By James Tackach
The fame of novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe followed her son throughout the Civil War.
“So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!” President Abraham Lincoln reportedly said to Harriet Beecher Stowe when he met her at a White House reception on December 2, 1862. Lincoln’s hyperbole held a degree of truth. Stowe’s blockbuster novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, serialized in The National Era in 1851 and 1852 and published in book form shortly thereafter, had so highlighted the issue of slavery that, a decade later, America’s young men were willing to slaughter each other in unimaginable numbers to preserve or destroy that peculiar institution.
Ironically, one of the casualties of the war that Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped to ignite was Frederick William Stowe, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s fourth child. A veteran of some of the Army of the Potomac’s bloodiest engagements, Frederick Stowe became an official war casualty at Gettysburg when he was hit in the head by a shell, fired during the artillery barrage before Pickett’s Charge.
But the war alone was not responsible for the ruination of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s son. Frederick Stowe was already a casualty long before the Confederate guns began firing upon Fort Sumter–to some degree a casualty of his mother’s fame. Mrs. Stowe’s writings might have helped free America’s slaves, but her literary fame and the demands it placed upon her complicated Frederick’s upbringing, perhaps creating problems that worsened as a result of his wartime service.
Harriet Beecher Stowe and her husband, Calvin, were New Englanders. Harriet had moved to Ohio in 1832 with her father, Lyman Beecher, who had taken a teaching post at Lane Seminary. Calvin Stowe and his first wife, Eliza, had also left the East for Ohio so that he could teach at the seminary. Seventeen months after Eliza died in a cholera epidemic that swept through Cincinnati during the summer of 1834, Calvin married Harriet. Twin girls, Hatty and Eliza, were born to the couple in September 1836, and Henry Ellis Stowe was born 16 months later. Frederick William Stowe was born in Walnut Hills, Ohio, near Cincinnati, on May 6, 1840.
Harriet Stowe was bedridden for two months after the birth of her fourth child, so Frederick was sent to live with a wet nurse in Cincinnati–the first of many separations from his mother that Frederick endured during the first 15 years of his life. Calvin, too, was often away from home, lecturing and raising funds to keep the ever-troubled Lane Seminary financially solvent.
The Stowe family suffered through numerous personal and family tragedies. In the summer of 1843, when Frederick was 3, Harriet’s brother George shocked the family by committing suicide. During the next three years, Harriet suffered two miscarriages and became ill with cholera. Tragedy struck again two years later, when the Stowes’ third son, Samuel Charles, born in January 1848, died of cholera at the age of 18 months.
Less than a year after the boy’s death, the Stowe household was again disrupted. Calvin accepted a teaching position at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, and in April 1850 Harriet and her three older children–the twins and Henry Ellis–headed east to set up household there. In Maine, Harriet began writing the novel that would make her famous, completing weekly installments of Uncle Tom’s Cabin for The National Era from June 5, 1851, through April 1, 1852. The novel made Harriet an overnight celebrity. Public speaking engagements followed, and in the spring of 1853 she sailed to Great Britain to spread the anti-slavery doctrine there.
While Harriet was writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin and carrying its message across the United States and abroad, Calvin Stowe was struggling with his own career. He taught for a semester at Bowdoin, then returned to Lane Seminary in Ohio for a term. At the same time, Calvin was offered an attractive position at Andover Theological Seminary in Andover, Mass., which he decided to accept. For a period of two years he became a traveling professor, teaching at three schools and commuting incredible distances to honor the commitments he had made to each institution.
As she was arranging for the publication of her first book of short stories in 1842, Harriet had questioned whether her professional efforts would negatively affect her children. “Our children are just coming to the age when everything depends on my efforts,” she wrote. “They are delicate in health, and nervous and excitable, and need a mother’s whole attention. Can I lawfully divide my attention by literary efforts?” Biographers disagree to what extent her career negatively affected her children. Certainly, there were factors out of her control, such as young Samuel Charles’ dying of cholera and Henry Ellis’ drowning when he was 19 years old.
Frederick’s sister Georgiana May, born in 1843, became addicted to morphine and died in her 40s. As for Frederick himself, his problem was alcohol, a common enough vice in the mid-19th century. By the age of 16, he was a full-blown alcoholic. While his mother was touring Europe in 1856 and 1857, Frederick’s father sent him to his uncle, Thomas Beecher, to dry out. The Rev. Thomas Beecher operated a storefront church in Elmira, N.Y., and he had firsthand experience and success working with alcoholics, prostitutes and derelicts. Beecher committed Frederick to a nearby facility that specialized in the “water cure,” a mid-19th-century form of therapy that was used to cure depression, alcoholism and various physical maladies. Water cure patients bathed frequently, drank large quantities of fresh spring water and were wrapped daily in dampened blankets in an effort to purify their bodies of harmful substances.
Just as it seemed that Frederick was on the road to recovery, the Stowe family experienced another devastating tragedy when Henry Ellis drowned while he and several of his Dartmouth College classmates were swimming in the Connecticut River. At the very moment when Frederick needed his parents most to support his recovery, they were distracted by yet another family catastrophe.
Nonetheless, Frederick was determined to set his life straight. In August 1859, he joined part of the Stowe family for a European tour. He hoped that vigorous hiking would help cure him of his craving for alcohol. On March 31, 1860, Frederick wrote to his father from Rome, admitting that he had been “a very troublesome thing…for a long while” and expressing hope that, when he returned to America, he would “be a comfort” to him. He claimed to “have changed a great deal” while traveling.
Frederick returned to the United States and enrolled at Harvard Medical School for the fall 1860 semester. Many of his uncles had entered the ministry, but he thought that a physician’s career was one that would also bring the family great honor.
In the spring of Frederick’s first year at Harvard, the Civil War abruptly interrupted his plans for a medical career. After President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteer troops to put down the rebellion, Frederick joined Company A of the 1st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which was formed in May 1861. For three weeks, the regiment headquartered at Boston’s Faneuil Hall and drilled before patriotic spectators on Boston Common. While Frederick trained, his mother wrote letters in which she fretted about “the temptations and dangers of the camp” that her son might confront and about “his being prisoner among barbarians, or wounded and helpless.”
In mid-June, the new troops boarded a ship for Washington, D.C., making a stop in Jersey City. While Frederick’s boat was docked there, his mother was visiting her brother in New York City. Hearing that her soldier son was nearby, Harriet boarded the Fulton Ferry and traveled to New Jersey to meet him. In a letter to her husband the next day, she described the young soldier as “bristling with knapsack and haversack, and looking like an assortment of packages.” He was “in high spirits,” and Harriet stuffed his pockets with fresh oranges.
Frederick saw his first action a month later. On July 16, 1861, Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell led 35,000 Union soldiers toward Confederate troops massed at a railroad junction near Manassas, Va. En route, men from the 1st Massachusetts looted stores in Vienna and burned houses in Germantown. They got their first taste of battle on July 18 as they approached Bull Run Creek, near Blackburn’s Ford. There, Brig. Gen. Daniel Tyler, Stowe’s divisional commander, sent men from the 1st Massachusetts and 12th New York regiments against Rebel troops stationed on the opposite bank of Bull Run. The Confederates beat back the Federal assault, killing 13 men in Stowe’s regiment and wounding 20 others.
Three days later, the First Battle of Bull Run was fought. After that catastrophic Union defeat, Stowe was truly a veteran soldier, and he received a promotion to sergeant when his regiment regrouped in Washington.
For the next two years, Stowe saw little action. The 1st Massachusetts remained encamped near Washington for several months. In January 1862, he was transferred to the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery Regiment, which was assigned to garrison duty at Fort Runyon and other nearby forts southwest of Washington. The presence of a celebrity’s son in the regiment thrilled Frederick’s new comrades, prompting the regimental historian to note his arrival in his journal and comment that he “had considerable social prestige.” Stowe was soon promoted to second lieutenant.
Garrison duty was monotonous; days were filled with endless drills and guard duty. For Stowe, who was still drying himself out, the temptation to drink came often, despite nightly temperance meetings in Union camps. On September 17, 1862, Stowe wrote to his mother and complained about the dreariness of camp life: “My regt will neaver [sic] go into action and so long as I remain here I shall neaver be advanced.”
Harriet quickly acted on her son’s complaint. She traveled to Washington in late November, stopping at Fort Runyon to see Frederick before meeting with President Lincoln to discuss the forthcoming Emancipation Proclamation. While in Washington, she spoke with an old friend, Brig. Gen. Adolph von Steinwehr, a divisional commander in the Army of the Potomac’s XI Corps, about her son’s problem, and he agreed to appoint the young lieutenant to his personal staff as assistant adjutant general, with a promotion to captain.
As a general’s aide-de-camp, Stowe was exempt from combat duty. He delivered messages and filed reports for his commanding officer, usually performing his duties a fair distance away from the fighting. But that changed when the Union army moved onto the field at Gettysburg.
The XI Corps was one of the first to arrive and clash with the Confederates at Gettysburg. At 1 p.m. on July 1, 1863, Maj. Gen. Oliver Howard followed Brig. Gen. John Buford’s cavalry onto the high ground outside the town. Howard sent part of his corps to meet the Confederate troops already sweeping through Gettysburg, and posted his remaining forces on Cemetery Hill.
Frederick spent the duration of the Battle of Gettysburg on Cemetery Hill. His corps took heavy casualties during the battle for the hill on July 2, the second day of the conflict. The next day the men waited nervously for the inevitable final push that would determine the outcome of the battle. At about 2:30 p.m., a monstrous Rebel artillery barrage began on Cemetery Ridge to soften the Federal lines in preparation for Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s doomed charge. During the shelling, according to General von Steinwehr’s official report, “Capt. F.W. Stowe, assistant adjutant-general of this division, was…severely wounded in the head by a piece of shell.”
As word spread of the terrible battle at Gettysburg, the Stowes, like so many other Americans on the home front, waited anxiously for news. The family learned of Frederick’s wound almost two weeks later, via a letter from a Union chaplain.
Addressed to Harriet, the letter stated that “among the thousands of wounded and dying men on this war-scarred field” was her son, who had been “struck by a fragment of a shell, which entered his right-ear.” The chaplain added that young Frederick was “quiet–and cheerful, longs to see some member of his family, and is, above all, anxious that they should hear from him as soon as possible.”
When the makeshift hospitals on the Gettysburg battlefield were closed, Stowe was sent to New York City for extended care and recovery. In the fall of 1863, when it became apparent that his condition would not allow him to return to combat, he was honorably discharged from the Army of the Potomac.
Soon after his discharge, Frederick moved to his parents’ new home in Hartford and began drinking again, often disappearing for days at a time. When sober, he struggled hard to break his addiction. He joined the Episcopal Church, hoping that a new spiritual life would help dissuade him from the temptations of the flesh. His parents, thinking that a warm climate might help their wayward son, leased a cotton plantation and later purchased a citrus farm in Florida for Frederick to manage. But he continued drinking and failed miserably as a plantation overseer. In 1867, the Stowes paid for their son’s stay at an alcoholic treatment center in Binghamton, N.Y., but he was still unable to kick his habit.
Stowe’s problems were a great embarrassment to his family, yet his mother stuck by his side. Harriet implored her daughters to understand their wayward brother. Fred was “no weaker, no more unsuccessful against his besetting sin than you against yours–only the consequences to him are more fatal and dreadful,” she wrote. In another letter, Harriet asserted: “Fred will not fall away so as to finally perish, and I have strong faith in his final recovery….God will hear my prayers and open some way of escape.”
Harriet’s prayers were not answered. During the summer of 1871, Frederick boarded a ship in Florida bound for the West Coast. He arrived safely in San Francisco after the long journey around Cape Horn. From there, he intended to go to sea, in hopes of breaking his alcohol addiction. But Frederick disappeared before boarding any ship. He was never heard from again. His parents hired private investigators, but no trace of their missing son was ever discovered.
What happened to Frederick Stowe? Suicide is one possibility. A few months before disappearing, he wrote to his mother, “[D]id I only think of my own confort [sic] I would kill myself and end it all, but I know that you and all the family would feel the disgrace such an end would bring upon you and the talk and scandle [sic] it would give rise to.” Other explanations for Stowe’s disappearance are also plausible. Perhaps he met some gruesome end while touring the rough and rowdy waterfront taverns along San Francisco’s wharf. Perhaps he was shanghaied and pressed into involuntary servitude aboard a sailing vessel for the rest of his life. Or he might simply have changed his identity and cut himself off from his family to avoid causing the Stowes further embarrassment.
Whatever the case, his disappearance devastated his mother. She lived another 25 years, longing daily for her lost son, often checking the mail for a missive from Fred in some far-off port. Once, when she was elderly and her memory was failing, Harriet embraced a total stranger on a Hartford street, thinking he was Frederick. But by then her son was long gone, another casualty of the war her famous book had helped to start.
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