Monday, September 5, 2011

The Grief of Benjamin Gratz

By August 14, 1861, the news of Cary Gratz's death had reached Philadelphia. Elizabeth (Lizzie) Blair Lee, Cary's cousin, was staying at the time with Rebecca, and wrote to her husband:

"Aunt Becky is very much overcome by Cary's death. She says it will be a crushing blow to Uncle Ben to whom he was the dearest of all his children...."

This is not just posthumous exaggeration about how well loved the deceased was. In 1846, when Ben brought Cary east to attend prep school, Rebecca had written that the boy "retains the lovely characteristics and appearance of his childhood with many good talents and promise....His father seems to love him as the apple of his eye...."

Ben had adored his eldest son, also named Benjamin, whom he and the family saw as one destined for distinction. When the child died at age 10, the grief of both his parents was profound and enduring. Yet Ben dared to love again, and the loss of a second favorite must have cost him much.

In the first days of their grief, the family also had to contend with the horror of not knowing where Cary's body lay. His cousin Frank Blair travelled to the battle site and was able to locate Cary's remains. Bernard Gratz, Cary's older brother, went to Missouri to accompany the coffin home. It must have been with a certain amount of relief that Ben was able to bury his son in September 1861. Cary Gratz was the first Civil War soldier to be interred in Lexington Cemetery.

Rebecca tried to console Ben, "whose grief I share, but cannot measure even by that which fills my heart -- all human sympathy are but drops of comfort, in his great sorrow..." She hoped that his wife and daughters might"win from the indulgence of feelings which have so overwhelm'd him -- and I trust restore his peace....we live on, cherishing those that are taken from us, as tho they were only removed from sight -- with the hope of reunion in another world...."

In early October Lizzie Blair Lee received a letter from her sister-in-law, Frank Blair's wife. Lizzie reported to her husband on what it contained. According to her correspondent, a soldier who had participated in the Battle of Wilson's Creek visited them. The man had said he and Cary Gratz had been hit at the same time although he had sustained only a leg wound. Cary, despite his five wounds (if the official account is correct), lingered on the battlefield for six hours before dying. The soldier said he was with Cary the whole time, gave him water and made some shade for his face. There was no mention in Lizzie's account if Cary was capable during his last hours of sending a message to his family.

This story must have brought as much pain as solace to the family. In late December 1861 Rebecca wrote that Ben "writes to Horace [the nephew who lived with her] more calmly than he does to me -- I do not crave his letters."

Ben was calmer when he visited Philadelphia in April 1862. Rebecca reported to Lizzie Lee that "his countenance is unaltered by his loss. He is resigned to giving up his noble boy to his Country['s] cause -- tho he says it yet with quivering lips." This visit seems to have been good for both brother and sister: Rebecca was able to offer what comfort she could and Ben was ready to receive it.

Ben had customarily left much of the Kentucky correspondence with Rebecca to his wife, but after this visit he wrote regularly his sister, a change which gave her great joy. In June 1862 she wrote, "Your letters My beloved Brother, are the day spring of my life and make me feel young again -- through the warmth of the affection they express...."

(Elizabeth Blair Lee's letters appear in Wartime Washington, edited by Virginia Jeans Laas. Two of Rebecca's letters may be found in Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by Rabbi David Philipson; the third, from December 1861, is in the Miriam Gratz Moses Cohen Collection, No. 02639, the Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

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