Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Civil War Tragedy

Benjamin Gratz (1792-1884), Rebecca's youngest brother, settled in 1819 in his bride's hometown, Lexington, Kentucky. He and his wife Maria (nee Gist) had six sons, four of whom lived to adulthood. After Maria's death he married her niece Anna Boswell Shelby, a widow with a son around the same age as Ben's youngest.

The stepbrother-cousins came to Pennsylvania for prep school, and their Aunt Becky welcomed them to her house on Chestnut Street for those academic vacations too short to make a trip home feasible. During these years she wrote glowingly to Kentucky about her nephews.

The boys seem to have gotten along well but as they came to manhood in the 1840's and 1850's, they were divided by the issues of slavery and secession. Benjamin Gratz, though a slaveholder, was a strong Unionist; his sons Bernard, Hyman and Cary stood with him. However, another son Howard and Jo Shelby, Ben's stepson, who had gone into business together in Missouri, were with the South.

The family rift was played out tragically on August 10, 1861, at the Battle of Wilson's Creek, Missouri: Capt. Cary Gratz on the Union side, Jo Shelby across the lines from him. Cary was killed, devastating his father. Rebecca wrote that she wished that by sharing Ben's grief she could somehow lessen it. But in her many letters to Kentucky, seeking to console Ben, she also was solicitous of the continuing anxieties of her sister-in-law, Jo's mother, telling her, "I hope [Jo] will escape unhurt from this desperate conflict."

Cary's body was brought home and interred, the first Civil War soldier to be buried in Lexington Cemetery. Jo Shelby rose to the rank of general in the Confederate army, and is today considered one of the South's most brilliant cavalry officers. At the beginning of the War, he had left his wife and children in Missouri. When as southern sympathizers they were expelled from their land in 1863, Benjamin Gratz escorted them to Lexington, Kentucky, where they lived for the rest of the war. Jo Shelby and his wife named their first son born after the end of the conflict Benjamin Gratz Shelby.

(Much of the information in this post is drawn from The Letters of Rebecca Gratz, which is available on the internet. The letter quoted is from the Henrietta Clay Collection, Transylvania University, Lexington, KY.)

Friday, September 18, 2009

Happy New Year!

"May you be written in the Book of Life," Rebecca's traditional New Year's wish to her sister Sarah, Sept. 28, 1800.

(This letter is found in the Gratz Collection at the Rosenbach Museum & Library.)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A Character Sketch of Rebecca Gratz

In 1800 a young man wrote the following description of nineteen-year-old Rebecca Gratz:

"Miss Rebecca Gratz is one whose conversation and society will be courted by those who seek for gratification of the purest and most exalted kind -- With a mind discriminating and correct, expanded by observation and by books -- with a disposition formed to cheer and to charm the domestic circle and to dignify the most exalted equally with the humblest station, she will float along the current of life, respected as a companion and beloved as a friend -- As a wife she will render happy any one whose habits and disposition are not at war with happiness -- The ills of life may press hard and heavy on him whom she honours with her choice, but despondency will vanish before her exertions -- Her affections are warm and her sensibility great, but her judgement [sic] will ever correct their errors and alleviate their pangs -- Dignified in her deportment, her only pride is conscious rectitude -- Affable and unassuming, no man will yet dare to hazard the loss of her esteem."

Flattering, but is it accurate? From the letters of her friends, it is clear that others admire Rebecca's conversational skills. There are instances of her democratic bent in her letters, and it is evident throughout her correspondence that for Rebecca reason is humanity's preeminent faculty and the means by which to achieve a happy and useful life.

But there are also things in this description which letters do not give us because correspondence was considered a serious endeavor at that time. Rebecca's letters show her to be thoughtful and kind, but it's not clear from them alone if she smiles often. The character sketch by someone who has actually seen her assures us that she was charming and cheerful as well.

The description was probably written by Samuel Ewing, whom Rebecca would love and refuse for religious reasons. She certainly associated Ewing with this type of writing since she would suggest in 1802 that his "pen should delineate [a friend's] character." It is a shame that the character sketch of the other young woman does not survive. I'm sure all such efforts were gallant and flattering, but it would be interesting to compare Rebecca's with another's to see if Mr. Ewing's attachment to Miss Gratz was obvious.

(The character sketch is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society. Rebecca's letter to Maria Fenno, dated June 22, 1802, in which she suggests that Mr. Ewing write another sketch is in the Miscellaneous Manuscript Collection at the Library of Congress.)

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Summer at the Shore

Everyone who could afford it left the city for at least part of the summer. For Rebecca and her brothers and sisters in the early 19th century, one of their destinations of choice was Long Branch, at the New Jersey shore.

It was a trek to get there. From New York, which was much closer, the trip took eight hours to go the 55 miles by boat and "Jersey waggon." It would have been an overnighter by stagecoach or carriage for Philadelphians.

Visitors stayed at boardinghouses, and the accommodations must have been good to attract the Gratz's year after year. There was probably a public hall for balls and other evening entertainment; Rebecca's friend Maria Fenno wrote that she arrived at eight p.m. "and joined in the dancing."

Of course, the main attraction was the beauty of the seashore, the healthful air and sea bathing. It is likely that there were bathing machines, changing rooms on wheels which opened right onto the water. Since women wore a loose shiftlike costume for bathing (with coverage from the shoulder to below the knee), they were not eager for anyone to see them getting in or out of the surf. Once they were in the ocean, some women were able to do more than bob around. According to Maria Fenno, women took advantage of the buoyancy of the salt water at a New York bathhouse to help them in learning to swim.

After an early dip, the rest of the day for ladies was given over to walks, sewing, reading and chatting with old friends and new acquaintances. As long as the weather held good and no communicable diseases (like flu) made an appearance, visitors enjoyed a restful vacation from home routines.

(This post is based on letters, dated July 1 and August 1, 1801, from Maria Fenno to Rebecca Gratz. They are in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society.)
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