Thursday, November 13, 2008

Readers familiar with Theodore Roosevelt‘s childhood know of his struggle to overcome asthma and how that shaped his adulthood — notably his belief in the virtues of physical fitness — and his bravado, especially in the conduct of world affairs. Less well-known is the impact of growing up as a child during the Civil War, an experience that may have been a root cause of what many historians regard as his bellicose approach to foreign policy.

Roosevelt’s family had deeply divided loyalties during the Civil War. His relatives played highly visible but contrasting roles on either side of the conflict. To understand the effect the war may have had on the adult Roosevelt, it is helpful to look at this from the perspective of a child.

Born in 1858 in the Gramercy Park section of Manhattan, Roosevelt was a toddler when the Civil War began in April 1861. His father, Theodore Sr., was a Knickerbocker, a Dutch New Yorker who ran a family business. His wealth came from importing plate glass at a time of unprecedented expansion.

A noted philanthropist, the senior Roosevelt helped found such landmark institutions as the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In a patrician boyhood such as his, young Theodore learned that, in the words of a cousin, “to be a Roosevelt was to be something distinctive.”

Theodore Sr.

To combat Theodore’s poor health, his father pushed the youngster to exercise. As historian David McCullough tells us in his celebrated “Mornings on Horseback,” during the worst of Theodore’s asthma attacks, his father would pick him up out of bed and get the carriage harnessed up and drive through the streets of New York, hoping that as the boy gulped in air, the breathing would clear and he would survive.

To deal with bullies, Roosevelt took up boxing and, in a remarkable turnabout from his fragile childhood, is seen by some writers as the historical figure who most exemplifies the quality of masculinity.

Theodore Sr. had a tremendous influence on his son. Roosevelt wrote in his 1913 autobiography, titled “Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography”: “My father … was the best man I ever knew. He combined strength and courage with gentleness, tenderness, and great unselfishness. He would not tolerate in us children selfishness or cruelty, idleness, cowardice, or untruthfulness.”

Roosevelt’s sister Corinne later wrote, “He told me frequently that he never took any serious step or made any vital decision for his country without thinking first what position his father would have taken.”

Like many prosperous businessmen with commercial ties to the South, Theodore Sr. opposed the drift toward war, but once it came, he and his family became strong Lincoln Republicans. It must have come as a great shock to young Teddy to learn that his father never fought in the Civil War; rather, he hired a $300 substitute to take his place in the Union Army.

To an impressionable child, the embarrassment from the senior Roosevelt’s decision not to serve in the military must have been made worse because the Roosevelts had many prominent friends and neighbors who fought and died in that noble cause. This anomaly between the father’s aristocratic bearing and his failure to make a military mark in the war is complicated by the contrasting picture Teddy saw in the maternal side of the family.

‘Rebel’ mother

Teddy’s mother, Martha “Mittie” Bulloch, was a Southern belle from a slave-owning family in Savannah, Ga. Her father, James, owned a cotton mill and, with his partner, founded a Georgia town called Roswell. There Mittie grew up as the darling of a wealthy planter family.

In 1839, James completed Bulloch Hall, a Greek Revival mansion that survived Union Gen. William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea and is today maintained as a museum. The mansion is said to have been the model for Margaret Mitchell’s Tara Plantation in “Gone With the Wind.” In his autobiography, Roosevelt described his mother as “a sweet, gracious, beautiful Southern woman, a delightful companion and beloved by everybody. She was entirely ‘unreconstructed’” - that is, sympathetic to the Confederate cause - “to the day of her death.”

Mittie’s mother and her sister, Anna, having suffered financial reversals that forced them to give up Bulloch Hall, joined the family in New York and there formed a staunch alliance of Confederate support against the Roosevelts, who, of course, strongly supported the Union.

Bulloch brothers

Mittie’s brothers, James and Irvine, served the Confederacy during the war. Irvine Bulloch was the youngest officer aboard the CSS Alabama when it was sunk off the coast of France. The most famous Confederate steam-and-sail raider, the Alabama roamed the North Atlantic preying upon Union merchant vessels in a futile yet heroic effort to thwart the Union blockade of Southern ports.

At a time of declining fortunes, tales of the Alabama bolstered Southern morale and provided fleeting relief from the blockade. As a member of the crew, Irvine symbolized that gallant effort.

James Bulloch, if less flamboyant than his brother, played a herculean role for the Confederacy. Best described as a “naval agent,” James was sent to England by Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen Mallory during the infancy of the Confederacy with a daunting task: to build a navy from scratch for an upstart country (as the Europeans saw it) with no seafaring tradition.

James was the man behind the British building or refitting of what became the best-known commerce raiders of the war, including the legendary Alabama, Florida and Shenandoah. James also helped prolong the life of the Confederacy by shipping cotton to Liverpool, furnishing cash to buy arms and supplies for the South.

Buying a substitute

Thus, while Mittie’s brothers were heroes of the South, the senior Roosevelt (and his brothers) never even served in the military. Though a not uncommon practice, buying a substitute no doubt opened the Roosevelt family to ridicule and, in fact, was a factor in the New York Draft Riots of 1863.

As one historian put it, those able to pay for a substitute exercised the “right of the rich to hire the poor to do [their] fighting and dying.” Still, in all fairness to the senior Roosevelt, historians agree that he probably acted out of deference to Mittie.

Prone to bouts of hysteria and depression (she locked herself in a bedroom for days after a Union victory) she pleaded with Theodore Sr. that it would kill her if he were to fight against her brothers. Instead, he launched himself into Union relief efforts with a zeal born of guilt.

Theodore Sr. helped found the Union League, an organization to promote the Union cause, and he is known for his work in establishing the allotment system whereby soldiers could set aside some of their pay for their families. Theodore Sr. often traveled to Washington to lobby for legislation to create the system, and through the influence of a friend, Lincoln’s secretary John Hay, won the support of the administration and became friends with the Lincolns.

When the law passed, he was appointed to the allotment commission and spent most of the war away from home going to battlefields to persuade soldiers to join the allotment plan. The elder Roosevelt probably saw as much of Army life as would many men in the military, yet all young Theodore knew was that his father was not a fighting man.


In a letter, Mittie accused her husband of “deserting” his family, and there is evidence that she exploited his long absences by filling her children’s time with tales (real or imagined) of her brothers’ exploits. Whether she did so out of pride or in reaction to her husband´s participation in the war effort is beside the point; her stories all served to highlight the difference between her brothers and their cause and the absent patriarch.

Teddy Roosevelt later wrote that his mother used “to talk to me as a little shave about ships, ships, ships and the fighting of ships until they sank into the depths of my soul.” Family and friends knew that Mittie and the senior Roosevelt differed sharply over the war. Others (perhaps even the elder Roosevelt) may have known that Mittie and the children sent contraband packages of medicine, food, clothing and money through the blockade to relatives and friends in Georgia.

Of these days, young Roosevelt’s oldest sister, Bamie, wrote that she and Teddy went on picnics in Central Park, where they handed over the parcels to couriers, who in return brought them letters from James and others serving in the Confederacy.

James Bulloch’s contribution to the Confederate cause shows the intensity of feeling within the polarized household; fearing that British support to the Confederacy might jeopardize the Northern cause, Teddy’s Uncle James Roosevelt wrote to Secretary of State William Seward to expose Bulloch, as he felt “bound to denounce a brother … to save this Government,” though nothing came of the letter.

Pride and shame

In 1905, Theodore Roosevelt became the first sitting president to visit the South after the Civil War. Although we must take what he said with a grain of political salt, Roosevelt painted a romantic picture of his Confederate family when he told his “neighbors and friends” in Roswell, Ga., that “[it] has been my great fortune to have the right to claim my blood as half Southern and half Northern, and I would deny the right of any man to feel a greater pride in the deeds of every Southerner than I feel. …

“One, the younger man, served on the Alabama as the youngest officer … and when at the very end … was sinking … my uncle, Irvine … fired the last two shots from the Alabama.”

Roosevelt later credited himself with having persuaded “Uncle Jimmy … a dear old retired sea-captain” to write an account of his Civil War adventures, “The Secret Service of the Confederate States in Europe,” published in 1883.

Other than a letter Roosevelt (by then a 27-year-old state assemblyman) wrote in 1885 accusing Jefferson Davis of being a traitor, he never hinted at the angst he must have experienced as a child growing up during the Civil War. Kathleen Dalton in her “Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life” offers an insightful analysis of this critical period. For her, the Civil War was a traumatic event for Roosevelt, “full of loss, grief, shock, insecurity and conflict.”

As to the nature of that conflict, “[A]lways,” his sister Bamie wrote, “he felt that [father] had done a wrong thing in not having put every other feeling aside to join the fighting forces.”

Perhaps Roosevelt, as his sister Corinne believed, was determined to make a military reputation for himself “in part compensation for an unspoken disappointment in his father´s course in 1861.”

Ken Kryvoruka is a Washington lawyer who also teaches writing at the George Washington University Law School.

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