March 1863: "I was there during the Mclellan excitement…"

By Joan Fink, Volunteer

Letter from Grace Heath to Francis Lee, 15 March 1863

Letter from Grace Heath to Francis Lee, 15 March 1863

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    In this 15 March 1863 letter to Colonel Francis L. Lee, Grace Heath, a Boston socialite, describes various events occurring in and around Boston during the winter months of that year. Heath, who was described by her aunt Susan Heath as being “full of talk,” energetically recalls the near hysteria caused by General George B. McClellan’s visit to Boston, the formation of the Union Club, and the social and romantic events occurring in the lives of several of Lee’s friends and acquaintances.

    Francis Lee was born on 10 December 1823 to Henry Lee, a Boston merchant, and Mary Jackson Lee. Shortly after graduating from Harvard in 1843, he married Sarah Wilson with whom he had six children. At the age of 39, in August 1862, he was commissioned as a colonel in the 44th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. His military career was short lived. The regiment served in North Carolina, seeing action in various skirmishes but no involvement in major battles, until returning home and mustering out of service in June 1863.

    In this letter, Grace Heath vividly depicts how General George B. McClellan, recently relieved of command of the Army of the Potomac, received an overwhelmingly enthusiastic welcome from many Bostonians when he visited the city in February 1863. She notes that “Beacon St. laid down and begged to lick his shoes,” while many women who met the handsome general “treasured up their gloves which had shaken hands with him.” McClellan had been invited to the city and given star treatment by Democratic supporters who hoped he would oppose Lincoln in the 1864 presidential election.

    Members of Boston’s Somerset Club, a gentlemen’s social club in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, were among the “Mclellanites.” Earlier in the winter several supporters of the Lincoln administration abandoned the Somerset Club, forming the Union Club. This new club dedicated itself to promoting loyalty to the Constitution and unfaltering support for the federal government’s war policy. Heath displays a keen sense of irony as she comments that since the members of the Union Club were determined never to speak against the government, “shouldn’t you think conversation would flag.”

    In a gossipy passage of the letter Heath recounts to Lee the spate of society romances blooming in the spring of 1863. She reports the engagements of Captain Harry Russell, an aide-de-camp to General Hooker, to Mary Forbes, daughter of John Forbes, a prominent Boston financier; Colonel Robert Gould Shaw to Miss Annie Haggerty, whom she adds “ought to be a noble woman to marry [him]”; Lieutenant Colonel Greely S. Curtis, a cavalry officer, to Harriet Appleton; and finally Colonel Charles Lowell to Josephine “Effie” Shaw, sister of Robert Gould Shaw, described by Heath as a “romantic looking couple.”

    Grace Heath also writes of her many social encounters, including a meeting with Henry Higginson, who had recently accepted an appointment as lieutenant under Colonel Robert Gould Shaw in the newly formed 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first black regiment raised entirely in the North during the Civil War. Then on a somber note, Heath describes the death of Leverett “Levy” Saltonstall, the eight-year-old son of Massachusetts attorney Leverett Saltonstall and Rose Smith Lee. She remarks that the death of this young boy had a “great impression not only on all the children but on everyone."

    When the 44th Regiment disbanded, Francis Lee returned to Newton, becoming a military advisor to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He died in 1886. On 1 August 1864, three months after announcing her engagement to James J. Higginson, twenty-two-year-old Grace Heath died of diphtheria at her home in Brookline.

    Sources for Further Reading

    This letter is from the Francis L. Lee Papers. The collection contains numerous military papers generated during Lee’s command of the 44th Massachusetts, in addition to Civil War era correspondence. More can be learned about the life and death of Grace Heath in the Susan Heath Diaries.

    Kirkland, Edward C. “Boston during the Civil War.” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Vol. 71 (1958), 194-203.

    O’Connor, Thomas H. Civil War Boston. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1997.

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