Mary Custis Lee, Protester

Stereotypes never work. There are too many exceptions to justify any stereotype. Mary Custis Lee, eldest daughter of Robert E. Lee, did not fit the mold of her time. At a time when marriage prospects were slim after the Civil War, most unmarried young women were expected to stay home and care for elderly parents. She never married. There just were not many men her age who survived the war. Mary chose a different life. She spent decades traveling to Europe and other places.

Coming back to Virginia, passing through Washington, D.C., she had a large collection of bags. Thinking herself fortunate, she sat near the exit, at the rear of the railroad car. A new law had just been passed, effective in Alexandria, Virginia. The new law mandated that blacks, known as  “Negroes,” sit in the rear, near the exit. It was the first “Jim Crow” law passed in Virginia. The conductor explained to Ms. Lee her error, but she preferred to remain in her seat. She refused to move.

At the next stop, A Negro man got on board. The conductor again tried to Mary to move to the front. Again, she insisted she would stay. The conductor returned to Mary, trying to persuade her to move. He told her she would be arrested. Ms. Lee remained. Upon arrival in Alexandria, she was indeed arrested. People began to gather on the street, realizing who she was. In the post-war years of 1902, there were hundreds of Confederate veterans or family members in the city. On the way to the station house, the sidewalks were thronged.

The new Jim Crow seating law was not entirely popular among the white voters. It had been passed by James Caton, representative to the state legislature from Alexandria. Mr. Caton was described in a black owned newspaper as a “representative of the poor whites.” According to the Colored American, a Washington D.C. newspaper, the arrest of Ms. Lee stirred up discontent among the “better classes” of Virginia. The white newspapers, Alexandria and Washington, commented that the new seating law was working well. But, the Colored American expressed hope her arrest would lead to revocation of the new law. The editor believed the confederate veterans in Richmond would seek its reversal.

At the station house, gray-haired veterans surrounded Ms. Lee. The officer in charge was prevailed upon to release Ms. Lee with the understanding she would return the next day to face the charge. It was said that when Ms. Lee finally reached her destination in Alexandria, the home of a friend, she collapsed. Modern commentators suggest Ms. Lee was less interested in opposing a strange new law than simply annoyed that she was expected to sit apart from her trusted black maid. But, that seems unlikely. It was a major to-do for the name of a woman to appear in the newspapers of 1902 for any reason, much less for an arrest. The Colored American expressed sympathy for her plight, knowing she must have felt extreme embarrassment. The editor indicated he knew she was embarrassed, but appreciated her efforts. Ms. Lee was, said the Colored American, liberal regarding the rights of man. Meaning the newspaper knew she opposed these “petty racial animosities,” advanced by men of the “Caton stripe.”

More likely, the daughter of Robert E. Lee was aware of this new law and appreciated an opportunity to express her opinion. She likely did not expect to be arrested. According to one report, when she was brought to the doors of the station house, someone in the crowd protested against Ms. Lee being brought within. Ms. Lee responded that she did not believe the people of Alexandria would suffer her to be brought in as a prisoner.

In a time when women had few avenues for public discourse, Mary Custis Lee expressed her annoyance as she saw the opportunity. She was in the end, her father’s daughter.

For more info about this incident, see blog post here.

Washington Post, June 16, 1902, p. 4

Richmond Dispatch, June 14, 1902, p. 1

Washington, D.C, Colored American, June 21, 1902, p. 8

Visiting the North, Part 7

After the Mchattons were set up in Cuba and had their new plantation humming along, Eliza made occasional trips to New York. She gave a boa constrictor, a type of snake then unknown in the U.S., to the Central Park Museum in New York. Perhaps on the same trip, she visited some friends in Connecticut. Her friends gave her an engraved invitation to a breakfast for President U.S. Grant. Eliza kept it as an example of how new invitations looked. Later, she appreciated it as a collector’s item. Eliza gave no indication that there was anything odd about a Southerner enjoying an invitation issued by a former Yankee general.

For more information about Eliza’s travels, see Rice University site here.

Eliza McHatton-Ripley, From Flag to Flag (United Kingdom: Dodo Press 2009) (reprint), pp. 129, 131, 187.

Yankee Souvenirs

What happened to the McHatton possessions? They left Arlington Point on short notice. But, they secured many of their possessions with neighbors. Eliza heard some of their family portraits ended up in Negro cabins in the area. She had some china which the family received as a wedding anniversary gift. They had never actually unpacked it. The china remained in a cask. A neighbor sent the china to Eliza’s widowed sister’s plantation on Bayou Fordoche in central Louisiana. During the trip, General Lawlor, the local Union commander, “captured” the china. This was probably Michael Kelly Lawlor, Commander of the Artillery Corps of the Federal Army of Louisiana.

Eliza’s sister tried to recover the china, but last the sister heard, the china was shipped north to Gen. Lawlor’s family. All the McHattons could recover, once they were situated in Cuba, was their old books. The rest had been “appropriated” by someone else. And, the Lawlor family had a “souvenir” of the general’s time in Louisiana. No doubt, the general told his family the “found” the china somewhere abandoned.

Eliza McHatton-Ripley, From Flag to Flag (United Kingdom: Dodo Press 2009) (reprint), pp. 103

Leaving Home and Escaping the Yankees, Part 5

Eliza wrote her book in 1888, after a second marriage. But, she wrote that would never forget the events of Dec. 17, 1862. Eliza woke that day to see a fleet of gunboats in the river with transportation barges. The Federals had returned. She knew the family had to leave. She ate breakfast on the run and hastily organized their departure. A Negro, William, was sent to Baton Rouge to reconnoiter. He came back and reported 10,000 Union troops back in the city and pickets stationed all around. William said everyone inside the Yankee lines would have to “toe the mark.” Every white man who had harbored a Confederate soldier during the recent battle would be arrested.

The negro men were summoned to help load the wagons. Eliza never uses the word “slave.” She generally says Negro or rarely, “darky.” Her language was typical of her time.

Eliza wandered the rooms of the two story home, reliving ten years of warm memories. Various trunks, bags and bundles of persons who went off to war or who had evacuated were stored at the plantation. She went through all of them removing any papers that might identify the owner.

Eliza and James tried to sleep that night. Early the next morning, the head sugar-maker of a nearby planation, i.e., a slave, knocked on the door and woke James. He told James all his “niggers” went over to the Yankees. The Yankees were at his (the sugar-maker’s) plantation and they were saying they would arrest James at daylight. James left immediately and told Eliza to come find him right after breakfast. Eliza was certain that if he did not flee, then he would be arrested for sending his Negroes to Texas.

William began to suggest he was perhaps not the best person to drive a team of mules. He was clearly trying to avoid this task. That avoidance was a blow to Eliza. William had been the valet for James during his gay bachelor days. William was their confidential servant. But, she knew that after his visit to Baton Rouge, he was feeling more independent already. Eliza knew some slaves had left during the night and some others would likely soon seek their freedom, as well. Such was the master-slave relationship sat the time. On the surface, the relationship appeared close and family-like. Beneath the surface, not so much.

By noon, Eliza still could not locate a Negro who was willing to drive her and the team of mules to safety. She had approached many of the Negro men in the “Negro quarters.” Various men were making excuses. Mrs. McHatton was heart-sick. Finally, old Dave said he would drive old Sal until she balked. Eliza had few options, so she accepted his offer. As she tried various Negro men, Charlotte watched her with mournful eyes.

Old Aunt Hannah, who had been laundress for Eliza’s mother long before Eliza was born was living in her own cabin. Aunt Hannah had rheumatism and could not work. But, noted Eliza, that day she stood straight in her doorway, despite her illness, as one elevated to a new status, and waved to Eliza, saying, “Good-By, madam, I b’ar you no malice.” Eliza had never seen Aunt Hannah stand straight before. Mrs. McHatton bid good-bye to the poor, “deluded creatures.”

As Eliza returned to the main house, William warned her that a Yankee gunboat had pulled up close to the plantation. She waved bye to Charlotte, a close servant, standing next to William on the veranda of the main house. Charlotte sobbing, waved back. It was a remarkable tableau. On a plantation the residents worked, played and lived in very close proximity. Black and white, their lives were intertwined like a community. But, when it came time to go and risk Eliza’s life and the lives of two small ones, only Charlotte showed regret. The “peculiar institution” never looked more peculiar.

Eliza took one more glance at her home for the past ten years. She would embark on a difficult journey cross country to Houston, Texas in December. Even for people with resources, they suffered along the way, enduring foul weather and hunger. As they approach Houston, her baby will pass due to illness.

Eliza McHatton-Ripley, From Flag to Flag (United Kingdom: Dodo Press 2009) (reprint), pp. 28-36

The Sacking of Baton Rouge, Part 4

The City of Baton Rouge was not of high strategic value. After some weeks of occupation, the Yankees simply left the city. The fleet of gunboats and transportation barges loaded with freed slaves steamed off to New Orleans. This was the beginning of a mass migration of freed African-American slaves making their way to the Federal occupied city of New Orleans. Eliza reports that many freed female slaves abandoned their babies to leave for the Crescent City. I expect that means they left their babies with family members or friends until they could return. One morning the gunboats and transportation barges were simply gone.

Eliza does not know, but she believed at the time that the damage in the City of Baton Rouge was caused not just by the departing Union soldiers but also by what she describes as brutal and ignorant freed slaves. Certainly, there are many contemporary accounts of freed slaves abusing their new found freedom. Perhaps, today we cannot blame them so much for reacting to sudden freedom. But, the Federals even then were responsible under accepted rules of war to maintain order. The Federal authorities often allowed the freed slaves to get away with criminal behavior.

The Baton Rouge residents were not allowed into the city until after the place had been sacked. Eliza and James ventured inside Baton Rouge days after the Federals had evacuated. They went inside the home of Judge Thomas G. Morgan, a native of Pennsylvania. Eliza and James found portraits, family heirlooms, some Revolutionary War era, slashed by Union sabers. Throughout the city, they found tall shade trees cut down and tossed across the streets. Contents of store closets at Judge Morgan’s house were dumped on the floor. Molasses, vinegar, everything that could deface and cause a stain had been smeared on the walls and furniture. Judge Morgan was not a secessionist, although three of his sons did serve in the Confederate army. Unlike many slave-owners, Judge Morgan taught his slaves to read and write. His daughter, Sarah, would later write a diary of the war years.

Upstairs in Judge Morgan’s house, the armoires had all been knocked over and smashed. The dainty dresses of the young women had all been shredded and torn. China, toilet articles and bits of glass that had been used to decorate the rooms were strewn about the beds and ground into a mass of fragments. Family records and the contents of desks in Judge Morgan’s house and that of his neighbors were strewn about the streets. Precious family papers were blowing in the wind. Family records from innumerable Bibles were found on the sidewalks of the city.

After seeing Judge Morgan’s house, knowing if this could happen at his house, then the rest of the city was likely worse, Eliza was heart-sick. She could not inspect another home. After seeing the destruction, James sent many of his slaves to Eliza’s brother’s plantation in Texas.  This move violated Federal rules. James knew this could lead to him being arrested. Under Yankee rule, arrests were common and often arbitrary.

Eliza believed that moving the slaves would ensure the slaves could work and earn some food. It would also remove slaves who, she said, were becoming “discontent” and dangerous. She was likely describing slaves who were starting to view the Federals not as the enemy, but as potential saviors. Because they broke one of the Federal rules – not moving “contraband” – the McHattons made preparations to leave on a moment’s notice.

Eliza McHatton-Ripley, From Flag to Flag (United Kingdom: Dodo Press 2009) (reprint), pp. 28-31