Sun December 25, 2005
Love and Duty
An in-depth look at the lives of Amelia and Josiah Gorgas as well as their influence on the University of Alabama.
By Don Noble
The lives of Amelia Gayle Gorgas and Josiah Gorgas have not gone unexamined.
There are literally thousands of family letters which have served as primary sources for a biography of Mrs. Gorgas by Mary Tabb Johnson and a full-length study of Josiah?s role as the head of the Confederate Department of Ordnance. Also, both the Civil War diary and the journals of Josiah Gorgas have been edited, the journals by Dr. Wiggins, Professor Emerita of History at the University.
Love and Duty is essentially a collection of four essays, based on lectures and previously printed articles, which approach the material in a different way, topically and domestically, one might say.
The first essay is ?The Marriage of Amelia Gayle and Josiah Gorgas.? Rest assured, they had a very good marriage, a union to envy.
Josiah, after graduating from West Point, met the much richer and socially superior Amelia Gayle, whose father was in the U. S. House of Representatives, at the Mount Vernon Arsenal outside of Mobile, where Josiah, 35, was stationed, and Amelia, 28, was staying to avoid yellow fever in Mobile.
As it happened, it would be their son William who, as U. S. Surgeon General, would gain international renown in his success in Panama controlling that same yellow fever, making possible the successful completion of the Panama Canal.
Amelia and Josiah fell in love. Deeply.
Since there is no likeness of Amelia showing her younger than the age of 80, we don?t know about her looks, but Wiggins says she ?was no siren of a southern belle. No one ever referred to her as pretty.?
There seems little doubt, though, that they had ?a genuine love match,? a companionate marriage where each found a friend, lover, and soul mate for life.
She was a true partner, happy in her sphere of directing the household and the six children and supportive of his professional decisions.
Though originally from Pennsylvania, Josiah decided to join the Confederacy rather than the Union Army. He was astoundingly successful as the Director of Ordnance for the Confederacy?the soldiers may have been shoeless and starving but they never lacked for ammunition?but failed in his post-war endeavor, the Brierfield Iron Works in Alabama.
Through good times and bankruptcy, they were a loyal, devoted couple. He died in 1883, while president of the University of Alabama, and she not until 1913.
In between those dates, she was university librarian, hospital matron, and university postmistress, and loving in loco parentis mother to literally hundreds of UA?s young men.
A fine husband, Josiah was, according to his time and place, an excellent father. Like many a father, he was tough on his first-born, William, critical of his behavior, right down to his handwriting and spelling.
A defeated Confederate, he discouraged Willie in his desire to attend West Point. Instead, Willie got an MD at Bellevue in New York City and then joined the U.S. Army as a doctor.
The Gorgas? other son, Richard, graduated from the U of A and then read law.
I was amused to read that Amelia gets special praise from Wiggins for ?the ultimate test of her unselfishness?: accepting gracefully her son?s ?mixed marriage.?
In 1884, 19 years after the war, William fell in love with a girl from Cincinnati, a Yankee.
Cincinnati, let us recall, could be reached by slaves escaping from Kentucky when the Ohio River froze over. It was the least northern place in all the North. And Josiah was from Pennsylvania.
The last chapter is entitled ?Unreconstructed Rebel,? and enough said already. Amelia was passionate in her efforts for the Lost Cause, graves, the UDC, statues, etc.
For the most part this is an enlightening, smoothly written little volume. Because of the four-essay structure there is considerable annoying repetition, but that would be hard to eliminate. Readers might well include anyone who ever wondered ?who lived in that house.?
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.