirs. He died in 1889 while visiting a friend in New Orleans. Varina sold his memoirs the following year, but the book was a failure. She remained at Beauvoir for another year before she sold it to the state of Mississippi for $10,000 to be used as a Confederate veterans’ home, stipulating that it be preserved as “a perpetual memorial sacred to the memory of Jefferson Davis” and the Confederate cause. 

     Once again, Varina received criticism when she moved to New York City to accept a job as a journalist for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York Herald, and took her daughter, Winnie, with her. She befriended Julia Dent Grant, the widow of President and Union General Ulysses S. Grant. Southerners were shocked and offended by her moving to New York and becoming friends with the wife of a dreaded enemy. Not only that, Varina attended a reception and socialized with Booker T. Washington, treating him, to the Southerner’s dismay, like he was an equal. She declined offers to return to the South, and even turned down a residence offered to her in Richmond. On many occasions, she attended both Union and Confederate veterans’ reunions. She was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the United Daughters of the Confederacy. 

     Varina’s heart was broken when Winnie passed away in 1898. Following a bout with double pneumonia, she too died on October 16, 1906 in her apartment overlooking Central Park. She was eighty years old, and was survived by only one of her six children (a daughter), and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Following a funeral procession through the streets of New York City, her body was returned to Richmond and laid to rest beside Jefferson and Winnie in Hollywood Cemetery. 

     One of Varina’s last remaining prized possessions, her diamond and emerald wedding ring, was housed in the museum at Beauvoir, but when Hurricane Katrina hit, the ring was lost. Amazingly, it was discovered on the grounds a few months later, and returned to its rightful place at Beauvoir. 

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Women of the Confederacy (Pt. 7)

April is Confederate History Month. Because I began posting this series last month in honor of Women’s History Month, I would like to continue the series throughout the month of April to highlight women who helped the Confederate cause. I hope you enjoy.

Lottie and Ginnie Moon 

moon-I    Moon 2

During the American Civil War, two sisters went above and beyond the call of duty to prove their allegiance to the Confederate cause, and their daring adventures become legendary. Although they worked individually, together they became two of the South’s most notorious spies. 

     The girls were both born in Virginia, but when they were young, their father, a physician, moved the family to Oxford, Ohio. (Their home is on the National Register of Historic Places.) Both girls were popular and had many suitors. Charlotte, the oldest, who was known as “Lottie,” became engaged to none other than Ambrose Burnside. Legend has it that she was a runaway bride who jilted him at the altar. She eventually married Jim Clark, who became a Common Pleas judge.  

     At the onset of the Civil War, Lottie was 31, and her younger sister, Virginia, or “Ginnie,” was 16. When their father died, their mother, Cynthia, enrolled Ginnie in school at the Oxford Female College. However, the school was pro-abolitionist, and Ginnie did not share the same sentiment. She asked the school president to allow her to move to Tennessee to be with her mother, but the president refused. In retaliation, Ginnie shot out every star on the U.S. flag that flew over the college grounds. She was immediately expelled, so she traveled to Memphis to stay with Cynthia. The two wrapped bandages and nursed wounded soldiers, and after Memphis fell in June 1862, Ginnie passed through enemy lines, sneaking supplies and information while pretending to meet a beau.  

     Judge Price became involved with the Knights of the Golden Circle, an underground Confederate network, and received secret messages from the organization. When he got a dispatch requesting that a message be delivered to Kentucky, Lottie volunteered for the job, thus embarking on her career of espionage. Disguising herself as an old Irish woman, she took a boat from Ohio to Lexington, met Colonel Thomas Scott, and gave him the papers to deliver to General Kirby Smith. She then returned to Oxford by train, but not before using her acting talents to tearfully convince a Union general to ensure her passage north. Once she got a taste of the excitement of intelligence life, she delivered more messages. This attracted the attention of Confederate sympathizers in Canada, who invited her to Toronto. They set her up with forged papers, giving her claim as a British subject, and sent her back to the states. She traveled to Washington, supposedly met Secretary of War Stanton, and bluffed her way into Virginia by telling Union officials she needed to travel there for health reasons. 

    Meanwhile, Ginnie continued her work in Memphis, and in 1863, while she was in Jackson, Mississippi, she learned that valuable information needed to be dispatched to the Knights of the Golden Circle in Ohio. She volunteered and took her mother along, convincing her that they would be safe because they had relatives there. Union officials were now wise to women posing as Confederate spies, and Ginnie was no exception. (See propaganda cartoon below.) She and her mother arrived in Ohio un-detained, and received the necessary paperwork and supplies. They boarded a boat to return south, but one of the commanders became suspicious, so he ordered that the two be searched. Ginnie’s reaction was documented in her memoirs: 

“There was a slit in my skirt and in my petticoat I had a Colt revolver. I put my hand in and took it out, backed to the door and leveled it at him across the washstand. ‘If you make a move to touch me, I’ll kill you, so help me God!’”  

     The captain backed down long enough for Ginnie to withdraw the secret message she had hidden in her bosom, immerse it in water, and swallow it. She and her mother were then taken to the provost marshal’s office, where Union officials searched the two ladies’ trunks. Inside one they discovered a heavy quilt, so they ripped it open and found that it was filled with medicine. A Federal officer supposedly pushed Ginnie’s hoop skirts aside so that he could close the door, and saw that her skirts were also quilted. A housekeeper was ordered to search her. “Forty bottles of morphine, seven pounds of opium, and a quantity of camphor” were discovered in her skirts, on her person, and inside a giant bustle attached to the back of her dress. The two women were promptly taken to a hotel and placed on house arrest. Ginnie protested, and insisted that she see her sister’s previous beau, General Ambrose Burnside. The general had recently been assigned as new commander of the Union Department of the Ohio in Cincinnati, and was busy prosecuting Confederate sympathizers. An order he issued stated that anyone who displayed Confederate leanings would be tried for treason, and anyone caught helping the Rebels would be hung. Ginnie’s request was granted the following day, and when Burnside saw her, he reportedly held out both hands. 

      “My child,” he said, “what have you done this for?” 

     “Done what?” Ginnie asked. 

     “Tried to go south without coming to me for a pass,” he replied. “They wouldn’t have dared stop you.” 

     Learning of her family’s quandary, Lottie set out to rescue them. Disguising herself as an English invalid, she confronted Burnside, who immediately recognized her and placed her under house arrest as well. The three women remained captive for three months. Ginnie was required to report to General Hurlburt at ten o’clock every morning, but apparently this wasn’t enough to deter her spying activities, because she was commanded to leave Union territory and stay out. Eventually, all charges were dropped. 

     After the war, Lottie went back to Ohio to become one of America’s first female journalists, and traveled all over the world to cover stories. Ginnie returned to Memphis, but her restless nature got the best of her, so she traveled around the country, and eventually ended up in Hollywood. She landed bit parts in two movies: “The Spanish Dancer” and “Robin Hood” in the 1920’s. From there, she went to Greenwich Village in New York City, where she lived until her death at age 81.  

Lampoon 1

Harpers Weekly, Lampoon of Southern Female Spies 

 

The Plot to Burn New York City

burnnyc-provost-fire

In the closing months of 1864, with the Federal noose ever tightening, the Confederate government began to contemplate enacting a so-called, “War of Attrition” in an effort to bring about negotiations to end the conflict. One such strategy would involve the burning of New York City. November 1864 would see a hand- picked group of former Southern soldiers leave their Canadian base and arrive in the city to carry out the deed. Commanded by Col. Robert Martin, the eight men were determined to bring to the North some of the horrors being suffered by the citizens of the Confederacy.

Armed with 144 bottles of “Greek Fire,” each man was detailed a specific location to set ablaze, mainly around the Broadway district. However, when the appointed time came, only a few of the group stepped up; the others were frightened by the arrival of large numbers of Federal troops to garrison the city when rumors of an attack leaked out. These bluecoats would leave the city by November 15, believing that danger had passed.

Election Day, November 25, 1864 came and the Southern plan went into effect; each remaining man was given 10 bottles of the incendiary and went from hotel to hotel setting fires before quickly making their escape to an appointed place. James Headley set fire to his room in the Astor House before continuing onto the City Hotel, Everett House and United States Hotel. As he left the last, he heard fire alarms ringing across the district and saw the consternation on the streets.

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Also, on fire was Barnum’s Museum, a place that was not part of the original plan. One of the raiders, Capt. Robert C Kennedy, having carried out his mission, paid a visit to a local hostelry, where his patriotism was restored, and still armed with the fiery liquid, Kennedy went into the museum and set it ablaze. Amazingly, no casualties ensued despite there being over 2,500 people attending a theatrical performance. Throughout the night, firemen rushed to quench the fires, dawn revealing that the Southern plot had done very little damage to the city while the search for Martin, Headley, Kennedy and their accomplices began. They would make their escape to Toronto before returning to the South, all successfully, except one; Capt. Robert Kennedy.

Between 1861 and 1864 there were at least three plots discussed in Canada; individuals involved in these were Clement Clay, Col. Jacob Thompson and John W Booth. One was the “Kidnapping Plot” whereby President Lincoln was to be taken captive and brought to face President Davis. This plan was shelved as it was considered too dangerous to carry out. A second plan was to assassinate President Lincoln, Vice-President Johnson and Secretary Seward led by John W. Booth. The third plan was the destruction of as many Northern cities and towns as possible.

(Irish In Blue & Gray: Remembering the Irish in America 1861-1865, editors: Liam and LaDona McAlister)

Additional information provided by this editor:

“Robert C. Kennedy was tried as a spy for his part in the setting of numerous fires in New York City in November, 1864. Places burned by him and others (who were never tried) included a number of hotels and Barnum’s Museum. He was executed on Governor’s Island. He was buried in an unmarked grave on the island in New York Harbor. All of the bodies buried on the island were disinterred in the late 1870’s and re-buried in Cypress Hills. It is probable that he is buried in an unmarked grave in the National Cemetery ” – John F Walter

(Article courtesy of The Southern Comfort, Private Samuel A. Hughey camp 1452, Sons of Confederate Veterans, vol. 42, issue no. 11, Nov. 2018 ed.)

 

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