Saturday, March 12, 2011

Elizabeth Oakes Smith's Life in Patchogue During the Civil War

One of the things that I find so interesting about EOS is that she saved just about every clipping of writing she ever published in scrapbooks. (I do this too.) There are also stories of her burning pages of writing. Perhaps she didn’t want me reading those papers 200 + years later. I can understand that. In the margins of the scrapbook, she scribbled notes and sometimes the paper she used was recycled from the business ledgers of her sons. Reading through you can see lists of cargo and business calculations written in fountain pen ink.

In the early 1860’s the people of Patchogue, like the rest their countrymen, were preoccupied with what EOS called “the terrible war.” Seba Smith was suffering from hearing loss and embarrassment over his condition prevented him from making friends in town. At left is a picture of the location of their home, "The Willows" as it looks today at the front Lake View Cemetery in Patchogue. It is certain that the couple were visited often by their grandchildren, (Sidney and Appleton were both married in the 1850’s.)

EOS before the outbreak of the Civil War
I came across a very cool undated letter to the editor of the Religion-Philosophical Journal in which EOS recounts an anecdote about meeting General Robert E. Lee while he was still a Colonel stationed at Fort Hamilton in New York Harbor. He invited EOS to appear on the campus and promised to blast a canon in her honor. She went and the soldiers put on a display for her, marching on horseback with music. They fired the canon and their guns. In the letter she shared her conversation with Robert E. Lee:

“I stood by Colonel Lee, tall, handsome, with a grand look of command and remarked:

‘Oh! Colonel, I feel as if even I might be brave in battle with all of the excitement of action and music, but for all that I am rather cowardly.’

‘I should not think it,’ he replied with his grave smile. ‘How are you in your dreams, Madam?’

‘Oh, in my dreams I am as brave as a lion.’

‘Then you are constitutionally brave, for what we are in our dreams is our true self.’ ”

EOS considered Robert E. Lee a great man, despite her allegiance to the Northern perspective on the war.

George Ripley visits The Willows

After the election of Abraham Lincoln, the Confederate party’s decision to secede from the Union ultimately led to the beginning of the Civil war: the battle at Fort Sumter, South Carolina in April, 1861. The Smiths were established in Patchogue for a about a year at this point. George Ripley, who had assumed Margaret Fuller’s position at The New York Tribune while Horace Greeley was editor in the 1840’s, was one of the first literary friends to visit them at The Willows. Apparently, he was suffering from depression at that time over the death of his wife. Ripley is best known for editing the New American Cyclopaedia, a book whose publication made him wealthy. Ripley was part of the “Transcendentalists Club" and died while sitting at his desk in 1880. He was a very introspective fellow who is quoted as saying, “There is a similitude of a Trinity shining in the body, soul and spirit.”

Early years of the Civil War

In early 1861, EOS wrote that family worries and health problems made it hard for her to concentrate on writing. Her son Appleton was arrested for slave trafficking that year and put in a federal prison. This caused Seba and EOS humiliation, no doubt, as they were against slavery. It is noted in her autobiography that in the 1850’s many of their house guests had anti-slavery views. In addition, EOS had positioned herself firmly among abolitionists in her writings, and reflected on her anti-slavery feelings in her diary while describing her husband’s failed investment in a cotton cleaning machine in the late 1830’s.

EOS admits to being intuitive beyond the ordinary

In that same undated letter to the editor of the Religion-Philosophical Journal, EOS writes:

“Mediums all say that I am one. I see, and so did my mother, phantoms, but I do not wish it; they come.”

The following family story connects EOS's psychic abilities to the war. She petitioned to President Lincoln for Appleton’s pardon, which he did not grant. According to a descendant of EOS, my friend Beth Oakes, EOS made a great pest of herself in regard to this request. At the corresponding hour of Lincoln’s assassination, EOS was delivering a speech in New York. She paused, put her hand over her heart and said something to the effect of “God help our country.” Then she fainted and was transported to the hospital where she was treated and released. Her public comment and fainting caused suspicion, and government officials showed up on her doorstep to question her. I have been searching the newspaper archives for any mention of her fainting during a public lecture, but so far I haven’t been able to find anything. (Appleton was pardoned later in life.)

EOS supports Union Troops from Patchogue

Mary Alice Wyman writes in her book on the life of Seba and EOS titled Two American Pioneers that EOS presented “rubber blankets” to the young men of Patchogue enlisted in the Union Army. Other articles I’ve seen report that she gave the troops mittens and addressed them at a pageant held in front of her home. I do not know what EOS gave out to the Patchogue enlistees, or what she said to the them that day in front of her home, but perhaps she recited one of her poems. This one would have fit the mood of the time:


Hope on, hope on, O restless heart! Though dark the hour may be-- For e'en in all thy struggles know A glory waits for thee ! O keep thee still the dew of youth-- Still hold thou fast unto the truth. What though the strong desires sent forth Unequal ends attain-- And thy intensest thought result That all of earth is vain-- O not in vain, if truth and right But arm thee with heroic might. Toil on, for like the pillared stone O'er which the moss has crept, And veiled the record there inscribed While ages round it slept-- Thus, thou mayst on thy tablet read A truth to meet thine utmost need; Hast thou, in this unequal strife, But tendest to a goal, Whose object realized shall till The vastness of the soul-- These ardent hopes these wishes high, Belong to that which cannot die.

War years sad for EOS, personally

In an 1861 diary entry EOS writes, “Reports of every day fill me with alarm for our beloved Union." The Smiths took in boarders to supplement their income at this time. Seba was too sick to work. In 1864 EOS gave lectures on Women’s Rights in New York and Worchester. The Smith’s son Edward served six months in the army. Shortly after the war ended, in the summer of 1865, Edward contracted yellow fever in Cuba and died there. EOS wrote many letters to the Cuban government trying to get her son’s body transported back to the states for burial, but was not successful. Accounts that claim Edward is buried in Lake View Cemetery in Patchogue are incorrect.

The Smiths were risk-takers

EOS wrote two paperback “dime novels” during the Civil War: The Sagamore of Saco and Black Hollow. These were published in the second half of the 1860’s. Financially, it looks like the Smiths were people who took big risks and lost everything, time and again. This is probably the reason why EOS did not bank significant savings from her work as a lecturer. For instance, in the mid-1860's, Appleton owned a Mill adjacent to the Willows known as the Cotton Factory of Granjean and Ketcham. I don’t know if that building later became part of the Lace Mill. A March 3, 1871 Long Islander article states that a fire at the mill caused $25,000 damage and left 300 people out of work. In the late 1860's, the Smith’s son Sidney sold the steam-ram Atlanta to the Haitian government. He accompanied the Atlanta on her journey to Haiti, but the vessel was lost at sea. A December 16, 1870 Brooklyn Eagle article states that EOS attempted to sue the Haitian authorities for $100,000 which would have been the payment amount for the vessel, but she was never compensated. Her son died in the shipwreck.

EOS after the war

Understandably, EOS was thrown for an emotional loop by the death of her son Edward which occurred right after the war ended. He was said to be a very gentle, fun-loving soul. During his short life, Edward converted to Catholicism and EOS considered doing so as well, but never did. After her son’s death EOS, in the winter of 1865, started a youth group in the basement of the Congregational Church in Patchogue. According to Marjorie Roe of the Greater Patchogue Historical Society, there are no records at the church confirming this. At meetings she encouraged literacy and an appreciation for poetry and literature. The death of Seba in 1868, and then Sidney in 1869 compounded her sadness.

One note on the Congregational Church in Patchogue: The large brick building on Main Street in Patchogue is not the original building; it is actually the third church for the parish, which dates back to the 1700's. This parish occupied a building on the corner of Lake Street and Ocean Avenue in 1854. That was the location that the Smiths knew. The current brownstone building was erected in 1893, the year of EOS's death. Apparently there is a picture of the 1854 building hanging in the lobby of the current church, and when I get the chance, I will take a picture of it and add it to this post. The abandoned Swezey's building and some other vacant shops stand on the corner of Lake Street and Ocean Avenue today.

EOS’s Legacy is skewed
It’s hard to tell where Brooklyn Eagle reporters got their information, or if they were sometimes just making it up as they went. This is taken from Elizabeth Oakes Smith’s obituary in the November 20, 1893 Brooklyn Eagle. Even though it is inaccurate, it is interesting to read the general opinion (and misconception) about EOS at the time of her death.

“Her husband’s people were southerners and she was very bitter against the North. She wrote much on the wrongs of the South at the hands of the North. Her writings were used in nearly every southern paper during the war. After the war she lectured in every large city in the United States and amassed a fortune.”

Notes: Picture of EOS in her youth from Mary Alice Wyman's book Selections from the Autobiography of Elizabeth Oakes Smith. Copyright 1924.

Most of the information here was found in Two American Pioneers by Mary Alice Wyman. Copyright 1927. “Progression” by Elizabeth Oakes Smith. The Poets Of Maine, compiled by George Bancroft Griffith. Elwell, Pickard & Company, Portland, Maine, 1888 The picture of George Ripley is from Wikemedia.

The pictures of Lake View Cemetery, Patchogue, were taken on March 10, 2011. The first shows the location of The Willows, which would have been just beyond the statue in the distance. The second picture is of the Elizabeth Oakes Smith and Seba Smith graves, that I adopted for the purpose of beautification. I was very excited to plant some pansies there this week and replace the dead shrub behind the graves with a forsythia. Let's see if I can get there enough to water and keep it alive until it roots. The lavender looks great, and the other perennials are beginning to sprout.

Coming up on Dude, Where Am I?: I also have information on EOS getting caught in a draft riot in 1863. I'm going to write about that next when I remember where I put the source of that information.


Putz said...

why would you be excited with uncomfortable undergarments, loren??????????sometimes i can't understand you

Putz said...

i like eos have anti slavery views alos

Loren said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Angel Cameo said...

Interesting historic blog post about EOS Never heard of her until now. Always fascinated to read bits of history . Very well written kept my interest. Good reading thank you

Putz said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Dear Internet Traveler,

Welcome to my writer's blog, started about six years ago for fun. Over time, the writing I have posted has ranged from personal reflection, to Long Island history research, to tall tales for my own amusement, to feature articles for local newspapers. As you can see from topics listed here, I travel in many mental directions in regard to interests. Click on the tabs and labels to explore my strange mind which senses that you may be having a criss-cross day. If so, perhaps this blog will distract you. However, please note that if you tell me my blog is beautiful just to get me to advertise rhinoplasty surgery and cheap drugs from Canada in your comment, I will ask the gods to give you a tail that cannot be concealed.


Loren Christie

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