“Heaven’s Last Best Gift”

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DBF

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“When he walked through the gates, he never thought love awaits.

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Mount Vernon Arsenal - Alabama (Library of Congress)
He said his life began with his marriage, and that marriage began when he was 35 and 30 years later he declared his wife was “Heaven’s last best gift”, he continued; "the happiest periods were our courtship - our wedding and the birth of our babies - what events!”. And in between those 30 years was the life-long partnership of a northern man that fell in love with a southern lady and together they faced the war and the financial challenges that came in its’ aftermath.

On a summer day in 1853, a young lady sits on a veranda reading to her sister’s children and unbeknownst to her someone is listening. The commandant’s quarters of the Mount Vernon Arsenal in Alabama is located next door and her sweet words were overheard by the soldier stationed there. For the rest of his life he claimed that it was her voice he fell in love with even before they met.

Miss Amelia came from an Alabama family with a rich heritage in American history. When she was 20, her father John Gayle was elected to represent his state in the U.S. House, and Amelia accompanied him to Washington. She described her stay in Washington as a “magical” period in her life. Her father also served as a governor from Alabama from 1831-1835, so her family was politically connected, though not wealthy but lived a comfortable life. Her mother came from a prominent South Carolina family and was known by all for her great beauty, but tragically she died when Amelia was 9 years old.

Meanwhile Josiah was the youngest of 10 children born to Joseph and Sophia Gorgas of Pennsylvania. His father, although a hard worker, was not a financial success. At 17 years of age, he was sent to Lyons, New York to live with an older sister and her family and this proved to be a life changing decision. He eventually “caught the eye” of the local congressman and was appointed to West Point, where he graduated 6th in his class in 1841. His first appointment was in the Ordnance Corps and it was a position he excelled at.

During the years before his marriage, he traveled to Europe for a year to study European forts and armaments. He arrived home in time to serve in the Mexican War. Time and distance was taking its’ toll on the Gorgas family relationships as he was gradually growing away from them. In 1853 he was sent to serve at the Mount Vernon Arsenal and immediately fell in love with the Alabama countryside and then with Amelia. Josiah’s ties to the south were cemented in December, 1853 when he married his 26 year old southern lady, Amelia Gayle. They had six children born between 1854-1864, and before the Civil War his growing family would travel with him as he served his country. By 1859 he wrote - - -

“the South has wooed and won me. Its blandishments have stolen into my senses, and I am its willing victim”. {1}


The War Years

Josiah_Gorgas.jpg

General Josiah Gorgas - Public Domain

Pennsylvania native, West Point graduate, U.S. Army soldier all his adult life, Josiah Gorgas, had a difficult decision to make in 1861. During that winter, he was stationed at Frankfort Arsenal in Philadelphia. Amelia, the dutiful and loving wife she was, told him he needed to make the decision and whatever he decided, she would also go. There is no evidence that she forced his decision, yet Josiah was deeply devoted to her, which undoubtedly played a huge part in his decision. When he made his final choice to cast his allegiance to the south, his northern family cut him off completely.

He joined the Confederate Army as Chief Ordnance Officer. His marriage to Amelia had “mellowed” his temperament, said those that knew him before and after, and this must have been the case as he maintained a successful relationship with the Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who had been described as having a reputation of being “difficult and prickly”. In this position he excelled in organization and working with foreign governments to enable him to keep Southern soldiers supplied with weapons. He was successful in building Confederate businesses that by 1863 the Confederacy was self-sufficient in military hardware. {6} In 1863 he also wrote, produced and circulated “The Ordnance Manual for the Use of the Officers of the Confederate States Army”. He entered the war with the rank of Major and by war’s end would be a Brigadier General.

During the war years, he saw Amelia as often as he could. His family was living in Richmond, which made separations less. There was no doubt these two hated to be separated. He once told his wife that he slept too much when he wasn’t home as he needed babies to keep him awake. Amelia would write how “my heart fairly aches for you” and she was lost and lonely without him".

Their longest separation came in April 1865 when Richmond fell. Amelia and the children remained in Richmond while Josiah fled with the remnants of the Confederate government. He eventually sought refuge in Alabama at the Gayle family home. He feared for his freedom, as being the Chief of Ordnance for the Confederacy he worried that he would be arrested, but that never happened.

Letters began again while Amelia and the children stayed in Richmond, Their letters are filled with “longing” to see each other and with talk of their future


The Post War Years

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Courtesy of the University of Alabama
W.S. Hoole Special Collections Library

Times were turbulent for Josiah and Amelia right after the war, and it was at this point in their marriage they faced great challenges - yet - Amelia would always be her husband’s greatest supporter. She wrote to him from Richmond - - -

“Go abroad if you think best, I can manage for myself and children until you send for us”.

She was developing a self-confidence and found in her husband a man that would not stifle but would encourage her and a man that respected her intelligence and her willingness to continue to learn. When Amelia was ready to move from Richmond to another less expensive area, she did not “seek advice for what she was going to do”; she moved. She eventually settled with her children in Maryland, while Josiah stayed in Alabama. They continued to communicate and Josiah expressed that her new living arrangements were for the best. He wrote - - -

“your arrangements were ‘sufficiently economical’,” (and added jokingly) “to make your mind as easy as you can and grow fat! not that I think you can be improved, but the more there is of such a paragon of wife, why the better!” {1}

They continued communicating through letters for a year until he was able to send for his wife and children to join him to Brierfield, Alabama. Josiah had purchased an interest in the Brierfield Furnace. He assumed with his war skills in ordnance he would be able to repair and rebuild this business that had been destroyed by Union General James H. Wilson in March of 1865. He began this endeavor in October, 1866 and by the following year he had to shut it down. It was eventually leased and Josiah left the company in 1869. Amelia was a city girl and living in isolation in Bibb County was difficult but not once is there a record of her complaining to her husband. She expressed to friends, she felt grateful for what she had as so many in the South had less.


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Brierfield Ironworks - Alabama Department of Archives and History

In 1869, Josiah was offered the position of headmaster at the University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee. He moved there with his eldest son, Willie by then 16 years old and according to Amelia “needed the strong guidance from his father”. Once again Amelia stayed behind in Tennessee with the 5 younger children until living conditions could be made for the family to be united.

The University had been established in 1857 by Southern Episcopal Bishops, led by the future Confederate General Leonidas Polk, During the Civil War, the school was forced to close, and re-opened in 1866. However, much damage had been done during the war and the trustees expected Josiah to raise money, recruit students, teach classes, supervise construction of buildings and manage the school. He struggled to keep the school financially solvent as the trustees were proving to be difficult. Adding to his stress, in September of 1869, Amelia at age 43 suffered a miscarriage which caused “terrible stress” for him.

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1871 Recruitment Poster - Created by Josiah Gorgas -Public Domain

Josiah’s life was bleak during this time. He missed his wife and mostly sat alone cheered only by her “dear” letters. The weather that fall was horrible - sleet, rain, snow and howling winds. It truly matched his mood. In May, 1870 a home is built for him to bring his family and they are again united. (Additionally stress was brought on by his eldest son Willie who had been rejected at West Point, was not interested in law. He eventually enrolled in medical school and in time would make remarkable strides in fighting the “mosquito” diseases of yellow fever and malaria which the Army employed during the building of the Panama Canal and he is credited with saving thousand of lives. In 1914 he was appointed the Surgeon General of the U.S. Army.)

Sewanee eventually changed the requirements for the job when they desired the position be filled by someone from the “clergy’”. By February 1878, Josiah was looking for another job, and one was right there.


Their Final Journey - University of Alabama

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The Gorgas House - University of Alabama
Amelia Gayle Gorgas with eldest son, William (the physician)
University of Alabama - Circa 1900

In the fall of 1878, the Gorgas family made their last move. Josiah had been offered the position of President at the University of Alabama and the job provided him and his family with excellent living accommodations. Amelia stayed behind in Tennessee to close up the house. Unfortunately on February 23, 1879, Josiah suffered a massive stroke, but even with the devastating news the University treated the Gorgas family well. Eventually they gave him a rent-free house on campus and created the position of university librarian. This allowed Amelia and her daughters to “ghost” Josiah’s job and enabled them to live comfortably. On May 15, 1883 as Amelia was kneeling by her husband’s bedside, he quietly slipped away in death.

Amelia proved to be the strong, independent woman that Josiah had encouraged and nurtured during their 30 years of marriage. She continued working at the university and in 1886 when a post office was created at the school she was appointed the post master. She was 60 years old when she accepted this position. She finally joined her husband in death on January 3, 1913, dying in her 87th year.

This marriage was truly tested during the years after the war. Josiah had great difficulty leaving his job as a “professional soldier” and many times was forced to seek employment away from his beloved family. There is at least one documented time where he was in a “deep depression”, but his wife was always his strongest supporter and he never hesitated to lean on her during tough times. The hardship they faced made Amelia the woman she was and her husband never discouraged her growth. They forged a marriage through good times and bad. Two strong individuals that came together in love and soared into life. I will end with a quote from Josiah - - -

“A man has no experience worth mentioning until he loves the woman he weds".







Sources
1. Intimate Strategies of the Civil War - Military Commanders and their Wives”, edited by Carol K. Bleser andLesley J. Gordon.
2. http://www.awhf.org/gorgas.html
3. https://apps.lib.ua.edu/blogs/coolathoole/2008/06/23/great-news-and-great-letterhead-from-loving-son-w-c-to-his-doting-mother-amelia/
4. http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/m-2124
5. http://digital.archives.alabama.gov/digital/collection/photo/id/12036/rec/24
6.
https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/gorgas_josiah_1818-1883
 

JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
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This is a very cool bio, thank you! I don't know. We see all the lists of men who died and gruesome photos from Gettysburg and Spotsylvania and Fredericksburg of dead, nameless men. They all had an Amelia, or mother, sisters, children. They all had deep roots somewhere, people who missed them and lived in dread for very long years.

These stories bring it home.
 
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Cavalry Charger

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Well, @DBF , you've done it again. Another great love story and I always enjoy reading them.

“A man has no experience worth mentioning until he loves the woman he weds".
Just wondering about this line ... in my head it should be the other way round "A man has no experience worth remembering until he weds the woman he loves ". I'm sure there are instances of marriages taking place and the love coming later, so either one could be true.

Thanks again for another wonderful story :smile:
 

lelliott19

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Another great post @DBF ! I live in Alabama and knew that Josiah Gorgas' son, William Crawford Gorgas, was instrumental in abating malaria during construction of the Panama Canal - but I had no idea that he served as Surgeon General of the US Army! Thanks for such a wonderful and informative story.
 

DBF

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AmeliaAndWCGorgas.jpg

University of Alabama Photo

Here’s another photo of her and William. Wasn’t she pretty?​

When Josiah said he fell in love with her voice before he ever saw her - he meant it - at 35 love hit him and hit him hard. Here are a few more “snippets” of letters written by Josiah while he was separated from his family. He frequently tells Amelia that as much as - - -

“he enjoyed receiving her letters . . . he preferred to hold the hand that wrote them”.

His letters are quite romantic and filled with love. In 1858 he was South Carolina ; his family in Maine - - -

“I would give anything to have your arm around your waist. I do love you so dearly so entirely.”

Around the same time period (he must have been lonely) - - -

“I have hardly known myself how my heart is wrapped up in you until I am so far away”.

During the month of February, 1878 Josiah journeyed to Washington in search for a job and was gone a month and wrote - - -

“I fear you don’t sleep warm at night, in my absence.”

Towards the end of his life when Amelia went to care for her sister for a period of time he wrote - -

“No, my love, we won’t grow old nor cold, toward each other. I dreamed of you night before last, and my last dreamy thought, as I drop off, is certainly of my absent love, whom I miss so much.”

Within a few months he suffered his stroke.




Source
Intimate Strategies of the Civil War - Military Commanders and their Wives”, edited by Carol K. Bleser andLesley J. Gordon.
 
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Thanks @DBF!

I had never heard of Josiah Gorgas until I read my favorite book on the Civil War, "Intimate Strategies of the Civil War : Military commanders and their Wives", edited by Carol Bleser. I have often quoted from that book and to all of you who are touched by this charming love story, I cannot recommend it enough.

The chapter on the Gorgas marriage starts on page 104:
https://books.google.de/books?id=I1NTDMsmgtsC&printsec=frontcover&dq=intimate+strategies+civil+War&hl=de&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjkxq-LgYfiAhXEyqQKHQHcDJsQ6AEIKDAA#v=onepage&q=gorgas&f=false
 
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Cavalry Charger

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Thanks @DBF!

I had never heard of Josiah Gorgas until I read my favorite book on the Civil War, "Intimate Strategies of the Civil War : Military commanders and their Wives", edited by Carol Bleser. I have often quoted from that book and to all of you who are touched by this charming love story, I cannot recommend it enough.

The chapter on the Gorgas marriage starts on page 104:
https://books.google.de/books?id=I1NTDMsmgtsC&printsec=frontcover&dq=intimate+strategies+civil+War&hl=de&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjkxq-LgYfiAhXEyqQKHQHcDJsQ6AEIKDAA#v=onepage&q=gorgas&f=false
Thanks for the reminder on this one @FarawayFriend . I may have bookmarked it before for future reference, but I'll do it again just in case! I know I'm going to really enjoy reading this one :smile:
 
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