Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Rebecca Gratz & the Civil War

Thinking of her relatives and friends fighting on both sides in "this unhappy war," Rebecca wrote in 1862 that "there is scarcely a field on which some we are interested for may not bleed." She was exaggerating, but the statement reflects the depth of her anxiety.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, five of her nephews had brought home brides from the South, and three nieces had married Southerners. (Not all these individuals lived to the 1860's, but bonds of friendship had been forged with these southern families.) When the Civil War came, it was where Rebecca's relatives lived, rather than where they were from, which determined their allegiance. Gratz wives from the South, who had lived in Philadelphia for decades, supported the Unionist cause with their husbands and sons. The niece who had married a Georgian shared the Confederate enthusiasm of the men in her immediate family. In Kentucky, a border state, Rebecca's brother Benjamin was a Unionist as were three of his sons; one other son and his stepson were with the South (see my post for September 29, 2009, for the tragic results). In another border state, Missouri, a nephew, who had emigrated there in the 1840's, and his sons were Confederates. And one niece was married to a Southerner who would choose neither North nor South.

Rebecca was an ardent Unionist and was grieved by these divisions. Nevertheless, family came first, and in the years preceding the War she stuck to personal matters when writing to those whose political opinions differed from her own. The envelopes among the Gratz papers printed with "Flag of Truce" attest to her continuing efforts during the War to keep lines of communication open and ties of affection strong with her relatives in Georgia. These letters contain only family news, this time because "Flag of Truce" mail was read by censors on both sides.

Although Rebecca wished to support the Union by participating in some useful activity, her age (she was eighty at the beginning of the War) forbade any active involvement, especially in nursing at which she had excelled all her life. She reported to her niece Anna Gratz in Kentucky that she had been talking to some "Flora [sic] Nightingales," and had felt her "energies so roused that I sighed for the power of other days [that I might] help the sufferers collected in so many hospitals around and about our city."

She had to be content with offering a haven to her "honorary" niece Elizabeth Blair Lee and her little boy who arrived from Washington DC whenever the capital was threatened. Preston and Eliza Blair's daughter (see my post dated October 13, 2009), Lizzie was married to Philip Lee, a naval officer and a Unionist from the Lee family of Virginia. During one of her stays in Philadelphia, Lizzie taught Rebecca a skill useful to the war effort; she wrote to her husband: "Everyone is knitting for the soldiers. T'is the fashion -- I am a great teacher of the art. Aunt Becky even is a pupil -- she is so good, kind to your boy and your devoted Lizzie."

And so, for the most part, Rebecca's contributions would be on a very personal level, kindnesses to friends and relatives coming to Philadelphia, a regular correspondence with those far away, compassionate letters to her brother Ben and her niece Miriam Cohen when they lost sons in the War. However, Rebecca was a very well-connected woman, and she found that she could sit at home and pull strings -- to get a job for a nephew -- and, when needed, a message to President Lincoln. These two actions will each get a blog post of its own.

I also plan to write posts about the Civil War experiences of various Gratz relatives, North and South.

(Rebecca's letters quoted here are in the Henrietta Clay Collection at Transylvania University. The "flag of truce" envelopes are among the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society. Elizabeth Blair Lee's is from a volume of her letters, Wartime Washington, edited by Virginia Jeans Laas, and accessible through Google Books.)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Three Graces

In her youth, Rebecca appeared at the dancing assemblies and other social events with her sisters Sarah, two years older, and Rachel, two years younger. It is said that a stranger, seeing the trio enter the room, inquired their names, and when he was given the information from a bystander, responded that they were not the Gratz's but the Graces.

This story was reported by one niece, about sixty years later, but it was probably true many times over. At the beginning of the nineteenth century in America, the pun was the favorite form of verbal wit. When Rebecca found Washington Irving to be the most agreeable young man she had met in New York (see my post for November 17, 2009), she mentioned among his accomplishments his adeptness at punning. Another adept was Samuel Ewing, who, she reported in 1803, had visited and "made puns all evening." The leading periodicals of the day, the Port Folio, to which Ewing often contributed, and Salmagundi, written in part by Irving, often acknowledged the ubiquitous punning among the young chattering classes who formed much of their readership. Given this contemporary predilection for the pun and the ease of connecting Gratz's with Graces, somebody probably made essentially the same comment about Rebecca and her sisters every time they made an entrance.

(The source of this story is Recollections of my aunt, Rebecca Gratz, by Sarah Hays Mordecai, written in 1870 and privately published in Philadelphia in 1893 (31 pp). Rebecca's letter about Samuel Ewing's punning, dated June 29, 1803, is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, the American Philosophical Society.)

Monday, February 15, 2010

An Editorial Note

For years I have used "Claire Salisbury" as my nom d'internet, but during my seven months as a blogger I have found it to be a cause of major confusion for those who know my real name. Much as I love my alias (my middle name plus the town where I was born), henceforth I will be using my real name, Susan Sklaroff, on this blog.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Rebecca's Brothers and Sisters

Rebecca Gratz had eleven brothers and sisters whom I mention from time to time; here for your perusal is a quick rundown of her family:

Parents: Michael Gratz (1740-1811) and Miriam Simon Gratz (1749-1808)

The brothers and sisters in chronological order:

Solomon (1770-1774).

Frances (called Fanny)(1771-1852) m. Reuben Etting (1762 -1848): 8 children.

Simon (1773-1839) m.(?) Mary Smith (17??-18??): 8 children.

Richea (1774-1858) m. Samuel Hays (1764-1838): 10 children.

Hyman (1776-1857).

Sarah (called Sally) (1779-1817).

Rebecca (called Becky) (1781-1869).

Rachel (1783-1823) m. Solomon Moses (1774-1857): 9 children.

Joseph (called Jo) (1785-1858) -- (unknown woman): 8 children.

Jonathan (178?-178?).

Jacob (called Jac) (1789-1856) --(unknown woman): 1 child.

Benjamin (called Ben) (1792-1884) m. (1) Maria Cecil Gist (1797-1841): 6 children.
m. (2) Anna Boswell Shelby (1809-1892): 3 children; 1 stepson.

There is one questionable marriage (Simon's): Joseph's and Jacob's offspring were illegitimate.
The number of children in each case represents all the children known to have been born to the couple; many of course did not survive childhood.

Posts on the individual siblings will appear from time to time.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Happy Birthday, Hebrew School

Rebecca Gratz opened the first Hebrew Sunday School on February 4, 1838, and to mark the anniversary I've been asked to write a post for the blog, "Jewesses with Attitude," at Jewish Women's Archive.

To read it go to: http://jwablog.jwa.org

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Sully's Second Portrait of Rebecca

Thomas Sully was still working on his first portrait of Rebecca in December 1830 when her brother Benjamin and his wife Maria arrived from Lexington KY for what would be a six-month visit. The Philadelphia family realized this would be a great opportunity to commission Sully to paint portraits of Ben, the only sibling living far from home, and his wife, who was a great favorite with her brothers- and sisters-in-law.

Ben had his portrait done in April and Maria probably about the same time. The experience and the outcome must have been good because Maria decided she wanted a portrait of Rebecca, her favorite sister-in-law and good friend, to take back to Kentucky. Rebecca complied with her wishes and sat for her portrait in May and June, 1831.

Rebecca's first portrait by Sully had been what was called a "bust," a painting which showed her from the waist up. For her second, she sat for a "head," a smaller painting like those done of Ben and Maria.

A comparison of Sully's two paintings shows the same features and coloring, but also some major differences. His first portrait is of an elegant woman of the world, one with some flesh on her bones. In the second the sophisticated woman has become angelic, and the lovely transparent collar she is wearing, which must have been an expensive item, appears, not as a symbol of luxe, but as an element which heightens the ethereal looks of the sitter.

A few years after this portrait was painted, Julia Hoffman, the daughter of Rebecca's best friend Maria Fenno Hoffman, was visiting Rebecca in Philadelphia when she wrote to one of her brothers: "Miss Gratz is in good spirits and looks quite handsomely. She is certainly one of the loveliest characters in the world. It is happiness to be with her and be loved by her and I believe we all are." To me, these words describe the image we see in this portrait.

By the way, Rebecca did love the Hoffman children. A few years later, Julia was left penniless at her father's death. Rebecca offered her a home, and Julia came to divide her time for the rest of her life between winters in Philadelphia with Rebecca and summers in the country with her brother George and his family.

(This painting is in the collection of the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia. In the autumn of 2010, it will travel to the new National Museum of American Jewish History fifteen blocks from the Rosenbach for a nice, long nineteenth-century-style visit. Julia Hoffman's letter from 1835 is the Fenno-Hoffman Papers in the Clements Library at the University of Michigan.)

Another blog post of possible interest is A Lost Portrait of Rebecca.

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