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The Beecher Sisters$

Barbara A. White

Print publication date: 2003

Print ISBN-13: 9780300099270

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: October 2013

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300099270.001.0001

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Water Cure and Civil War, 1860–1865

Water Cure and Civil War, 1860–1865

(p.77) 4 Water Cure and Civil War, 1860–1865
The Beecher Sisters

Barbara A. White

Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter describes the experiences of the Beecher sisters with water cure and civil war. By 1860, water cure, or hydropathy, was nothing short of a craze. Water cure establishments predominated in New York and New England, and existed all over the United States. The cure at Brattleboro, Vermont, which had opened in 1845 with 15 guests, had 600 to 800 guests a year. Elmira boasted patients from fourteen states, two territories, and Canada. Catharine was an early advocate of water cures and constantly looked for ways to improve her health after her first nervous breakdown in Hartford. In her growing feminism, Isabella was also bound to appreciate the connections between the water cure movement and women's rights.

Keywords:   Beecher sisters, water cure, civil war, hydropathy, Catharine Beecher, Isabella Beecher, women's rights

BY 1860 WATER CURE, or hydropathy, was nothing short of a craze. Although water cure establishments predominated in New York and New England, they existed all over the United States. The cure at Brattleboro, Vermont, which had opened in 1845 with fifteen guests, now had six hundred to eight hundred a year. Elmira boasted patients from fourteen states, two territories, and Canada. It had all started in Austria in the 1820s when Vincenz Priessnitz cured his broken ribs by wrapping them in wet bandages. He came to believe that the external application and drinking of pure soft water (not mineral water), combined with fresh air and exercise, could prevent and even cure disease. In Letters to the People on Health and Happiness (1855) Catharine describes her treatment at Brattleboro thus: “At four in the morning packed in a wet sheet; kept in it from two to three hours; then up, and in a reeking perspiration immersed in the coldest plunge-bath. Then a walk as far as strength would allow, and drink five or six tumblers of the coldest water. At eleven A.M. stand under a douche of the coldest water falling eighteen feet, for ten minutes. Then walk, and drink three or four tumblers of water. At three P.M. sit half an hour in a sitz-bath (i.e. sitting bath) of the coldest water. Then walk and drink again.”

Cold wet sheets notwithstanding, it is easy to see how this treatment could be effective. For one thing it avoided the more extreme practices of the traditional medicine of the day, such as application of leeches and harsh chemicals. Exercise, fresh air, and water drinking are considered health-improving today. Water cure was also allied to movements and causes now considered relatively healthy, such as temperance and vegetarianism. Above all, there was rest from the patient's usual routine, or what the water cure theorists thought of as the ills of an overcivilized society—fast pace, overwork, sedentary habits, late hours, and rich food and drink. Some people disliked the constant dressing and undressing to prepare for the baths but, as Isabella wrote John, “It is such a relief—to have nobody to care for—nothing that must be done.”

(p.78) Catharine was an early advocate of water cures. She constantly looked for ways to improve her health since her first “nervous breakdown” in Hartford. She noted in Letters to the People on Health and Happiness that as a child she was never sick. Her family “obeyed the laws of health, not from principle, but from poverty.” In other words, they had simple food and clothing; there was no coffee or tea available for the young. None of the Beechers' houses was built well enough to be poorly ventilated, and the children spent most of their time outside exercising in the fresh air. It was not until Catharine had to earn her living teaching and was confined to the schoolroom that her health became a problem. Her eyes grew sore, and any slight wound, bruise, or sprain to a limb would lead to semi-paralysis. (When she first went to Brattleboro, her foot was so nearly paralyzed she could hardly walk.) Catharine was willing to experiment widely with the isms of the day to find a cure. She tried mesmerism (hypnosis), galvanism (electric shock), magnetism, and spiritualism (attempts to contact the spirits of the dead). She found water cure the most restorative treatment because it was the least drastic. “The great advantage of Water Cure,” she wrote “is that the process is so slow that no great harm can be suddenly effected, while the indications of mistaken treatment can be obeyed before any evil is done.”

Catharine gradually extended her concern about her own health to the poor health of American women generally. So many women seemed to be chronically ill. She started gathering statistics in an informal and impressionistic way. As she explains in Letters to the People, she asked women she met in the course of her travels to write down the initials of the ten “married ladies” they knew best and then their impressions of the health of each one. She obtained statistics from about two hundred places and recorded them like this: “Milwaukee, Wis. Mrs. A. frequent sick headaches. Mrs. B very feeble. Mrs. S well, except chills. Mrs. L. poor health constantly. Mrs. D subject to frequent headaches. Mrs. B very poor health. Mrs. C. consumption and a cough. Mrs. B always sick. Do not know one perfectly healthy woman in the place.” She put the information into tables, such as the following:


Strong and perfectly healthy.

Delicate or Diseased.

Habitual Invalids.

Hudson, MI




Castleton, VT

Not one.



Bridgeport, ”




Dorset, ”

Not one.


9 …

Greenbush, NY




Catharine recommended a variety of solutions for women's invalidism: better diet, more exercise, and teaching as a profession. She also boosted (p.79) water cures as the best of the thirteen health establishments she had resided at in the past decade. Of course, being Catharine, she also criticized water cures and included several pages of suggestions for improvement; they should provide better ventilation in their lodgings, formal health instruction, and calisthenics as well as walks for exercise. But overall she paid tribute to the methods of water cure: “I have seen approaching blindness and deafness entirely remedied; neuralgia, with its thousand agonies, conquered; a great variety of skin complaints and bad humors cured, and multitudes of internal organic disorders and displacements remedied.”

From the beginning of her experience with water cure Catharine tried to get her sisters involved. In 1847, only two years after the founding of the Brattleboro cure, Catharine, Mary, and Harriet all stayed there together (Isabella was taking care of Mary's children). After Harriet returned home Calvin went and remained over a year. Both Isabella and John had made short visits to closer establishments in Massachusetts—John to Northampton and both Hookers to Florence. Isabella chose the Gleason cure in Elmira for a longer stay because Catharine thought it one of the best. Also, brother Thomas was now preaching in Elmira. He was friendly with the Gleasons and had actually lived at the water cure establishment for a while with his second wife, Julia; she had been a friend and mourner of his first wife and married him under the same circumstances as Harriet wed Calvin Stowe. Mrs. Gleason finally had to tell Tom that a hotel for invalids was not the best place to settle a healthy young wife.

Silas O. and Rachel Brooks Gleason had established the Elmira Water Cure in 1852. Both were physicians, he having graduated from a Vermont medical school and she from a new institution founded by the New York State Eclectic Medical Society in central New York. Rachel Gleason received her medical degree along with four other women in 1851, only two years after Elizabeth Blackwell became the first female physician in the United States. Catharine thought so highly of Dr. Gleason that she included an article by her as an appendix to Letters to the People.

Isabella's attitudes toward health and medicine fit in perfectly at Elmira. She had for a long time distrusted traditional medicine. The Hookers had a traditional doctor in Hartford, Dr. Curtis, whom Isabella gave his due and sometimes praised for helping her children; she credited him with saving Eddie's life when he had whooping cough. But she remained skeptical. Once she noted in the children's journal that Eddie was given powders of belladonna and ipecac for his cold, “but whether the cure came by these or kind nature, I am not able to say.” As much as possible she withheld the strong medicines prescribed by Dr. Curtis, such as calomel, a mercury-based drug, and first tried milder homeopathic remedies. (Too bad she did not prescribe for her sister (p.80) Harriet, as Joan Hedrick thinks Harriet and other Stowes may have contracted mercury poisoning from the omnipresent calomel pills; Harriet's headaches and trouble concentrating were symptoms of chronic mercury poisoning.)

In her growing feminism, Isabella was also bound to appreciate the connections between the water cure movement and women's rights. Although a slight majority of the patients were male, the water cures recruited and supported women as doctors, health workers, and lecturers on health. It has been estimated that between a fifth and a third of hydropathic practitioners in the United States were female; this is in 1860, when only a handful of women had graduated from orthodox medical schools. A woman like Rachel Gleason, who became successful in her profession, had a husband and child, and sympathized with the problems and aspirations of other women, was a powerful role model for Isabella and other ailing wives.

The water cures were also female-friendly in taking seriously what traditional medicine dismissed as “female complaints.” Gynecological care was a major concern of hydropathy, and discussions of menstruation, childbirth, and disorders of the reproductive organs filled the pages of the Water Cure Journal. Pregnant women were common at the cures and often delivered there. Hydropathists believed that pregnancy was a natural process, not a disease. They encouraged exercise for the whole nine months, massage and warm baths during labor, and a quick return to ordinary routines after delivery. In her article on hydropathy Kathryn Kish Sklar speculates that water cures may also have given women information about contraception and abortive remedies. She concludes that hydropathy's “sympathy for the special medical problems of women stood in stark contrast to the hostility and indifference characteristic of traditional contemporary medicine.” At Elmira in particular Dr. Rachel Gleason and her sister, Zipporah Brooks, were advertised by the water cure as specialists in “the chronic diseases of women.” Isabella thus had another reason for choosing Elmira.

At age thirty-eight Isabella suffered not only from prolapsus uteri but also from inflammation of the neck of the uterus, which Mrs. Binney had found, and from menorrhagia, or unusually heavy and prolonged menstrual periods. Isabella would occasionally write John expressing relief that her “monthly has ceased at last,” and she worried incessantly about bleeding to death. Unfortunately, Dr. Gleason supported her in this mistaken idea, suggesting that if she did not have treatment beforehand “there was quite a possibility of flowing to death” as menopause approached. (According to current medical wisdom, the risk of menorrhagia is developing iron-deficiency anemia, which Isabella may well have had.)

Dr. Gleason thought her patient could be “cured” in three months. Midway through her stay, Isabella gave John the diagnosis: “The neck & mouth (p.81) of the uterus is (or was) very much enlarged—hard almost as a bony surface—& very red & angry looking—the body of the uterus was also heavy & distended & prolapsed—both were tender to the touch & so engorged as to cause not only the sensation of weight which has been so oppressive to me for years—but the profuse menstruation of the last year—which has been fearful.” Dr. Gleason treated her twice a week “with instruments” and application of silver nitrate. Water cure per se was only a supplement to the main treatment. The baths she took, Isabella noted, were intended as a soothing accompaniment to Dr. Gleason's work on her uterus. In fact, the baths could have had a damaging effect. In the middle of June she wrote John that she and Dr. Gleason now thought the cool baths designed to stop her flow had stimulated it instead.

Dr. Gleason introduced one other water cure staple in her care of Isabella—dress reform. The dress question was another strong link between the water cure and women's rights movements. Hydropathists saw a strong connection between fashionable clothing and middle-class women's notoriously poor health. Catharine noted in Letters that “pernicious customs of dress” that deformed the body were carried by dressmakers and “still more by the miserable fashion-plates in our literature” from the city to the country. Women wore whalebone or steel corsets and at midcentury very wide skirts; it was common to wear six, eight, or even more underskirts. Dr. Gleason thought uterine prolapse and other displacements stemmed from the pressure exerted by this extra weight. She advocated dressing loosely and making sure all the weight of one's clothing rested on the shoulders.

Shortly after arriving at Elmira, Isabella had her sister-in-law Julia Beecher get her a “Bloomer dress.” This costume consisted of a short dress reaching about to the knees and worn over trousers. Isabella had had a bloomer for exercise since the early fifties. The writer Gail Hamilton (the pseudonym for Mary Abigail Dodge) wrote her brother in 1855 that she had gone to Mrs. Hooker's for tea and been given “a dress which she had made several years ago, in order to practice in at a gymnasium. It is a kind of bloomer, full Turkish trousers, etc.” The outfit was originated by Elizabeth Cady Stanton's cousin, Elizabeth Smith Miller, and named for Amelia Bloomer, a women's rights and temperance worker who wore and advocated the new attire.

Stanton notes in her autobiography that she and her friends wore the bloomer for a few years but eventually gave it up, “for the physical freedom did not compensate for the persistent persecution and petty annoyances suffered at every turn.” Not the least of these annoyances were crowds of teasing street boys. They would surround the bloomer-wearer and follow her, joking, laughing, and chanting rhymes. A favorite, quoted by Stanton, went thus:

  • (p.82) Heigh! Ho! In rain and snow,
  • The bloomer now is all the go.
  • Twenty tailors take the stitches,
  • Twenty women wear the breeches.
  • Heigh! Ho! In rain or snow,
  • The bloomer now is all the go.

Fortunately, the water cures were free of this ridicule, and female doctors and patients continued to wear the bloomer outfit. Isabella informed her daughters that after going without hoops for a month, she had no desire to resume “the burden of long dresses.”

In addition to her gynecological problems, Isabella had other ailments she hoped to have cured at Elmira. Backaches she traced to her uterine displacement, and frequent colds and cough she felt were constitutional, inherited from her mother. But she also had headaches, sore eyes, problems with her throat, and weak and often swollen ankles. She had injured her ankle in a carriage accident in 1849. The ankle only worsened at the water cure. One evening while returning to her room in the dark, she fell down a flight of stairs and sprained both ankles; this accident caused her to spend about a month longer at the cure than she had originally planned.

The prospects for improvement of her throat were brighter because Elmira advertised treatment of “Catarrh, throat diseases, loss of Voice and Bronchitis.” The first three of these Isabella complained of, along with attacks of quinsy, an infection of the tonsils. She had also lost much of her sense of smell and thus taste, a condition known today as anosmia. The water cure's location on top of a hill provided the bracing air thought necessary for treating throat and lung disease. The main treatment was inhalation of cold or warm water spray. Elmira prided itself on having imported the latest French and German instruments for atomizing and vaporizing water and medicinal substances. Isabella was able to write her daughter Mary in the middle of June that her ability to smell and taste was improving.

This improvement made Isabella more aware of the water cure's “poor food—badly cooked.” She wrote John that they had a curious way of cooking steaks. “They put them into the oven—after first pounding out all the good juices—& dry them up to a chip—& no gravy.” Isabella bought herself some Porterhouse steaks and had them broiled, though she felt twinges of conscience about enjoying them while others had to “chew & chew.” It may be that the Hookers were used to richer food than the Elmira cure provided; perhaps it was overrich food that the hydropathists thought contributed to people's ill health, or perhaps the cook had problems. Isabella suggests as much to her daughters when she writes that Dr. Gleason raved (p.83) about the bread the Hookers' Bridget had sent. She wanted Isabella to teach the cook how to make this bread, but Isabella refused. She felt that the cook was already overworked and not strong enough to do all the kneading by herself; she had two other kinds of bread to make and only one young assistant to help. Isabella's reaction was characteristic, as she was always attentive to servants. Of course, it was also characteristic for her to claim a privilege others lacked (her own special steaks) and then feel guilty that others missed what she enjoyed.

The food was the only aspect of water cure culture Isabella didn't like. She would have objected to getting up at 4 A.M. to be wrapped in a wet sheet like Catharine at Brattleboro (she always hated getting up early), but the Gleasons prescribed a good night's sleep instead. Isabella loved the exercise at Elmira—the long walks and horseback rides through the beautiful hilly scenery. The nearby glen, she wrote Mary, was a wild, rocky, and romantic place. It reached up into the mountains and offered gorgeous views. She also appreciated the leisure time for letter writing and catching up on her reading. At Elmira she read the latest novels, including The Mill on the Floss by Harriet's friend George Eliot, Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, and Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Marble Faun. Just as she had once compared her daughter Alice to Hawthorn's Pearl, she now saw Eddie as his Donatello. Isabella had a compatible roommate at the cure, her friend Harriet (Hattie) Foote Hawley, a cousin from the Foote family of Lyman Beecher's first wife. Isabella and John had introduced Hattie to Joseph Hawley, John's junior law partner, and prided themselves on making a solid match. Friends and sisters often went to water cures together.

In the evenings there was time for socializing. One couple had experience in amateur theater and directed readings of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and other plays. Isabella, who had recently attended the theater for the first time, found herself acting an English housekeeper in a play they staged. The Gleasons' scientific interests also provided material for conversation and recreation. Isabella was excited to look at human blood specimens through a microscope. Writers on the Beechers have made fun of her enthusiasm as another of her faddish “notions” and “fancies,” but microscopy was then a science in its infancy and might be expected to interest the general public. Dr. Silas Gleason founded in Elmira a society for the study of microscopy.

One of the strictest rules of water cures was the ban on admission of children except as patients. Otherwise, mothers would not have been able to rest from their daily routines and concentrate on their own health. No doubt many women were prevented from seeking the cure unless they had someone to care for their children—as, for instance, Isabella did for her sister (p.84) Mary when Mary went to Brattleboro. Isabella's girls were teenagers when she stayed at Elmira in 1860, and she had at home the loyal Bridget and Aunt Esther's replacement, Aunt Sarah (Sarah was Harriet Porter Beecher's sister), to look after Eddie. Still, Isabella did not achieve much distance from the household. Her guilt over leaving home is obvious in her constant rationalizations for her absence. To John she writes about his opportunity to get closer to the children, and to Alice she boosts her chance to get better acquainted with her father. Isabella felt that she had acted for a long time in the “double capacity” of father and mother, and now John could try it for a few months. Not surprisingly, she soon took back these brave words, worried that John would break down. He had never stayed home before without a wife.

In actuality, Isabella could not resist trying to run the household from Elmira. She wrote long, detailed letters with instructions for having the children's clothes made and treating their illnesses (Eddie came down with whooping cough). She sent Thomas, the handyman, directions for planting the gardens with the help of sister Mary and the girls; then the girls had to help maintain the gardens and transplant the strawberries. Isabella so missed her flowers and was so frustrated at her daughters' inability to describe the blooms that she finally had them send dead blossoms to Elmira for her inspection. But the skill the Hooker family missed most was her peacemaking and smoothing of relations among the children. She was continually called upon to intervene in the girls' quarrels. If one sister picked leaves from her mother's plants in a thoughtful way, Isabella wrote, the other ought not to criticize. “But if No. 1 leaves her things ‘kicking about’ I think No. 2 may gently admonish—at least suggest a better way—& No. 1 ought to take it patiently & try to do better immediately.”

In dealing with her children Isabella could be considerably more tactful and considerate than she was with adults. When Alice complained about Mary's sending her on too many errands, their mother replied as follows: “[Y]ou have so long been full of life & activity & cheerful readiness, we all get used to depending on you—& are in some danger of abusing you, a little I fear—so we must all look to it—especially as you are just coming to an age when you won't feel so much like jumping & running as you did—I shall hope too that Mary will be quite ready to come to the rescue, as fast as she grows stronger—& repay you in kind for the many steps you have taken for her in days past.” Isabella often had to reassure Mary and soothe her hurt feelings as she compared herself to her more effervescent sister: “Your character is as lovely & attractive as hers, though in a different way.”

At the Elmira water cure Isabella was occupied with mending relations with one of her own siblings, her brother Thomas. After the unpleasantness over his reaction to his first wife's death, their meetings were awkward. (p.85) Isabella felt that he lacked respect for her. She was probably right in this judgment, as Tom admired only a few of his relatives—his father, Henry (although he believed him an adulterer), and Harriet. Always fond of comparing his sisters, Tom had as a young man written Isabella that she and Mary were “true Yankees” compared to Harriet. They were “too pragmatical, looking at apparent things, judging by them, making them essential to … happiness; [and] neglecting … the inward soul, & moving spirit—as the only just criterion of character & action. I cannot refer you to a better illustration of the points I am laboring to enounce, than you can find in a careful comparison of yourself or Mary with Harriet.” These words must have hurt all the more because they were written before Uncle Tom's Cabin and because Isabella believed them to be true. (Catharine, of course, did not even enter into the equation—she was worldly and difficult besides.)

At first, Isabella saw less of Tom than she had expected. “He is very pleasant, however,” she assured John, “& we avoid all sharp speeches as if by instinct.” She went to hear him preach on Sunday and praised his sermons to brother Henry, probably knowing it would eventually get back to Tom; she made friends with his new wife and praised her too. Eventually, as they went out riding together, they drew closer. They found some areas of agreement on religious matters, and Isabella hoped either to “modify his treatment of me, or to overlook it so thoroughly as to love him in the way I wish to love my own dear mother's son.” Tom was becoming more manageable, she wrote her husband, and if John came for a visit, he needn't fear meeting him (“don't scratch this out,” she added, knowing John's reluctance to have it be known that he disliked someone).

One circumstance that had to improve the big sister–little brother relationship was Tom's popularity among his parishioners; he was a big fish in the small Elmira pond. Isabella thus had to respect him instead of viewing him solely as a cross to bear. Of course, the other side (for Isabella) of respecting a sibling was feeling a sense of her own inferiority. She wrote John that it was gratifying to see how useful Tom had become and how much he was beloved. But “it is funny, how, everywhere I go—I have to run on the credit of my relations—no where, but at home can I lay claim to a particle of individuality—to any distinction of goodness—smartness or anything else whatever.” In Elmira she was Tom Beecher's sister.

The time spent with Tom had some lasting effects on Isabella. First, he provided an example that one did not have to write Uncle Tom's Cabin or be the greatest orator of the day to be both personally successful and helpful to others. Unlike his brother Henry, Tom sought not fame or wealth but only a place to live his life as a Christian. He never became well known outside Elmira but showed that a Beecher could be important and do good on a local (p.86) level. Second, Tom introduced Isabella to his parishioners, the Langdons, with whom the Hooker family became friendly. Jervis Langdon was the father of Olivia (Livy), who would marry Mark Twain. He was a deacon of Tom's church, the Park Church, which had been founded in 1846 by abolitionist seceders from the pro-slavery Presbyterian Church. Langdon had made his fortune in lumber and coal mining. Once, he and his wife took Isabella to Pennsylvania by train to visit his large lumberyard. More often, they invited her to their home for tea or sent a carriage to the water cure to take her to church and afterward to Sunday dinner. After the meal they talked and sang. Jervis Langdon, whom Isabella called “one of the best men in the whole world,” thought Isabella treated Tom just right and did him good; the rest of the family who had visited Elmira bore down too hard on him. Isabella wrote John that Langdon's mere presence revived her and made her feel stronger and happier. She never changed her view that he was one of the best men.

During the last month of her stay at the water cure Isabella's roommate, Hattie Hawley, took a turn for the worse and required a private room. Isabella then roomed with the fourteen-year-old Livy Langdon, whom she described as a “sweet young girl” the same age as Mary but in very delicate health. Typically, she blamed Livy's weakness on her education, for she had been sent to a good private school and then enrolled in the college preparatory branch of Elmira College. “Oh dear—how blind mothers are,” Isabella complained to John, “& what miserable work they make of educating daughters.” This formulation was probably influenced by Dr. Rachel Gleason, who despite her general feminism taught that girls should avoid “mental excitement” at puberty because “mental application … results often in invalidism.” Interestingly, Catharine never held this theory that would become so damaging to girls' education later in the century. In this case her promotion of education for women took precedence over her rejection of the movement for women's rights. She admitted that girls in boarding schools were often ill but refused to blame female physiology. Instead, she pointed out the mistakes of the schools—lack of ventilation and exercise, provision of strong tea and coffee and animal food.

Isabella ended up staying four months at Elmira, a month longer than originally planned. She even had the so-called water cure crisis, a temporary turn for the worse that patients anxiously awaited as a sign of returning health; the idea was that the body had to purge itself of the harmful residue of poisons taken as allopathic (traditional) medications. Isabella's crisis was a brief “bilious turn” with pain in her stomach and bowels. When she left Elmira, Isabella felt restored and looked forward eagerly, she told her daughter Mary, “to live for others once more—& not in this eternal bondage to self.” But was her health truly improved from visiting the Gleason water cure? Her (p.87) nose and throat maladies soon returned, but the problems with her uterus seem to have been permanently alleviated. She had also found time to think about the future and was ready to step off “the treadmill of self analysis” she had been on for the past few years. Isabella hadn't made any definite decisions. She again thought about studying with Mrs. Gleason and specializing in gynecological problems in Hartford, but Eddie was only five years old and could not be left for long. So when she arrived home in late August 1860, Isabella was still in a holding pattern but readier than she had been to take up some sort of public work.

As Isabella came home to Hartford relaxed, Harriet was in Andover trying to write two novels at once. She had just returned from her third trip to Europe and an extended stay in Italy. There she met the up-and-coming publisher James T. Fields and his young wife, Annie, and began a lifelong friendship with the couple. She also started an Italian story, a novel entitled Agnes of Sorrento, about a young orange-seller. Harriet convinced Fields, who was just taking over the editorship of the new magazine the Atlantic Monthly, to serialize this novel. But feeling the need to boil the pot and refurbish her finances after the European trip, she sold a series of articles on ways to beautify American homes to Theodore Tilton, brother Henry's protégé and editor of the journal Independent. Tilton then asked for fiction and Harriet recalled a Maine story, “The Pearl of Orr's Island,” which she had begun while living in Brunswick. When she sent Tilton the second installment of “Pearl” in December 1860, she realized she had yet another novel in progress just as Agnes of Sorrento was due to start in the Atlantic. Harriet much preferred her Italian story. At about the time Abraham Lincoln was being inaugurated as president of the United States, Harriet was writing Fields, “I have a pleasure in writing ‘Agnes of Sorrento’ that gilds this icy winter weather. I write my Maine story with a shiver, and come back to this as to a flowery home where I love to rest.”

Readers then and now have disagreed entirely with Harriet's estimate of her two novels. Most critics have regretted the time and energy she put into the slight Agnes of Sorrento (1862)while she neglected The Pearl of Orr's Island (1862), which could have been her New England masterpiece. Of course, Harriet did not know that she would be remembered not only for having written Uncle Tom's Cabin but also as having “pioneered the women's tradition of local color realism in this country.” In The Pearl she portrayed her childhood self in the dreamy and sensitive orphan, Mara, who wistfully learns embroidery while her friend Moses embarks on his first fishing voyage. But in spring 1861 she stopped working on The Pearl in order to finish Agnes and did not resume it until the end of the year. When she took up the novel again, she dropped the growing-up-gendered theme and advanced the ages of Mara and (p.88) Moses to adulthood. The novel became a sentimental love story, with its rich texture thinned and the issues brought out in the first half of the book never resolved. Even so, the book was a favorite of the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who called it “the most charming New England idyll ever written.”

The Pearl may have been a casualty of the Civil War more than anything else. While Harriet pursued her two novels, a national crisis put everyone's life on hold. Lincoln had sought to conciliate the South, but on April 15, 1861, the Confederacy fired on Fort Sumter and the Civil War began. As Harriet wrote Theodore Tilton in excuse for discontinuing The Pearl, “Who could write on stories that had a son to send to battle, with Washington beleaguered and the whole country shaken as with an earthquake?” The son was Frederick Stowe, now age twenty-one, who had been trying to please his parents by attending medical school. As soon as war was declared, he left Harvard and enlisted in the 1st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Harriet wrote an editorial urging that if war were an evil, it was a lesser evil than a shameful peace. Like everyone else, she had no idea just how terrible the war would be. When Fred first enlisted she went to Boston every week to visit him and his regiment at the Armory, “little dreaming for what earnest and bloody work they had gone in and how few of them should ever return.”

The general mood was evident at a dinner Isabella hosted in Hartford a few weeks after war broke out; she would later call the event her “Lincoln supper.” The occasion was the departure for war of the Hookers' abolitionist friend Joseph Hawley. Hawley, John's former law partner, had helped him shelter fugitive slaves. He was now editor of the Hartford Evening Press, the first Republican daily newspaper in the state. He left Hartford a company commander and returned a general. At the farewell dinner the guests, not anticipating that the war would last for years and entail tragic losses, made hilarious fun of Lincoln's appearance, manners, and politics. There were endless jokes about how such an awkward-seeming creature would behave in the White House. Lincoln's manners, John had written Isabella, were those of “a Maine logger or a half-civilized back-woodsman, almost a boor.”

The Nook Farm community was basically committed to the president, however. John added that “he is honest and fearless, and after all the corruption and subserviency that have prevailed I think we can get along with the want of courtly manners.” Joe Hawley had just been to Washington in January to check out rumors that the Lincoln inauguration would be prevented; he was appalled at the rampant corruption there. Thus, jokes aside, the Nook Farmers supported and defended Lincoln. They also began to see the personal consequences of the war. In summer 1861 Edward Hooker, John's younger brother who had followed him to sea and stayed in the merchant service, joined the U.S. Navy. A few months later the thirty-eight-year-old (p.89) Edward was severely wounded while acting master on the gunboat Louisiana. He survived to fight in other naval battles and even be promoted for gallantry in action. But the Hookers worried that while their relatives were risking their lives, the war could end without the slaves being freed.

When, if ever, would Lincoln get around to emancipation? Hawley rebuked the radical Wendell Phillips for calling the president “a slave hound and a knave.” He replied, “I know Mr. Lincoln. He is not quite up to my standards, but he has always been ahead of his neighbors.” Even so, the Hookers knew that, as abolitionists, they were in a minority. In Connecticut the so-called Peace Democrats were holding large outdoor meetings (after his first term of military service, Joe Hawley led a group of veterans in breaking them up). Even their old friend the Hartford minister Joel Hawes proclaimed loudly that the abolition of slavery was not a war aim. As 1861 crawled on, the Hookers and the Stowes bombarded President Lincoln with letters.

In November, for instance, Isabella used a legal argument. When one party does not fulfill its part of a contract, she began, the other party is exempt from the terms; thus the Union had no obligation to allow fugitive slaves to be returned to the rebel states. Military law should take precedence over constitutional law, and the president as commander of the armed forces had the right to proclaim emancipation whenever it would aid the war effort. So far so good, but Isabella could not help revealing Nook Farm's greatest fear—that Lincoln had somehow been bought off. She knew he was subject to “insidious temptation” in the corrupt Washington atmosphere, she wrote, but he mustn't “betray his sacred trust.” Northerners were willing to sacrifice in order to end slavery, she concluded, but not for other reasons.

A month later Isabella wrote brother Henry with another constitutional argument. Henry Ward Beecher had always been one of her favorite brothers, and they basically agreed about the progress (or lack of progress) of the war. Henry had stated in a sermon haranguing Lincoln that only the president, not Congress, could emancipate the slaves. Why not Congress, asked Isabella, if Congress is a war making power and emancipation a military necessity? (This species of argument actually worked in the District of Columbia, as Congress voted to abolish slavery in a district over which it had full jurisdiction.) A long year passed, however, and the rest of the slaves were still not free.

In fall 1862 Harriet turned her attention to the question of an emancipation proclamation. She was furious that the British government stood on the verge of recognizing the Confederacy, apparently for economic reasons (Great Britain's need for Confederate cotton). The women of Britain had not protested, even though half a million of them had signed an anti-slavery document (“Affectionate and Christian Address from the Women of Great Britain”) (p.90) and sent it to Harriet after her triumphal tour of England and Scotland in 1853. Harriet began composing a late reply to that address, rebuking the women for allowing their government to support slaveholders. But she needed to be able to say that the Union was definitely going to free the slaves.

In late September 1862 the newspapers published President Lincoln's draft Emancipation Proclamation, which he said would take effect on January 1, 1863, unless the belligerent states returned to the Union. Harriet wanted to know, before she finished her “Reply,” whether this proclamation was more than a political ploy. Thus she decided to speak to Lincoln directly. “I am going to Washington,” she wrote James Fields, “to see the heads of department myself & to satisfy myself that I may refer to the Emancipation Proclamation as a reality & a substance not to fizzle out at the little end of the horn.” Harriet had another motive, perhaps even more compelling, for visiting Washington—Frederick, now a lieutenant in the Union army, was stationed nearby at Fort Runyan. She told the twins, “I must see Fred.” Ever since she heard that his doctor was prescribing whiskey for his ague, she had had no rest. The Stowe family would always claim publicly that Fred's drinking problem stemmed from the trauma of being at Gettysburg, but in fact he was an alcoholic before the war. The Stowes sent him to the Gleason Water Cure in Elmira to dry out under Thomas Beecher's supervision as early as 1857 when he was seventeen. “Sister Hattie has a very hard lot in many respects,” Mary Perkins once wrote Isabella. “I would not take her burden with all her trials even if the money & the fame came too.”

Harriet asked brother Henry to accompany her to Washington. When he refused she turned to Isabella, who was eager to meet with Lincoln and see the youngest Beecher brothers, Thomas and James; Tom was a chaplain and Jim a lieutenant colonel in the same regiment near Washington. In the middle of November Harriet and Isabella met at Henry's in Brooklyn. Their brother had good news. The president had written, assuring him that he would stand by the proclamation. Henry claimed to receive information directly from military headquarters and announced that twelve major generals had asked to be relieved rather than serve any longer under the unpopular Gen. George McClellan. Harriet and Isabella decided to adhere to their original plans, and Harriet called on Mary Lincoln, who was staying in New York. Although she succeeded in getting an invitation to the White House, she did not think much of the president's wife, whom she described to Calvin as “a good hearted weak woman fat, & frank.” Isabella confided to John that Harriet found Mrs. Lincoln “an old goose & a gobbler at that.”

The day before they left for Washington Harriet and Isabella visited their aged father. Lyman Beecher was staying with Lucy Jackson White, his wife's daughter, and had by this time lost his memory completely. Isabella (p.91) wrote John as follows: “He looked perfectly lovely—with his long soft grey hair floating over his shoulders[,] his face white & smooth & plump as a baby. He did not exactly recognize us—but our presence seemed very soothing & pleasant to him & when we sat one on each side & sang hymns—old ones that he used to love, he leaned back in his chair & sung too—in a humming tone—& when we stopped brightened up & said distinctly & with much animation well that is good.” Isabella wanted to bring him home but was told he shouldn't be moved. This was the last time the sisters saw their beloved father.

The Beecher party now included Harriet's daughter Hatty, whom she had chosen to come along because Hatty was the oldest child. They traveled by train and stopped overnight in Philadelphia, reaching Maryland just as Tom and Jim's regiment was about to move. While Harriet and Hatty departed to find Fred at Fort Runyan, Isabella caught up with her brothers. Jim had spent a fairly successful five years as a missionary in Canton and Hong Kong. He had set up a floating chapel among the docks and, in the manner of his father, started revivals among the sailors. His wife, Annie, however, the former Ann Morse of Newburyport, Massachusetts, had become an alcoholic in the Far East. She came home for treatment in 1859 (under Tom's supervision at the Gleason Water Cure) but was committed to an asylum the next year. Jim returned in 1861 and enlisted in the army. Henry got him a post as chaplain in the First Long Island Regiment, but he was impatient at the lack of action and through Tom's influence was appointed lieutenant colonel of his regiment, the 141st New York Volunteers. Isabella thought Jim's suffering over his wife's condition had ennobled him, and she and Harriet shared a proud moment when he marched by their Washington boardinghouse at the head of his regiment. Jim looked resplendent in uniform as he saluted his sisters with his sword. As usual, though, he was harder to take close up. Isabella tried to talk politics and found him “infected with Tom's pernicious absurdities [anti-reform ideas] & dropped the whole subject.”

Isabella, Harriet, and Hattie visited hospitals and went sightseeing. They saw the patent office, the dead letter office, and the State Department. Fred Stowe, for whom Harriet had gotten a pass, took them on a tour of the Capitol, which Harriet found equal to any building in Europe. One day they visited the Treasury, where the son of a Hooker acquaintance was head. “For once I took the lead of Mrs. Stowe,” Isabella reported, “which was quite refreshing by way of variety.” She could not forget that on this trip she was secondary to “her highness,” as she called Harriet in a letter to daughter Mary. Harriet was given three cheers by the contraband (former slaves who had escaped to the Union side) when she visited their barracks for Thanksgiving dinner. For Isabella—the lover of music—this occasion, more than the meeting (p.92) with Lincoln, was the highlight of the trip. She wrote that “The contraband choir sang the Moses Song [“Go Down Moses”]—a negro Marsellaise—which is forbidden to them down South.” She loved the “slow, solemn plaintive music,” as the freedmen sang hymns in harmony. “I never heard such before—& would come all the way here for that alone.” Another memorable day was December 1, when President Lincoln read the Emancipation Proclamation on the opening day of Congress. Isabella was sitting in the gallery with Harriet and concluded, “Yes I think 25 years hence I shall mention this fact with some exultation.” Clearly, however, the sisters were more impressed by the “magnificent” and “imposing” senator Charles Sumner, who came over to speak with Harriet, than they were by the president.

Mrs. Lincoln kept her promise to invite Harriet and her party to tea, and on the evening of December 2 Harriet, Hatty, and Isabella went to the White House. They were accompanied by Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, the Stowes' senator, who would later become vice president under Ulysses Grant. Harriet herself did not describe the meeting but wrote Calvin that she would tell him about it when she got home. Hatty wrote her twin sister only that the encounter was so funny they could barely keep from disgracing themselves by laughing out loud. When they returned to their rooms, “we perfectly screamed” with “pent-up laughter.” Isabella's account in a letter to John confirms this impression and explains what was funny. “I must tell you our introduction. The pavilion entrance was really fine under the brilliant lamps & all looked well enough till we mounted to the Pres. private room or office—here Mr. Wilson stuck his head in the door & out again.”

Meanwhile the Beecher party contemplated an ugly tin water cooler painted green and resting on a marble table. Under its spout sat

an old battered, rusty tin pan—much worse than those Eddie is accustomed to feed his chickens from…. This was a premonition to be sure—but hardly prepared us for such—a rough, scrubby—black—brown withered—dull eyed object as advanced to meet us—on entering—I can give you no idea of the shock—sister Hattie immediately became so engaged in silent observation of the unexpected apparition—there was no conversation to be expected from that quarter—so I put in vigorously in behalf of the charming open wood fire—& started various topics—till at last Mr. Lincoln—was ‘reminded of a man out west’—& then I collapsed & enjoyed myself vigorously—tho' quite internally—so we all did. … [P]retty soon Hattie [i.e., sister Harriet] waked up & told a story—& then the Pres. had his term of enjoyment—& such a shaking—& wiggling up of his indefinitely long nose I never before beheld. On the whole—it was a bewildering sensation—from first to last—the discrepancies all about one—in furniture & appointments (p.93) & character were too much for one half hour—it seemed as if we must get by ourselves & have a little blow out.

Isabella's impressions were not entirely negative, as she added the following:

I will say however that the Pres. sincerity & pathos of character were both visible—through his indifferent speech & rustic manners—& when he told us he felt quite sure he should not last long after all this was over—we felt quite touched & ready to say we hoped this might not be the case.

We looked into his reception room & then descended to Madame's—where she received us with rather better grace than I anticipated—& was dressed in altogether better taste than usual according to report—but I will keep further details till we meet.

Most twentieth-century accounts of the Lincoln visit mention the presence of Charles Stowe, Harriet's youngest son. Harriet, Hatty, and Isabella, however, do not refer to him in any of their letters from Washington. Isabella wrote John from Brooklyn that no one was going on the trip “save the original three” (Harriet, Hatty, and Isabella). She alludes to the difficulties of traveling without men: “We are so helpless in & of of [sic] our three selves; spite of being somewhat strong minded women.” When Charles wrote his first biography of his mother, published in 1889, he did not mention the Washington trip. The second biography, written jointly with his son Lyman, has Harriet visiting Lincoln by herself with no Hatty or Isabella; she is introduced to Lincoln by William Seward, the secretary of state. Charles and Lyman attribute the remark about the fire to Lincoln, with Lincoln showing poor grammar by saying he liked an open fire “to home” instead of “at home.” The biography does not say that Charles was present. This must have been a later interpretation by Lyman.

Charles Stowe was the source of the story, often considered apocryphal, that Lincoln said to his mother, “So this is the little lady who made this big war.” Isabella's version of the meeting casts additional doubt on whether Lincoln actually made this comment. She concluded: “I think by the way that owing to Mr. Wilson's perfectly unsophisticated manner of introducing, that father Abe. had no conception who Mrs. Stowe was—& will not have till Mrs. Lincoln instructs him on the subject in her own peculiar manner.” In other words, Lincoln did not realize that the woman he was meeting was the famous Mrs. Stowe who had written Uncle Tom's Cabin. By contrast, Isabella noted, a brigadier general who was just leaving Lincoln's office when they arrived evidently recognized Harriet and stared rudely. (p.94)

Water Cure and Civil War, 1860–1865

Isabella Beecher Hooker, c. 1866. Courtesy Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, Coon.

(p.95) Back home from her Washington adventure, Harriet experienced another triumph. She was attending a New Year's Jubilee at Boston Music Hall on January 1, 1863, when news came that President Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The crowd jumped to its feet applauding and, as Forrest Wilson describes the scene, began to call out Harriet's name: “Mrs. Stowe! Mrs. Stowe! Mrs. Stowe!” People knew she was sitting in the balcony and called for her to come to the rail, “this woman who had put down slavery.” As the audience shouted and waved, she bowed and wiped tears from her eyes. Wilson concludes: “Thus in great triumph ended the cycle that had begun with her vision [of Uncle Tom's death] in a Brunswick church. The play was over, the curtain falling, and the star would never hear such salvos for herself again.”

Just ten days later, the curtain came down for good on Lyman Beecher's life. As Henry put it, “The old oak finally fell.” He was eighty-seven. All four Beecher sisters (and all the brothers save Edward and James) attended the funeral at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. The siblings held a family prayer service at which there occurred “an unpremeditated outburst of memories.” To Harriet the very air around them in the church seemed saturated by the past, “full of bright visionary faces of those called dead, but who live more truly than we do.” The funeral eulogy was given by the Rev. Dr. Leonard Bacon of Yale, who around this time made his famous comment that the nation was inhabited by three types of people—saints, sinners, and Beechers. After the scandal involving his sister, Bacon remained a friend and correspondent of both Catharine and Harriet. Poor Delia Bacon had come to a sad end. She grew increasingly obsessed with her theory that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare's plays and finally went mad. She had to be hospitalized at the Hartford Retreat for the Insane and died before the start of the Civil War.

When Isabella returned from Washington, she worked with the Women's Sanitary Commission, which aided the Union hospital and medical services. Her son Eddie was fascinated by the war, and the Hookers followed the battles and army routes on their own map. Only a short time elapsed before word came that James Beecher had broken down in Washington. As Tom had resigned from the regiment and gone back to Elmira, he was not there to help. In fact, Jim and Isabella blamed him in part for the breakdown. It seems that there had been irregularities in the process by which Tom had gotten Jim into the regiment. Several of the officers resented this and treated Jim poorly; Jim wanted to resign but felt that doing so would be accepting the truth of the charge against his brother. As Isabella put it later, “Tom got him into a hornet's nest—all so innocently—& then left him there to be stung to death.” In addition to the regimental politics, there was Annie's worsening alcoholism and Jim's growing attraction to Frances “Frankie” Johnson, a (p.96) young woman from Guilford, Connecticut. Jim finally took chloroform to try to sleep, was drugged with morphine by an army surgeon (he claimed), and ended up in the hospital “out of his head.” Isabella rushed to Washington to find that Annie was staying with her husband in the hospital, but “Jim loathes her—her breath is pestilence itself—& he could not endure it.” He sent Annie back to Elmira “with his last cent.”

Before she could bring Jim home, Isabella had to extract him from his regiment. Here she relied on a contact she had made on her previous Washington trip. She and Harriet had stopped to talk with Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln's secretary of war, about the progress of the war. Stanton recalled their visit and on hearing Isabella's story granted Jim an honorable discharge. Isabella promptly brought her brother to a new Catharine Beecher discovery in New York City, the Taylors' Institute of the Swedish Movement Cure. The Taylors, George and Charles, were brothers and physicians who specialized in therapeutic exercises and orthopedics. Dr. George Taylor had apprenticed at water cures and had a practice similar to the Elmira Gleasons' (there was a water cure facility at the institute). Dr. Charles Taylor, a specialist in spinal disorders, had studied the Ling method of movement, or the “Swedish Movement Cure,” invented by Dr. Peter Henry Ling of Stockholm. This method used exercise to cure disease. The patient was given several exercises relating to the afflicted area and shown how to stretch and bend the body. Livy Langdon had been at the Taylors' for a year and would remain another year; she apparently suffered from Pott's Disease, a curvature of the spine for which she was successfully treated.

Jim Beecher stayed at the Taylors' for two weeks in March 1863. He was “very blue,” except during the visits of his sweetheart, Frankie, who boarded nearby, and he admitted that taking chloroform had been a suicide attempt. He still felt suicidal, talking about wanting to die and cease troubling his friends. Catharine visited Jim along with Isabella and acted as a “real comfort” to the family during this period. The two sisters thought Jim should live with his various siblings in New York and Connecticut and gradually get back into the ministry by filling vacant pulpits nearby. He should not, as he wanted, go back into the army. “He is too excitable to be in the army,” Isabella wrote home, and “too much worn down by sorrow & anxiety to be so isolated.” He needed to be near his friends, “loved & petted”—Isabella's solution for just about any problem.

She had to deal also with brother Tom, who was “fearfully excited” and quarreling by letter with both Jim and Isabella. The latter got herself into trouble by showing Jim a letter Tom had written her blaming him for the regimental troubles and accusing him of wanting to be dependent on his siblings. Although letters were much less private in the nineteenth century (p.97) than they are now and people often read them aloud or copied them to others, Isabella had a tendency to be unusually free with the letters of others. Once she sent her husband a copy of one of Jim's letters to Tom and instructed him to read it aloud in a low, pathetic voice and see if the style didn't remind him of Dickens. Milton Rugoff concludes, not unreasonably, that Isabella viewed life “as a drama that she is helping to direct.”

The current Jim-Tom-Isabella-Henry brouhaha (Henry got involved because Isabella copied all the letters to him also) ended fairly amicably. Tom promised Isabella they would work together for Jim's good and assured Jim that he would no longer lecture him or criticize him in letters to others; he did add that Jim should not “let Belle tamper too much” in his affairs. Tom and Isabella still disagreed over whether Jim should try to get a divorce—she consulted a lawyer, while Tom looked on disapprovingly. The issue was settled when Annie died of delirium tremens in late April. Against his siblings' advice, Jim rejoined the army and was allowed to recruit a black regiment in North Carolina. By June he had his men equipped and trained. He boasted to Frankie that if skeptical people at home (those who believed that former slaves wouldn't fight) could see his regiment, they would “talk less nonsense about negro inferiority.” In September Jim wrote his commanding officer to protest his regiment's being ordered to lay out camps for white soldiers on Morris Island, South Carolina. Having to do menial work—leveling ground and digging wells—for whites, Jim argued, “reduces them to the position of slaves again.” He must have enlisted Isabella in his cause, for she wrote again to Edwin Stanton, asking the secretary of war to punish anyone treating black soldiers differently from white.

As the war dragged on, it took its toll on the Beecher relatives serving in the army. The sisters' nephews Robert (William's son) and Harry (Henry's son) escaped injury, but Willie, Henry's younger son, caught a bullet in the knee; two years after the war ended he bent his knee and was unable to straighten it, the bullet having slipped into the joint. Frederick Beecher, Charles's son, was wounded at Gettysburg and not expected to live; he did survive, only to be killed later in the decade fighting Indians in the West. Fred Stowe, who had been promoted to captain, was also wounded at Gettysburg. A fragment of a shell entered his ear. Apparently Calvin set off by train to find him, only to have his pocket picked, fall ill, and slink home ignominiously without Fred. Later, when Fred's wound failed to heal properly, Harriet followed Isabella in obtaining a discharge from Secretary of War Stanton.

While the men were wounded in war, tuberculosis continued to strike the women. In 1864 Isabella was shocked when Charlotte Hull, her friend since youth, died of the disease; she was forty-six and left four children. The worst Hooker family tragedy occurred in 1865 when the war was almost (p.98) over. Robert Gillette, son of John Hooker's sister, was killed in battle. Robert's father, Francis, John's business partner and the man who converted him to the abolitionist cause, was inconsolable. Also toward the end of the war James Beecher was seriously wounded. He had been allowed to marry Frankie and have her join him at his headquarters in the South. During a battle at Honey Hill, South Carolina, Jim was shot three times and spent months recuperating in the officers' hospital in Beaufort, South Carolina; his thigh wound required him to walk thereafter with a cane. Another wounding sent Isabella on her third trip south during the war. The injured was Henry Eugene Burton, who had gotten engaged to Mary Hooker before he joined the army.

Henry Burton, or “Eugene,” as he was known, entered the Hookers' lives in 1857 when his older brother Nathaniel became their new preacher. Isabella and John were on the hiring committee and befriended the Reverend Nathaniel and Rachel Burton when they arrived in Hartford (Rachel was the friend to whom Isabella confided her regrets about her education). At various times the Burtons rented rooms and boarded at the Hooker home. The relationship between Mary and the shy, withdrawn Eugene began as early as 1860, when Mary was only fifteen. Isabella wrote her from the Elmira water cure, “I am glad to hear that Eugene Burton has walked out of his shell at last. It is a little funny, that such a shy one as you, should take the lead in such a development.” Make sure you don't get a reputation as a flirt, she concluded, and then added an odd postscript—“Who is Gene? You mention him but don't identify him.” She continued to turn a blind eye to the growing romance until August 1863, when the pair got engaged prior to Eugene's becoming a lieutenant in the army. Isabella did not feel ready to give up her daughter, and her reaction (or strategy, if it was conscious) was to shower Eugene with affection and try to absorb him into the family. She referred to him as her “son” and urged him to call her “mother.” He became Eddie's “big brother,” and John received Christmas presents from “his four children.”

Thus, when word came that Eugene had been wounded in the battle of Olustee, Florida, but no one knew his condition or exact location, Isabella rushed to the rescue. Undeterred by Calvin Stowe's experience after Gettysburg, Isabella possessed a more practical temperament and was joined for part of the trip by her brother James. On March 3, 1864, in New York they boarded the steamer Fulton heading for Hilton Head, South Carolina. Their destination was the officers' hospital in nearby Beaufort where Jim had recuperated and Eugene might be. The boat trip took five days because the steamer had to tow a supply vessel for the army, and Isabella was warned of the possibility of Confederate torpedoes. She spent much of the trip seasick but was heartened by Jim's positive attitude. He conducted church services in the ship cabin, talked at length with his sister, and pledged to stop chewing tobacco (p.99) in deference to her theory that the tobacco might be causing his mood swings. At Hilton Head they had good news. A lieutenant from the 55th Massachusetts who knew Eugene Burton said he was among the first of the fifteen hundred wounded men to be brought in. He had undergone surgery that was painful but not dangerous and would not lose his leg. Eugene had indeed been sent to the hospital at Beaufort, as they suspected. Jim had to leave with his regiment for Jacksonville, South Carolina, so Isabella took another steamer without him to Beaufort. There she learned that Eugene had already been escorted north by her friend Harriet Hawley, who had been living with her officer husband in the area.

Isabella did not regret the wasted trip, she wrote her daughter Mary, and made up her mind to relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery. She also clearly enjoyed the attentions of young, handsome soldiers, many of whom she described in detail in twenty-page letters to Mary. It was a social time. She breakfasted with Joseph Hawley and visited Jim's camp in Jacksonville; there she watched the black color guard perform and again heard the soldiers sing their moving hymns. “I am living such an intense life of eye & ear,” she wrote. At Beaufort hospital, making sure that Eugene had really gone north, she met some wounded black soldiers who knew both Jim and Eugene. Isabella also visited Folly Island, which the Union forces had occupied the year before, and saw Fort Wagner, the object of a long and costly Union attack. This was the campaign in which Joseph Hawley made his mark and the black regiment most famous today, the 54th Massachusetts, suffered heavy losses; its leader, Col. Robert Shaw, was killed in the assault on the fort.

Isabella heard the rumor that one of the commanders present at the attack on Fort Wagner, Gen. Truman Seymour, had said, “We will put those damned niggers in front.” Seymour was also the commanding officer at Olustee, the man who, in Isabella's words, “led 4500 of our tired men against twice their number.” A week before that fight Jim's regiment was about to feast on Florida beef when Seymour canceled the dinner for fear of the men somehow disturbing the peace. Isabella thought Seymour was a racist and should be removed from authority over black regiments. She told John she planned to speak to Quincy Gillmore, the general in command; as she once stayed next to his headquarters at Beaufort, she may actually have done so.

The occasion of Isabella's proximity to General Gillmore was a visit to the beach shanty of a new friend she made in South Carolina, Caroline Severance. Severance was not a southern woman. She and her banker husband, Theodoric Severance, were Bostonians until he was appointed customs collector at the Union-occupied sea islands. Before Boston they had lived in Ohio, where Caroline worked with pioneer feminist Frances Dana Gage and (p.100) became involved in the women's rights movement. In fact, Severance could be called a pioneer herself, having attended in 1851 the famous Akron convention addressed by former slave Sojourner Truth. The next year she attended the convention in Syracuse, New York, where she met Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and other women who had started the movement in 1848 at Seneca Falls. After moving to Boston, Severance presided over a women's rights convention there and delivered abolitionist lectures in Massachusetts and Rhode Island until the outbreak of the war.

Isabella wrote daughter Mary enthusiastically that Caroline Severance was “a jewel of a woman—thinks just as I do about, homeopathy & health—anti-slavery—religion—[illegible word] housekeeping etc.—as far as we have talked—(we slept together last night) & they have the most comfortable shanty at the Head.” Severance accompanied Isabella on the rest of her travels—to the Beaufort hospital and on board the steamer Cosmopolitan to visit Jim's camp and Folly Island. Meeting Caroline Severance turned out to be the most significant occurrence of Isabella's trip south in 1864, having a lasting effect on her life. Severance provided Isabella with a model far different from her more conservative sisters. She was a respectable and even genteel happily married woman with several grown children; yet she had dedicated her life to reform and actually associated with such infamous radicals as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and William Lloyd Garrison. The Severance home in Boston was a gathering place for women's rights leaders, temperance workers, advocates of health reform, abolitionists, and other “extremists.” Isabella and Caroline became fast friends and after the war would visit back and forth in Boston and Hartford.

By spring 1865 the war was finally coming to an end. As usual, the Beechers played a prominent role. While James was made a brevet brigadier general and given half of Charleston to command, Henry accepted Lincoln's invitation to deliver the oration at the raising of the U.S. flag over Fort Sumter. To celebrate the war's end Harriet reread Uncle Tom's Cabin. No matter what happened to her in the rest of her life, she felt, she would always know that she had helped bring an end to slavery. She wrote her British friend the Duchess of Argyle that “[W]hen I read that book scarred & seared & burned into with the memories of an anguish & horror that can never be forgotten & think it is all over now!—all past!—& that now the questions debated are simply of more or less time before granting legal suffrage to these who so lately were held only as articles of dead merchandise—When this comes over me—I think no private or individual sorrow, can ever make me wholly without comfort.”


(77) “At four”: CB, Letters to the People, pp. 117–118. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman doctor, described her treatment at Priessnitz's clinic in her Pioneer Work, pp. 129–132.

(77) “It is such”: IBH to JH, Apr. 28, 1860 (Fiche 17).

(78) “obeyed the laws,” “the great advantage”: CB, Letters, pp. 113, 126.

(78) “Milwaukee, Wis.,” “Residence”: Ibid., pp. 148–149.

(79) “I have seen”: Ibid., p. 127.

(79) “but whether the cure”: IBH, Journal, Sept. 26, 1855 (Fiche 93).

(80) “sympathy for the special”: Kathryn Kish Sklar, “All Hail to Pure, Cold Water,” p. 67.

(80) “the chronic diseases”: Quoted in Evelyn Giammichele and Eva Taylor, “Elmira Water Cure,” p. 1539. For more on the Gleasons, see Jane B. Donegan, “Hydropathic Partners,” chap. 3 in her Hydropathic Highway,” pp. 39–61. The Elmira Water Cure is also discussed in Susan E. Cayleff, Wash and Be Healed, pp. 102–105 and passim.

(80) “monthly has”: IBH to JH, May 19, 1860 (Fiche 18).

(80) “there was quite”: IBH to JH, June 19, 1860 (Fiche 20).

(80) “The neck & mouth,” “with instruments”: Ibid.

(81) “pernicious customs”: CB, Letters, p. 107.

(81) “a dress which”: Mary Abigail Dodge, Gail Hamilton's Life in Letters, vol. 1, p. 84.

(81) “for the physical freedom,” “Heigh! Ho!”: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Eighty Years, p. 202.

(82) “the burden of”: IBH to Mary Hooker, June 20, 1860 (Fiche 21).

(82) She had injured: Isabella recalled the carriage accident in detail 40 years later. She wrote Alice: “It is just 40 years since it [her ankle] began to ache & is now stiffer than ever.” IBH to AHD, Oct. 6, 1889 (Fiche 67).

(82) “Catarrh”: Quoted in Giammichele and Taylor, “Elmira Water Cure,” p. 1539.

(82) “poor food”: IBH to JH, June 1, 1860 (Fiche 19).

(82) “They put them,” “chew & chew”: IBH to JH, June 13, 1860 (Fiche 20).

(83) “notions”: Marie Caskey, Chariot of Fire, p. 113.

(84) “double capacity”: IBH to JH, Apr. 28, 1860 (Fiche 17).

(84) “But if No. 1”: IBH to AHD, May 7, 1860 (Fiche 17).

(84) “[Y]ou have so long”: Ibid.

(84) “Your character”: IBH to Mary Hooker, May [19], 1860 (Fiche 18).

(85) “true Yankees,” “too pragmatical”: Thomas K. Beecher to IBH, July 27, 1845, Joseph K. Hooker Collection, S-D.

(85) “He is very”: IBH to JH, Apr. 28, 1860 (Fiche 17).

(85) “modify”: IBH to JH, May 26, 1860 (Fiche 18).

(85) “it is funny”: IBH to JH, June 24, 1860 (Fiche 21).

(86) “one of the best men”: Ibid.

(86) “sweet young girl,” “Oh dear—how blind”: IBH to JH, July 15, 1860 (Fiche 23).

(86) “mental excitement”: Rachel B. Gleason, Talks to My Patients, p. 14.

(86) “bilious”: IBH to JH, Aug. 8, 1860 (Fiche 24).

(86) “to live for others”: IBH to Mary Hooker, Aug. 15, 1860 (Fiche 24).

(87) “the treadmill”: IBH to JH, June 24, 1860 (Fiche 21).

(87) “I have a pleasure”: Annie Fields, Ed., Life and Letters of Harriet Beecher Stowe, p. 285.

(87) “pioneered the women's”: Josephine Donovan, New England Local Color Literature, p. 50.

(88) “the most charming”: Quoted in Charles Edward Stowe, Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe, p. 327.

(88) “Who could write”: Fields, Life and Letters, p. 286.

(88) “little dreaming”: Forrest Wilson, Crusader in Crinoline, p. 470.

(88) “Lincoln supper”: IBH, Journal, Jan. 6, 1866 (Fiche 94).

(88) “a Maine logger”: JH to IBH, May 21, 1860, IBH Collection, S-D.

(88) “he is honest”: Ibid.

(89) “a slave hound,” “I know”: Quoted in John Niven, Connecticut for the Union, p. 27.

(89) “insidious temptation”: IBH to President Lincoln, November 1861 (Fiche 25).

(90) “I am going to Washington”: Fields, Life and Letters, p. 262.

(90) “I must see Fred”: HBS to Hatty Stowe, Nov. 4, 1862, Beecher-Stowe Collection, SCH.

(90) “Sister Hattie”: Mary Beecher Perkins to IBH, nd [1856], Joseph K. Hooker Collection, S-D.

(90) “a good hearted weak”: HBS to Calvin Stowe, Nov. 16, 1862, Katharine Day Collection, S-D.

(90) “an old goose”: IBH to JH et al., Nov. 20, [1862] (Fiche 26).

(91) “He looked perfectly”: IBH to JH, Dec. 2, [1862] (Fiche 26).

(91) “infected”: IBH to JH, Nov. 30, 1862 (Fiche 26).

(91) “For once”: IBH to JH, Dec. 2, [1862] (Fiche 26).

(91) “her highness”: IBH to Mary Hooker, Nov. 19, 1862 (Fiche 25).

(92) “[t]he contraband,” “slow, solemn,” “I never heard”: IBH to JH, Dec. 2, [1862] (Fiche 26).

(92) “Yes I think,” “magnificent,” “imposing”: IBH to JH, Dec. 1, 1862 (Fiche 26).

(92) “we perfectly screamed”: Hatty Stowe to Eliza Stowe, Dec. 3, 1862, Beecher-Stowe Collection, SCH.

(92) “I must tell you”: IBH to JH, Dec. 2, [1862] (Fiche 26).

(92) “an old battered”: Ibid.

(93) “I will say”: Ibid.

(93) “save the original”: Ibid.

(93) “We are so helpless”: IBH to JH, Nov. 25, [1862] (Fiche 26).

(93) “to home”: Charles E. Stowe and Lyman Beecher Stowe, Harriet Beecher Stowe, p. 203.

(93) “So this is”: Ibid.

(93) “I think”: IBH to JH, Dec. 2, [1862] (Fiche 26). Isabella's letter to John about the Lincoln meeting also clears up other questions, such as those raised by F. Lauriston Bullard in his “Abraham Lincoln and Harriet Beecher Stowe.” He speculates about the date of the interview, guessing Nov. 25 rather than the Dec. 2 established by Isabella. Bullard also discusses the possibility of Stowe's having seen Lincoln twice because Henry Ward Beecher wrote a Lincoln biographer in 1886 that Harriet repeated to him the president's premonition that he wouldn't survive the war; it was assumed that Lincoln made the remark near the end of the war. Isabella's account shows that his prediction occurred during the Dec. 2, 1862, interview.

(95) “Mrs. Stowe!” “this woman,” “Thus in great triumph”: Wilson, Crusader in Crinoline, p. 487.

(95) “The old oak”: Quoted in ibid., p. 491.

(95) “an unpremeditated”: AUTO, vol. 2, p. 419.

(95) “full of bright”: HBS to [Hatty, Eliza, and Georgiana Stowe], Jan. 17, 1863, Beecher-Stowe Collection, SCH.

(95) “Tom got him”: IBH to JH, Mar. 10, 1863 (Fiche 27).

(96) “out of his,” “Jim loathes,” “with his last”: IBH to JH, [March 1863] (Fiche 27).

(96) “very blue”: IBH to JH, Mar. 13, 1863 (Fiche 27).

(96) “real comfort,” “He is too excitable,” “loved & petted”: IBH to JH, [1863] (Fiche 26).

(96) “fearfully excited”: IBH to JH, Mar. 10, 1863 (Fiche 27).

(97) “as a drama”: Milton Rugoff, The Beechers, p. 454.

(97) “let Belle tamper”: Thomas K. Beecher, copied by IBH in IBH to Henry Ward Beecher, Apr. 20, 1863 (Fiche 27).

(97) “talk less nonsense”: Quoted in Rugoff, The Beechers, p. 458. Frankie discusses their experience in detail in Frances Beecher Perkins, “Two Years with a Colored Regiment.”

(97) “reduces them”: Quoted in Ira Berlin, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie Rowland, Eds., Freedom's Soldiers, p. 113.

(98) “I am glad”: IBH to Mary Hooker, July 5, 1860 (Fiche 22).

(98) “son,” “his four children”: IBH, Journal, Christmas 1864 (Fiche 94).

(99) “I am living”: IBH to JH, Mar. 12, 1864 (Fiche 29).

(99) “We will put,” “led 4500”: Ibid.

(100) “a jewel of a woman”: IBH to Mary Hooker, Mar. 8, [1864] (Fiche 28).

(100) “[W]hen I read that book”: Fields, Life and Letters, p. 274.