Women’s Views on the Civil War

Our processing work for the Digital Center for Americana pilot project is winding down. Over the last year, we’ve processed, conserved, described, and selectively digitized 51 collections at HSP that have ties to the Civil War.

We worked on the papers of President James Buchanan, Treasury Secretary and Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, General George G. Meade, Alexander H. Stephens (vice president of the Confederacy), and many others.

We also processed collections that provide insights into women’s views on the war, especially the Wister and Butler families papers (collection 1962) that I wrote about last month.

In that collection, researchers can learn more about what women like Fanny Kemble, Sarah Butler Wister, and Frances Butler Leigh thought about the war and its aftermath.

But the collection also offers interesting Civil War-era commentary from family friend Jeannie L. Field Musgrave.

A few of the images of Jeannie Field Musgrave saved by her friend, Sarah Butler Wister.

Jeannie was the daughter of a prominent New York Republican, David Dudley Field (1805-1894), and a lifelong friend of Sarah Butler Wister. She wrote to Sarah about her views on the war, and relayed pieces of the military and political information that her father had received through his political connections.

Jeannie also popped up elsewhere in the collection, among the papers of William Rotch Wister. She wrote to him on June 30, 1861, and included a ribbon favor she had made:

Keep the favor, my dear Mr. Wister, until you are tired of it, or of what it is intended to represent, devotion to our flag, whether you can show that devotion in the field or not. Women are so powerless in these stirring times that each one of that unhappy sex feels eager to do her little [part] toward exciting the patriotism and stimulating the efforts of those who can do anything for our country.

I am very sorry that any difficulties should have intervened to prevent your taking your troops to the war, for though I do not doubt that you will serve truly the cause of liberty wherever you may be, still I like to see all who are not tied at house by that troublesome anchor, a wife, going forth to do battle for it . . .”

The finding aid for the Wister and Butler families papers is now available online.

UPDATE: To learn more about HSP collections that provide insights into women’s lives during the Civil War, visit our online guide.

Dueling for honor

I’ve been working on processing a collection of Wister family papers – now known as the Wister and Butler families papers (collection #1962) – that contain papers of Pierce Butler, his former wife Frances Anne (Fanny) Kemble, their daughters Sarah Butler Wister and Frances Butler Leigh, and many other family members.

Fanny Kemble

Pierce Butler is perhaps best known for marrying and eventually divorcing Fanny, a famous British actress. But I’m discovering that his life was drama-filled in other ways as well.

For instance, Butler’s birth name was actually Pierce Butler Mease. He changed his last name as a teenager as directed in his grandfather Major Pierce Butler’s will, allowing him to inherit a piece of his grandfather’s significant estate.

Among other topics, Butler’s papers include materials concerning one duel and two almost-duels in which he participated.

In 1844, James Schott, Jr. accused him of having an affair with James’ wife, and challenged him to a duel.

Both men survived the duel, which was held just over the Washington, D.C. border near Bladensburg, Maryland. According to an article in The Public Ledger, dated April 17, 1844, the sheriff from Bladensburg attended the duel, and helped the men determine where the border line fell so that he could not arrest them for dueling.

Twenty years later, in 1864, Butler challenged Andrew Mehaffey to a duel after an argument at a stockholders’ meeting of the River Oil Company, a speculative Pennsylvania venture. In that instance, the mayor of Philadelphia had Mehaffey arrested to prevent the duel from taking place at the appointed time.

Butler was outraged that he could not find “the satisfaction that one gentleman owes to another.” He wrote to Mehaffey, “It only remains for me then, failing to obtain the redress I have so earnestly sought, to denounce you as a ruffian, a coward, and a blackguard. I will so proclaim you at the Club, of which you are an unworthy member, and in whatever other place I shall see fit.”

Another almost-duel occurred in 1865-1866, when Butler felt insulted by William Henry Rawle regarding an invitation to co-host dancing assemblies in Philadelphia. Butler was, in fact, not included as a host for the assemblies, though Rawle apologized for the perceived slight and the matter dropped.

William Henry Rawle's December 19, 1865 response to Pierce Butler's allegation that he had been insulted by Rawle.

Page two of Rawle's response to Butler. He argued that no slight was intended.

For much more on Butler’s life, and that of his large extended family, check out Malcolm Bell, Jr., Major Butler’s Legacy: Five Generations of a Slaveholding Family (Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1987).