Last week we looked at Catherine Barnwell's hexagon quilt in the collection of the Charleston Museum, thought to have been made before her 1829 marriage to William H.W. Barnwell. In the summer of 1860, 51-year-old Catherine led an enviable life, probably back on Port Royal Island, her childhood home on the coast between Charleston and Savannah.
Catherine's cousin Robert Barnwell (Smith) Rhett's
home in the city of Beaufort. The photos of Beaufort and Charleston are from the
Library of Congress.
She lived in Beaufort, an elegant outpost of Carolina privilege amongst thousands of slaves. Her 51-year-old husband was no longer affiliated with Charleston's St. Peter's Episcopal Church, perhaps retired, perhaps tired of Charleston politics. Her 75-year-old father had died over the winter but she had twelve thriving children, the oldest 29, the youngest 12. Eldest son Robert's wife had given the family a grandchild, gossip noted in 1859 by Sally Baxter Hampton of Columbia:
"Mary Barnwell has a baby. No one knew how it came nor when & she has seen the world ever since it was 24 hours old---both young parents in raptures!"
Robert W Barnwell and Robert B Rhett
Mary Chesnut thought Barnwell's "benevolent spectacles
give him a most Pickwickian expression."
The Barnwells, descended from Irish immigrants who came to the Carolinas before the Revolution, were rich, well-connected and part of what coastal Carolinians considered an aristocracy in the wealthiest state in the Union. The most famous men in the family were her cousins, law partners Robert Woodward Barnwell (1801-1882) and Robert Barnwell (Smith) Rhett (1800-1876), both of whom had been U.S. Senators for a short time.
A Northern cartoon
Both were influential in creating a Southern Confederacy: Rhett as a rabid secessionist who'd been painting Southern whites as victims of Northern aggression for thirty years, Barnwell casting the deciding vote for Jefferson Davis as President of the CSA, an office cousin Rhett thought he deserved.
Attack on Union-held Fort Sumter by Confederate troops
After Lincoln's election South Carolina seceded in December, 1860. The year 1861 dawned as the first year of a new world with Carolinians optimistic about their independence as a slave-holding, agricultural nation. In April Union troops showed they would not ignore Southern secession by sailing into Charleston's harbor. The shooting war began.
Charleston, Harper's Weekly, January, 1861
Catherine's son William Finley Barnwell apparently joined "the Regulars" at the age of 20, becoming a Lieutenant. Oldest son 30-year-old minister Robert Woodward Barnwell, a Harvard graduate like his father, became a chaplain. (Robert called himself Robert Jr. to distinguish him from his famous relative former Senator Robert W. Barnwell.) Robert Jr. quickly realized the medical needs of Carolina troops and by July, 1861 Mary Chesnut noted that he "means to organize a hospital for sick and wounded" near the fighting in Virginia.
The planter class of Port Royal and the city of Beaufort must have known that Confederate forces could not defend their Sea Islands.
Any worst case predictions came true in early November when the Union Navy captured the island.
Samuel Abbott Cooley, photographer with the Union's Tenth Corps,
captured a trio in occupied Beaufort.
The planter families fled Port Royal Island, leaving Beaufort to Union occupiers and now-freed slaves.
Freed people identified as "Mrs. Barnwell's"
Photograph by Erastus Hubbard of Beaufort, South Carolina.
Mary Chesnut again: "Those Beaufort men...how do they feel, with their troops in Virginia, their homes invaded, destroyed?"
How did the Beaufort women like the Barnwells feel? And where did they go as the white population abandoned the island? We also have to imagine how the black women in Beaufort felt.
Beaufort College building used as a school for freedpeople
Northern writers made note of the irony in the occupation of fire-eater/secessionist
Robert Barnwell Rhett's Beaufort home. Former slaves enjoy the parlor
with a print of Fort Sumter on the wall.
Where was Catherine Barnwell when she heard the news late in November that son William had died a week before his 21st birthday? Scarce records tell us it was an accident, a spinal wound, but no news of the death of Lt. W. F. Barnwell seems to have been reported.
Ruins of the 1861 fire in 1865
The family may have evacuated to Charleston, no safe haven. On December 11 a terrible fire, unrelated to the hostilities, destroyed a good deal of the city including husband Robert's St. Peter's Episcopal Church, one of five churches reduced to skeletons until long after the Civil War was over.
The fire burnt a swath across the city, seen in this print
as a dark area on the right side and center.
Reverend Robert W. Barnwell
1861 was a horrible year for Catherine Barnwell but one bright spot was eldest Robert W. Barnwell Jr., much in the news for his hospital initiatives. He seems to have organized an agency, the South Carolina Hospital Aid Society, which began with one Virginia hospital. He solicited contributions of supplies and money and publicized its work.
News of Robert's Hospital Bureau at Virginia battlefields
Robert and several men "with the co-operation of several ladies of South Carolina" had charge of it. He asked for donations similar to those requested by the Union's Sanitary Commission:
A newspaper search for Robert Barnwell shows he had more press in 1862 than the older generation of Barnwells who'd started the war.
Diarist Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut (1823-1886)
Mary Chesnut ran into Robert in Virginia at the end of a railroad journey. From her memoir:
"July 13,1861. Yesterday, as we left the cars, we had a glimpse of war. It was the saddest sight: the memory of it is hard to shake off - sick soldiers, not wounded ones. There were quite two hundred (they said) lying about as best they might on the platform. Robert Barnwell was there doing all he could. Their pale, ghastly faces! So here is one of the horrors of war we had not reckoned on. There were many good men and women with Robert Barnwell, rendering all the service possible in the circumstances."
At one point she regretted donating money to fund Confederate gunboats.
"Oh, that we had given our thousand dollars to [Barnwell's] hospital and not to the gunboat! "
Mary Carter Singleton Barnwell (1837-1863)
A year later Robert's wife was pregnant with their fourth child but no one was in raptures now. Mary Chesnut spent some time in the summer of 1863, comforting Mary's mother Bonnie Carter Singleton, who had lost one daughter in childbirth a year earlier. Bonnie, worried about daughter Mary,
"seemed convulsed with grief. In all my life I had never seen such bitter weeping. Robert Barnwell was in a desperate condition, and Mary Barnwell, her daughter, was expecting her confinement every day."
The Asylum in Staunton, about 1890
Robert was indeed in desperate condition. It was said he had typhoid fever, a common ailment and a catchall diagnosis. But the real problem seems to have been Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Robert was traumatized by all the suffering he had seen in his hospital work and asked to be committed to a mental hospital, the Western State Lunatic Asylum in Staunton, Virginia.
On June 16th Carolinian Emma Holmes wrote in her diary:
"Barnwell has been very ill with typhoid fever and is in such a highly excited state, almost crazy from the many distressing deaths and other scenes he has so long been a witness of, that his friends have had to remove him...."
Mary Chesnut continues the sad story:
"It was not until I got back to Carolina that I heard of Robert Barnwell's death, with scarcely a day's interval between it and that of Mary and her new-born baby. Husband, wife, and child were buried at the same time in the same grave in Columbia. And now, Mrs. Singleton has three orphan grandchildren. What a woeful year it has been to her...
"[Mary Carter Barnwell] nursed him to the last. She tried to say good-by cheerfully, and called after him: 'As soon as my trouble is over I will come to you at Staunton.' ....He died the second day after he got there. Poor Mary fainted when she heard the ambulance drive away with him."
On the night the baby was born Bonnie Singleton got a telegram.
"Robert was dead. She did not tell Mary, standing, as she did, at the window while she read it. She was at the same time looking for Robert's body, which might come any moment. As for Mary's life being in danger, she had never thought of such a thing. She was thinking only of Robert. Then a servant touched her and said: 'Look at Mrs. Barnwell.' She ran to the bedside, and the doctor, who had come in, said, 'It is all over; she is dead.' Not in anger, not in wrath, came the angel of death that day. He came to set Mary free from a world grown too hard to bear."
Robert's grave says he died of typhoid,
but neither diarist Mary Chesnut nor Emma Holmes believed that.
"He had become so completely deranged that he attempted his own life with laudanum and death probably from the effects was a merciful release." Others say he jumped out a window.
We get more bad news for Catherine Barnhart. Diane Miller Sommerville in her 2018 study Aberration of Mind: Suicide and Suffering in the Civil War–Era South tell us: "the etiology of mental illness can be complex, and Barnwell's family history (his father died in an asylum)...."
And indeed Catherine's husband died eight months after Robert on February 17, 1863 in Philadelphia (of all places.)
After the war the 1870 census found Catherine back in Beaufort at 63 years old. C.O. Barnwell was head of her household, living with four daughters and youngest son Allard. Two children Singleton and Robert W. Barnwell may have been the orphaned boys left by Mary and Robert. Three people of color lived with them as servants, James Anderson and Lebe and James Chaplain, perhaps a married couple. Daughters Catherine, Hetty (Esther Hutson Barnwell) and Mary did not marry.
Catherine lived until 1880
The June 1880 census listed her as living in Beaufort with 30-year old daughter Mary. She was keeping house and Mary was "at home," perhaps caring for her 71-year-old mother.
St. Helena's Church. Catherine and many of her family are buried in the graveyard.
How the quilt survived the many disasters in Catherine's life is unknown
It certainly has an amazing American story behind it.
She was of a family integral to starting the Civil War, guilty of enormous hubris. Those who glorify war might look to her tale.
Read more about Robert Barnwell Rhett here: