U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Southern Odyssey (Guest Post by Sara Georgini)

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of four biweekly guest posts by Sara Georgini.  — Ben Alpers

To Algernon Coolidge 1863Two men sat down on the June grass in Virginia, 1865, to talk about the war. The younger of the two, Union Army doctor Algernon Coolidge, had nearly declined the trip. Algernon still mourned the death of his twin brother (Philip) Sidney, a promising scientist and Union major lost at Chickamauga two years earlier. After enduring three years of constant combat and dismal hospital work, Algernon—a great-grandson of President Thomas Jefferson—now wondered what sort of welcome he faced in the south. 

Entering Richmond soon after northern cavalrymen, black and white, swept through in victory, Algernon told wife Mary that he met with “scowls” from old secessionist friends stripped of their possessions. The south that Algernon had known, thanks to his mother Ellen’s tales of Monticello girlhood, felt largely gone. Her journal-like accounts of plantation life, titled “Virginia Stories” and “Negro Legends,” had shaped how her young twins first staged the south. Now there were newer sights to see. With historian Francis Parkman in tow, Algernon gaped at Richmond’s swath of ruined streets. He noted how former slaves “looked…without the slightest expression” through former masters. He deplored the relic-seekers who hacked off bits of Libby Prison’s escape tunnels. And he chatted with black carriage drivers, curious about their new lives.

But the last leg of his southern pilgrimage was, for the 35-year-old Union veteran, by far the hardest. Eight hours away lay the home of Algernon’s uncle Thomas Jefferson Randolph: historical editor of the third president’s papers, Monticello’s sometime executor, and a colonel in the Confederate Army. How would the southern soldier greet his northern nephew? Algernon did not know, and in letters to New England kin, he agonized over this part of his Virginia homecoming. Settling into the odd rhythm of life in Federal-occupied Richmond, Algernon struck out for his uncle’s Albemarle County farm in mid-June. He shared the railroad car with returning prisoners. Together, they made the “tedious” trip past peeling depots and burnt rails bent double along the road. The Bostonian waded through a “fine corn field” to reach the Randolphs’ door, where, to his great relief, Algernon was greeted kindly. Over the dinner table and in the backyard, the Union veteran and his Confederate cousins traded their views on the war. Despite the ongoing strife of a nation still torn in two, Algernon explained, family duty won out. “I told them I had to see how they were, as we had received several reports about them,” Algernon wrote, “and I wanted to be able to tell Mother how matters really stood.”

For the prominent Coolidges, the war marked a painful rupture between northern and southern kin. Algernon’s tale of reunion is a reminder that “the family mind” is a pivotal primary source for intellectual historians. The home is a site where ideas, too, grow and change. In antebellum America, a fierce haze of Christian domesticity encircled most correspondence, shielding private conversations from scrutiny. As sectionalism ceded to Civil War, the textual tradition of the American family suffered a caesural break. Some chains of correspondence split; elsewhere, family ties were rigorously renewed. However you survey northern and southern worlds in the Civil War era–as romance or ruin, in odyssey, or through myth-making–family letters are foundational to the story.

When we listen to the family archive, new interpreters rise to challenge worn frequencies in the historical register. The family’s “True Confederate” Randolph, too old to serve beyond an honorary commission, recedes, despite his notoriety as Thomas Jefferson’s literary guardian. Rather, Ellen and her daughters step forward to narrate the brutal hollowing-out of American culture. At the same time, widening webs of family correspondence ensnared fears about the homefront’s future. Coolidge women worried that the conflict had grossly corrupted “northern” nature. Their old Yankee sturdiness seemed brittle, felt frail. “We are in suspense about the war news, but people are now so accustomed to this excitement that it does not produce the same effect that it once did on anybody,” Mary Coolidge wrote in 1864. “Even your Mother seems bitter about the war.”

Jefferson’s granddaughter, Ellen, saw much of the war through her sons’ eyes. Algernon began by drilling Harvard undergraduates, then served on the U.S. Sanitary Commission’s floating hospitals. A $100 monthly salary meant that Algernon slept in his ambulance. He paid for any extra medicine and supplies. What struck Algernon most was the men’s extraordinary “patience” as they awaited treatment, yet he found “nothing grand” in the sight of the Union Army. One of those men was his twin brother Sidney, a volunteer astronomer at the Harvard Observatory who fought briefly in Mexico in 1858.

Family letters, held in the Coolidge-Lowell Papers, document the heartbreaking news of Sidney’s loss at Chickamauga—a death that would take months for Algernon to verify. Just 100 miles away, Algernon received three telegrams on the same autumn day: one to say that Sidney was dead, another to say he was wounded and captured, and a third to say he was missing. Algernon, then resident at Nashville, obtained a special pass to cross enemy lines into Louisville, where there were few clear details to be had. Judging from the manuscript fold lines on the pass and on the death notification, Algernon likely carried the worst news with him to Kentucky. By January 1864, the family officially declared Sidney dead. A pall fell over the family correspondence. Still mourning Sidney in June 1865, Algernon now sought to reconnect with his mother’s Southern family.

Sitting down with Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Algernon finally talked about the family’s long roots in the war. “I questioned him a good deal about the generality of the feeling in the South, of the right of secession, and if it were not a catch word merely, and if after all Slavery was not the real cause of the war,” Algernon wrote back to Boston. “This he denied strenuously, and said that nowhere had they loved the Union as in the South, and that it was with great anguish of feeling that they decided on Secession.” In trying to see southern views, Algernon made a first move at forgiveness. He invested in a struggling Georgia plantation, and persuaded northern businessmen to buy in there, too.

As the founders’ descendants greeted the “American century,” they rejoined with southern relatives and ways of thought. The Victorian generations of America’s “first families” tackled history-writing in radically different ways than their ancestors did (see here for an Adams-Jefferson Civil War). For the cosmopolitan Coolidges, letters offered a virtual forum to discuss national interests. Correspondence reunited them with southern cousins, and reenergized the regional economy. In 1898, the Coolidges initialized deposit of the family papers–including Jefferson’s–at the Massachusetts Historical Society for scholarly use. Today, on a day when we think about war and why we document it, it’s worth weighing how we preserve experiences of American struggle. Shortly after the Civil War, Thomas Jefferson’s heirs sought to move beyond monuments, by investigating the manuscripts and family memories that swiftly morphed into stories in marble. The southern pilgrimage that Algernon Coolidge had feared, in the end, proved therapeutic. “Notwithstanding all this, I was very kindly received,” he wrote home from Richmond in 1865. “I was considered their cousin and not a northerner, and invited to stay longer.”

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  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this piece–partly because I’ve been thinking about my second project, a history of African American memory of Reconstruction. Thinking about family and home as places of intellectual development is important–I think for African Americans in the late 19th century and beyond it would especially matter!

    This is a wonderful take on intellectual history, and gives many of us a great deal to think about. Thanks again for this post.

  2. Thank you, Robert! I look forward to hearing more about your work. Family letters *may* seem mundane at first pass, but I think the “ordinary” and “inner lives” of ideas are always worth another look. Using the Coolidge perspective, this kind of correspondence shows postbellum Americans in the act of rethinking or reinventing interpretations of region and race.

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