Sara Agnes Rice Pryor: “There seemed to be no room for a rebel in all the world”

DBF

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 6, 2016
(Part 2)

"As of old, when the fire and tempest had passed,
And an earthquake had riven the rocks, the Word
In a still small voice rose over the blast—
The Voice of the Lord.

And the Voice said: ‘Take up your lives again!
Quit yourselves manfully! Stand in your lot!
Let the Famine, the Fever, the Peril, the Pain,

Be all forgot’!” {1}

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Sara Agnes Rice Pryor survived the Union Army’s siege on her home in Petersburg, but it didn’t mean her troubles were over. Despair came to her on April 17th when the word of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln was received. Mrs. Pryor was well aware of the consequences of this action especially learning that the “deed was done” by a Confederate. She realized how devastating this was for her beloved South as she wrote the “entire South will be held responsible”. Petersburg held a public meeting where they adopted a resolution denouncing his assassination. She reflected back her thoughts in her book “My Day; Reminiscences of a Long Life”:​

“It is certainly our conviction that had he lived the South would never
have suffered the shame and sorrow of the carpet-bag régime.”
{1}

Sara Pryor is now thirty-five years old, a mother with six children ranging in age from two to fifteen as well as her Confederate husband now thirty-eight. They are faced with a future that will be quite different from their pasts. What will they do? As Sara wrote:

“To my great joy, my dear husband returned from Richmond. There was no hope there for lucrative occupation. He had no profession. He had forgotten all the little law he had learned at the university. He had been an editor, diplomat, politician, and soldier, and distinguished himself in all four. These were now closed to him forever! There seemed to be no room for a rebel in all the world.” {1}

*

Money and supplies were hard to find. Sara’s youngest daughter, Lucy suffered from an ailment that prohibited her from being exposed to the sun light. At one point Sara is forced to trade a silver card-case with the Trinity Church on one side and the Capitol at Washington on the other (a treasure from her time in Washington) for a small straw “Shaker” bonnet for her daughter.

When money was needed she placed her watch and diamond ring as collateral for a $300 bank loan. In the meantime Roger Pryor, invited by friends, had journeyed to New York City in hopes to find employment. Sara believed her husband would only be gone for a few weeks yet when she received this letter she realized life just may take her in a different direction:

"I had intended leaving here yesterday, but our friend, General Warren, invited me for dinner Sunday. I find him in a handsome house in a fashionable quarter of the city. Mrs. Warren inquired kindly about you. . . . What will you think when I tell you that several gentlemen suggest to me to settle here?” {1}

Pryor decided to brush off his law degree but whom he went into practice with would shock many of his southern friends. The infamous “Beast” of New Orleans, Benjamin Butler. In July of 1868, Sara and the children are on a boat churning down the James River on the way to New York City. As the paddleboat pulls out of the dock one of her boys yells “Good bye Dixie”, as the captain reminds him they are still in Dixie until they reach the sea. For Sara it was a day of mixed thoughts:

“Moreover, my heart was sick in leaving Virginia—dear old Virginia, for which I cherished the inordinate affection so sternly forbidden by the Apostle. Six years of sorrow and disaster had borne fruit. ‘Truly, I thought:—

"All backward as I cast my e'e
Seems dark and drear:
And forward though I canna' see

I doubt and fear’.” {1}

The move proved to be the vehicle that lifted the Pryor’s out of their Southern poverty. Roger Pryor learned how to play politics in the New York Democratic Party. His work in a northern city earned him the moniker “Confederate Carpetbagger”. He gave speeches applauding the saving of the Union, gratified that the South had lost. However some of his speeches later vilified the Reconstruction and he promoted the Lost Cause. He practices law and in 1890 was appointed a judge in the New York Court of Common Pleas.

Mrs. Pryor's initial comment on living in Brooklyn Heights was complaining how all the houses were narrow as ladders, yet the couple were making influential friends. Guests visiting their home included prominent Union generals. As Sara writes; “and most cordial of all were the old generals of the Grand Army of the Republic: General Hancock, General James Fry, General Slocum, General Grant, General Tracy—a sometime foe in field and forum; and later General Sherman, General Fitz-John Porter, General Butterfield, and General McClellan were added to our list of friends.” {1}

*

The couple who believed their storms were behind them; now are faced with a maelstrom. Theodorick Pryor was a mere twelve year old boy when the war began. A rather shy, quiet and intelligent child he was in his mid-teens when the Siege of Petersburg began. He was living among all the hardships that were associated with the turmoil. He witnessed the Yankees marching into his town, and the difficulties of trying to rebuild lives. An excellent student in mathematics he was accepted to study at Princeton. He was considered a “mathematical” genius and upon graduation received a fellowship in his course of study. He traveled overseas to Cambridge studying mathematics, but some where along the line he struggled with his course of study. He felt called to the ministry but also considered following in his father’s footsteps as an attorney. When he returned home he was not the same son that left. On October 14, 1871, Theodore was at his parent’s home when Sara came into the parlor and played (at his request) the piano for several hours. It was one of the last times she entertained her son.

The next evening, Theodorick announced to his mother that he was taking a walk. Sara Pryor took no note of her son’s announcement but when he did not return his parents began to worry about the whereabouts of their son. Sadly on October 23, a body was found floating in the East River. There was no visible signs of foul play. The authorities believe that in his depressive state when he left home that evening he walked off the dock at the Wall Street ferry. His cause of death was suicide and for Sara and Roger this grief was worse than any day of the war.​

*

She became good friends with Mrs. Almira Hancock for they shared a bond that no mother wants to bear - they had both lost a child. The Hancock’s had recently lost their eighteen year old daughter Ada and as described by Mrs. Pryor:

“Mrs. Hancock and I would, when we could escape from the crowd, sympathize with each other as only stricken mothers can sympathize. She had just lost her beautiful Ada—and small indeed seemed the honors of this world to her.” {2}

Then there was the day she met a general that had been the root of all her pain in Petersburg. Her introduction:​

“ ‘This is Ulysse, Mrs. Pryor,’ said Mrs. Grant.”

“He stood silent, throwing, after the manner of men, the burden of conversation upon the woman before him. . . . . I found nothing better to say than ‘How is it, General, that you permit Mrs. Grant to call you Ulysse’?”

"Perhaps from imitation," he replied; "I know a general whose wife calls him Roger.”

“He was so simple, so kind, that everything went easily after this.” {1}

Her challenge came when she met General Philip Sheridan. Mrs. Pryor had met the general as the Union ended the Siege at Petersburg. As she tells the story:

“I was alone with my children when General Sheridan demanded my house for an adjutant's office. General Sheridan kept me prisoner in two rooms for ten days, and very trying was the experience of those days. He called to "make his respects" to me the day he left, and although I received him courteously he was fully aware that I appreciated the indignity he had put upon me and the record he had made before I met him. He thanked me for the patience with which I had endured the ceaseless noise, tramping, and confusion, night and day, of the adjutant's office, and apologized for the policy he had adopted all through the war.”

Now she prepares to meet him face-to-face.​

"Do you remember me, General Sheridan?"

In a moment both hands grasped mine. "Indeed, indeed I do, dear lady—and I am grateful to Mrs. Grant for giving me this opportunity to tell you that no man in this country more cordially rejoices at General Pryor's success than I do." He then recalled Lucy, and bantered her on having grown "taller than General Sheridan." {1}

*
Sara Agnes Rice Pryor became an accomplished author. I have based some of my research on her work “ My Day - Reminiscences of a Long Life”. The book is informative although at times she wanders into subjects that are seemingly trivial - but it is a book that gives her impressions of before-during-after the war. She concludes:

“I believe in the true-hearted American woman. I have known her in every phase of human experience: in poverty, in suffering, in disaster, in prosperity. I proudly rank myself beside her! Whatever fickle fashion or wayward fancy may decree for her, I know if there be one passionate desire above all others which inspires her heart, it is to leave this world better and happier for her having been born into it,—to become herself a bright exemplar of the beauty of goodness, so that all may be won by the loveliness of lovely lives; to let the whole trend of her life be forward, not backward; upward, not downward; to borrow from the fires of the heroic past to kindle the fires of the future; to preserve to that end the memory of the deeds of those whose lives have set them apart in the history of our country.” {1}

*

Sara passed away on February 15, 1912. She was eighty-one years old and left behind her husband of sixty-three years. She was buried next to her trouble son Theodorick and her only other son William who had passed away in 1907. Her husband joined the family in death seven years later. They rest in piece in Princeton Cemetery some three hundred miles north of where their journey started in Virginia.​

"And now I stand with my face to the west,
Shading mine eyes, for my glorious sun
Is splendid again as he sinks to his rest -
His day is done.

I have lost my rose, forgotten my song,
But the true heart that loved me is mine alway,
The stars are alight—the way not long—

I had my day!”

Sara Agnes Rice Pryor
November 8, 1908



* * * * *




Sources
1. https://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/pryor/pryor.html
2. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433079007864&view=1up&seq=270
3.
https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/9242/sara-agnes-pryor
4. “The Life of Theodorick Bland Pryor First Mathematical Fellow of Princeton College
 
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