Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Ellen Tucker Emerson's Civil War


Lidian (Lydia) Jackson Emerson enjoying breakfast in bed with
her cats. Sketch by her daughter.

Ellen Tucker Emerson (1839-1909) in 1860

At 17 Ellen returned from school in western Massachusetts to the family home to live the rest of her life. She never seemed interested in marriage but enjoyed her position managing the Sage of Concord's home. 

Edward, father Waldo (as he was called) and Ellen in the 1850s

Ellen's father Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was one of the foremost writers, philosophers and personalities of his time. Ellen's mother was a perfect example of a Victorian invalid, depressed and prescribed debilitating drugs. Calomel causing mercury poisoning probably contributed to her lethargy, digestive problems and moodiness. She was often considered too delicate by female constitution to venture from her bedroom. She had to be coaxed to eat; her low weight was often remarked upon. Nevertheless, she lived to be 90 years old, delighted for her daughter to fill her role for the last 35 years of her life.

Lydia Jackson Emerson (1802-1892)
Lydia Jackson was Ralph Waldo Emerson's second wife, married in 1835.
 His first named Ellen Tucker Emerson had died of tuberculosis
 after a short marriage. Lidian (husband Waldo changed her name) 
 suggested the first wife's name for her eldest daughter.

From her last year at school in Lenox daughter Ellen wrote:
"The next year will probably be an apprentice-ship in house-keeping and that I hope to have begun my career as superintendent of the house.”
When the Civil War began Ellen had been housekeeper and father's secretary for several years. In the introduction to Ellen's biography of Lidian Emerson, Delores Bird Carpenter tells us she at first "thought news of every new recruit...a great thing," regretting that the only family member who joined was a second cousin. Lidian was thrilled at news of civil war. She was sure it meant the end of slavery.

Timothy O'Sullivan's photo of a few of the hundreds of freedpeople
who became Union responsibility in 1861

Although Ellen was focused on her family during the war, she joined other Concord women in sewing for soldiers and for Port Royal Islanders freed by Union victories on the Carolina coast in the first year of the war. Her mother also went to Soldiers' Aid Society meetings but she held sewing in "low esteem," recalled Ellen. 

Lidian's contribution was buying expensive English pins to fasten the handmade bandages. Ellen heard from a wounded Concord soldier that his doctor was glad to see his bandage stamped "Concord, Mass" as those had "a pin in them that would work."
"When every old sheet in Concord had been made up and sent, people began to sacrifice their good ones, and Mother, greatly elated, saw to it that the supply of pins never failed."
Library of Congress
Women visiting patients from the 36th New York
 at the Portsmouth Grove Hospital, drawing by Private William Thompson Peters, Jr.

On a summer, 1862 vacation to Rhode Island with the Henry James family, Ellen spent a morning at Portsmouth Grove Hospital for wounded soldiers near Newport, Rhode Island. "I returned utterly unable to send anyone to the war with cheerfulness."

Good friends John Murray Forbes and Waldo Emerson shared
grandfather duties to Ralph Emerson Forbes, Ellen's sister Edith's oldest.

Ellen often accompanied her father to Boston's Athenaeum library where a librarian recalled them, Ellen carrying his papers and books in her satchel. "I remember that she would sometimes try to induce him to accompany her on a round of social calls. He usually seemed rather averse to doing so.....In a thousand little ways, here among the books, I have observed her provide for his comfort and anticipate his every want."

Concord Museum Collection
Ellen & a needlework project (?) 1899

In her biography of her mother Ellen mentions a good deal of fabric and bedding but the quilts (there must have been some!) are not recorded among words like blankets and downs, which might mean eiderdown coverlets.

Metropolitan Museum of Art
Adeline Harris Sears, Rhode Island, Silk celebrity quilt

Famous people were often asked to sign a scrap of fabric and return it by mail. Adeline Harris was quite successful in her quest for donations from celebrity "lions." Underneath Emerson's signature at top, those of Samuel F.B. Morse, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry W. Longfellow and William Cullen Bryant who dates his to 1858.

The Concord Museum is showing needlework produced by young women in New England, particularly samplers, a show up through February 25th.

And see a 2014 exhibit there with a marvelous album quilt:

The Emerson home "Bush" in 1905. Ellen continued to live here until her death.

Ellen wrote a rather charming biography of her mother, which seems to reflect the personalities of both women. The manuscript is with the Emerson papers in Harvard's Houghton Library.

Delores Bird Carpenter has edited and published it but unfortunately without the fabric swatches attached to the manuscript.

Ellen Tucker Emerson, Life of Lidian Jackson Emerson, Edited with an Introduction by Delores Bird Carpenter, 1992.
A preview:


matty said...

I wonder what it would have been like in the Emerson household... a husband who changes your name, gives his first wife's name to YOUR daughter, and moves his crush into a blood red bedroom in the house... and a daughter who is expected to act as hostess for his many hungry and eager fellow thinkers. LMA's comment that philosophers are always hungry comes to mind...

Barbara Brackman said...

Probably typical of many mid-19th-c households where women were given and accepted a second-class position in life. Lidian's solution----act sick and stay in bed with the cats--- was a common reaction.