Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Cassandra's Circle #4: Charlotte Wigfall's Texas Star

Cassandra's Circle, Block #4 Texas Star
By Becky Brown

Charlotte Cross Wigfall (1819-1893),
close friend of Mary Chesnut's in the first years of the War.

Brown's Hotel

Charlotte Cross Wigfall and Mary Boykin Chesnut met in Washington City in the late 1850s as wives of freshmen U.S. Senators, "messing" or boarding at Brown's Hotel. Brown's was a Southern hotel; the Willard the Northern equivalent. James Chesnut represented South Carolina and Louis Wigfall  Texas when they were U.S.Senators.

Louis Trezevant Wigfall (1816-1874)

In the first heady days of the Confederacy the women were glad to renew acquaintance in Charleston, Montgomery and then Richmond where Charlotte found the Chesnuts rooms at Richmond's crowded Spotswood Hotel. 

The Spotswood Hotel, opened just as war began, 
 survived the war, burning in 1870.

Mary loved her social life and the Spotswood must have been an exciting place as the new government planned a nation. She and Charlotte enjoyed each other's company, meeting often in the literal corridors of power where impromptu get-togethers of Cassandra's Circle were planned for their small rooms. 

Texas Star
By Pat Styring

In August, 1861 Mary accompanied the Wigfalls to a ceremony sending off a Texas regiment.

 "Mrs. Wigfall, with the 'Lone Star' flag in her carriage, called for me....Mrs. [Jefferson] Davis's landau, with her spanking bays, rolled along in front of us."
The women had much in common. Mary had no friends who were not smart, well-educated, well-read and outspoken. After hearing secessionist wives assure each other, "God is on our side," the two when alone, asked "Why?"
"Of course, He hates the Yankees, we are told." (Much giggling, I would guess.)

The Wigfalls

Yet they were also quite different. Charlotte pointed out she and Mary might be better off married to each other's husbands.
 "Mrs. Wigfall says we are mismatched. She should pair with my cool, quiet, self-poised Colonel. And her stormy petrel is but a male reflection of me."
We would not wish Louis Wigfall on anyone. Although Charlotte was sharp enough about others to keep Mary entertained she seems blind to her husband's many faults. (Any one of us would have divorced him in a New York minute.)  Louis Trezevant Wigfall was Charlotte's second cousin, a South Carolina native. A child of two cultures, she grew up in Charleston but was born in Rhode Island. They married in 1841 when she was about 22. Her New England fortune may have been the attraction.

Did Thomas Nast have Wigfall in mind when he
caricatured the Southern rebel?

Charlotte's husband was an outrageous figure, a Texas-sized fire-eater long in favor of Southern independence. He had a serious drinking problem but the Southern elite indulging in Southern hospitality rarely viewed drinking as a problem.

Wigfall had many other issues, shall we say. He was quick-tempered and violent, killing at least one man, a Thomas Bird, in a duel. He left South Carolina for Texas over dueling issues with Bird's relative Preston Brooks. Wigfall was an irresponsible narcissist, a spendthrift in the grand Southern tradition. All of Charlotte's New England dowry immediately went to pay his premarital debts. He  then habitually damned Northerners as degenerate money-grubbing hypocrites who idolized gold.

Our inspiration block: From Benoni Pearce's 1850 album
in the collection of the National Museum of American History.

Contrasts between James Chesnut and Louis Wigfall are evident in their most impressive joint feat when the pair started the Civil War in the attack on Fort Sumter. 

The tale is complicated but it begins with both families lodging in Charleston in April, 1861. The two former U.S. Senators rowed out into Charleston Harbor to confront Major Robert Anderson, commander of the Union-held fort, and demand surrender. Back at the Mills House Mary and Charlotte were terrified:
"Fort Sumter has been on fire...the sound of those guns makes regular meals impossible. None of us go to table. Tea-trays pervade the corridors going everywhere. Some of the anxious hearts lie on their beds and moan in solitary misery. Mrs. Wigfall and I solace ourselves with tea in my room."
Wigfall "is in his glory, the only thoroughly happy person I see."
Anderson surrendered after 30 hours of bombardment. 

The Mills House after the war. The hotel survived
a huge fire in 1862 and years of shelling.

A few days later British newspaper correspondent William Henry Russell interviewed Wigfall about his part in the surrender on a visit to Fort Sumter:
"I am sorry to say, our distinguished friend had just been paying his respects ... to Bacchus or Bourbon, for he was decidedly unsteady in his gait and thick in speech....he was determined I should know all about his exploit. Major Whiting desired to show me round the work, but he had no chance. 'Here is where I got in,' quoth Colonel Wigfall. 'I found a Yankee standing here by the traverse, out of the way of our shot. He was pretty well scared when he saw me...."
Chesnut and Wigfall dodged the shelling.

James Chesnut's important role at Fort Sumter was forgotten while Wigfall propelled his blundering into a reputation that lingers. James was content to refrain from mythmaking, doing his quiet duty, which was exactly what frustrated Mary about her husband.

Senator James Chesnut and Major Robert Anderson,
both photographed at the Brady Studios.

Wigfall, on the other hand, was a blowhard. During the war he was a vicious enemy of Mary Chesnut's much-admired Jefferson Davis.

Jefferson Davis before the war, Brady Studios.
Matthew Brady set out to photograph every famous American.

Texas Star by Susannah Pangelinan

 By 1863 both Chesnuts were weary of Wigfall. Mary and James quarreled late one night. 
"Wigfall was here last night. He began to hang Jeff Davis. [James] managed him beautifully...I knew it was quite late, but I had no idea of the hour."
After the guest left at 2 a.m.--- 
James: "It is all your fault...Why will you persist in looking so interested in all Wigfall is saying. Don't let him catch your eye! Look in the fire."
Mary could not resist looking interested; she was interested and probably was glad to argue with him over hanging Jeff Davis. But the Wigfalls and the Chesnuts could not keep up that fraying friendship despite her pleasure in Charlotte's company.

The Block

Texas Star by Denniele Bohannon

We think of five-pointed stars in mid-century quilts as symbols of Texas,
always an oversized American icon.


Album at Colonial Williamsburg

And maybe they were...

Album at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts

Applique to a square cut 18-1/2" or cut it larger and trim later.

Becky cut a shapelier leaf a little larger so she could fussy
cut her fabric. More pieces in the star, more fabric.

Applique to an 18-1/2" square or cut it larger and trim later.

The Patterns
One Way to print these JPGS.
·         Create or a new empty JPG file that is 8-1/2" x 11" or a word file.
·         Click on the image above.
·         Right click on it and save it to your file.
·         Print that file out 8-1/2" x 11". Note the inch square block for reference.
·         Adjust the printed page size if necessary. Do not use tools like "Fit to page."
·         Make templates.
·         Add seams when cutting fabric.
The original is based on a wreath of 10 lobes, but 8 works
better because you can cut the swag shape by folding your
template paper or fabric snowflake style. Fold a 15" 
square as shown and cut the swag.

Model makers did one or two stars, any way they wanted
and so can you.

Here's my Texas Star reduced by half to a 9" block.
I didn't have room for a star.

We are filling in the 18" squares.

Elias Boring's 1853 album, recorded in the New Jersey project, has
another one of these viney wreaths with a star in the center.

Fanny Wigfall Jones & Louise Wigfall Wright,
Charlotte's daughters

Extra Reading

Louise Wigfall Wright, A Southern Girl in '61: The War-Time Memories of a Confederate Senator's Daughter.  Louise's memoir includes many letters from her mother during the war.

A Biography of Louis Wigfall at the National Park Service website:


Ellen said...

You made a comment about Mary Chestnut's husband. Do you know of any additional source material about him or is the comment a general one about the husbands of the period and their fathering children with women who weren't their wives?

Barbara Brackman said...

Ellen, I am confused by your comment. Are you referring to James Chesnut's father in previous posts. There's no record of James himself fathering any children. The best source on Mary's husband is her books. You really get a glimpse of him --- a nice guy if occasionally a pain over her out going nature (and spending.)

QuiltGranma said...

Interesting, as usual. Thank you.