Monday, December 8, 2008
Click at the bottom of the page on the "Visit Washington College" button, and then you will see a link to the Poplar Grove event under "Featured topics."
This is the event at Washington College at which all the members of the Poplar Grove Project team presented some of their discoveries from the summer's work. The video is divided into chapters for each part of the presentation to make it easier to view.
Some 4,000 pages of the Poplar Grove Papers (out of an estimated 30,000), spanning the 17th through the 20th centuries, are now available online for anyone to view. Thanks to the stellar efforts of the student research team and to Dr. Edward C. Papenfuse and his staff at the Maryland State Archives, these documents literally went "from attic to Internet" in less than six months.
The papers are available to the public on the State Archives website, here:
Click on "Collection inventory" at the bottom of the page to reach a list of series arranged by topics/dates. Then click on the series numbers to view images of individual pages. There is no detailed index as of yet, but the work continues. Researchers are also welcome to use the collection in person at the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis.
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
You are all invited to learn the inside story of the Poplar Grove find at "The Poplar Grove Project: A Tale of Historical Discovery," a presentation at Washington College's Casey Academic Center Forum next Monday, November 24, at 7:30 p.m.
Members of the Poplar Grove research team will describe some of the remarkable fragments of the past that the farm's attics, outbuildings, and servants' quarters yielded. Thanks to a team of student researchers, the documents have now been conserved and placed on deposit at the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis, where they are accessible to researchers. A few of the original documents themselves will be brought from the State Archives for the occasion. Many descendants of the Emory family will also be on hand to join in the discussion.
The Poplar Grove Project was directed by Dr. Edward C. Papenfuse, State Archivist of Maryland, and Adam Goodheart, Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of the C.V. Starr Center. The student team included Washington College undergraduates James Schelberg '11 and Jeremy Rothwell '09, as well as Olivia Wood, a student at Rhodes College who is an Emory descendant. The team supervisor was Washington College alumnus Albin Kowalewski '07, now a graduate student at the University of Tennessee. The entire team will be on hand for next Monday's event.
"The Poplar Grove Project: A Tale of Historical Discovery" is jointly presented by the C.V. Starr Center, the Maryland State Archives and the Queen Anne's County Historical Society. Admission is free and open to the public. For more information, call 410 810-7161.
Thursday, August 21, 2008
I just wanted to give everyone a short update on the project thus far. The team wrapped up their portion of the project in early August and the job has since been passed to the skillful hands of the full-time staff at the Maryland State Archives.
Thanks to all who shared their own family documents, stories, and recollections.
To view the collection inventory as it now stands, please visit the Maryland State Archives' Special Collections website.
The inventory will, of course, change periodically as more of the collection is processed and scanned.
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Sadly, after years of service together in the same artillery, engineer and cavalry units, the War of the Rebellion would throw William and Joseph on opposite sides of the conflict. Regarding this, in his memoir William would state that “in spite of his going against us, the old Army will bear me out in asserting that he has always maintained... impulsive generosity and great magnanimity.” The loss of his old West Point comrade would be but one of many relationships consumed by the war; William would also fight against two brothers, one son and at least one other close friend (none other than Jefferson Davis).
Thanks to Bill Emory, who has provided the Poplar Grove Project with transcriptions of WHE's memoir, there is much more to come concerning “Recollections”.
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
So begins my favorite passage from the novel about 19th-century Poplar Grove, A Maryland Manor, that I wrote about here the other day. It's honestly felt and beautifully described because, I am certain, the author was writing about himself. Frederic Emory (he's the owlish chap you see above) recalled in a different context that while still a child, he happened to contract "a taste for rummaging among old papers and records, while exploring the garrets of certain venerable houses in Queen Anne's."
To all of us who have spent at least part of this summer exploring the nooks and crannies of Poplar Grove and its history, the rest of the passage - which I'll quote in its entirety - has the shock of the familiar, even though the scene it describes is set in 1861. The character is Oswald Reeve, a young gentleman living at the Manor, and the setting is the "lumber room" [an old-fashioned term for a room used to store documents, unused furniture, etc.] in the attic:
“It was a very large room, covering nearly the entire floor space of the main building. The steeply slanting roof showed its rafters and the sheathing of shingles untouched by paint. The large dormer windows looked out upon a zigzag line of roofs, thickly coated with moss, and upon chimneys of various heights and dimensions. Huge locust trees waved their scraggy branches almost against the window panes, and Lombardy poplars reared their shining green leafage above the tallest of the chimneys. A circular window in the front gable [NB: see the photo at the top of this blog] commanded a view of the lane, with its avenue of elms; a square window, at the opposite end of the room, afforded glimpses of the garden, the Quarter, the overseer’s house, with the cove in the distance.
“Oswald seated himself one afternoon upon an old armchair of colonial pattern, upholstered in faded red velvet, in one of the dormer recesses, and was soon absorbed in examining a package of letters which revealed a touching romance of the Cheston family during the Protestant Revolution of 1689. The floor in front of him was strewn with a great variety of objects – bits of rare China; broken articles of furniture; old, worm-eaten books; piles of yellow title-deeds, mortgages, letters; heaps of laces, silks, and velvets, the remains of clothing which had adorned some belle or beau of the family in the olden days. From rusty nails driven into one of the rafters, hung three suits of military uniform, each representing a different period of army service. One of them was the scarlet and buff of the Maryland 'macaronis' during the Revolution. Another was the militia colonel’s regimentals worn by our Colonel’s father, the Judge, in the War of 1812. The third, of much more modern pattern, was the dragoon suit which the Colonel himself had donned upon his promotion to a captaincy at the close of the last campaign against Osceola, the noted Seminole chief.
“There was scarcely an object in the room which did not possess some interest for Oswald in the associations it suggested. The silks and velvets and laces, for example, called up vividly the scenes of colonial times – the stately minuets in the parlors downstairs; the formal water parties in large bateaux, propelled by negro oarsmen, which were also used in making visits of ceremony at neighboring plantations; the foppish audiences in the tiny theatre of quaint old Annapolis, the provincial capital, which was visited frequently by strolling players; the groups of brilliant youths and maidens moving with slow, measured tread over the lawn or among the shaded, fragrant paths of the garden. But the chief interest for him lay in the collection of letters, and as he slowly deciphered the faded characters which told the romance upon which he had stumbled, he was brought close in sympathy to the poor ghosts who, in the flesh, had traced the lines which had secured to them a chance resurrection. How plainly were they brought to life again by their unconscious disclosures! A single sentence, in some instances, presented an individuality with all its distinguishing traits – its weaknesses, its faults, its prejudices, or perhaps, its worthy, lovable qualities – in clear outline. So real were some of the images, limned with a naively graphic power, that Oswald almost fancied he could see the originals before him.”
Those few last sentences, in particular, ring true with uncanny resonance in light of our experiences this summer. (When we were in that attic, though, it was so ungodly hot, not to mention bee-infested, that we were hardly tempted to settle down in a cozy dormer as Oswald did. See this post.)
How odd to reflect, however, that many of the Poplar Grove documents that seem so old and quaint to us now were new - or not yet written - in 1861. As Abbie suggested in his last post, there were no doubt many papers that disappeared from the house over the years, perhaps some at the hands of Frederic himself. His own modernity, the era of the Civil War, is now even more remote and foreign to us than the colonial period was to him (or to Oswald).
Although we have not, alas, unearthed any 17th-century love letters like the ones that enchanted Oswald, the "piles of yellow title-deeds" were still waiting for us.
[The one shown here (click to enlarge) is among the oldest pieces of paper that we have found. It is dated at the top, in Roman numerals, November 24, 1665 (it may possibly be a very early copy). The deed is to Samuel Withers, for "a parcell of land called Witherington lying in Talbot County on the north side of Choptank River ... to be held of the mannor of Baltamore." Withers was one of the founders of Ann Arundel County, and was one of the Commissioners of the colony under the Cromwellian government of the 1650s, when Maryland was taken away from Lord Baltimore. Clearly all had been forgiven enough by 1665 for Withers to get a nice land grant from the very nobleman he had formerly displaced. So there's not a 17th-century love story written in this document, but perhaps a political romance of betrayal and reconciliation.]
[... and there may no longer be any Seminole War dragoon uniforms hanging from the rafters at Poplar Grove, but in a similar spirit, we did come across someone's - probably Lloyd Tilghman Emory, Jr.'s - campaign jacket from World War II.]
Monday, July 21, 2008
Saturday, July 19, 2008
The book is A Maryland Manor, subtitled A Novel of Plantation Aristocracy and its Fall, by Frederic Emory, and was published in 1901 by Frederick A. Stokes, a fairly prominent New York publishing house of the time. It is set on an Eastern Shore plantation during the Civil War - referred to simply as "The Manor" - that has been the seat of the wealthy Cheston family for two centuries.
As I began reading, I realized almost immediately that the book was a thinly veiled portrait - with some fictional embellishments - of the Emory family and Poplar Grove.
The house itself - grand but shabby, "a rambling structure of mottled brick, reddish brown and gray," swathed in vines and creepers, with verandas around it, and the brick-walled family cemetery immediately adjacent, next to the library - is clearly Poplar Grove. Emory even describes the long cove off the river (in real life, Emory's Cove) and the adjacent farm known as "Indian Spring" (aka, Indiantown), and another nearby farm that is clearly supposed to be Readbourne, the old Hollyday estate next door to Poplar Grove. There are vivid descriptions of a nearby town (unnamed) that is obviously meant to be Chestertown, and of a village called "Winton Mills" (aka, Wye Mills) where the family goes to church. The family names of the main characters are also clearly based on local geography: "Cheston" (after Cheston-on-Wye, an old manor in Queen Anne's County) and "Kent" (the name of the adjacent county).
The novel's plot is a typically implausible Edwardian potboiler, with some overtones of Henry James - an impostor and unclaimed inheritance; long-lost neighbors and relatives reappearing from Europe and New York; a headstrong girl who needs to be tamed by the right man; sinister social-climbers scheming to wrest the Manor out of the hands of the noble-hearted but naive Cheston family.
But it's clearly also set against a very real backdrop of Poplar Grove as it was at a crucial moment in its history, when the Civil War broke out and slavery began to crumble. The plantation's owner, Colonel Robert Cheston, is an old Seminole War veteran who was called home to resign from the Army and manage the plantation when his father died unexpectedly - just exactly like Colonel John Register Emory (1818-1880). And like Colonel Emory, the fictional Colonel is "an ardent 'States Rights' man" who commands the local militia and fervently supports the Confederacy, even though practical considerations prevent him from going South himself. In the book, he is also as naive about slavery as he is about the plantation's finances: "He failed to see that repression, however benevolent, generates in all human society diseases which gradually sap the stateliest and stoutest fabric. All was fair, to his eye, because the many submitted so amiably to the few. He was blind to the fact that the free states were rapidly outstripping the slave states in wealth, in enlightenment, in the general average of happiness precisely because they gave every individual an equal chance. He pitied what seemed to him their inevitable lack of social graces, their sordid materialism...."
In fact, the book is somewhat cutting-edge for its time on the subjects of slavery and race - since in 1901 it was very much the fashion for Southern "local color" authors simply to rue the demise of the moonlight-and-magnolias Old South. True, Emory portrays his black characters with stereotypical traits (though also sympathetically, for the most part). Yet his noble young hero, Basil Kent, son of a neighboring planter, has inwardly come to the secret conclusion that slavery is morally wrong - and at a climactic moment in the book, he reveals his true feelings, frees all the family slaves and enlists in the Union Army (much to the shock and dismay of the white community). The novel daringly portrays a mixed-race house servant, Phyllis, who is in love with Colonel Cheston's white brother - a love that Emory strongly suggests was once consummated.
While Emory seems to sympathize politically with the abolitionist views of Basil Kent, he also feels emotional sympathy with the proslavery Colonel Cheston. A Maryland Manor vividly describes the moment - a painful and poignant one, from the white family's perspective - when the Manor's slaves all abandon the plantation and flock to a Union encampment:
"The blow was a heavy one for the Colonel. His pecuniary loss scarcely affected him at all, but the absence of the familiar figures about him caused him cruel pain .... Many of them had been companions of his boyhood with whom he had played and hunted. Others had been the nurses or out-of-door preceptors of his early childhood to whose quaint stories he had often listened with rapt attention. ... Sad at heart, he walked down to the Quarter at nightfall, hoping against hope that some had returned. The building was empty. Tears glistened in his eyes at the sight of it, a shadowy mass in the darkness from which came no sound. Usually, at this hour, it was gay with lights and laughter, but now, for the first time in its history, it was silent and deserted. It was as though Death had entered, to abide there. And death, indeed, was there - death to the Old Order which the Colonel so passionately loved."
As alien and politically-incorrect as these feelings may seem to a modern reader, they also seem authentic, as if Frederic Emory had experienced them firsthand. And in fact, some sleuthing into his life reveals that he did.
Frederic Emory (1853-1908) was the nephew of Colonel John Register Emory, the proprietor of Poplar Grove during the Civil War era. The 1860 Census lists him and his parents (he was then seven) immediately after John Register Emory's family, which strongly suggests that they lived either at Poplar Grove or immediately next to it. Frederick's father was Blanchard Emory (1831-after 1900), the youngest of General Thomas Emory's eleven children. Blanchard and his brother John married two sisters, Mary and Alice Bourke, so the families must have been exceptionally close. When Frederic Emory wrote A Maryland Manor, then, he was describing Poplar Grove as he knew it between the ages of about 8 and 12.
And Emory was clearly a formidable youngster - the sort who would have missed very few details, even at that early age. While still a teenager, he researched and published a series of newspaper articles on Queen Anne's County's history, which were later enlarged into a book. As an adult, he worked as a journalist for the Baltimore Sun and then, from 1893 to 1905, served as Chief of the Bureau of Trade Relations at the U.S. State Department - playing an important supporting role in developing and theorizing American foreign policy during those critical years. Emory returned from Washington, D.C. to Queen Anne's County in retirement, and lived in a house on the Chester River that he called "Blackbeard."
Frederic Emory's sharp political eye, his love of history, his understanding of the broader world, and his deep attachment to his native soil are all evident in the pages of A Maryland Manor, which was the only novel he ever published. It brings Poplar Grove to life differently than the family letters and political and business documents that we have found: more visually, for one thing, with vivid descriptions of the place when it was not an empty house, but a bustling plantation peopled with family members, visitors, retainers, and slaves. I will follow up this entry soon with some posts of more passages from the book.
Friday, July 11, 2008
On the bright spring morning of May 18, 1863, a group of Marylanders, far from home, stood watchfully at a bend in the Mississippi River. It was a carefully-chosen spot where the rapid current would draw steamboats close to shore, and where a clump of thick brush at the water's edge hid the men and their four powerful cannons that sat loaded and aimed across the water, packed with canister shot and explosive shells. The artillerymen picked ripe blackberries among the brambles while they waited.
They did not have to wait long. A sidewheeler steamboat soon hove into view. She was the Crescent City, a big vessel that in peacetime plied the route between Memphis and New Orleans. Now pressed into service as a troop transport, her tiered decks were blue with soldiers of the U.S. Army - packed as thickly as daytrippers on a pleasure outing, eyewitnesses later recalled. As the Crescent City, followed closely by five more vessels, rounded the bend, the Confederate gunners opened fire. The effects of their close-range canister shot - deadly fragments of metal designed to kill and maim in as wide a swath as possible - on the crowded, unsuspecting men can probably be better imagined than described.
One of the Marylanders manning the Confederate guns that morning was Albert T. Emory, born and raised at Poplar Grove, Queen Anne's County.
That morning, 300 miles or so down the same river, Albert's older brother, William H. Emory, was commanding some of the Union soldiers struggling for control of the Mississippi. For all that Albert knew, he could have been firing canister shot against his brother's own troops - or even against his brother himself.
In the Emory family, as we are gradually discovering, the Civil War cliché of "brother against brother" is neither a cliché nor even a metaphor. It is quite literally true.
The discovery that William H. Emory, the famous Union commander, had a brother fighting on the Confederate side came to light just this week. It is not mentioned in William's biographies. Oddly, the official family genealogies state that Albert Troup Emory, born in 1821 (ten years younger than William), died in 1854. But this week, thanks to some wonderful new Readex newspaper databases that Washington College has just acquired, I found Albert's obituary from the Baltimore Sun (right) dated almost half a century later - March 27, 1896. The article's biographical details made it clear that this was the same man - and also mentioned his active service in the Confederate Army.
That reference, in turn, quickly led me to a postwar memoir by the captain of the Third Maryland Artillery, CSA (also known as Ritter's Battery). It noted that one of the unit's sergeants was "Albert T. Emory, of Queen Anne's county, Md." By way of further confirmation, the captain mentioned that Sgt. Emory was "a relative of General Emory, of the United States army." Far from being a secret, Albert's close family tie to a prominent Union officer seems to have been a matter of interest, perhaps even a source of pride, among his rebel comrades.
The Third Maryland Artillery, histories note, was one of the few Maryland Confederate units to serve in the Western theatre of the war. It was also "one of the most traveled units in the Civil War, seeing action in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee." The 90-odd Marylanders participated in the battles of Vicksburg, Resaca, Atlanta, and Nashville, along with many lesser clashes.
Albert and William - among eleven siblings who lived to adulthood - had at least two other brothers with Confederate leanings. John Register Emory (1818-1880) served as a delegate to the States Rights' Convention in Baltimore in 1861, a gathering that pushed unsuccessfully for Maryland to secede. Frederick Emory (1829-1901?), the family's black sheep (more on him later) was a "Border Ruffian" in Kansas shortly before the war, terrorizing and even murdering abolitionist settlers. At the end of his life, he lived in a Confederate veterans' home; further research may confirm his wartime service.
Moreover, William, the Union general, experienced another family division that struck even closer to home.
In 1861, William had two sons of military age, Campbell and Thomas. Campbell, a freshly-minted West Point graduate, joined the Union Army and was brevetted for gallantry at Petersburg. Thomas, a medical student in Richmond, was commissioned an assistant surgeon in the Confederate Navy and served aboard one of the most famous rebel raiders of the war, the CSS Florida. After his ship's capture, in 1864, he was marched as a prisoner through the streets of his own hometown, Washington, D.C. In the Emory family, then, it was not just brother against brother, but also son against father.
Present-day historians are sometimes all-too-fond of reducing people from the past into neat categories defined rigidly by class, race, region, and the like. But family stories like this one restore their individuality and free will. What motivated some of the Emory men - despite their similar backgrounds and upbringings - to fight for the North, while others went South? Did it have to do with their particular political leanings, their temperaments, their friendships and enmities, their ambitions and opportunities? What made some Americans turn weapons of death against their own flesh and blood?
We hope that the documents may continue to provide clues.
(The description of the Third Maryland Battery and its ambush of the steamer Crescent City is based on William W. Goldsborough, The Maryland Line in the Confederate Army, 1861-1865 [Baltimore, 1900]; also W.H. Ritter, "Sketch of the Third Battery of Maryland Artillery," Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. X [July, 1882]. The divisions within the Emory family go wholly unmentioned in the recent scholarly biography by L. David Norris et al., William H. Emory, Soldier-Scientist [University of Arizona Press, 1998], as well as in other accounts of Gen. Emory's life.)
Thursday, July 10, 2008
In early June of 1846, William received the following official orders in Washington: “You will report without delay, to Fort Leavenworth, and report yourself and party to Col. Kearny, 1st Dragoons… Should Col Kearny have moved on the prairie with his command, you will make every effort to overtake him.” He was given less than 48 hours to leave his pregnant wife and children and begin the long march to the Mexican War. Once at Ft. Leavenworth, Lt. Emory would play a large role in what is one of the United States’ greatest westward pushes, an expedition that is known as the “Army of the West.” This expedition, under the command of Col. Kearny, would strike a decisive blow to the Mexican forces, leading to an American victory. Alas, it was hardly an easy victory. During the loathsome marching months, the expedition was ravaged by the forces of hunger, disease and death. Here are William’s words to Matilda during one of those months:
If a brighter note is to be found among the words of the Lieutenant, it will be in the shared love
In the years following the American Revolution, the planter elite of Maryland and Virginia feverishly embarked on a program to revitalize the region’s declining agricultural economy. Successive generations of tobacco, corn and wheat planting had taken its toll on the landscape. The scene was littered with abandoned mansions standing in “silence and ruin.” According to noted agricultural historian Avery Craven, the once prospering Tidewater Counties were “growing poorer… its proprietors having no hope of improvement of their lands.” In 1791, George Washington invited the noted British agriculturalist Arthur Young to survey the farming methods and conditions in northern Virginia and Maryland. Young reported that in spite of efforts made by progressive planters such as Washington, the land under such methods of cultivation was steadily declining as the average yield of wheat stood at less than a third of their British cousins across the Atlantic. Washington himself questioned as to whether such ruinous methods of cultivation even deserved to be considered a “system of agriculture.”
As the lands in older communities were exhausted, countless landowners chose to head westward in search of fresh lands rather than reinvesting to improve existing farmland. In 1790, less than ten years after the birth of Thomas Emory, the population of Queen Anne’s County stood at 15,463. By 1840, just two years before his death, the county’s population had fallen by nearly 20% to a mere 12,633. Thomas Emory inherited an estate that had been under cultivation since the seventeenth century, and was undoubtedly producing yields of grain that were a mere fraction of its former days.
In the absence of detailed farm ledgers it is impossible to judge as to whether or not Thomas Emory was able to turn the tide. However, what is certain is that Thomas Emory was at the forefront of a movement “attempting” to bring hope and restored prosperity to his native region. He belonged to an elite class of major landowners throughout the Chesapeake hoping to emulate their cousins in the English landed gentry in leading a revival of agricultural production through the use of new scientific methods. After traveling to England to witness for himself, John Beale Bordley of Wye Island adopted the “Norfolk” system of four-field crop rotations. George Washington imported gypsum to be spread on his fields at Mount Vernon, while John Taylor touted the importance of enclosing livestock to collect vast amounts of animal manure. These gentlemen farmers experimented widely with new methods and techniques, and shared their experiences with their fellow planters at county and state agricultural societies. It is known that Thomas Emory himself was among the founders of the Maryland Agricultural Society.
In the course of our own findings we have indeed stumbled upon one of those letters from Ruffin, asking Thomas Emory for any ideas and lessons learned from his own trials at Poplar Grove. I am not sure as to whether Thomas Emory indeed sent back some personal experiences of success and or failure, but I hope to find that out in the next week or so. In the age before government cooperative extension agents and land grant universities, the only way of learning new agricultural methods was through your own trial and error, or through the lessons of your fellow planters.
With that said though, this rather small clique of gentlemen farmers for the first time in at least a generation was able to bring a breath of fresh hope to the Tidewater Region of Maryland and Virginia. Edmund Ruffin perhaps said it best that the Tidewater “as well deserves as the rich west itself to be the object of speculators, treasure hunters, and builders of castles in the air.” More importantly, the gentry recognized that education was the key to ending decline and neglect on the farm. In Virginia, Ruffin was successful in creating a state agricultural board to report farming conditions to the legislature. In Maryland, the state agricultural society was able in 1848 to get the government to fund a state agriculture chemist. Furthermore, less than a decade later they succeeded in founding a state experimental station and the world’s third agricultural college. The list of petitioners and subscribers to the Maryland Agricultural College at its founding reads like a who’s who of the landed gentry and planter elite of Maryland. The long term success of large planters such as Emory, Taylor, Ruffin, Taylor or Washington lies less in actual research completed than in creating a framework for the systematic and professional study of agricultural methods through state-funded programs and institutions.
Monday, July 7, 2008
To the left is the image of a cypher, void of any specific author, with instructions on how to read a coded letter. It reads:
I am las Casas
The superscription and the signature be found in their proper place and [illegible] be read forwards in the usual way.
To read the body of the letter you must begin at the bottom and read backwards up. Capitalize smaller letters placed without any sense to propriety
V Signifies Bonaparte
The thing that I really wish were different about this report and the NPR one from last week is that they both make it sound like I am the one doing the research on the Poplar Grove Papers ... as readers of this blog know, it is really the student research team - Jim, Olivia, Jeremy, and Abbie - who are doing all of the work on this project, sifting through the papers, reading them and archiving them, under the direction of the legendary Dr. Edward Papenfuse of the Maryland State Archives. I am simply the only one on the team who had so much time to talk to the press because I wasn't busy with the much more important parts of the project. ...
Anyhow, the CBC broadcast is available as an mp3 podcast here:
The CBC producer tells me that podcast link will only be up for two weeks, so after that you can find the story as a wmv file here (you have to skip through another story to get to PG):
And now perhaps the media feeding frenzy is over, and we can all get back to the place where breaking news really happens - I mean the 19th century, of course ...
Thursday, July 3, 2008
Letters like these are the equivalent of two present-day teenagers instant-messaging about crushes and flirtations ... the same kind of rambling, coy, self-absorbed stream-of-consciousness flowing unfiltered onto the page. And like IMs, these letters were never intended to be saved, much less for 206 years (notice poor bashful Alexander's repeated orders to "Burn this", which were obviously not heeded by his sister!) When he wrote these, Alexander, the younger son of a wealthy planter, was working as assistant to a merchant in Chestertown, Mr. Ringgold, to learn the business. Clearly he was also getting a bit of an education in certain other things from some of the "popular kids" and young adults in town ... as the following letter reveals. (I have left spelling and punctuation as in the original. You can click on the images of the manuscript to view at full size.)
Chester Town Septr 23rd 1802
Anna I have nothing to doo – therefore thinking that you would take some pleasure in reading nonsence at a leasure hour, as coming from your Brother, I attempt to write about something or other, well what shall it be? I don’t know what, but however I have just thought how I spent last evening, it was with the Bride and Brid’s Groom (at Mr Smith’s where I used to live, William Smith the gentleman, and Miss H. Nicholson the lady, the daughter of Mr. J. Nicholson of this County). But to return to my nonsence, after sitting some time upstairs, two or three in the room, Miss W Smith, Miss M Comegys, the brids maid, Mr W. Barroll and as how Mr A. Hemsley, were those in the room, talking on different subjects, Miss S observed that Miss C was the brids maid, upon which Mr. B. kissed her very plentifully as I thought, however Miss S asked me if the same compliment was not due from me, I said that I did not know how to take hints, this lady being an entire stranger to me (although upstairs) I thought probably it would not do for me to take the same liberty with her as Mr B. However I was rallied at for not kissing the brids maid, this lady I had heard was very fond of kissing so I had determined not to be one of those very polite gentlemen who kiss ladies upon every occasion. Well in the course of the evening I had several hints as they called them, but declared I never kissed a lady in my life (I meant a stranger) so that was the way I escaped being kissed so much what in my opinion is very --. I like a kiss now and then as well as any person but not to be every minute at it; before I left I had the appellation of – you must guess what – There you have read the nonsense of last evenings excurtion, and you will laugh at me, but you must. There was kissing a plenty as we were coming off, do not think me in love with the beautiful Miss Comegys – What is the reason Anna that I cannot sleep of a night, I wish you would write me your opinion of [the] diseas, for disease I have of some nature or other as I can’t eat with any appetite except off a Pudding, or when I do sleep it is not sound, in those slumbers as it may be called I pass the night Dreaming some thing dreadfull; last night I did not dream, it was because there was a wedding cake under my head. I am [word missing], so will you be by the time you end this nonsensical peace of stuff, therefore I beg you to commit it [to] the flames as soon as you have finished it. I wish I could leave Town, but I can’t tell the reason – let me hear from you soon –
I am yr affect.
Burn this as soon as when have read it – [sic]
I was asked to dine with them again to day but could go [sic]
P.S. I don’t know who is to be the bearer of this – You must think me a little deranged at my making such mistakes –
Chester Town Sept 24th 1802
Read the enclosed first
What a bashfull fellow I am it makes me blush, to think that I might be so very polite as to kiss a lady – well then I yesterday kissed the beautiful Miss – you see in the other letter who I mean. I wrote you in the enclosed that I should not dine with the wedding people yesterday but Anna who would withstand from going with the company when he might be sure of getting a kiss or two from the sweat [sic] angelic creature, I could not, and I went – you must think as kissing makes a person polite, I am one of the politest fellows in the world – Again I charge you to burn this directly –
I am yr affect Brother
I received my waistcoat by Scipio, and am much obliged to you, I have not had time to get more of the same kind yet, but will try to send by Brother Will –
Notice the passing reference to Scipio, almost certainly a family slave. (Scipio was a popular name for slaves at the time - a classical reference to Scipio Africanus, the Roman general who conquered North Africa.)
In his next letter, the girl-crazy Alex has another encounter with the object of his adoration. He also starts obsessing about Anna's ring, which apparently she has told him was stolen from her by another girl. The reason for Alexander's interest is probably that he had sent Anna the ring himself (earlier letters refer to his plans to do this) ... and so he assumes, of course, that whoever stole it must have a big crush on him.
Chester Town October 9th 1802
What Lady, Anna was it that stole your ring from you? In your next letter to me let me know, and as I am very polite, I will punish her with six kisses, provided ---
All the fun is over, and I have returned to the gloomy and silent ways of the Store, when I see no person except, now and then, an old Negro comes in, and inquires for some thing or other, probably for articles that we have not. I was amuzed for a short time last Night, the ladies and gentlemen had a handsome Ball, (and I among them,) I danced with your Neighbour (Maria) – You were not far out, when you supposed, that Maria’s presence would dispell the gloom from my countenance, I own it did, while in her company, but I am so seldom in the company of Ladies, and particularly in hers, that I can’t well say what effect it might have on my spirits if I was more in their company –
What angelic creature is it that you have given such a discription of, where does she live? I am sure I am quite unacquainted with any face that would answer that discription – I’ll ask Maria who it was – Be sure and write the Ladys name that took your ring – Tell Henrietta Forman I have not seen H.C. these two weeks, but there are all well.
I still Remain yr affect
And in the last letter I'll post here, Alexander is once again moping and mooning about - a mood swing all too familiar to anyone who has ever been 18 - but then his spirits are revived by another sexy encounter, this time with a mysterious stranger -
Chester Town Oct 25 1802
I have not received an answer from Dear Anna to my last letter, but as I am ceremonious, I shall excuse you. Since Brother Tom’s leaving Town I am more lonesome than ever, and have no person to converse with, and no one’s company to enjoy, therefore you may conclude how I spend my time. At night I take a ramble about Town, like some forlorn and lost creature having no place to go, when I come home I return to my cell, for such it may be called (that is my room), it contains a bed, armchair and my trunck, that is the furniture that my room consists of. I generally find my bed not made, however I make it up, and there I lay till morning.
The Last excursion –
Last evening I was wandering by chance I stopped and hesitated wheather or not I should proceed, at length my determination was to move on, and gently tapped at the Door, I was asked in by a low, but harmonious voice, and upon entering I saw sitting by the fire side, An Angelic creature, she seemed as if determining upon something of importance, at length she arose, her manners easy without affectation, her form tall and gracefull, her complexion rather fare, and her sparkling dark eyes that shone through her orburn hair which hung neglectfully over her face, displayed before me a beautiful and angelic creature, after conversing sometime with her, I took my departure, and returned to my lonesome cell, where I passed a sleepless night, why do I say sleepless night? For I dreamt a most charming dream, and have not time to relate it now. I hope you will not forget to tell me the persons name that took your ring. Farewell and Believe me yr affect
Frd. by Wm. Carmichael Esq.
It's especially uncanny reading about him wandering the streets of Chestertown, since he was probably working and living within a block or two of my office in the town's old Custom House ... those are the same streets I walk almost every day. (In fact, the Custom House was kept as a shop by the Ringgolds in the 18th century, so it's even possible that Alexander worked in the same building as I do. And it wasn't until I got to the end of my transcription that I noticed this letter had been hand-delivered by William Carmichael, the original owner/builder of my house in 1804. I'm sitting in Mr. Carmichael's front parlor as I write this.)
Maybe you can see why these people and their world come to life so easily. Also perhaps because they remind me of the world of Jane Austen's novels ... transposed to our own small town in Maryland.
Olivia will be transcribing more of these letters to her great-great-great-great-grandmother over the next few days, so stay tuned for the further adventures of our young hero.
Elizabeth Blair. Elizabeth was at Poplar Grove on the first morning that our team began removing documents from the house, and has been following the story over the past several weeks ... it should be a very interesting report.
Barring breaking news developments, this is set to run nationwide at the end of the second hour of "All Things Considered."
Digital media producer Trey Graham is also creating a feature on the NPR site that will include photos taken by their photographer, dramatic readings from some of the Poplar Grove documents, and other special features.
Postscript: If you missed today's broadcast, it is available online, along with the special Web feature, at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=92190792&ps=bb2.
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
The first picture is of the Engineer Corps. Notice the oil lamps on their hats which they used to light their way.
This second picture is from the river tunnel taken May 9, 1907. According to the caption on the back of the photo, the two men on the right are inserting the "caulking mixture" into the joints; the two men in the middle are "hammering mixture in"; and the two men on the left are "tightening bolts after putting on grummets, grummets soaking in red lead in front."
This third picture depicts "dumping car used to place concrete below track level," according to the caption.
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
Amidst everything else going on with the project, we shouldn't neglect to mention, for history's sake, that we recently had a visit from the current Governor of Maryland. Gov. Martin O'Malley was in Chestertown for the day, and when we learned that he'd be visiting the Custom House, home of Washington College's C.V. Starr Center (one of the cosponsors of this project), we thought he'd like to see some of the treasures we've been finding. (Gov. O'Malley is a notorious history buff.)
The research team came over from the Archives warehouse where they've been working, and set up a display of some of the more interesting items. The photo above shows the team - with the exception of Jim Schelberg, who was absent for Marine Corps training - with our distinguished guest. (Left to right: Kowalewski, Wood, Rothwell, Goodheart, Papenfuse, O'Malley.) Dr. Papenfuse and Gov. O'Malley are holding an 1838 commission on parchment empowering Gen. Thomas Emory to go to England and raise $8 million to fund his beloved Eastern Shore Railroad. (For the outcome of that endeavor, see Abbie's post below.) The parchment bears the signature of Gov. O'Malley's illustrious predecessor, Thomas Ward Veazey (1774-1842), who was governor from 1836-39.
By the way, Gov. Veazey was a Washington College man - Class of 1795. And Gov. O'Malley has been heard to say that he aspires someday to be president of Washington College ... coincidence?
Gen. Thomas Emory himself aspired repeatedly to the governorship of Maryland in the 1820s and 1830s, without success. At least he might be pleased to know that the office's current occupant has taken an interest in his old family papers. One hopes that, as an ardent Whig, he would condescend to forgive O'Malley's Democratic politics ... which are, after all, somewhat different from those of Andrew Jackson, which Emory so vehemently opposed ...
Say, Gov. O'Malley, what's your position on internal improvements?
Sunday, June 29, 2008
Among the many projects Thomas Emory participated in during his life none was perhaps more frustrating than his failed attempt to build a railroad on his beloved Eastern Shore. During the first half of the nineteenth century, internal improvements--the construction of railways, canals, and national road systems for instance--was a hot topic in both state and national politics, heated by the national visions of the Jacksonian Democrats (usually more liberal and friend to "the common man") and the Whigs (rather conservative and friend to banks and big business). Emory was an ardent Whig and despised Jackson as an American Judas having betrayed the Constitution to the untrained, non-elite. Fittingly, Emory was also a disciple of Henry Clay's "American System" which called for federal and state spending on a system of railways, canals, and roads to facilitate the movement of information and commerce. In 1838, Emory was commissioned by the State of Maryland to travel to Europe in order to raise $8 million to fund the State's ambitious building projects. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and the Baltimore and Philadelphia Railroad were already in operation and when Emory returned unsuccessfully from Europe he took over as the President of the Board of Directors of the Eastern Shore Railroad Company.
Friday, June 27, 2008
But war-- that is where my appreciation for history awakens. As I see it, few other areas of historical study offer such raw insight into the human condition. The papers found at Poplar Grove have already shed new light on a wide range of historical topics: slavery, social relations, agriculture-- the list goes on. Thankfully, military history is no exception. In fact, the attic of Poplar Grove housed the personal correspondence of a fascinating Civil War figure, Gen. William H. Emory.
From 1828 onward, W.H. Emory had dedicated his life to serving the United States Army-- a duty which he faithfuly fulfilled and tied closely to his personal honor. William would ultimately serve under the Union flag, but it was not without the struggle of conflicting loyalties. The circumstances surrounding Emory's ultimate commitment are quite foggy, to say the least. In the Spring of 1861 he hastily resigned his commision along with a large portion of southern officers of the 2nd Cavalry (which he commanded). For unknown reasons that have yet to be verified, he quickly retracted his resignation and came home to Washington.
Why the sudden change of heart? The Poplar Grove Papers are quickly lending insight into his actions and motivations during 1861. Recently found receipts and letters tie his economic interests to the Union, while almost all of his social relations including a son and many lifelong friends tie his sympathy and loyalty to the South.
What a struggle that must have been for the man! His own son, Thomas, was a surgeon for the Confederacy! His lifelong friends like Jefferson Davis and Joe Johnston were leading the Secessionist cause! According to his wife, Matilda (great granddaughter of Ben Franklin), all his sympathies fell with the South, yet he became a leading Union officer! What on earth drove him to commit to the North?
"I was simply performing my sworn duty as an officer of the U.S. Write the strongest letter you can & burn this. Five minutes conversation..."
Excerpt from a letter to J.R. 1861
With each letter I transcribe (many of which were secret, which he asked to be burned after being read), my theories make an about-face. Ask me at 8am why I think William retracted his resignation and I'll tell you it's because he was scared. Ask me again 3 hours later after I've transcribed another letter or two, and I'll tell you it was because economic ties kept him with the North. The only "fact" of which I'm sure of, is that I just don't know. But with each transcription, I am edging a little bit closer to the historical truth of William Hemsley Emory.
Thursday, June 26, 2008
Now, ten years later, I am lucky enough to be a part of the group of researchers who are exploring that history. Everyone working on this project has their areas of expertise and interests whether it be in the political background, military history, or farm management throughout the centuries. The collection offers information in these areas and so much more. The best part about working on this project is seeing the excitement on my fellow researchers' faces when we discover something particularly interesting. When we uncover a petition against slavery or a detailed map for the plan for a railroad on the Eastern Shore, the excitement about the discovery is contagious.
Of course the project has its tedious aspects. Sometimes I feel myself getting frustrated at my ancestors for saving every receipt for grain that they received within a five year span. Currently, my ancestor Edward B. Emory has been the victim of most of my verbal abuse. He is an historian's dream come true because he saved every piece of paper he ever received and had more mail delivered than I have in my lifetime. I am now so familiar with his handwriting that I do not even have to read his signature before I recognize a letter, check, or receipt as his. However, despite my frustration at Edward, I appreciate his careful record keeping. I remember that every receipt gives a more detailed perspective into the lives of my ancestors. As a descendant, I feel that it is important to understand and get to know these ghosts of the past. After all, without them I would not have this incredible connection with the past, my heritage, and the land that ten generations before me have lived on.