Chautauqua Boy

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From A Chautauqua Boy in ’61 and Afterward: Reminiscences by David B. Parker (2nd Lieut., 72nd NY), Small, Maynard & Company: Boston, 1912. pp. 54-64

…Late in the afternoon I went to the Post-Office Department to bid officials that I knew good-bye, and was informed that the Postmaster General had a messenger hunting for me, and I was told to go into the First Assistant Postmaster General's office and I would find out about it. When I did, I was informed that General Grant had telegraphed the President requesting my appointment as a Special Agent of the Post-Office Department, to return to him and continue in the position which I had filled while a detailed officer of the army, and that Mr. Lincoln had endorsed the back of the telegram, mentioning the importance of the mails to the soldiers and their families, and asking Postmaster General Blair to make the appointment. A commission as Special Agent had been made out, and on the information that I was in Washington, but about to depart with my regiment, a messenger had been hunting me. I accordingly returned at once to General Grant's headquarters, and continued in the service until the war closed.

The day that Richmond was evacuated word came to City Point from General Weitzel, who commanded the troops on the north side of the James nearest to Richmond, that the city was evacuated and burning, and that he was pushing his troops forward to enter the city. General Grant was up at General Meade's headquarters. I said to the Adjutant General that I would go up to Richmond at once and look after the Confederate post-office records and affairs, and he replied,

“Go and make all arrangements, and perhaps General Grant will want to send some orders by you.” I went to the Quartermaster, who gave me a boat, and ordered my horse and an orderly. When ready to start, I went back to Colonel Bowers' office, and he gave me a dispatch for General Weitzel and said that General Grant wanted I should go to Elizabeth Van Lew's house on Grace Street and see that she had protection and anything that she might need. Our boat was stopped by the gunboats eight miles from Richmond, the fear being entertained that the river was mined with torpedoes; so we landed at Akins Wharf and started over land for Richmond. As the roads were full of troops, Captain Penrose (who had joined me) and I took to the fields. We were well mounted, and our horses took the fences and ditches easily. When we arrived at Richmond, the lower part of the city was burning, and the first of our soldiers who had arrived were working hard in subduing the flames. I found General Weitzel at the State Capitol, and then went immediately to the city post-office, which was being ransacked by some of our soldiers. I placed a guard over the office, and put up a notice in the window that mail service would be resumed the next day and dispatched to all points with which communication could be had. The next morning I had a force of detailed soldiers at work, and opened the post-office and sent a mail to City Point in the afternoon. About noon I rode to Church Hill and found Miss Van Lew's residence, a fine place, her father, who had died within a few years, having been one of the old and wealthy merchants of Richmond. Miss Van Lew's mother came to the door and cautiously inquired who I was. When I told her, the door flew open, and the daughter, Miss Van Lew, who was about fifty years of age, welcomed me warmly. I told her what General Grant's instructions were, and she said, “I want nothing now. I would scorn to have a guard now that my friends are here.” She invited me to come to supper and to remain that night, and I told her of my friend Captain Scoville, and she said, “Bring him also”; so we returned there at supper-time, leaving our horses at a corral, and we were seated at the table with a number of gentlemen to whom we were introduced. One of them was the clerk of Libby Prison, named Ross, and all of the others occupied prominent positions in various departments of the Confederate Government. Mr. Ross sat next me and said:

“You must think it a little strange to meet me here, but I don't dare be anywhere else. If I went on the streets of Richmond, perhaps some officer who had been a, prisoner in Libby Prison might recognize me and put a stop to my career.”

“Would you be so unpopular as that with them?”

“Oh, yes,” he said, “I have cussed them up and down in the prison.”

Miss Van Lew then said, “Don't you believe all he says. I have had him in Libby Prison for years doing my bidding. These other gentlemen have been in affiliation with me, and you probably know that I have been in communication with General Grant all the time.”

It was a fact that the house of Miss Van Lew had been the rendezvous in Richmond for our spies, and while we had been on the James River she maintained a farm just opposite City Point where information was sent; and an officer of our Provost Marshal General's Department visited this farm nightly, crossing the river, so that full information reached General Grant daily of all news that could be obtained in Richmond.

Years after the war I met Captain Lownsbury, who had settled in Jamestown, New York, and conducted a wholesale grocery establishment. Lownsbury sought my acquaintance, when I visited there, because he had heard I was residing in Richmond, which I did, while United States Marshal, for nine years after the war. He asked me if I knew Ross, who had been clerk of Libby Prison. I told him I did very well, and that he was a commission merchant in Richmond. Captain Lownsbury said:

“I was a prisoner in Libby, and Ross was the clerk who called the rolls and superintended the prison under Major Turner. He never called the rolls without swearing at us and abusing us and calling us Yankees, etc. We all hated him, and many a man said that the time might come when he could get even with the little scamp. Our attention had been frequently called to the fact that officers had been called out and never re- turned. We had no knowledge of what became of them, and one evening at roll call Ross struck me in the stomach and said, ‘You blue-bellied Yankee, come down to my office. I have a matter to settle with you.’ We were in line at the roll call, and some others whispered, ‘Don't go; you don't have to,’ but I followed Ross down to his office in the corner of the prison. There was no one in the office, but a guard stood in front of the door on the sidewalk. Ross pointed behind a counter, this office being a counting-room of the old Libby Tobacco Factory. I stepped behind the counter and found a Confederate uniform, and I lost no time in getting into it, although it was too small for me. Then I walked out the door. It was just after dark, and Ross and the sentry were walking down the sidewalk, I ran across the street to a vacant lot which had brush growing upon it. As I did so, a colored man stepped out and said, ‘Come with me, sah, I know who you is,’ and he took me to Miss Van Lew's house on Church Hill. Miss Van Lew told me the roads and where to take to the woods to escape the pickets and to go down the James River, and I could, perhaps, before morning reach a place of safety where I could escape to our troops. Now, I want to send Ross a box of fine cigars,” and I took them to him at Richmond.

When General Grant was inaugurated President, the post-office at Richmond had been remarkably well conducted for four years by Postmaster Alexander Sharp and Assistant Postmaster C. Jay French. Mr. French had had much experience before the war, and during the war he was in charge of the important post-office at Fortress Monroe and was in every respect a model official. When it became known that, as soon as General Grant became President, Dr. Sharp would be appointed United States Marshal for the District of Columbia, a petition was circulated in Richmond for the appointment of Mr. French as postmaster; and the patrons of the office signed with great unanimity, but General Grant desired to appoint Miss Van Lew, and arranged that Colonel French should be appointed Superintendent of the Railway Mail Service for the District of Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. Miss Van Lew's appointment was well received in Richmond, although it was well known that she had not only been a Union woman but had rendered service to the Union

Cause. After she had been in office a few months, I, being in Washington, called upon President Grant, and he said:

“You are just in time to give me some information. The Postmaster General has just been here and handed me a statement regarding Miss Van Lew's insubordination, and insists upon her removal. I would like to retain her, if possible, but it looks very discouraging. The Postmaster General says that she has changed the pay of clerks, not only without authority from the Department, but in face of positive orders not to do so, and in other respects has disobeyed the rules and orders of the Department, and that a Special Agent sent especially to investigate and report upon the matter was ordered out of the office by her and told to go about his business. I don't see how I can retain her in office if she is to behave that way. What do you think about it?”

I replied that I had heard that she had reduced the pay of the mailing clerks in the office, who were the most important clerks there, in order to give increased pay to some clerks appointed by her who were old friends and acquaintances and whose positions did not warrant the amount of compensation she fixed, but I had not heard about the matter otherwise, as I was no longer connected with the Post-Office Department (being then United States Marshal). The President said:

“Can't you influence her to correct these matters?”

“No,” I said, “I cannot influence her at all. She does not even speak to me when we meet. She came to me some time ago and asked me to support her brother for the office of Auditor of the city, and I declined. The incumbent of the office, who desired reelection, was very capable and satisfactory, and the office is an important one. Her brother is not fit for that office or any similar position, and I told her so. She was very indignant and said, ‘If you are not my brother's friend, you can't be my friend. I will never speak to you again,’ and went away.”

“How do the public regard her administration of the office?”

“She is giving eminent satisfaction. There is no complaint on the part of the public.”

“Well, that is much in her favor,” said the President, “if we can only make her behave herself toward the Department and its rules. I warned her when I saw her some time ago, and I can send for her again, but I am afraid she would continue the insubordination. I think I will appoint you arbitrator in the case, and send for her and tell her that she must adjust all those matters of difference with the Post-Office Department according to your suggestions, and if she refuses to do it, I shall have to remove her, much as I would regret to do so.”

A few days later Miss Van Lew came to my office, bringing her pay rolls, and said:
“General Grant insists that I must fix these pay rolls of clerks as you direct, and that if I won't do it, I must give up the post-office, which I don't want to do. It is a great humiliation to me to have to come to you with them, but you tell me what I must do and I will do it.”

So I looked over the new roll and the old one and told her:
“Just put all of these clerks back as they were in respect to pay. Then I would suggest that you write the Postmaster General a letter saying that you have done so, and that you will be glad to receive any suggestions or instructions that he may make as to the conduct of the office. If you do that, I think you will have no further trouble in the office, and you will relieve General Grant from much embarrassment.”

“I will do it,” she said, “I have to do it. No thanks to you. Good day.”

The mailing clerks who were reduced had been borrowed from post-offices at Northern cities when the post-office was re-established in '65, and were noted in the mail service as the very best clerks. After serving awhile temporarily, they had liked Richmond well enough to take permanent appointment, but this reduction of Miss Van Lew in pay was at so low an ebb that they would have had to to give up their positions.

Ten or twelve years later, while I was Chief Post-Office Inspector, Postmaster General Gresham sent for me one day and said that he had received a letter from General Grant asking him to do what he could for Miss Van Lew, who was then in Washington; that she had held the post-office at Richmond for eight years while he was President, but had not been reappointed by President Hayes; that she had been well off financially then, but had sought to establish her brother in the business of tobacco manufacturing, and had invested her money with him and lost it, as he had failed in business, so that she was now in financial stress; that she had been of great service to the Union cause during the war, and that I could tell him about her service, and that he hoped she might receive some appointment from which she could make a living. Judge Gresham added that he had sent for her and advised her to put in an application for a clerkship at the Appointment Office, which she had done, and that she had gone before the Examiner under the rules prevailing at that time and passed the examination with the highest rating. Now, the Third Assistant Postmaster General had a vacancy to fill in his office and had brought in the order for the appointment of a Committee of three, which would be headed by himself, under the rules, to select from among the applicants who had passed the examinations a person to fill the vacancy. Judge Gresham said, “I struck off one of the names and inserted yours, and you must do what you can for Miss Van Lew.” The Committee convened, and judge Gresham came in and said, “I believe I am an ex officio member of this Committee. What 's the status of the thing?” The Third Assistant, Mr. Hazen, explained that three applicants had passed the highest rating, and that as the position to be filled was in his office he supposed his recommend would prevail; that one of the applicants whom he had met and was sure would make a fine clerk, desired the appointment for permanent employment, and would probably rank among the very best of employees in the Department. I inquired what State he was from, it being well known that the Third Assistant, who was a Pennsylvanian, was in touch with Members of Congress from that State and was active in securing places for Pennsylvanians.

He replied, “From Pennsylvania.”

“Well, that's a good State to be from,” said Judge Gresham. "Let me see the other names. Here is Miss Van Lew of Richmond. She has passed the examination, too.”

“Yes, but I don't want her,” said Mr. Hazen. “She was postmistress at Richmond and was troublesome and hard to get along with. If I were to appoint her in my division, she would be quarreling with everybody.”

“Well,” I interrupted, “she rendered very important service during the war.”

“Oh, I know all about that,” exclaimed Mr. Hazen. “Everybody has heard of that and would hear of it all the time if she were here. We are getting tired of that.”

“I don't think she would ever mention it herself unless asked,” I said. “Perhaps her Chief of the Subdivision and fellow clerks are veterans or, at least, well-wishers of the Union, and they would be glad to aid her in every way and bear with her eccentricities. If she had been a soldier, she would be entitled to preference under the law. Surely she rendered services that ought to put her on a par with the soldiers.”

“But I don't want her,” insisted Mr. Hazen.

“Well," said the Postmaster General, “I rather think that Miss Van Lew ought to be selected, and, as Chairman of the Committee, I will put the question to a vote.”

The other member of the Committee voted with us, and she was installed as a clerk.

A prominent citizen of Richmond once said to me:
“I suppose you folks think Betty Van Lew was a Union woman purely from conviction and high principles.”

“Certainly we do.”

“Well, that's where you are mistaken. I have known her all her life, and her father was one of my best friends and one of the best men in Richmond, but it is sheer contrariness on her part. If she was to fall off Mayo's bridge into the river and drown, her body would float up the rapids to Lynchburg instead of down the river to Norfolk. But she is one of us, and we are glad General Grant took care of her. It does him credit, and we like him pretty well, too. He treated General Lee and our soldiers with such delicate consideration, and he didn't come into Richmond himself with his bands playing, ‘See! the Conquering Hero Comes.’”

I think Miss Van Lew's financial affairs became more satisfactory from the advance in value of the real estate which she owned, but she held her clerk-ship until the Cleveland administration.

Page last updated on 07/08/2008