Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Civil War Begins

As Confederate troops bombarded Fort Sumter, Rebecca was concerned with matters nearer at hand. Many years before, she had promised her dying friend Maria Fenno Hoffman to look after her children. Following the death of Maria's widower Josiah Ogden Hoffman in 1837, it was found that the family fortune was gone. The two sons were unmarried and working but did not have enough money to provide a home for their sister Julia. From that point on Julia spent her life as a guest in others' homes. Eventually she was able to summer with her brother George and his wife on their farm in central Pennsylvania, take extended visits with her cousins in Boston and Fishkill NY and have her winter home with Rebecca, where the Gratz's treated her as one of the family. In April of 1861, Julia, who had suffered from a digestive disorder for years, was seriously ill, and Rebecca had moved into the bedchamber closest to hers to better care for her.

By this time Rebecca's large household had shrunk to only one nephew, Horace Moses, and she had come to rely greatly on Julia's companionship. As she would later remark, at eighty she had taken for granted that Julia, nearly 30 years younger, would survive her. Anxiously caring for her friend, it was not until April 17, 1861, that Rebecca sat down to write her niece Miriam Cohen in Savannah "in anticipation" of future difficulties in communicating.

Miriam had married a Southerner and had lived in South Carolina and Georgia for nearly a quarter of a century, and it was obvious, from early in her marriage, that she had become an enthusiast, like her husband, for slavery and states' rights. From about 1840 on, Rebecca no longer brought up in her letters to Miriam anything on which they might disagree. And so Rebecca starts this April 1861 letter with family matters, but on the second page, she cannot stop herself from voicing her anguish:

"The horrors of civil war, separation from dear friends and multitudes of unknown troubles seem to hover over us in frightful array. It strikes me that there is no glory in such warfare -- whichever side succeeds, his brother fails. I have not yet learned to narrow my patriotism to a single section of my country. May God assist us to bring a right understanding about, without bloodshed in this unholy struggle."

Rebecca was a Unionist, but here she writes only of her anti-war feelings. So rational herself, she was at a loss to understand that anyone could prefer violence to some compromise which would keep the peace and the Union intact.

Particularly interesting is her statement about limiting her patriotism. Some historians have suggested that Americans were much more attached to their states than to the nation, and this may be true in some regions. (Early on in their correspondence, Rebecca commented that Miriam had become quite a Georgian.) Yet in about seventy years worth of letters Rebecca never refers to herself as a Pennsylvanian nor does she glory in her region's superiority or in the inferiority of other parts of the country. She always sees herself as an American.

Perhaps this was a legacy of being among the first generation to grow up as citizens of the United States. Rebecca and her contemporaries were very aware of the fact that they were part of a political and social experiment which Europeans were watching with interest and in some cases with the hope that the new nation would fail. When the government removed Native Americans from the East, although she opposed it, Rebecca felt a responsibility because she was an American. That identification was much more central to her than any political or regional connection. Sadly, by the time of the Civil War, Rebecca had few contemporaries left to watch with her as the nation stood on the brink of self-destruction and to speak out for their old ideals.

All unknowing of her own prescience, Rebecca also writes in her letter that whichever side wins, "his brother" loses. In less than four months this terrible fate would fall upon her own family at the Battle of Wilson's Creek. But before that tragedy, she had to face another grief: Julia Hoffman died on April 28, 1861.

(Rebecca's letter is in the Miriam Gratz Moses Cohen Papers, No. 02639, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

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