The Adele Douglas Letter

During the Civil War women played an important, but mostly unrecognized  role. Whether the lack of recognition is an oversight by popular history writers or whether women's roles were ignored because it's not a very glamorous topic is for the reader to decide. We've often read the glamorous tales of brothers and cousins meeting on opposite sides of the battlefield. We know of many brave and daring feats of common soldiers, and of the cunning maneuvers of the Generals. We all know who the Yankees were, as well as Johnny Rebel. We know baseball had it's roots in Civil War camps and many of us can recite words to common Civil War songs yet today. We all know of the death and carnage and destruction the men of Civil War times wrought and endured and our hearts go out to them, right or wrong, Union or Confederate.

But what of the women? This conflict surely affected them and their collective psyche as dramatically and grievously as it did their male counterparts. They saw the results of the battle carnage. While they were spared the horrific sights, sounds and smells of the actual battlefield encounters, they surely saw the paths of destruction that swept through their hometowns and villages as the armies passed through their backyards..For it was they who were left at home to keep the farms, homesteads and families running while the men went off to do glorious battle for God and Country. It was they who were burned from their homes, abused, sometimes raped and occasionally, needlessly slaughtered while trying to protect their property and their youngsters. It was the women who kept what little home, town and family infrastructure there was alive.

As a result of their husbands, brothers and sons going off to war, women had to assume more traditional "manly" roles. They were left at home with the children, the crops, the family business, etc. and were expected to not only maintain their more traditional roles, but also to assume the gentleman's share of the day to day chores of life. Sometimes this meant chopping wood, butchering livestock, sowing & reaping the fields, repairing the leaky roof, mending fences, managing expenses, etc.

In addition women were expected to aid in the war effort. They sewed flags and uniforms. They cut & prepared cloth for bandages, to await the injured soldiers after the battles. Many women worked without pay in the hospitals, which were all pretty much inadequate to handle the incoming casualties after a battle. Those who could read and write were called upon by injured soldiers to send letters home to loved ones. Some contained good news, telling a spouse that her husband would be home upon his release from the hospital, while others were gut wrenching accounts of soldiers who wanted to send a good-bye letter home to a loved one. Some letters were written home to prepare the family for the return of the husband, minus certain appendages.

Our "Rebel Rose" O'Neale was merely one among many women to volunteer her time in hospitals around her home in Washington DC. Rose's sister in law, Mary Greenhow Lee did the same near her home in Virginia. In her diary she speaks of the horrors of war and of the roles women played in the hospitals. Mary, a widow, also speaks of the fears she had, alone in a huge house, bereft of a male figure, afraid to sleep at night, lest she be robbed, her home taken, or an even worse fate awaken her from her slumber.

Recently we've come to learn that Rose's sister Eleanor Elizabeth O'Neale Cutts and her daughter Adele Cutts Douglas also volunteered their services in DC hospitals. Below is the story of how we came across the information and how a simple act of kindness on the part of one of our ancestors has reunited us with her and given us a glimpse into her life. It's an insight I want to share. It's shown me that in the midst of a war ridden country just how far a simple act of compassion can go....How it can touch our lives and cause us to shed a tear and beam with pride almost a hundred and fifty years later.

On September 29th, 2003 I received an email from Bev Crowe saying she had read an article which mentioned a woman in Pennsylvania who had been going through her Great Grandfather's papers and had found a letter from Eleanor O'Neal's daughter, Adele. The letter was addressed to a Union Soldiers wife and it explained that the soldier would be coming home soon.

I thought it would be nice to see what the letter looked like and how Adele wrote and what her signature might look like, etc. so I wrote a letter to the author of the article and asked if he could put me in touch with the lady who had the letter. Upon reading my request, he phoned her and gave her my email address. The next day I got an email from her. Within a week I had photocopies of the letter and even the envelope it was mailed in. To respect her privacy I will not mention her name here, but will thank her publicly for sending me the copies. She is preparing her ancestor's papers for publication and when they are published I will place a notice in the newsletter. Below I will reprint the text of the letter and some images from the scanned letter. Enjoy!

Above left is a scanned image of the envelope that Tillie Gaston received from Adele. To the right is a copy of a tintype photo of Tillie.

Below is the transcription of the letter

Sept 1st, 1862

    I visited the hospital (which is quite near my home) today and saw your husband -- he is lying sick of the fever but is not thought dangerously ill. Indeed the Sister in attendance assured me that he would soon be better although he is (quite) feeble as you may well imagine from the effects of this terrible fever.

    I asked him to let me do something for him and his first thoughts were of you -- he said, "I have not written to for some time to my wife. I would like you to write and tell her about me" - so you see this is how I came to the pleasing task of telling you that your brave husband is not among the wounded or dying, and God had spared him for you for I trust a long and happy life.
    The Hospital is called Douglas Hospital and there are kind Sisters of Mercy who give their whole time to the care of the patients. Every thing looks very neat and clean around and the Capt says he has (--?--) been much (--?--) tenderly cared for since his arrival.
    You must dismiss as much anxiety from your mind as is possible while you are away from your husband, and I know you find gratitude that he has spared you from these last dreadful battles. They are all our heroes, sick and wounded as well as those who have fallen - I am very glad to have had the pleasure to write you, and trust my letter will relieve you of some solicitude.

Very sincerely yours, Adele Douglas

Direct to Capt Gaston
Douglas Hospital
Washington City
I saw Capt Gaston again today - he thinks he will be out of the hospital very soon & seems much better.
Sept 2nd

Below is the sugnature page.

Thanks to a descendant of James, who supplied me with the letter I was able to learn that his military career did not end here. James Morrison Gaston did not return home to his wife, Tillie, after his release from the hospital. He returned back to camp after he recovered from the fever and was promoted from Captain to Major early in 1863. He went on to fight in many battles, including Cedar Mountain, Brandy Station and Gettysburgh

More about Adele Cutts Douglas Williams

As mentioned earlier, Adele was the niece of "Rebel Rose" O'Neale Greenhow. Adele's mother was Eleanora Elizabeth O'Neale. Eleanor married President James Madison's nephew, James Madison Cutts. First Lady Dolley Madison was very fond of James and Eleanor and was often seen in Washington DC proudly displaying little Adele Cutts at ceremonies she attended in the Capitol City.

Adele would become a leading lady in Washington DC one day herself. She was known in the states and abroad, like her Mother and Aunt before her, for her outstanding beauty.

Many sources note the beauty of Adele.  In The Washington Post in 1910, we even find a reference to her, written by her grandaughter, Adele Cutts Patton.

Washington Post, May 15, 1910
Dear Aunt Anna:
I was so much interested in the article written by you in last week's paper.  My great-grandfather was the Madison Cutts mentioned by you. When he was married to my  great-grandmother he spent his honeymoon in Montpelier. My grandmother, who was Miss Adele  Cutts was born in the old house now occupied by the Cosmos Club, which was the home of Mrs.  Madison. My grandmother when a little girl, was once playing in Lafeyette Square (which was  where the children used to play in those days, too), when Aunt Madison saw her, and pulling  her close said;  "My little Adele, you should get your mother to sew your sunbonnet to those curls to shade  your compexion, for one of these days you will be a beauty." Aunt Madison was right, Years afterward my grandmother became one of Washington's greatest  beauties.....

But, since a picture is worth a thousand words, I'll include a photo of Adele here and let the reader decide the question.

An image of Adele can also be found at St. Aloysius Church at 900 North Capitol St., NW, in Washington, D.C. This church has been in use since 1859 under the sponsorship of the Jesuit order. It is named after St. Aloysius Gonzaga, a young Italian Jesuit, who gave his life at the age of 23 caring for victims of the plague in Rome in 1581.

The New York Times, in describing the dedication of the Church mentions that President James Buchanan and several Cabinet members were present.  Jesuit Father Benedict Sestini, who taught Mathematics at Georgetown University at the time, was the church’s architect. The brilliant painting above the main altar, showing Aloysius Gonzaga receiving his first Holy Communion from the hands of Cardinal (St.) Charles Borromeo, was the work of the noted Constantine Brumidi, painter of the frescoes on the inside of the U.S. Capitol dome.

Brumidi was a personal friend of Father Sestini and painted him and the pastor, Father Bernadine Wiget, as kneeling in the Communion scene. The model for St. Aloysius’ mother was parishioner Adele Cutts Douglas, wife of Stephen A. Douglas, the “Little Giant” who was Abraham Lincoln’s rival in the historic debates of 1858 and the presidential campaign of 1860.