1861: Hestor Lockhart Stevens to Oscar Augustus Stevens

These three fascinating letters were written by Hestor Lockhard Stevens (1803-1864) from Washington D. C. in the days just before and after the firing on Fort Sumter as the Civil War began. Hestor was the son of Francis Stevens (1762-1845) and Mary Stone (1763-1825). He was married to Charlotte White Sedgewick (1811-1860) in 1829.

Hestor wrote the letters to his son-in-law, Oscar A. Stevens (1829-1903) in Michigan. Oscar married Hestor’s daughter, Emily Bennett Stevens (1832-1904), in September 1854. It appears that Oscar and Emily were serving as guardians in raising Hestor’s youngest living child, Sedgwick Stevens (1850-1861). Oscar was for many years the Superintendent and General Manager of the Washington and Alexandria Railroad. His parents were Rufus Wood Stevens and Caroline Lee Williams.

Hestor L. Stevens was a representative from Michigan; born in Lima, Livingston County, N.Y., October 1, 1803; attended the common schools; studied law; was admitted to the bar and commenced practice in Rochester, N.Y.; major general of militia of western New York; moved to Pontiac, Mich.; elected as a Democrat to the Thirty-third Congress (March 4, 1853-March 3, 1855); resumed the practice of law in Washington, D.C.; died in Georgetown, D.C., May 7, 1864; interment in Oak Hill Cemetery.



Washington [City]
24 March 1861

Dear Oscar,

Your letter of the 11th inst. reached me yesterday morning with the very unpleasant news of Emily’s illness. I was prepared to hear of something of the kind from your very long silence. Indeed, I was becoming very apprehensive and frequently expressed my fears to Kate that some or all of you were sick. Many weeks had transpired and not a word from either of you — and even in the letters received long since there was a tone of feeling or expression that seemed to me suspicious nor could I get an answer to my questions which I put about any of you or anything relating to yourselves or the children. Bad as it is, however, we are truly happy that it is no worse and that full recovery is possible.

We deeply regret that we could not have been present and rendered all the aid, comfort, and consolation in our power, but our neighborhood is quite too extensive to permit of any “short and easy” visits. We now realize the inconvenience and discomforts of living so far apart, and so locked up by snow as we now are. It is an evil which cannot be remedied in a moment, and must be treated with great patience and forbearance.

You promised to write again that evening, but I fear that if you did so, it would not expedite matters much for I believe you have no daily mail. Still I really hope that you did write in time for the next post, as our anxiety will be very great until we hear further. Emily’s friends and acquaintances all express much solicitude for her.

We have just passed an equinoctial storm and have had very rough weather with cold winds, but the symptoms are now more favorable and we are once more hopeful.

James Buchanan — “that old ass coward and fool,” as 15th President of the United States

Our political affairs remain much the same. There are seven states which have seceded and established a sort of government and these things stand. The Republican Administration is busy distributing its patronage and getting the machinery running, but nothing has been or will be done (at present at all events), towards crushing out the rebellion. That old ass coward and fool Buchanan let the thing go too far to be easily mended. Had he struck the blow when the snake first hissed, we should have no trouble. Now it is another thing entirely. I presume it is the policy of the present government to commence no war upon them and let them stay out in the cold until they are disposed to come in. For my own part, I never wish to see them back again. They are a set of uneasy rascals who are more trouble to us than they are worth.

As you do not give me any views of your own as to business and the future, of course I cannot say much until I hear from you again. When the spring fairly opens, I presume you can judge better. One thing seems pretty clear and that is that your winters and Emily do not live together on the best terms and before another comes, she had better get out of the woods. If this government holds together so long, I shall be here another winter, but if that busts, I am off — but I cannot tell where now.

I wish that as soon as the navigation opens, you would send [my son] Sedgwick to John H. Harmon’s in Detroit from where I can easily get him here. He must be more or less trouble to you under present circumstances and I wish to put him into a school now where he can remain steadily. He will soon be eleven years old and should now be put regularly to study and kept there until he graduates. I have made up my mind as to the school and purpose to keep him running. If the affairs of the country become settled, I shall buy a house here and go to housekeeping. But if they continue unsettled, I shall wind up here and retire to some state where slavery does not exist. Probably if we can get rid of the Cotton States, we can have a stable government, and slavery proving unprofitable in the Border States will in process of time die out.

Howell Cobb — “was both fool & knave” as Secretary of Treasury (H.L.S.)

If Emily does not recover fully, you had better send her out to “the settlements,” as soon as the traveling will permit. When our new Secretary of the Treasury [Salmon P. Chase] gets over making appointments, I will have up your account and try and get it properly settled. [Howell] Cobb was both fool & knave and nothing could be done with him, but I will do the best I can.

All well, — H. L. Stevens

Monday morning — nothing new. Tell Emily to keep up good spirits. Better times will come.


Washington [City]
18 April 1861

Dear Oscar,

Why don’t you write us something? In your last you said you would write again that evening but we have heard nothing since and are very anxious indeed.

We are well enough so far as health is concerned but the times — oh, the times! We are threatened with war and troops are continually marching through the streets and drums beating as if we were in an actual state of war. Rumors of every kind are afloat, some true but most of them false. But one thing is certain — matters must change suddenly or we shall fight certainly. You must get the [   ] news by this time — just sooner you [   ] letters and at the same time I send you some papers with the latest news. But the Post will contain still later to which I refer you.

Bad as everything appears, I presume we shall live through it, but how I hardly know. Since I began writing, word has come that Virginia has seceded, that Harper’s Ferry’s taken, the Navy Yard at Norfolk with several vessels, and that there is a very riotous disturbance at Baltimore. All are wondering what is to come next and no one seems to know what to do and that is my case. The fighting part I care but little about. It is the disruption of my business and the great cost to which myself with others must be subjected. If it was a fight and nothing more, I should not care particularly.

Please write soon and let me know what you are doing, what you are going to do, and how you all are. I cannot give Emily any news or city gossip. I see the girls but little and I scarcely ever go out when such things are to be found, and have almost forgotten whom her acquaintances were. I have not been in one old neighborhood at Georgetown but one for a long time, and then I called at Mr. Hepburn’s and found them about as usual. Did not see many of them nor stay very long. I have not been at church in Georgetown for a month of Sundays almost and I find I do not know much anyway.

Goodbye & God bless you, — H. L. Stevens

P. S. Since the above, 800 troops from Pennsylvania have arrived passing safely through Baltimore without the least disturbance. — S


Washington [City]
21 April 1861

Dear Oscar,

Yours of the 8th inst. reached me yesterday, having been 12 days on the way. This is now the usual time of the mail between us. I am quite relieved by the news you give and am better pleased than ever that you are where you are — snug and safe — and Lavish Kate [   ] home with you [   ] in [    ] place as safe. We have this morning at least 5,000 troops — perhaps more — in this city, and it is understood that more will start here today (the 7th New York) and probably all this week. We shall have 25 or 30,000 unless in the meantime the [C_____] should make a successful descent upon the city. All the avenues to the city are guarded, fortifications are being erected on Red Hill above Georgetown, the steamboats are in the hands of the government, and the communications by railroad through Maryland is cut off, bridges blown up, &c. &c.

We have had no mails since yesterday morning and the telegraph too is silent. Such is our condition. The newspapers will give you the particulars. Things are in a bad way and a terrible conflict is inevitable. And from present appearances, it will be in Maryland. As I said in my last, business has dried up and things of that kind are smashed!!

I am glad to hear that the children are so well and that [my son] Sedgwick is so contented with his stay with you. Not having heard anything or received anything about him, I suspected he was homesick — a very probable condition of a boy of his age. And Emily had written that he was not in school so I thought he had better come back, but the school vacations will soon commence and continue until September and what will be the condition of things then? It will be difficult to determine. So we must leave the disposition [  ] to further consideration. Send Emily to the “settlements” unless her health and comfort [    ] if necessary, and at all events, I could hardly advise that she should risk the “settlements” here about unless she is prepared to shoulder a musket and “do duty in the ranks.”

As to business, you can judge best but don’t give up. Talk candidly with creditors. Tell them that you have got and show a clear hand and as you say, I presume you will weather the storm. Our Union is in a “cocked hat” now and until things are readjusted, I cannot of course tell what I can do, nor even conjecture. I shall stay here until the row is over and things become settled, and then stay or go somewhere else, as my interest dictates, and judgement may decide. I am no longer a young man and am not as confident of being able to wade the Mississippi as I might once have been — and therefore shall be careful.

Goodbye, — H. L. Stevens



Griff View All →

My passion is studying American history leading up to & including the Civil War. I particularly enjoy reading, transcribing & researching primary sources such as letters and diaries.

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