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.)

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