17 December 2009

Preface to My Manuscript

The sun has nearly bleached out my memory of her just as the wi of the Dakota plains bleached the young woman’s tin type I have carried for many decades. Still there is something intriguing in the Northern girl’s eyes, which causes the blood in my veins to rush through like a rapid river on a journey toward the sea. She was not particularly beautiful, but her quiet inner strength and the simplicity of her movements and her poised nature were like the enchanted beauty and flutter of a butterfly’s wing. Most would not notice her in a big city like New York or Charleston, but as soon as one approached her on the street of York, Pennsylvania or St. Albans, Vermont or even a suburban street of Pittsburg, her subtle prettiness and femininity would captivate any man, young and old. I too, I must confess, was a victim of this captivation. I always thought she was the type to make a good wife and mother, for she was poised and yet full of life and fortitude, not to mention of substantial genes. Her own mother was as beautiful as a belle, strong in character and persevered unto death. She was aristocratic by birth and willingly passed down her genetics and character to her two daughters. Both daughters were petite in stature, but with hourglass frames, topped with the fullest and shiniest golden miens. The eldest, whom this story is about, had hair darker than her younger counterpart’s pale, curly hair (which she was often envious of, for it matched their beloved mother’s). But I thought, as most who encountered her, that hers was lovelier, more warm and golden like the setting sun.

You, my devoted reader must be wondering the title of this fair woman who I met for the first time as yet still a girl fighting against her inevitable womanhood. Her name is still like confectioners sugar on my lips: Ella Mae Coburg. A beautiful, appropriate name for someone who embodied womanhood in her later years, yet was as stubborn and as loving as a woman could be. If any man or woman has changed my life it is she. If it weren’t for her I would have died during the War Between the States (and indeed became very close to it on account of my enemies—and I dare say, on account of her as well), instead I lived through the murder and mayhem, the desolation and dehumanization of the Rebel prisons, my exile as a warrior on the Great Plains, and my incurable illness that will one day be the death of me. But enough about me, this is her story. Through a compilation of letters, journals, first hand accounts, and tales of primary and secondary source, I have come to reconstruct her life as a young woman. This story is about her struggles, her loves and her losses, determination, and growth into a strong and charismatic woman. The very years that changed her life and molded her into the person she became: a loving and devoted mother, a pious Christian woman, and forever the love of my life.

For further understanding I will start at the very beginning and tell of her family and her childhood before the commencement of the war. As I mentioned, her mother was an aristocrat, a Montgomery. The larger metropolis of Philadelphia and throughout Pennsylvania knew a Montgomery or knew of them. They were wealthy folks and very sophisticated and respectable. The men were all lawyers, business investors, or factory owners, and the women only married well-bred, successful gentlemen. Ella’s grandfather and grandmother were perfect examples of the Montgomery match making system. Mr. Montgomery had inherited three mills from his father, a gristmill, a flourmill, and a textile mill. Mrs. Montgomery had been raised in Europe, mainly in France where her father was U.S. ambassador. At the time, America was yet a newborn/infant nation and Grandmother Montgomery, as Ella called her, was transported to Philadelphia to meet all the wealthy up and coming sons of America. They married after a lengthy and respectable courtship and eventually had three surviving children: Adellia (Ella’s mother), Agatha; and a son, Philip III. Grandmother Montgomery, along with a half dozen tutors and nannies raised the children, for Mr. Montgomery was always abroad conducting business deals with investors and overseeing the many industrial projects. Months would go by where the children never saw their father and Grandmother Montgomery would pack up the children and their tutors and a dozen maids for Paris or London, depending on the season.

When Adellia was only fifteen, Grandmother Montgomery sent her and her siblings to Pittsburgh to visit their cousin Will, who was attending the university. One evening in mid-January, a ball was held for the grand opening of a new museum and Will asked Adellia to accompany him (he knew many influential bachelors and fellow students of well-to-do families were to attend and he was under strict order from his aunt to introduce his young cousin to all the suitable bachelors). Of course Philip and Agatha were yet too young to go to balls, so Adellia was the only Montgomery lady there—and as told, the prettiest girl in the room. The young Christopher Coburg (a student at the university) was also in attendance at the ball and as soon as he saw the innocently, beautiful young lady in coral chiffon, he had to meet her. A friend of his was an acquaintance of Will Montgomery and they arranged for an introduction. Once met, Adellia became infatuated with Christopher’s Southern accent, charm, and casual attractiveness, and they remained close to each other’s side for the rest of the evening (nearly creating a scandal for the many dances he claimed). For the remainder of her visit, Christopher called on young Adellia, and by the end of her winter visit he had fallen in love with her. The day they were to return home, Christopher proposed to the young girl who, love struck, accepted his proposal and they were married six months later, shortly after her sixteenth birthday. Grandmother Montgomery disapproved of this fleeting courtship and brief engagement (and further disagreed with Christopher’s Southern and German roots), or rather disagreed simply to spite her husband’s approval.

Christopher Coburg came from a large Virginia family, raised on his father’s plantation, and educated on the etiquette of Southern gentlemen: hunting, land management, husbandry, argument and persuasion, the classics, politics, and chivalry. On the surface his childhood on the plantation—surrounded by the comfort of his warm mammy’s embrace and all needs and necessities met by the wealth of his father—was beyond perfection. However, beneath, within the confines of home, the children suffered the neglect of their father, who drank to excess till nightfall, and the exposure of constant yelling and abuse upon their devout Christian mother. A belle from South Carolina, Christopher’s mother was stern in her beliefs and demanded perfect manners of the negroes and her children. And last of all, she did not believe in divorce, so instead, when her eldest, Eugene Augustus, went to the university in Pennsylvania, she shipped the rest of the children to boarding schools and finishing schools in New England, in order to spare them from their father’s drunkenness and negative influence. Christopher was a young child when he first attended boarding school, where he spent the remainder of his youth except for holidays and summers on the Coburg plantation.

In the winter of his twelfth year he received a letter that his father had died of pneumonia. The older children were mostly relieved that themselves and their mother would further be spared from his drunkenness and destructive nature. Little Christopher had few memories of his father, but the few he did have left him sad and bereft. He remembered early mornings, long before his father’s eyes glazed from alcohol, when he would follow his father out to the negro lane where he would sit with the foreman, Big John, on his front stoop and drink coffee and talk quietly about the progress of each crop, disciplinary problems with certain young slaves, and who was having a child and when. Christopher would sit on a patch of grass in front of the cabin and listen to his father’s kind yet business like voice, as if he were speaking to a young man who was just coming into his own, even though Big John was at least twelve years his senior. These were the times he remembered most, not the times he, drunk, would march down to the slave cabins, rope and horsewhip in hand, and tie a disobedient slave to a tree and whip him the necessary lashes according to the accused offense; or the times he slapped or nearly strangled his wife for staying out too late caring for a pregnant negro or a sick child when supper wasn’t even ready at the big house; or the many times he used the switch or a wooden spoon on the children’s rumps or knuckles for lying, disrespect, speaking at the table, or just for being in his way. Christopher, a very disciplined and calm child, rarely was the object of his father’s anger, instead his father liked the little gentleman and if he ever witnessed or was a victim to his father’s drunken rage it was lost from his memory.

By the time Adellia Montgomery came into his life he had been a Pennsylvania resident for nearly four years and had left the plantation to the care of his eldest brother and his family, along with his aging mother, who would die within a year of the war (which caused the Coburg family to be torn in two—the eldest had returned and married in Virginia after school, and the youngest had remained in the North after graduation; those who remained were unable to be at their mother’s death bed). Christopher married Adellia when she was just turning sixteen. Mr. Montgomery immediately set up his new son-in-law with managing the factory of cook ware and home utilities, which was owned by Mr. Thomas Washington Harris (who in which Mr. Montgomery invested) in the small town of York, Pennsylvania, which consisted of some market houses, blacksmith, saddlery, wheelwright, and other shops of trade, orchards and farms, a make-shift platform for the York-Wrightsville railroad, post office, bank, an old hotel which was also a restaurant, a gristmill owned by the Wallace sisters (which was unheard of at the time and would have been a great scandal any where else for women to be in business), a general store, a one room school house/church, and some scattered clapboard houses and a single mansion in the Gothic style (which was the Harris home). As soon as the newlyweds arrived they were welcomed into the Harris home to stay until their own home was built. Mr. Harris, a widower, had two sons: an eighteen-year-old son named Jeffrey and a fifteen-year-old son named Ethan. The house was full of pretty Irish maids, which the Harris men admired more than was appropriate. Mr. Harris was a generous man, but he also suffered from rheumatism, which allowed for Christopher to assume all control of the factory.

The income the Coburg’s received allowed Christopher to buy a plot of fifty acres and build a home for his wife and their hopeful future family. The house was in the model of the Virginia plantation, with a flat front with pillars and a verandah to wrap around the whole house. The property was full of oak trees and wild grasses, manicured to make a large lawn shaded by trees. A barn was built for horses, cows, and a few chickens, as well as the storage of a buggy and a carriage; a paddock was situated beside the barn for the riding and grazing of horses; and a vegetable garden for the cook and a flower garden for Adellia beside the house. Once everything was complete they hired Harold O’Connor as liveryman, coachman, and butler, his wife Fanny as cook, and Anna McQuaid as maidservant. All three were fresh from the emerald hills of Ireland and their labor was as cheap as immigrant servants came in those days. With the household in order, Christopher felt it was finally time to name the small estate. The very day Adellia found out from the doctor she was expecting, they decided to name the new home Woodhue. And Woodhue became Ella Mae Coburg’s home. Anna McQuaid then became the nanny to the Coburg children and another servant, Macy Rogers, a young British woman, became the maid of Woodhue. Anna, however, still saw herself as an authority in the house, and reminded Macy and Fanny constantly. Even though Macy was given the title of head maid, Anna continued to take control, and Macy seemed to result to a more subservient role: Adellia’s handmaid and Woodhue’s cleaning lady.

Ella was two when Adellia had a son, whom was named Christopher Jr., but always a sickly child he would die three years later. Shortly there after Adellia herself dealt with continuous poor health, causing her to suffer from chronic headaches. As a result of her poor health she had many miscarriages, giving birth to globs of flesh and blood, or stillborns. It wouldn’t be until ten years later when Adellia carried her next child to term and named her Mary Elizabeth Coburg. Ella remembers her childhood marred with doctors coming and going from her mother’s room, but she never once remembers seeing her mother sickly and fragile. In her memory, her mother was always strong, giving her father a shoulder to lean on, instead of vice versa.

As a child growing up in York, Pennsylvania, life was carefree and eventful. School was always enjoyable for Ella and she made many friends. She was excellent in all she did and was the spelling bee champion two years in a row. She was not the most popular in school, that title went to Annabelle LeDoux, a fashionable and pretty brunette haired girl. Ella was always jealous of Belle’s attire and good looks, but in their teens they would eventually become great friends, nearly inseparable. There was a certain boy named Robert Moore who lived with his lame father and young mother in a run down cabin, on the opposite side of town, near the river bottom. For some reason this boy was always shy of Ella Coburg and nearly avoided her at all costs. When Ella was five years old there was a big blizzard that caused many families to be unable to travel to town for food. Ella knew the Moore family was poor since Mr. Moore was a cripple and unable to work. So she made Fanny prepare two baskets of food and she and Anna carried the baskets to the Moore cabin, leaving the food on the porch for them to find. I don’t know if Robert or his family ever learned that Ella was the one who brought their unexpected baskets of food that winter, but eventually Robert warmed to the bubbly little girl and grew out of his shell, allowing the two to become friends.

When Ella was seven years old in 1854, the year of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, politics were rarely spoken of in the Coburg household. Her mother had a rule that politics should never be a subject of table talk. However, she did hear some talk when her mother and father put on socials and parties. She was never allowed in the parlor then, but she would sneak away from Anna when she was supposed to be in bed, and peak in through the door at the fancy dresses and handsome bearded men, especially the young Ethan Harris (who always brought Ella a peppermint stick or silk ribbons when he came to call). And while she sat in the shadows of the hallway, she would lean against the closed double doors and listen to their languid voices and laughter, her ears becoming alive with their grown-up talk.

Some of the men predicted a war was quickly approaching. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was a foolish solution in soothing the conflict between free and slave states. Prejudice between Southerners and Northerners increased by the month. It was bound to get ugly—any fool should have seen that. It didn’t take a fortuneteller to predict what would ensue within a few years.

Days later, Ella remembered, her father said the word “war” and her mother nearly had a fit. She overheard a conversation between her mother and father, and her mother kept saying, “This country is bound to have a reckoning.” Whether she was referring to slavery or the bloodshed between Americans that was already being shed in the West, it’s hard to say. Possibly both. At that point war had broken out when “Reverend” Brown stepped into the Kansas territory. Mr. Coburg said John Brown was a hero and Mrs. Coburg had moaned in irritation.

“If you think Brown is a hero, I must be the Queen of England married to an idiot!” she had told him.

Five years later John Brown became a martyr to some and a fool to others. Adellia never did take back what she said to her husband. “See for yourself,” she said, pointing to the front page of the Pennsylvania Gazette. John Brown had attacked Harpers Ferry, Virginia with twenty-one men in attempt to free the slaves. Every man in town along with the Charleston militia fought against him and his men, killing the majority of them. Brown had been caught and was later hung. Adellia had Ella leave the room with little Mary Elizabeth, but she didn’t know that the curious Ella continued to stand in hearing distance.

“It says, On Brown’s way to the gallows, he handed his jailer a note that predicted more bloodshed. It said: ‘I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I know think, vainly flattered myself that without that without very much bloodshed it might be done.’” Ella once told me that she believed Reverend Brown to be a contemporary prophet. However, I fear, many of us could sense what was quickly approaching in America, and it would take a war to reunite the nation.

Soon many would forget Brown’s execution and prediction. Then Abraham Lincoln became President of the United States of America, Southern states began to secede from the Union, and a conflict broke out at Fort Sumter. A war was on.

—John A. Mathis, Jr.

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