‘In the dead of night’

Regina Shober Gray by [Edward L.] Allen, ca. 1860. Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society, Item PP231.236
We tend to think of a bright line dividing North and South during the Civil War, but in families like the Grays of Boston there were a number of living connections between the two regions. Mrs. William Rufus Gray, the diarist’s[1] mother-in-law, was a member of the Clay family of Savannah, and during the war her younger sister and other family members resided in Georgia, near the South Carolina line.

61 Bowdoin Street, Boston, Friday, 3 February 1865: We have had news of the destruction of Aunt Eliza’s[2] plantation and the burning of the homestead by [Major General William Tecumseh] Sherman’s army. We cannot but feel sorry for her – but as a military measure it was perfectly justifiable. The place had a powerful rebel battery planted on a bluff commanding the river – 4 miles below was Fort McAllister, on Matilda Clay’s brother’s[3] place; when that was taken by assault, all the places on the Ogeechee [River] up and down were burned and destroyed. They were all deserted by the owners and used for rebel defences. Among the owners, Joe Clay[4] is on Hardee’s[5] staff – Tom Clay[6] on the signal corps – [brothers] Tom[7] and Elliot Arnold[8] both in the rebel army – and Joe Mc.Allister[9] was killed at the head of his rebel regiment at Chickamauga (I think).

If it be allowable to weaken the enemy by destroying their property and goods, these people have certainly made good their claim to that kind of martyrdom in their most unrighteous cause. Personally I feel sorry for Aunt E and the girls. Matilda Clay[10] is a harsh slave mistress – I have no respect for her – but Aunt E. is as charming as she is conscientious. I love and admire her and can only deplore that the force of circumstances drew her to the wrong side.

Matilda Clay is a harsh slave mistress – I have no respect for her – but Aunt E. is as charming as she is conscientious.

We hear that Elliot Arnold has been taken prisoner – and his rebel mother,[11] in her safe northern home, protected by the government she derides and abhors, rejoices that he is a prisoner, because he is out of the way of the bullets! If we treated our prisoners as her dear friends the slave drivers of the south treat the thousands of federal soldiers who are their prisoners, she would sooner kneel down and pray God that a merciful bullet might put him out of misery at once – and save him from the merciless brutality and slow starvation of a prison pen!

Sunday, 12 February 1865: Ellen Gray[12] has had a letter from Aunt Eliza Clay in the southwest of Georgia, dated Jan. 14 or 15th, written after she had heard of the burning of the plantation home at Richmond on the Ogeechee. It seems Aunt E. was very loth to leave it – but was persuaded to do so, remaining however after all the rest of the family to pack up and store away &c.

Her departure was fixed for the next day – but in the dead of night she was roused by Joe Clay, who had walked over from the depot, 3 miles distant. He told her she must leave the house in a half hour – there was not a moment to lose. Sherman’s van was almost upon them, and she would just have time to catch a night train passing through. She escaped and joined the family in the South West. But the very next train was captured by the Federal troops – a narrow escape for her.

Of course they grieve over the burning of the house – but she writes cheerfully. There is no lack of supplies of food in Georgia, though they do starve our poor prisoners there on quarter-rations! But for clothing materials they are much straitened. But she speaks of having just superintended the taking out of the loom, a web of cotton cloth 40 yards long! [This] seems like going back to the old colony times – this hand-loom domestic weaving.

Continued here.


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

[2] Eliza Caroline Clay (1809–1895), younger sister of Mrs. William Rufus Gray (Mary Clay [1790-1867]).

[3] Colonel Joseph Longworth McAllister (1820–1864) died at Trevyllian’s Station in Virginia.

[4] Dr. Gray’s first cousin Joseph Clay (1838–1914).

[5] Lieut. General William Joseph Hardee (1815–1873).

[6] Joe Clay’s brother Thomas Carolin Clay (1841–1897).

[7] Thomas Clay Arnold (1836–1875).

[8] William Elliott Arnold (1839–1883).

[9] See Note 3.

[10] Matilda Willis McAllister (1818–1869) was married to Dr. Gray’s uncle Thomas Savage Clay 1836–49.

[11] Louisa Caroline Gindrat of Bryan County, Georgia (1804–1871) married Richard James Arnold of Providence in 1823.

[12] Dr. Gray’s youngest sister Ellen Gray (1830–1921).

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.

16 thoughts on “‘In the dead of night’

  1. Thanks for this, Scott. I enjoy reading your selections of Regina Shober Gray’s diary. Part of my genealogical quest has been to find the Civil War era ancestors, and it’s been a fascinating but sad experience to learn of uncles and cousins who were killed or maimed.

  2. I really appreciate this entry, as it’s a good reminder that the Civil War was not a clear-cut war, but a war that pitted brother against brother in many cases. As I have Northern and Southern ancestry, with people who fought on each side and even split households, it is important to remember this, and that everyone suffered, either physically or emotionally, or both. It was a terrible conflict for all concerned.

  3. What a gift to have Regina Shober Gray’s diary — I love all the entries. This is particularly interesting as it sheds light on how the Civil War was viewed from a Boston perspective — even more so since this family had southern family members. Thanks for sharing, Scott

  4. Thank you, Scott. These entries in particular are both fascinating and especially important today. Also, these remind me of the stories of my father’s family in north-central Missouri, caught between the bushwhackers of the South and the tough Germans in the Union army.

  5. This entry from Regina Gray is interesting because I have the “other side” of the story from the writings of Eliza Caroline Clay, Thomas Savage Clay, Thomas Carolin Clay, and Joseph Longworth McAllister. I am a direct descendant of Matilda McAllister Clay, and I was surprised by Regina Gray’s comment about her—given the fact that her late husband, Thomas Savage Clay (1801-1849), was considered to be a progressive and fair man as a slaveholder. He was brought up near Boston, Massachusetts, and was a graduate of Phillips Academy, Harvard College, and Harvard Law School. The Clay rice plantations were located on the Ogeechee River in Bryan County, Georgia (now called “The Ford Plantation” in Richmond Hill, Georgia). His “Detail of a Plan for the Moral Improvement of Negroes on Plantations” (1833) deals with responsibilities of a slaveholder to provide education and missionaries, adequate food, clothing, shelter, housing, and land for the enslaved to do their own farming of chickens, pigs, lambs, and small crops for additional food for themselves and for trade. He was against corporal punishment and he never sold any of his enslaved persons – except if they were to marry and live on an adjoining plantation. His sister, Anne Clay, was well-known for ministering to the enslaved people on plantations and teaching them how to read – which was illegal at the time. Eliza Caroline Clay ran the plantations after her brother’s sudden death, and she followed her brother’s example. She was rendered deaf from scarlet fever as a child; her disability did not interfere with her considerable abilities. I transcribed Eliza Caroline Clay’s letters and journals in my book, Shades of Gray.

    The “powerful battery” mentioned was a small cannon placed near the boat landing at Richmond-on-Ogeechee. In December 1864, Eliza Caroline Clay hastily packed up what could fit on the farm wagons and took everyone on the plantation to Joseph Clay’s farm in Boston, Georgia – near the Florida border. They all returned to what was left of Richmond later in 1865. Sherman’s troops burned the main house, rice mill, and barns, but they did not burn the slave cabins; the Clays let their “people” remain on the land—which was unusual. After the war, Matilda’s son, Thomas Carolin Clay, brought food, clothing, and supplies to those who elected to stay on the former plantation for many years.

    Col. Joseph Longworth McAllister led the 7th Regiment of Georgia Cavalry on its deployment into the Shenandoah Valley to stop McClellan’s advance on Richmond, Virginia. The largest all-cavalry battle of the war occurred on June 11-12, 1864 at Trevillian’s Station, near Louisa, Virgina. McAllister’s regiment was overwhelmed by Custer’s Michigan troops on the first day of the battle, and McAllister was killed. (Visitors to the area can take a driving tour of the battlegrounds.) In December 1864, his sisters and step-mother left Strathy Hall, the McAllister plantation on the Ogeechee, for north Georgia. The Union officers who rode into the plantation knew the McAllister family from summers in Newport, Rhode Island, and spared the house from burning; it survives today. It was looted, of course. Surprising to some, Strathy Hall is a very small house—not a grand “Tara” of Gone With The Wind—but a typical example of Low Country architecture of the early 1800s.

    1. Scott, this is a wonderful entry to read in Regina’s diary. I have been trying to piece together what role my great, great grandfather, William Gray, (Regina’s brother-in-law) played in Boston before, during and after the Civil War, knowing that his mother was a Clay from Georgia and his Aunt Eliza was running the plantation. Regina’s perspective is a rich addition to the picture.

      Thank you to Carolyn Clay Swiggart for the excellent additional information (above) from the writings of the Clay family (and thank you, Carolyn, for the book, Shades of Gray. I keep it handy.) I know from the letters of Frances Gray (my great-grandmother and Regina’s niece she mentions frequently) that in the decades after the war she was in touch with two Thomas Clay cousins who came to New York City one to live, the other to go to medical school. I am not sure why any knowledge of our Clay ancestors stopped cold with my grandmother, Frances Gray’s daughter, Violet. My guess is that since Violet’s husband was one of the early members of the NAACP and one of the founders of the ACLU, she decided to bury knowledege of her slave-owning ancestors. A pity, but such are the fascinating complexities of family history. Regina’s diaries capture this so well. Thank you for publishing them.

      1. Pat, there is an enormous amount of material on William Gray in the Regina Shober Gray diary — he was just about the most important member of the Boston Gray family, from Mrs. Gray’s perspective, of any outside her immediate family. I would definitely urge you to have a look at the manuscript diary.

        1. I gather that the only way to look at the diary is there, not online. I am eager to come to Boston to see it–either early November or next April when we will visit there with my cousin Evan Thomas (he has written many biographies and earlier profiles for Newsweek) who is fascinated by our Boston roots and especially the three William Gray’s starting with Billy Gray, Salem and Boston ship-owner about whom much is known. William Rufus Gray his son is not. William Gray, his son who appears in the diary, is written up in numerous newspaper accounts over the years about his political and philanthropic activities. My grandmother visited him and her grandmother Gray frequently as a girl. My great grandmother, Frances, his daughter writes movingly of his death. So I am eager to know more!

    2. Carolyn, by the time this entry was written the Civil War was winding down — even as the rhetoric around it was peaking. Mrs. Gray’s view of Mrs. Clay is, of course, her own — I’m not sure that the former had, as yet, visited Strathy Hall. It may only be in comparison to Eliza Clay that Matilda Clay comes up short!

      1. Hi Scott- I ‘d love to know when Regina Gray had met Matilda Clay and how that visit went! Any clues in RSG’s diaries? I do not have any letters of MMcAC, and am now very curious about her.

        1. I don’t remember there being any mention of a meeting in the 1860-65 diary — perhaps it occurred in the 1850s, before the diary was undertaken. (Mrs. Gray had met Matilda’s children, Joe and Tom, before the war.) The source might be Matilda’s sister-in-law (Mrs. Gray’s mother-in-law), or perhaps Aunt Eliza — but I think the only reference to a Georgia visit occurs in the 1870s, when Dr. and Mrs. Gray wintered down south.

  6. Hi Pat– Southern roots are deep and far-reaching! You mention the two cousins – both were named Thomas Savage Clay. T. Savage Clay was a broker at Hard & Rand in NYC (never married), and Thomas S. Clay, MD (as they were known) became a surgeon and practiced in Sav’h. Both were namesakes of their grandfather, whose mother was a descendant of Major Thomas Savage of Boston.

    1. Hi Carolyn–Thanks for confirming who these cousins were. In her letters my grandmother about T. Savage Clay, the broker. They are a bit confusing and only give me her perspective on him, of course. In her letters, I gather he was supporting a house for sailors? who drank too much. Later he gets very sick and was in the hospital for weeks. It is unclear what it was.
      The biggest mystery from her letters is who the Clay was who had triplets.
      She even suggests that since they had no money, she thinks perhaps they should give one away! Do you know of this cousin?

      1. Triplets? I’ll have to look on the chart by Montgomery Cumming– nobody from the Sav’h branch had triplets – or even twins – that I know of.

        T. Savage Clay carried on the missionary spirit of the family. Apart from his day job, he donated time and money to an organization (Lighthouse?) that helped the indigent, homeless, and alcoholics in downtown NYC.

        William Rufus Gray was a merchant. Thomas Savage Clay (1801-1849) sent several shipments of rice to him in Boston.

        1. I believe those shipments went to William Gray, WRG’s son. Wm Gray is also Regina’s brother-in-law who, it seems from the diary, was quite generous toward her family and close to. Wm. Gray owned cotton textile mills by 1843. He was not an abolitionist, likely for this reason. He was the head of the committee in Boston to send money and supplies to Savannah immediately after Sherman sacked the Richmond plantation of his Aunt Eliza.
          (His son Wm Gray worked as Treasure of the mills and in 1886 embezzled half a million from them. He was tracked down in a few days after he fled. They found him in Milton on a hill where he had shot himself. This was full front page news in the New York Times for several days. Fanny Gray Stewart lived in New York City with her husband and children. The embezzler, her brother, was a great friend of her husband. They both designed and raced boats in the America’s cup. Wm Gray’s extravagant living likely brought him down. His father paid off his debt, very quietly and painfully. Wm G

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