Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Eunice Bullard Beecher's Civil War

A silk quilt dated 1850 by Helen M. Wilkes of Brooklyn, New York,
 a gift to Eunice Bullard Beecher, wife of Brooklyn Minister 
Henry Ward Beecher. The pattern is a variation of the Full Blown Tulip
 or Caesar's Crown design rather popular in the 1840s & '50s.

See more about the pattern at this post:

Miss Helen Matilda Wilkes joined Beecher's church in 1850,
the year she presented this quilt.

Silk quilts did not last long as bedcoverings. About 20 years ago the Beecher Stowe House published a postcard of the fragment that remained then in their collection. The quilt had been divided into four
pieces so four family members could each have a share. 

With current internet access we find
 Helen Matilda Wilkes (1826-1872) buried in Brooklyn.

1872 obituary of the quiltmaker, perhaps

The recipient, Eunice White Bullard (1812-1897) about the time
she married newly ordained minister Henry Ward Beecher in 1837.

Their first posting was to Lawrenceburgh, Indiana. Then to Indianapolis where she caught malaria that afflicted her all her life. Ten years on Indiana's frontier were hard duty. Eunice gave birth to four children but two had died by 1847 when the couple was thrilled to get a call from founders of a new church in Brooklyn, New York who were impressed by Henry's preaching style and philosophy of religion as love rather than brimstone. Henry thrived at the Plymouth Church where he was minister from 1847 until his death in 1887. 

Eunice & her first set of twins

Six more children arrived in Brooklyn but by the time the Civil War began in 1861 the Beechers had only four living children, having lost the pair of twins above to mumps on the same day---July 4th, 1853---and others to malaria.

Herbert was also a twin but it appears his brother was stillborn in 1854.

Brooklyn's Plymouth Church
rebuilt large to accommodate the Sunday audience after a fire

We can hope Eunice's religion (or Henry's) was some solace in the loss of the young children. Henry may have been some comfort (he grieved as deeply as she did) but he was a difficult husband. Always self-absorbed and needing adulation he enjoyed lecture and preaching road trips and the attention of star-struck congregants.

Henry Barton Beecher (1842-1916)

Weeks after the war began their eldest son Henry defied his mother and enlisted at 19 with his father's approval. In her biography of his father Debby Applegate tells us that the boy "was caught in a serious moral infraction and dismissed from his regiment in disgrace. His 'crime' was hushed up, but judging by his mother's reaction, it likely took place in one of Washington's notorious bawdy houses." 

Post-war gossip about Henry Jr.'s service in
the Springfield Republican and New York Times

His father's assistant Theodore Tilton somehow obtained a new posting for the junior Henry in the Army of the Potomac after an interview with Secretary of War Simon Cameron. Eunice was not pleased with any of these events.

Daughter Harriet married a minister at the beginning of the war. Eunice spent much of her war at a cottage she and Henry had bought in Peekskill, north of New York City in Westchester County. She wrote her husband many letters, which he failed to answer. Was she aware of Henry's extramarital affairs with young church members? 

After the war scandalous revelations about Henry's many affairs
enraptured the nation. 

Although she wouldn't have been able to describe it as such, Eunice was surely aware of his clinical depression, illustrated every Sunday in gloomy sermons. During the war concerned church leaders decided he needed a rest and sent him to Europe for four months at their expense.

New York Times, April 1863

Eunice did not accompany him.

Later spin on the 1863 rest cure was that Abraham Lincoln commissioned Beecher to influence public opinion in favor of the Union. Henry did make speeches in England to that effect---were they well-received?

Punch, the English humor paper, published some doggerel and a cartoon of "The Reverend Mr. Treacle" selling "Beecher's American Soothing Syrup" to a country that was not interested.
Mr. Beecher
Yankee preacher
Is, just now, a London feature.
Sent, we're thinking
By Abe Lincoln
To become Brittania's teacher.

Fort Sumter, April, 1865

Perhaps Henry's greatest Civil War honor was Lincoln's choosing him to give a speech at a notable ceremony as the war ended. Henry, Eunice with a host of friends and Plymouth Church members arrived at Fort Sumter in a chartered ship, where Henry gave a speech on April 14, 1865 celebrating the return of the Union flag over the war's first battleground. The next day they heard that Lincoln had been murdered the day of the ceremony.

Their post-war lives drowned in a huge scandal about her husband's hypocrisy regarding affairs with female church members that played out in the newspapers, resulting in a sensational trial in 1875.
"Eunice, a formidable woman with commanding features and snow-white hair, attended regularly. Day in and day out, Mrs. Beecher, wearing a black dress and looking like a raven, sat impassively in a wooden armchair in the spectators’ section of the courtroom." Robert Shaplin, "The Beecher–Tilton Affair," The New Yorker, June 4, 1954.
 Do a search for "Beecher Tilton Scandal" to read MUCH more.

During that period Eunice must have found comfort in writing; she authored several books in her lifetime. Her 1873 book of household hints and recipes gathered from periodical columns advises mothers on how to teach girls to sew with a doll quilt. If this is indeed the way she approached dialog with children her four surviving children were very lucky.

But she was not considered a gentle woman. Her famed sisters-in-law, Henry's sisters Harriett Beecher Stowe, Catharine Beecher and Isabella Hooker found her querulous, hostile and complaining. The best Catharine could say for the public was that Eunice had "always been civil to the family." (An exaggeration.)

Henry Ward Beecher died in 1887---the adultery scandals somewhat forgotten. Eunice lived exactly another ten years with daughter Harriet Beecher Scoville and her family.

An Obituary in 1897
Another obituary with Eunice represented the steadfast wife---the Victorian woman steeped in denial clinging to the ideal of a life-long insoluble marriage.

The Cambrian, 1897

How much of this hypocrisy Eunice actually believed is open to question but she was a stubborn woman making the most of a marriage to a very famous and wealthy man whom diarist George Templeton Strong described as having "a screw loose somewhere." She coped.

1 comment:

Nadia Adams said...

What a fascinating post about Eunice Bullard Beecher's life during the Civil War! The detailed recounting of her challenges and resilience is truly inspiring. It reminds me of the community spirit and support we often find in clubs today.