Under Lowering Clouds

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This post is an excerpt from the book, The Life and Times of Warren Webster, by Warren Webster, Jr.

It is a generally accepted theory that protracted epochs of great mental strain and emotion, such as occasioned by war or pestilence, exert a definite influence on the characters of children born during the period.

My father was a striking contradiction of this theory. He was quite the reverse of bitter, sectionistic or militaristic. Yet his was an exceptionally fitting test-case, for he was born on June 25, 1863, in Philadelphia, in the then charming old residential section of Tioga at that time almost rural in its setting.

Those were the darkest days in the city’s history since Howe’s occupation had banished Washington and his army to the bleak heights of Valley Forge more than three-quarters of a century before. For Pennsylvania, from which had come the long-barreled “Kentucky” rifle of pioneer song and story, was true to.its traditions as a fighting State. To the Civil War Pennsylvania sent 366,000 men—one of every eight inhabitants.

Hardly had the cannonading at Fort Sumter died away and President Lincoln issued his first call than there began a cross-traffic—Pennsylvania volunteers going South and a steady stream of wounded pouring North. In 1863, the third year of the war, the score heavily favored the Confederacy. When in the early summer Lee reached the Shenandoah Valley, consternation spread through the Middle States and the impending cloud hung heavy over Philadelphia. Stores and shops closed their doors. Crowds packed Chestnut and Market Streets, congregating before the newspaper offices. There were tales and rumors of dark deeds by the enemy’s guerrillas—such as the Lawrence, Kansas, massacre by Quantrelle and his band.

President Lincoln called for 100,000 additional volunteers—50,000 to be supplied by Pennsylvania. Governor Curtin demanded more volunteers to defend the State. Philadelphia Councils appropriated $500,000 for home defenses. Such citizens as were exempt from active military service were ordered to form a corps for the protection of the town.

My grandfather, Jones Webster, was an advertising man, and for fifty years conducted an office (probably one of the very first in that line of business) at 30 North Fifth Street. He was in close touch with the newspapers and therefore heard every rumor as it reached the city, so that his household must have been exceptionally well informed.

My father was just six days old when on the night of July 1st word reached Philadelphia that the state had been invaded and that a terrific battle was in progress near the Southwestern border. During the 2nd and 3rd the wildest rumors were in circulation; some claimed the Confederates were advancing, others that they had been all but annihilated. On the 5th, Meade’s dispatches brought definite announcement of the great victory of Gettysburg over the Army of Virginia, commanded by Lee in person.

Among the endless tales of the battle was one recounting how on the first day General G. K. Warren, observing that by some oversight two strategic points, Round Top and Little Round Top, had been left unoccupied, had called up the Fifth Corps and seized both places, that their possession had proved a vital factor and might well have been responsible for the victory.

General Warren was my grandfather’s particular war hero—and when my father was christened he was named “Warren” in his honor.

News of the Union victory at Vicksburg on the 4th was now Confirmed. For the moment the threat of invasion was lifted, but not the horrors of war. General Hancock, with a shattered leg, and five hundred other wounded arrived on the 5th, followed by four thousand more on the 12th, as well as three thousand Confederates, who were conveyed to Fort Delaware. Long lists of dead and missing brought grief to innumerable homes.

Then came the “draft” because the volunteer system could no longer raise troops fast enough. Three hundred thousand men were needed. There was considerable grumbling among the citizens, but nothing approaching the anti-draft riots of New York, where for days the city was in the hands of the mob. Another half-year, and there came a call for two hundred thousand more men. In these two drafts, alone, Philadelphia supplied thirteen thousand men. In the last draft of three hundred thousand men, in December, 1864, Philadelphia’s quota was eleven thousand five hundred.

After the second battle of Bull Run, seventeen hundred wounded arrived in Philadelphia, and at least five thousand more after Grant’s battles in Virginia. The hospitals could no longer accommodate the wounded and various buildings were pressed into service. Nor were there sufficient trained nurses, but Sisters of Charity under the famous Sister Gonzaga came to the aid of the city. In 1864, also, was held the great Sanitary Fair in Logan Square. This Fair, attended by President Lincoln himself, raised more than $1,000,000 for purchasing hospital supplies for wounded soldiers of Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey.

The days passed—Chickamauga, Chattanooga, the Second Battle of the Wilderness, Spottsylvania, New Market, Cold Harbor, Nashville, all swelled the mounting lists of Pennsylvania’s dead and wounded. On April 9,1865, came news of Lee’s surrender. It was time. The country breathed with relief, but there was little frolicking or mirth—there were too many vacant chairs around the family tables.

Six days of quiet, then on April 15th there flashed over the wires the news that President Lincoln had been shot, followed on the 16th by the announcement of his death. There was some confusion at first, as the telegraph was still in an imperfect state, for Edison, then a lad of sixteen, was working “night wires” in the Middle-West and even then developing his inventions which were to revolutionize telegraphy. But as the news became confirmed beyond the possibility of doubt, the country was stunned as no victory or defeat in five bloody years had had power to stun it. After Appomattox, Grant had said “Let us have peace,” and had told the Confederates to “keep their horses for the plowing.” But there was no peace in the South and little plowing. A maniac’s hand had removed the preserver of the Union, the defender of Liberty, the true friend of the South. It had let loose a passion of hatred and all the woes of the Reconstruction Period, in which it is said more lives were lost than at Gettysburg, Chancellorsville and Antietam.


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