- The Washington Times - Friday, August 13, 2004

John Tyler, the 10th president of the United States, lived to see the collapse of the Union and the outbreak of Civil War. He stayed loyal to his native Virginia and became a Confederate congressman.

Civil War page contributor William Connery interviewed Tyler’s grandson, Harrison Ruffin Tyler, on May 22, while Mr. Tyler was overseeing this year’s re-enactment of the Battle of Fort Pocahontas. Harrison Tyler’s father, Lyon Tyler, was president of William and Mary College. Harrison Tyler is the present owner of Sherwood Forest, where President Tyler retired in 1845. The president’s first wife, Letitia, had died in 1842. He married New York socialite Julia Gardiner in 1844.

John Tyler was the first vice president to become president, upon the untimely death of William Henry Harrison just 32 days into his term. Thus, detractors called Tyler “His Accidency.” He also was the first president widowed and married in the White House. Altogether, the president fathered 15 children.

Since 1997, Harrison Tyler has allowed re-enactors, especially descendants of United States Colored Troops (USCT), to come and spend a weekend in the actual fort where their ancestors defeated dismounted Confederate cavalry under Gen. Fitzhugh Lee, nephew of Robert E. Lee.

WC: First, Harrison, tell me the situation in Sherwood Forest in 1860.

Mr. Tyler: Both my grandfather and grandmother were living at that time. My Aunt Pearl, their last child, was born that year. So they were living happily at Sherwood. Every summer they would take vacation trips, and part of the time would be in New York, with Julia’s mother, Juliana McLachlan Gardiner, who was living on Staten Island. They would visit Saratoga and take in the races and the Greenbrier in western Virginia and other hot spas and hot springs. Life was idyllic. But there were storm clouds on the horizon.

In February 1861, President Tyler was the principal organizer of a peace conference where representatives from 21 states met at the Willard Hotel in Washington to iron out the differences between the Northern and Southern states.

However, the conference was a failure because there were those die-hards from both sides, Massachusetts and South Carolina, for instance, who would not give an inch.

John Tyler counseled everybody against secession. But when the action at Fort Sumter occurred and Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to wipe out the Rebels of the South, Virginia had no choice but to join either one side or the other. John Tyler threw his support vigorously for secession at that point.

So Virginia seceded, and the capital of the Confederacy was moved from Montgomery, Ala., to Richmond. John Tyler was elected to the Confederate Congress, which was set to meet in Richmond in January 1862.

WC: Was the Confederate Congress like the U.S. — bicameral?

Mr. Tyler: Yes, the Confederate Legislature was similar to the U.S., with a Senate and House. Tyler was elected to the House to represent this area. He took a packet steamer to Richmond. There were several of these that traveled up and down the river between Richmond and Norfolk. He went to the Exchange Hotel, where most of the legislators were staying. He was expecting to take his seat when the Legislature convened a few days later.

My grandmother had a dream that night. She was in a room she had never seen before and saw a bed she had never seen before. The bed had a carved eagle on it. And in the bed was her husband, John Tyler, deathly pale, propped up on pillows, reaching out and calling her name.

WC: So John Tyler was the only former president to throw in with the Confederacy.

Mr. Tyler: I believe so. So Julia had this dream. And she was so alarmed, she gathered up her children and servants and came to the landing here and caught the packet to Richmond. She arrived late in the afternoon, was taken by carriage to the Exchange Hotel, and asked where Mr. ex-President was. She saw him across the room, in animated conversation with people. She caught his eye and then went up to her room.

His custom was always to get up early in the morning. So he got up and left her in bed. Sometime later there was a knock at her door and a voice cried, “Come quickly, Mrs. Tyler, come quickly! Your husband is ill.” Or words to that effect. So she put on her gown, went down the hallway to a room at the end. And there was John Tyler, deathly pale, propped up in bed, calling her name. And there were eagle wings carved on the headboard — just as in her dream.

They called a doctor who ministered to him. For three or four days he lingered, while the congress had convened. He had a high fever, but it was never diagnosed what he had. It was probably pneumonia. He became more feeble. His wife was there with two of his sons. He turned to the doctors and said, “I am dying.” And they replied, “We hope not, sir.” And with that he closed his eyes and never reopened them.

His will was read. He had wanted to be buried in his own front yard. But by that time this area was a no man’s land. Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government did not want him taken to Federal territory, where the grave might be defiled. So it was decided that he’d be buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.

The procession from the Exchange Hotel to the cemetery was three miles long. A beautiful marker is there today. It was put up in 1935. It covers both his and Julia’s grave. She was buried next to him when she died in 1889.

The Exchange Hotel is now where the Medical College of Virginia is located. The hotel completely burned shortly after her death.

WC: So let’s get back to 1862. So she returned to Sherwood Forest?

Mr. Tyler: [Gen. George] McClellan came up the York River and attacked Richmond in spring 1862. Sherwood was behind Union lines. The Union Navy patrolled both the James and York rivers. The Confederate defenses were circled around Richmond.

Now, John Tyler had known Gen. McClellan. So when [McClellan’s] troops came in the area, he sent a delegation to call on Mrs. ex-President. She requested that she could go to New York, as was her custom. He wrote her a pass, and it was honored.

So she went to New York, stayed about a month, and returned to Sherwood. Now the war was progressing, and the overseers left. Julia had been raised in New York, but her family did have servants. They were white servants from Europe. She’d always had overseers and mistresses to handle the servants. She had never handled them directly.

WC: But she wasn’t opposed to having slaves. To her they were like servants?

Mr. Tyler: Yes. There was very little difference to her between servants and slaves. So she was struggling with the farm. The war was all around her. The slaves did not have proper direction to run the farm.

In the spring of 1863, she made plans to visit her mother again that summer. She had a good friend who was a supply general in the Union Army, and she asked his permission. He took the request all the way to Lincoln, who said she could go to New York — if she swore allegiance to the Union.

So that’s when she decided to go to Wilmington, N.C., take a blockade runner to Bermuda and then to New York. The North had a blockade, but it was ineffective.

Now there was a lot of cotton stacked up in Wilmington. So she could buy cotton for practically nothing. The ship she was on slipped through the blockade, and she made about $5,000 to $6,000 selling the cotton. She could stay at the finest hotel and buy clothes for her three smallest children.

She eventually arrived in New York in December 1863.

WC: Do you know what kind of ship she took? U.S. or British?

Mr. Tyler: There were British ships going back and forth. So she went to Staten Island, where her mother was living. Her home was Castle Hill, which is still there today. When Julia left Sherwood, she’d left her nephew and niece, John C. and Maria Tyler, to take care of the place. And they were there until May 1864.

WC: So things were relatively peaceful until June?

Mr. Tyler: Actually it was June 22. Ohio volunteers, white troops, came in and took out many things. A lot of what we know was written in a letter not discovered until 1980. The letter says, “A lot of the boys (Ohio Volunteers) went out yesterday (June 22, 1864) and broke into President Tyler’s house and took and destroyed lots of stuff. They say he has the nicest mansion — the house furnished in the best of style. They brought in some very nice furniture and destroyed the pyana and large looking glasses they could not carry away.”

These troops also took some straw and tried to set fire to the place. Actually, John C. Tyler was captured by the Colored Troops prior to the May 24 (Fort Pocahontas) attack, and [they] took him down to Fortress Monroe, and Maria went to another farm.

After the May 24 battle, the Confederates went around Sherwood and burned all the slave houses. There is no record of who burned them or how or what. Most of the slaves had already fled. They were either in the swamps or other places. Some were taken by the Union Army so the Confederates would not have them to build trenches or fortifications.

Only a few household servants remained in Sherwood, and Fannie the cook was the one credited with putting out the fire and saving Sherwood. At least that was the story that was told to me. Julia always thought it was Colored Troops that broke into the house. We didn’t know any different until this letter was found. The Ohio troops were not front-line troops. The USCT were pretty well-trained troops.

WC: So Julia came back right after the war?

Mr. Tyler: No; her mother died around that time, and her brother contested the will. So Julia came back to visit several times but did not resettle until 1870-71.

William Connery is a free-lance writer from Alexandria. He wrote on the Battle of Fort Pocahontas (Wilson’s Landing) for the Civil War page on May 24, 2003. More details on Fort Pocahontas and Sherwood Forest can be found on www.sherwoodforest.org and www.fortpocahontas.org.

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