I would, if it was consistent with the duties now dwelling upon me, have been with you this morning, but I can not, I must forgo for a while that pleasure, that duty.
Sam Wickersham had fallen on hard times in 1859. His first two wives had died young, leaving him with two daughters and two living sons, the youngest of whom, a baby, was the future Attorney-General of the United States (his firm, Cadwallader, Wickersham and Taft, is still going - no, not that Taft, his brother). Several of Sam’s business ventures had failed, and he was locked in a lawsuit with his brothers over their father’s estate (he had died in 1858, a few months before Sam’s second wife died in childbirth). He was based in Pittsburgh, Fanny Belt was in Philadelphia where her father was an impoverished itinerant homeopathic doctor. Sam was born in March 1819, Fanny in August 1833, so she was 25 and he was 40 when they got to know each other in mid-1859. The correspondence ends when they married in early 1861, the Civil War having already started. They had five children over the next eleven years, giving him a grand total of nine. The oldest of the five married the metallurgist Sir Robert Hadfield; the middle one was my great-grandmother (my great-grandfather was also into heavy metal, and also postal chess); the youngest inherited the family papers and passed them to his own daughter, who passed them to her son Wick.
Most of the letters are just the usual passionate communication from a chap who can’t quite believe his luck at scoring with a pretty young woman, but there are a couple of really fascinating moments. In the summer of 1860 Sam heads 1200 miles north to the Keweenaw peninsula in Michigan, to investigate his holdings in the North American Mine at Phoenix, and writes to Fanny with some lovely descriptions of landscape and nature (and the eclipse). He liquidated that investment for $50,000 (the Internet says that’s about $1.5 million at today’s prices), which obviously made the courtship a bit easier. I found it really interesting that he took his son Tommy with him on this trip (Tommy had his 12th birthday during the journey). It seems that that part of Michigan was considered safe enough for Sam to bring a child with him on a business trip, though it had been settled for less than twenty years.
It’s also striking to read of the looming war, which Sam simply doesn’t see coming. On 1 November 1860, he writes that if Lincoln is elected,
I predict then in one year every southern state will say amen to his election and pronounce it the most constructive republican administration since the days of Washington.
Georgia and South Carolina are passing through the usual periodical display of childish petulancy at being disappointed but if they are only left entirely alone and in no way meddled with they will soon feel ashamed of their course and settle down in quiet for another 4 years
Sam’s own base when in Pittsburgh is with his friend and lawyer William Shinn at Evergreen Hamlet, which Shinn had founded, planned and built. There is a rather bizarre exchange where it becomes apparent that Shinn’s wife is briefing against Sam, as a wastrel and bankrupt. Once he gets the money from the Michigan mine, we hear nothing more of that.
It is interesting to reflect that this sort of archive will become impossible to reconstruct for courting couples of the 21st century. Emails are pretty ephemeral, text messages and other apps even more so. My own great-great-grandchildren will not have so much to go on.
You can get the book here; it is lavishly illustrated with the original documents, but also with Wick’s transcription of the letters. (Wick’s transcription is mostly pretty good, but I’m pretty sure that word on page 34/38 is “intercourse”.)