'In the dead of night'

Allen, ca. 1860. Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society, Item PP231.236
We tend to think of a bright line dividing North and South during the Civil War, but in families like the Grays of Boston there were a number of living connections between the two regions. Mrs. William Rufus Gray, the diarist’s [1] mother-in-law, was a member of the Clay family of Savannah, and during the war her younger sister and other family members resided in Georgia, near the South Carolina line.

61 Bowdoin Street, Boston, Friday, 3 February 1865: We have had news of the destruction of Aunt Eliza’s[2] plantation and the burning of the homestead by [Major General William Tecumseh] Sherman’s army. We cannot but feel sorry for her – but as a military measure it was perfectly justifiable. The place had a powerful rebel battery planted on a bluff commanding the river – 4 miles below was Fort McAllister, on Matilda Clay’s brother’s[3] place; when that was taken by assault, all the places on the Ogeechee [River] up and down were burned and destroyed. They were all deserted by the owners and used for rebel defences. Among the owners, Joe Clay[4] is on Hardee’s[5] staff – Tom Clay[6] on the signal corps – [brothers] Tom[7] and Elliot Arnold[8] both in the rebel army – and Joe Mc.Allister[9] was killed at the head of his rebel regiment at Chickamauga (I think).

If it be allowable to weaken the enemy by destroying their property and goods, these people have certainly made good their claim to that kind of martyrdom in their most unrighteous cause. Personally I feel sorry for Aunt E and the girls. Matilda Clay[10] is a harsh slave mistress – I have no respect for her – but Aunt E. is as charming as she is conscientious. I love and admire her and can only deplore that the force of circumstances drew her to the wrong side.

Matilda Clay is a harsh slave mistress – I have no respect for her – but Aunt E. is as charming as she is conscientious.

We hear that Elliot Arnold has been taken prisoner – and his rebel mother,[11] in her safe northern home, protected by the government she derides and abhors, rejoices that he is a prisoner, because he is out of the way of the bullets! If we treated our prisoners as her dear friends the slave drivers of the south treat the thousands of federal soldiers who are their prisoners, she would sooner kneel down and pray God that a merciful bullet might put him out of misery at once – and save him from the merciless brutality and slow starvation of a prison pen!

Sunday, 12 February 1865: Ellen Gray[12] has had a letter from Aunt Eliza Clay in the southwest of Georgia, dated Jan. 14 or 15th, written after she had heard of the burning of the plantation home at Richmond on the Ogeechee. It seems Aunt E. was very loth to leave it – but was persuaded to do so, remaining however after all the rest of the family to pack up and store away &c.

Her departure was fixed for the next day – but in the dead of night she was roused by Joe Clay, who had walked over from the depot, 3 miles distant. He told her she must leave the house in a half hour – there was not a moment to lose. Sherman’s van was almost upon them, and she would just have time to catch a night train passing through. She escaped and joined the family in the South West. But the very next train was captured by the Federal troops – a narrow escape for her.

Of course they grieve over the burning of the house – but she writes cheerfully. There is no lack of supplies of food in Georgia, though they do starve our poor prisoners there on quarter-rations! But for clothing materials they are much straitened. But she speaks of having just superintended the taking out of the loom, a web of cotton cloth 40 yards long! [This] seems like going back to the old colony times – this hand-loom domestic weaving.

Continued here.


[1] Hedwiga Regina Shober (1818–1885) was married to Dr. Francis Henry Gray 1844–80. Entries from the Hedwiga Regina Shober Gray diary, R. Stanton Avery Special Collections.

[2] Eliza Caroline Clay (1809–1895), younger sister of Mrs. William Rufus Gray (Mary Clay [1790-1867]).

[3] Colonel Joseph Longworth McAllister (1820–1864) died at Trevyllian’s Station in Virginia.

[4] Dr. Gray's first cousin Joseph Clay (1838–1914).

[5] Lieut. General William Joseph Hardee (1815–1873).

[6] Joe Clay's brother Thomas Carolin Clay (1841–1897).

[7] Thomas Clay Arnold (1836–1875).

[8] William Elliott Arnold (1839–1883).

[9] See Note 3.

[10] Matilda Willis McAllister (1818–1869) was married to Dr. Gray’s uncle Thomas Savage Clay 1836–49.

[11] Louisa Caroline Gindrat of Bryan County, Georgia (1804–1871) married Richard James Arnold of Providence in 1823.

[12] Dr. Gray’s youngest sister Ellen Gray (1830–1921).

Scott C. Steward

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward has been NEHGS’ Editor-in-Chief since 2013. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.View all posts by Scott C. Steward