‘True as the needle to the pole’

Regina Shober Gray by [Edward L.] Allen, ca. 1860. Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society, Item PP231.236
The diarist Regina Shober Gray[1] began the Civil War with mixed feelings about the new American president; by late 1864 she had no doubts about his integrity or his importance to the nation.

61 Bowdoin Street, Boston, Sunday, 6 November 1864: Mr. Foote[2] gave us a good discourse on the distinction to be held between religious form & religious formalism, and illustrated his meaning by an eloquent allusion the love for our country’s flag – which is after all naught in itself but a piece of coloured bunting, our love for which in times of peace and prosperity is but a form of words, a mode of thought, used to sound the periods of a fourth of July nation.[3] But when war and peril assail its sacred folds, it becomes to us the emblem of all man holds most dear on earth – the holy emblem of all the great ideas for which true men are ready to suffer & die now, as were the martyrs of old.

Religious forms are but the garb in which our human nature needs to clothe spiritual ideas; let us not reject their aid – but let us be sure ever, that we pierce through the form and dwell in the light of the inner truth.

On Monday evg. Fanny & Isa [Gray][4] invited me to matronize them to the Opera, which I was of course very glad to do. It was the “Huguenots”[5] and the most entire failure of an operatic representation I have witnessed. It was pitiable to hear such glorious music so murdered. Nothing went right – and we were detained till after 12 o’c too. Even Karl Formes[6] has lost all the sweetness out of his magnificent bass voice – and he always sings out of time and tune…

On Thursday, I was busy all day calling out plain sewing – and by night felt quite used up. But Fanny came just at tea-time to ask me again to the Opera. One act of Tannhauser[7] and the whole of Fidelio[8] was an irresistible temptation, and I went – and in spite of a weary back staid till 12 o’C. “Fidelio” this troupe always render finely – and the taste of the Tannhauser music made us long for more; it is delicious, dreamy, wonderful, glorious – and I thought very fairly rendered for a first attempt. Next day I heard of Mr. Zerrahn’s[9] saying the performance was “execrable” ― but I enjoyed it for all that!

Friday it rained nearly all day heavily, so the torch-light (Union) procession [preceding the presidential election] was deferred till Saturday. It was a beautiful sight. The boys with papa & Mary[10] went on the Common to see it gather & then walked round the streets to see the illuminations – afterward when at 10½ p.m. it passed our corner of Mt. Vernon St., the boys got a fine position on [a neighbor’s] wall. Mary saw it from our windows and Dr. & I from Mr. C. G. Loring’s[11] windows had a fine view of it all.

Mrs. Loring’s party for Mr. Goldwyn Smith[12] was not so crowded as I supposed, but was a very pleasant gathering; no doubt many declined her invitation, on acct. of the torch–light. Mr. Smith is a tall, slender, dark-looking man, very un-English looking – gaunt & hollow chested – decidedly Yankeeish. I did not hear him talk. The excitement runs high as the momentous election day draws near.

Oh what tremendous interests hang on next Tuesday’s work. There is scarcely a doubt felt of Lincoln’s re-election – but we want more than merely to get him in, we want, we must have a splendid majority; we would have him go in by acclamation! that the moral effect may arouse the world, may strike a death-blow to slave power, and literally proclaim “Liberty & Union, now & forever!”

I believe future time will do more justice to the absolute integrity of purpose, the firmness, self-control, moderation & wonderful prudence of Mr. Lincoln, than he can hope to receive from the embittered partizan ship of his own day. In that far off time when men shall look back calmly on the seething turmoil and agony and doubt & desolation of this [period], they will stand amazed, at the awful magnitude of the task which fell by the grace of God into this man’s hands to discharge – [at] the unprecedented responsibility and tremendous issues it involved. And when from out of the calm of an assured peace, and the pride & glory of a regenerate nationality our future historians sum up the glorious lists of glorious names, they will confess the homely name of that homely man, Abraham Lincoln, “one of the few, the immortal names, that are not born to die!”

Nay, this man, with large head and larger heart, gaunt, awkward, unpolished, but firm, upright, clear-sighted, and true as the needle to the pole, earnest without fanaticism, far-reaching but not visionary, cautious and practical yet unfaltering – abused by his political opponents, doubted by lukewarm friends, harassed by disloyalty on one hand, and by incompetency on the other: this man, and none more so, will the world delight to honor through all coming time!

Continued here.


[1] Hedwiga Regina Shober (1818–1885) was married to Dr. Francis Henry Gray 1844–80. Entry from the Hedwiga Regina Shober Gray diary, R. Stanton Avery Special Collections.

[2] The Rev. Henry Wilder Foote (1838–1889), rector of King’s Chapel in Boston 1861–89.

[3] E.g., oration?

[4] Dr. Gray’s nieces Frances Loring Gray (1843–1919) and Isa Elizabeth Gray (1841–1923).

[5] Les Huguenots (1836) by Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791–1864).

[6] Karl Formes (1815–1889).

[7] Presumably the Paris version of Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg (1861) by Richard Wagner (1813–1883).

[8] Fidelio (1805) by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827).

[9] The conductor Carl Zerrahn (1826–1909).

[10] The whole Gray family, with the exception of Mrs. Gray: Dr. Francis Henry Gray (1813–1880) and his children Francis Calley Gray (1846–1904), Mary Clay Gray (1848–1923), Samuel Shober Gray (1849–1926), Reginald Gray (1853–1904), and Morris Gray (1856–1931).

[11] Charles Greely Loring (1794–1867), who married Mrs. Cornelia Amory Goddard as his third wife in 1850. His younger sister Sarah Frances Loring (1811–1892) married Dr. Gray’s brother William in 1834.

[12] Goldwin Smith (1823-1910), Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford 1858–66.

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward was the founding editor at Vita Brevis; he served as NEHGS Editor-in-Chief 2013-2022. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

4 thoughts on “‘True as the needle to the pole’

  1. Fantastic that you have this and shared with us. I have to confess that what really caught my eye was the mention of Professor Zerrahn. My great-grandmother Anna E. Pearson studied voice from him – I think in about 1866. She sang in Illinois and Iowa.

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