Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Character of Gen. Robert E. Lee: An Unknown Event

Numerous works have been published on the life of General Robert E. Lee, particularly concerning his activities as head of the 'Army of Northern Virginia' of the Confederacy, during the period of the American Civil War.

Many Civil War scholars are aware of the admiration and respect which General Lee received, both on and off the battlefield, by friend and foe alike.

A wonderful example of Lee's 'character,' is manifested in the 'Civil War Letters, of Major James Cornell Biddle,' of the 27th Pennsylvania Infantry, housed at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, primary sources which reflect only a small part of an extensive collection of Civil War related materials.

'General Robert E. Lee,' Society Portrait Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania

On October 21, 1863, months after Lee's humiliating defeat by Federal forces at Gettysburg, Major Biddle, of the 'Army of the Potomac,' stationed at Warrington, Virginia, related a recent experience to his wife, Gertrude Meredith Biddle of Philadelphia, concerning his famed opponent, General Robert E. Lee. He remarked:

"Lee followed on a parallel line with us as far as Broad Run and as soon as we got in his front, and advanced against him he retreated, he remained for one night at this place.

"An old lady living here went to see him. She put out her hand, and told him it had never touched a Yankee, and commenced abusing our troops. Lee they say rebuked her, and told her he was sorry to hear her speak in that way, that there were a great many gentlemen in our army, and some of those whom she mentioned were men whom he had a very great esteem for, and were formerly his most cherished friends.

"The officers whom he took prisoners were allowed to remain in a house at this place and upon promising not to attempt to escape, to hire a wagon to take them to Culpepper without any guard." (Original source: 'Civil War Letters of James Cornell Biddle,' Collection No.1881, 1 Box, Folder 18, October 21, 1863.)

What makes the above account unique is that not only do these remarks derive from a Federal opponent of Lee, rather than an officer of the Confederate Army, it is also ONLY recorded in a manuscript of The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and found in no other Lee biography. It is truly another example of the speciality and broad scope of manuscript materials available within our collections here in Philadelphia.

For further reference to the HSP's vast collections on the Civil War, see my Guide to Civil War Manuscripts and book, My Brother’s Keeper: Union & Confederate Soldiers’ Acts of Mercy During the Civil War, a work containing material drawn largely from both published & unpublished sources at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A Singular Character

The following account reveals once again, the rich and diverse experiences of individuals, as contained within the collections at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

I have always been intrigued by the life of this 'unknown' African whose fascinating biography appears in a number of 18th-century newspapers. He was a remarkable man whose adventuresome life included for a time residence on a Quaker plantation, located somewhere within the Philadelphia area.

'A Singular Character.' (From a late London paper)

"Among the few survivors lately returned from the unsuccessful attempt to make a settlement at Sierra Leone, is an aged black man, whose life has been a continued scene of adventure, hair-breadth escapes, etc.

He was originally brought from Cape-Coast by a Liverpool trader, and sold to the West-Indies, from whence he got on board one of his majesty's ships, and served a number of years. He was so remarkable for his activity, that he jumped into the sea, and with a long knife, dispatched a large shark, that was so formidable in a harbour of the West-Indies, that few of the seamen could bathe without iminent danger, and for which, as it prevented a number of desertions, he got a merciless flogging.

He afterwards belonged to a Jamaica merchantman, where he was the means of saving the lives of the crew, consisting of thirty persons, as, through being becalmed near a month at sea, the stock of provisions was expended; the ship abounding with rats, he was the only person on board who took the hazardous method of catching them, by anointing his hands with oil; he then lay on his back with his eyes shut, and his arms extended in the hold, where, impelled by hunger, these vermin would lick his hands, when he was sure by a method peculiar to himself to grapple with them. There the exigency of the situation compelled the crew to eat till they got a better wind.

He has been several times shipwrecked, and once escaped when all the crew, except the captain and himself, perished. He succeeded unhurt another time in fixing a flag at the main top, during an engagement in one of his majesty's ships, where 3 other men had been killed in the attempt.

He was afterwards a drummer in a regiment of horse, in Germany, and had his drum shot through in an action, without receiving any personal damage.

He was a slave in Pennsylvania, and afterwards an overseer of them. This servile situation (tho' he had been in England several years a bricklayer's laborer, etc., previous to his late embarkation for Sierra Leone) from the kind of treatment of his owner, a quaker, near Philadelphia, he declares to have been the happiest part of his life.

His means of obtaining a livelihood, at present are as singular as the rest of his adventures, viz, by selling fish that he procures by groping with his hands, procuring worms, paste, etc., for angling, catching moles, and picking up wool in the fields." {From, 'The Pennsylvania Mercury & Universal Advertiser,' December 23, 1788, No.330, p.4, cols. 2-3}

Hopefully a reader will be able to shed more light on his identity, name and final demise.

See also: 'The Providence Rhode Island Gazette & Country Journal,' January 17th, 1789, p.1, col.3; p.2, col.2; 'The Maryland Gazette,' December 25, 1788, p.1, col.3; p.2, col.1).