Monday, August 12, 2019

August 2019


Saving Monticello: The Newsletter
The latest about the book, author events, and more
Newsletter Editor - Marc Leepson

Volume XVI, Number 8                                                         August 1, 2019

The study of the past is a constantly evolving, never-ending journey of discovery.” – Eric Foner


A DARK AND PIERCING EYE:Uriah P. Levy was an intelligent, ambitious, tempestuous, bold, extravagant, physically powerful man who was a success in virtually every endeavor he undertook.”

That’s as close as I came in Saving Monticello to a physical description of the first member of the Levy family to own (and save) Thomas Jefferson’s iconic home. I figured that the cropped, head-and-shoulders detail from the full-length portrait of Uriah Levy that we reproduced in the book would speak for itself in that regard.



Plus, I hadn’t found any letters or newspaper or magazine articles or any other primary sources that described the man. So I was pleasantly surprised that a recently digitized April 1834 Boston Post article written by its Washington correspondent about UPL’s donation of the bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson to the nation contains a capsule description of the then U.S. Navy lieutenant, including several physical characteristics.

After providing details about Levy’s donation of the statue, the correspondent rhetorically asked: “Who, you will ask, is the donor?” He answered by writing that Levy “was a native of Philadelphia, and a resident of Virginia.” Levy actually resided in New York City, but was just about to buy Monticello from its then owner, James Turner Barclay. Uriah Levy bought the place to use as a second home, and as a reflection of his admiration for Thomas Jefferson.  

The correspondent then felt he had to let people know Uriah Levy’s religion, writing that he “is a descendant of the Maccabees, and a countryman of Isiah,” his way of saying that Levy was Jewish.
The article went on to say that UPL was “known as a valiant officer, and an accomplished gentlemen.” Then came the first contemporary physical description I’ve seen: “He is about the middling height, say 5 feet 9—finely proportioned, dark complexion, with nothing very peculiar in his countenance but a dark and piercing eye.”




The article—that’s its last paragraph above—guessed Levy’s age as “apparently from thirty-seven to forty.” He actually was about to turn 42, having been born on April 22, 1792.

The long last sentence’s tone struck me as something of an Early Republic echo of the current national debate over immigration. The correspondent says that because of what he called Uriah Levy’s “so much of foreign accent” from spending and mustache, Levy “would not be taken for an American,” but his sterling qualities give him an “undisputed claim to American birth and citizenship.”

That and the fact that he was born in Philadelphia—and was a fifth-generation American.

THIS JUST IN: I found that Boston Post article on the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America page, a regularly updated historical newspaper database that’s searchable at  https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov

As I was searching “Uriah Levy” from 1834-79, I also came across the first newspaper article I’d ever seen announcing the news that Jefferson Monroe Levy, UPL’s nephew, had bought out the other heirs to his uncle’s estate and purchased Monticello on March 20, 1879.

The clipping below is the entire article from the Richmond Dispatch of March 21, 1879, the day after J.M. Levy ended seventeen years of legal wrangling among his uncle’s wife, his siblings and their spouses, and his nieces and nephews over the terms of his will.



The will left Monticello to the people of the United States to be used as an agricultural school for the orphans of Navy warrant officers. That didn’t go over well with the heirs, who filed two petition lawsuits (in New York and Virginia) that eventually went to the Supreme Courts of both states. Finally, in 1879, the courts ruled that Monticello should be auctioned off.

In the interim, Jefferson Levy had purchased the Monticello inheritance shares from some of the other heirs, including Uriah’s widow, Virginia Lopez Levy Ree; her new husband William J. Ree; Jefferson Levy’s mother and father, Jonas P. and Fanny Levy; and Virginia Ree’s brother George Washington Lopez of Spanishtown, Jamaica.  

While Jefferson Levy did, indeed, repair the place, he never turned it into a “summer resort,” as the article predicted.

EVENTS: I’m still in all-but full-time writing mode for my next book, and won’t have another event for any of my books in August.

On Saturday, September 21, however, I will be doing a “Shabbat Lift” talk on Saving Monticello at Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, New York. The event is free and open to the public.
I’m particularly excited about this talk because Harley Lewis (Jefferson Levy’s great grandniece), who helped me more than anyone as I researched and wrote the book, will be in the audience in this, her synagogue. For more info, go to http://bit.ly/KolAmiMonticello or email alisonadler@nykolami.org  

There’s always the chance that I may have a last-minute talk or signing. For the latest on that, or to check out my scheduled 2019 events, go to the Events page on my website at http://bit.ly/Eventsandtalks

If you’d like to arrange an event for Saving Monticello, or for any of my other books, email me. For info on my latest book, Ballad of the Green Beret, go to http://bit.ly/GreenBeretBook



GIFT IDEAS:  Want a personally autographed, brand-new paperback copy of Saving Monticello? Please e-mail me at marcleepson@gmail.com  I also have a few as-new, unopened hardcover copies, along with a good selection of brand-new copies of my other books.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

July 2019





Saving Monticello: The Newsletter
The latest about the book, author events, and more
Newsletter Editor - Marc Leepson

Volume XVI, Number 7                                                         July 1, 2019

The study of the past is a constantly evolving, never-ending journey of discovery.” – Eric Foner

URIAH LEVY’S DEEDS: If you’ve ever been to downtown Norfolk, Virginia, chances are you’ve driven by—if not visited—the striking Hampton Roads Naval Museum, which sits on the Elizabeth River and includes the massive, World War II battleship, the U.S.S. Wisconsin.  

I just learned through a new posting on the museum’s website that the museum has in its collection a much (much) smaller Navy object that I had not known existed:

A julep silver cub that Uriah Levy received after he came home from the War of 1812—having been imprisoned along with the rest of the crew of his chip, The Argus—in England for sixteen  months.



The cup (below) is engraved with Levy’s initials, along with a Latin inscription, Dant Facta Hanc Coronam (“Deeds gave this crown). As I wrote in Saving Monticello, Jefferson M. Levy had that motto emblazoned—along with a French-style coat of arms of two laurel sprays enclosing the letter “L”—on the headboard of a bed in one of the upstairs rooms at Monticello that JML used as a dressing room and clothes closet.



 Hampton Roads Naval Museum educator Alicia Pullen, who wrote the excellent post, correctly notes that neither the motto nor the crest appears “in either Levy’s maternal or paternal line, which suggested that Uriah Levy may have created the insignia to celebrate his 1814 release from English military prison.”  

The base of the cup, she points out, is engraved with the date “1814, likely celebrating Levy’s return home.”  

Her post goes on to briefly recount UPL’s post-1814 Navy career (he died in service in 1862), noting that his promotion to Captain in 1844 was “uncommon in the Navy, having started as a cabin boy [on a merchant ship] and promoted to captain.” She also talks about the antisemitism he faced in the Navy and Uriah Levy’s ultimately successful campaign to end flogging.

Pullen notes that perhaps Levy’s “most significant contribution to the American people” was his “effort to preserve, conserve, and repair President Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello.”  

And she goes on to mention that UPL’s nephew Jefferson Levy took control of the property in 1879 after it went into a second period of decline. Her conclusion is right on the mark: “The Levys’ efforts in restoring one of the nation’s most notable historic landmarks demonstrated their devotion and understanding for historic preservation as a way of maintaining the legacy of its leaders and the past.”

You can read the entire post—which includes a reference to Saving Monticello—at http://bit.ly/UriahCup




EVENTS: I’m still in seven-day-a-week writing mode for my next book, and won’t have another public event for any of my books in July.  



There’s always the chance that I may have a last-minute talk or signing, though. For the latest on that, or to check out my scheduled 2019 events, go to the Events page on my website at https://leepsoncalendar.blogspot.com

If you’d like to arrange an event for Saving Monticello, or for any of my other books, email me. For info on my latest book, Ballad of the Green Beret, go to http://bit.ly/GreenBeretBook

GIFT IDEAS:  Want a personally autographed, brand-new paperback copy of Saving Monticello? Please e-mail me at marcleepson@gmail.com  I also have a few as-new, unopened hardcover copies, along with a good selection of brand-new copies of my other books.




Friday, June 7, 2019

June 2019


Saving Monticello: The Newsletter
The latest about the book, author events, and more
Newsletter Editor - Marc Leepson

Volume XVI, Number 6                                                         June 1, 2019

The study of the past is a constantly evolving, never-ending journey of discovery.” – Eric Foner

DEPREDATIONS: Much of what I learned that formed the heart of Saving Monticello came from a myriad of  first-person accounts about the state of the house and its grounds before, during, and after Uriah Levy and his nephew Jefferson Levy owned Thomas Jefferson’s “Essay in Architecture.”

In the last several years, as oceans of newspapers and magazines, official records, and memoirs have been digitized, I’ve uncovered a small stream of hitherto all-but-hidden primary-source evidence dealing with 19th century visits to Monticello Mountain.




I’ve learned some new facts from these sources, but they mainly serve to buttress what I concluded and wrote in the book, that the Levy family repaired, preserved, and restored—that is, they saved—Monticello on two different occasions: 1834-1862 for Uriah, and 1879-1923 for Jefferson M.
That’s the case with a new (to me) account I just discovered of a South Carolina newspaper correspondent’s vist to Monticello in the spring of 1896, twenty-four years into Jefferson Levy’s ownership.

Titled “Monticello: Interesting Description of the Home of Jefferson,” the long, detailed article appeared in at least two S.C. newspapers, the Abbeyville Press and Banner on April 29, 1896, and the Edgewater Advertiser on May 20 that year.

It included an evocative line drawing of the house (above) and a sub-headline that jibes with virtually everything else we know about the Levys’ stewardship of Monticello:

“The Historic Mansion Even to the Interior and Furnishings Preserved Almost as the Great Statesman Left It.”

Well, not almost as Jefferson left it. But Jefferson Levy had done a remarkable job of restoring Monticello by 1896, seventeen years after he bought out Uriah’s other heirs and took control of Monticello. which had fallen into terrible condition during seventeen years of legal wrangling over UPL’s will following his death in 1862.

Our unidentified correspondent was impressed with just about everything he saw. He got his “first glimpse” of the house, he wrote, after reaching the top of the mountain and checking in at the old brick Porter’s Lodge. The visitor drove past the lodge and through an open “iron gateway of modern design,” then rang “the old plantation bell, which announces to the people at the mansion that guests are coming.” The “people” in this case were Jefferson Levy’s superintendent Thomas Rhodes, who moved to Monticello in 1889 to oversee the repairs and restoration of the house and grounds—and his staff.

Rhodes, the writer said, “occupies the old overseer's house, a substantial stone structure just opposite the entrance to the great lawn.” His workers at Monticello were “several colored people, one or two of t claiming to be descendants of Jefferson’s servants.” He very likely was referring to the long-time gatekeeper, Willis Shelton (1835-1902), and to Shelton’s grandson Willis Henderson (1885-1966), who was born at Monticello and worked for Jefferson Levy as a cook and house guide.

Arriving at the house, the correspondent reported that the lawns and shrubbery were “admirably kept, the stone walls and fences are radiant with new whitewash, the old quarters of the house servants are as clean and white as paint can make them and the mansion itself is carefully watched and the least evidence of decay repaired at once.”



The interior, he correctly reported, “has never been disturbed in its arrangement by any of the Levy family. On the contrary, so far as possible, they have endeavored to preserve, even in the furnishings of the house, as much of a similarity to the old furniture as possible.”

He then goes on to describe the interior of the house room-by-room, and gives an expansive tour of the grounds. The correspondent ends with a lament for Thomas Jefferson’s dire fiscal straits, which resulted in him passing on nothing but debt to his family when he died.
Despite “all of the magnificence with which he was surrounded, not withstanding the emoluments of his public career, he died, as the world knows, a poor man, and worse than poor, for he was hopelessly in debt.”

EVENTS: I’m continuing my seven-day-a-week writing mode for my next book, and have just a two June events.

The first is on Friday, June 7 in the historic town of Hillsboro, Virginia, where I will be taking part in a 50th anniversary commemoration called “Woodstock in the Gap,” a two-day event including music, food, local beers and wines—and more. My topic: Woodstook and the Vietnam War. I attended the former and took part in the latter. In fact, I had only been out of the Army for about a month when we trekked up to New York for what we thought was going to just another big rock music festival. Info at http://bit.ly/WoodstockHillsboro

On Saturday, June 8, I’ll be doing a talk on Saving Monticello and book signing at the 40th anniversary luncheon of the Cameron Parish DAR chapter in Reston, Virginia.

Also, I’ll be doing a talk on my Francis Scott Key bio, What So Proudly We Hailed, on Tuesday, July 2, in Washington, D.C. for Pints and Profs at La Pop cultural salon in Adams Morgan. Details to come at http://bit.ly/ProfsJuly2


There’s always the chance that I may have a last-minute talk or signing. For the latest on that, or to check out my scheduled 2019 events, go to the Events page on my website at https://leepsoncalendar.blogspot.com

If you’d like to arrange an event for Saving Monticello, or for any of my other books, email me. For info on my latest book, Ballad of the Green Beret, go to http://bit.ly/GreenBeretBook

GIFT IDEAS:  Want a personally autographed, brand-new paperback copy of Saving Monticello? Please e-mail me at marcleepson@gmail.com  I also have a few as-new, unopened hardcover copies, along with a good selection of brand-new copies of my other books.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

May 2019


Saving Monticello: The Newsletter
The latest about the book, author events, and more
Newsletter Editor - Marc Leepson

Volume XVI, Number 5                                                         May 1, 2019

The study of the past is a constantly evolving, never-ending journey of discovery.” – Eric Foner


GRADE CHANGE: I owe H.C., a mid-19th century New York Times reporter, an apology. In last month’s newsletter, I called him out for writing in March 1866 that Monticello was “a copy of a building Mr. Jefferson saw in Paris, which struck his fancy.”

That statement, I said, was not true.

As I explained it:
“Monticello is not a copy of any one structure. For one thing [Thomas Jefferson], designed and built two houses at Monticello—tearing down most of the first one. For another, he was most influenced by the 16th century Italian architect Andrea Palladio—not by a building he saw in Paris.”
My conclusion: “H.C. gets a D-minus for his knowledge of Monticello’s architectural history.”

I was wrong about that, as I was reminded by my friend Susan Stein, Monticello’s curator, and by my colleague Rick Britton, an esteemed historian in Charlottesville, both long-time subscribers to this newsletter. As Susan gently told me: the second version of Monticello, the “revision,” was “much influenced by several buildings that [Jefferson] saw in France, especially l’Hôtel de Salm, for its one-story appearance and dome. The influence of French neo-classical architecture on [Monticello’s] later design is widely recognized.”

Rick emailed to say the same thing, pointing me to the page on the Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s website that goes into Jefferson’s architectural influences in detail: http://bit.ly/MonticelloDesign
And Susan sent me this image which shows a side-by-side comparison.



So, with apologies to readers, I stand corrected. I hereby raise H.C.’s grade to a B-minus, because I’m an exacting grader and he failed to mention the exact Parisian building that Jefferson saw in Paris, l’Hôtel de Salm.

Said building, by the way, is a magnificent one, inside and out. It’s on the Left Bank facing the Tuileries Gardens. It was completed in 1787 for the German Prince Frederick III (aka the Prince of Salm-Kyrburg), and became the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in 1804 (during Jefferson’s first term as president) under Napoleon Bonaparte.

l’Hôtel de Salm suffered severe damage in an 1871 fire, but seven years later was rebuilt with the same facades. Today it remains the home of the Legion of Honor, aka la Grande Chancellerie de la Legion d’Honneur.  The website is: http://bit.ly/HoteldeSalm

EVENTSI’m in seven-day-a-week writing mode on my next book, and have just two events in May. Both are talks on Saving Monticello. The first is on Monday, May 5, for a retiree group in Charlottesville, one of my favorite places on earth.

The second will be on Thursday, May 16, in New York City. The American Sephardi Federation is sponsoring it at 7:00 at the Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street. Here’s how the ASF is advertising the talk:
Journalist, historian, and author Marc Leepson will present a lively talk (complete with vintage images) of a little-known but important part of Sephardic Jewish-American history and American historic preservation: how U.S. Navy Commodore Uriah P. Levy and his nephew Jefferson M. Levy—who owned Monticello from 1834-1923—on two occasions repaired, restored, and preserved the Thomas Jefferson's iconic house in Charlottesville, Virginia. 



The talk will include a history of the Levy-Phillips-Nunez Family, one of the most accomplished Jewish-American families of the 18th and 19th centuries. It begins with the arrival in 1733 of Dr. Samuel Nunez, a leader of a group of forty Sephardic Jews who fled Portugal and were among the founders of Savannah, Georgia. It includes the biographies of Uriah Levy (a fifth generation American, born in Philadelphia in 1792, who went on to a distinguished career in the U.S. Navy) and his nephew Jefferson Monroe Levy, who was born in New York City, and became a prominent lawyer, a hugely successful real estate and stock speculator, and a three-term member of Congress. The heart of the story is Uriah and Jefferson Levy's stewardship of Monticello, without which the house very likely would not have survived.

I would love to see my NYC friends at the talk. Ticket info at http://bit.ly/May16TalkNYC

There’s always the chance that I may be doing a last-minute talk or signing. For the latest on that, or to check out my scheduled 2019 events, go to the Events page on my website at https://leepsoncalendar.blogspot.com

If you’d like to arrange an event for Saving Monticello, or for any of my other books, email me. For info on my latest book, Ballad of the Green Beret, go to http://bit.ly/GreenBeretBook

GIFT IDEAS:  Want a personally autographed, brand-new paperback copy of Saving Monticello? Please e-mail me at marcleepson@gmail.com  I also have a few as-new, unopened hardcover copies, along with a good selection of brand-new copies of my other books. 



Thursday, April 4, 2019

April 2019


Saving Monticello: The Newsletter
The latest about the book, author events, and more
Newsletter Editor - Marc Leepson

Volume XVI, Number 4                                                         April 1, 2019

The study of the past is a constantly evolving, never-ending journey of discovery.” – Eric Foner


‘ALMOST A DESERTED RUIN’: In my now twenty-year quest to document the post-Thomas-Jefferson history of Monticello, I continue to find newly digitized first-person accounts of 19th century visits to the mountain. I feel gratified to report that these new (to me) primary sources confirm what I wrote about the condition of the place following Jefferson’s death in Saving Monticello.

The latest case-in-point: An article that appeared in The New York Times on March 11, 1866, about a year after the Civil War ended, a time when Monticello was under the care of cantankerous caretaker Joel Wheeler. During this time, the two partition lawsuits filed by Uriah Levy’s heirs (he had died in 1862) were very slowly wending their way through the courts and the house and grounds suffered greatly under Wheeler’s not-so-benign neglect.

The article, entitled “Affairs in the South,” was written by a special correspondent identified only as a “northern traveler,” and the initials “H.C.,” who was making a reporting tour through the former Confederate states. His stop in Charlottesville contains H.C.’s observations as he and a local acquaintance, Judge Alexander Rives, made their way up to Monticello by foot early in March from Rives’ nearbly home. Qwing to recent wet weather, “the roads were bad.” H.C. said, so the two men “took a stroll up the mountain path to the Heights of Monticello.”




In Jefferson’s time, he writes, “Monticello must have been a delightful residence. Now it is almost a deserted ruin, its occupants being a freedman and his family.” There may have been a former enslaved person and his family at Monticello that day, but it’s all but certain that Joel Wheeler, who was white, was the “occupant” of the house at this time. He would remain living there until Jefferson Levy obtained the property in 1879 from the other heirs, and sent him packing.

H.C. goes on to describe the house as “a very peculiar structure, its architecture being a copy of a building Mr. Jefferson saw in Paris, which struck his fancy.” That simply is not true.

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello is not a copy of any one structure. For one thing, he designed and built two houses at Monticello—tearing down most of the first one. For another, he was most influenced by the 16th century Italian architect Andrea Palladio—not by a building he saw in Paris. H.C. gets a D-minus for his knowledge of Monticello’s architectural history.

But his newspaper reporting is much more accurate, as it jibes with virtually every other first-person account of Monticello from the same time. For example, he says the terraces were “rapidly falling into decay,” and that the only furnishings he could see in the parlor were “the old clock over the doorway, and a plaster bust of Jefferson covered with dust.”

The lawn, he wrote, was “a field covered with cornstalks and rubbish.” The “musty smell,” he said, “and the deserted look” of the first-floor rooms “forms a sad contrast to the appearance they represented some forty years ago.” After dissing the narrow stairways and the upstairs bedrooms (“about the worst constructed” he’d “ever seen”), H.C. concluded with this gloomy assessment of Monticello: “Everything about the place is rapidly going to decay.”

There was s silver lining, however. The “house itself, being of very substantial build,” he said, “appears to be in good preservation.”



H.C. and Judge Rives left the house and headed toward the family graveyard. Along the way, H.C. reported that the “timber of the mountain woods was being rapidly diminished,” probably by Joel Wheeler.

The Jefferson family cemetery, which H.C. called a “burying-ground,” was “in a disgraceful state.” Its outside walls were “gradually falling to the ground.” Worse—and there are photographs (such as the one above) that bear this out—was the condition of Jefferson’s tombstone.  Over the years visitors helped themselves to chippings from the stone marker.

With the gate unlocked, H.C. wrote, “ingress can be obtained by every vandal curiosity-hunter disposed to desecrate the tomb of Jefferson for the sake of possessing a chip of the stone monument covering his grave.”

 MONTICELLO’S CABINET: In last month’s newsletter I quoted from an 1861 newspaper article in which a Charleston, South Carolina, newspaper correspondent described a recent visit to Monticello. In his description of the interior of the house, the journalist wrote: “The pencil might delineate, but no words can describe, the exquisite charm of this soft cabinet picture.”

I had no idea what “cabinet” meant in that context. But now I do, as an SM newsletter subscriber—my friend and colleague, the author and former Los Angeles Times art critic Cathy Curtis—emailed to fill me in.

“Beginning in the Renaissance, this was the name for small paintings,” Cathy said, “often of an entire figure,    compressed into the space of a square foot or two, that people kept in a small room, or ‘cabinet.’ The master of the house would have such a room as a private study.”



When I checked, I saw that Jefferson did, indeed, have a room (above) that was known as his cabinet. It’s the small-ish office next to his bedchamber on the first floor. You can get a 360-degree panoramic tour of today’s fully furnished cabinet at this page on Monticello’s website: http://bit.ly/MontCabinet

EVENTS: Just one in April, on the 13th for the Pentagon DAR Chapter in Alexandria, Virginia, on my book, Ballad of the Green Beret: The Life and Wars of Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler.

My main event this month—and in the next dozen or so months—will be writing my next book. It’s another house history, this one about Huntland, a historic house and farm in Middleburg, Virginia. It was built in 1837 by William Benton, who supervised the building of Oak Hill, the nearby residence of President James Monroe.

Huntland is on the National Register of Historic Places (http://bit.ly/Huntland), mainly because of what a son of the Gilded Age, Joseph B. Thomas, did after he bought the place in 1911. Thomas, as the National Register designation—written by my colleague, the great architectural historian Maral Kalbian—puts it: “converted and enlarged a relatively modest but stately brick Virginia country dwelling into a Colonial Revival-style masterpiece. At the same time, Thomas… constructed arguably one of the most sophisticated kennels and stables to accommodate horses and hounds associated with point-to-point foxhunting in the region.”

The history of the house in a way parallels that of Monticello, as Huntland went into a steep period of decline in the 1990s and early 2000s, and was saved from ruin, and beautifully preserved and restored, by the current owner, Betsee Parker.

Following a visit to Huntland a few weeks ago

There’s always the chance that I may be doing a last-minute talk or signing. For the latest on that, or to check out my scheduled 2019 events, go to the Events page on my website at https://leepsoncalendar.blogspot.com

If you’d like to arrange an event for Saving Monticello, or for any of my other books,e email me. For info on my latest book, Ballad of the Green Beret, go to http://bit.ly/GreenBeretBook

GIFT IDEAS:  Want a personally autographed, brand-new paperback copy of Saving Monticello? Please e-mail me at marcleepson@gmail.com  I also have a few as-new, unopened hardcover copies, along with a good selection of brand-new copies of my other books.


Sunday, March 3, 2019

March 2019


Volume XVI, Number 3                                                         March 1, 2019

The study of the past is a constantly evolving, never-ending journey of discovery.” – Eric Foner

‘MONTICELLO AND ITS PRESENT OWNER’: That’s one of the subheads of an article in The Charleston (S.C.) Mercury on August 29, 1861. In it, an unidentified correspondent reports on a trip he made to Virginia, and includes a detailed account of his ride on horseback up the mountain to pay a visit to Monticello.

This is a rare first-person account of Monticello during the Civil, albeit this one came fairly early in the conflict. (I quoted from a memoir of an 1863 account in last month’s newsletter and have some new information on that in the next item, “Two Horses, Bacon, & Flour.”)

The 1861 correspondent, identified only by his initials, “J.D.B.,” rhapsodizes about the scenic beauty he encountered as he made his way up the mountain, saying the “pretty range of hills” and a “magnificent” gorge were as imposing as anything one could encounter in Switzerland.
After passing through “a billowy sweep of corn and wheatland,” he takes a look back at Charlottesville “encircled by the ripe harvests” which “busy mowers are reaping.”


He describes “the soft ‘swath’ of the scythe, the sharp clack of the mill where the circling horses are thrashing out the grain, the brawl of the streamlet, the glow on the distant fields, the dark, dank foliage of the frowning mountain in front,” all of which forms “so sweet a pleasure that one is unwilling to leave it for the hard ascent” to Monticello.

J.D.B. makes his way through a tobacco patch, corn rows, and a “dense” grove of chestnut trees, then climbs and climbs until he finds himself at the entrance to the Jefferson family graveyard. “The iron gate is open,” he says, so the correspondent walked in, glanced at “over a dozen or more marble slabs and head-stones,” and then came upon “a gray granite pyramid,” Jefferson’s “tomb.” There “is no name on it,” he says, “only the dates of birth and death.”

Then he follows “a narrow path through the field” to “the front of the old mansion which crowns the brow of Mount Monticello.” He finds the house “built of good, durable brick, which has stood the ravages of the weather remarkably.” The “smooth shaven and well wooded lawn,” he writes, “encircle” the entire house.

The correspondent does not describe meeting or conversing with any individuals during his unannounced visit to Monticello. He talks about walking up to the Northeast Portico, the formal entrance where visitors today start the Monticello house tour.


He takes note of “a large compass” attached to “the ceiling of the portico.” That would be a compass rose (above) that Jefferson had installed there. It was connected to the weather vane, which is still on the portico’s roof and can be seen in the photo—a Jeffersonian invention that allowed the former president (and amateur meteorologist) to read wind direction from inside the house.

J.D.B. also describes the exterior face of the Great Clock, which is above the arched windows and doors (in photo below), which contains just the hour hand. Oddly, the correspondent reports that he saw two hands, and that the clock was not working. As he put it: “Immediately over” the door “stands the dial of the old family clock, whose gilded hands refuse to mark time for the more recent owner of the venerable mansion.”


The “property,” the correspondent writes, “is now in the possession of a Captain Levy, United States Navy; and as the United States has confiscated the Pennsylvania estates of [former Virginia U.S.] Senator Mason, Virginia might well retaliate by handing over this ancestral property to the nearest lineal descendant of its illustrious founder.”

J.D.B. evidently was not aware that Uriah Levy held the rank of Commodore (the highest in the Navy at the time), and had been in the possession of Monticello since 1834. As for his suggestion that “Virginia” confiscate the house, the state never did, but the Confederate States of America, under its Sequestration Act, did take possession of Monticello, but not until November of 1864. That, again, is another story, and one I go into detail about in the book.

After suggesting that Virginia take Monticello from Levy, J.D.B. ended his article by enthusing about the “transcendently beautiful” view from the Mountain.

“The pencil might delineate,” he wrote, “but no words can describe, the exquisite charm of this soft cabinet picture.”

Not sure what “cabinet” means in this context. I welcome suggestions from readers.

‘TWO HORSES, BACON & FLOUR’: In last month’s newsletter issue I quoted from a rare account of Confederate troops taking a break from the Civil War in the fall of 1863 to have a picnic at Monticello.

I pointed out that, luckily, no fighting of consequence took place at or near Monticello during the Civil War, and that the house and grounds escaped the fate of so many places in Virginia that were severely damaged or destroyed during the war.

I mentioned that Union Gen. Philip Sheridan and 5,000 of his cavalrymen under the command of George Armstrong Custer occupied the city for three days, from March 3-5, 1865, and that—despite fears from the citizenry—they did not run amok, ransack, or burn the University of Virginia or Monticello.

What I hadn’t known was that some of Sheridan’s troops did, indeed, make a foray up to the mountain to Monticello on March 4. I learned that from Bill Bergen, the outstanding Monticello guide who emailed with the details, which may be found in an entry on Monticello and the Civil War in the Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s online “Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia” at http://bit.ly/MontCivilWar

Noting that there are few surviving records dealing with Albemarle County under the Confederacy before September of 1864—and fewer still about the condition of Monticello during the war—the entry goes on to say: “The oft-repeated story that Confederate soldiers (who were as capable as any others in such matters) looted the house and carried away thousands of dollars’ worth of furniture has no basis in fact.

“A Union army detachment of around 20 soldiers under General Philip Sheridan did conduct a raid on Monticello on March 4, 1865. According to an official claim by Joel Wheeler, the men took two horses, bacon, and flour.”

Joel Wheeler was the caretaker (who did not take very good care of the place) at Monticello from the mid-1830s until he was relieved of his duties in 1879 when Jefferson M. Levy gained control of the place. That’s another story—and one I relate in detail in the book.


EVENTS: My March events:

·         A talk and book signing on the history of the American flag, based on my book, Flag: An American Biography, for the Falls Church, Virginia DAR chapter on Saturday, March 23

·         A Thursday, March 28, talk and book signing on two of my books, Desperate Engagement—the story of the Civil War Battle of Monocacy and Jubal Early’s July 11, 1864 attack on Washington, D.C., and Ballad of the Green Beret, my 2017 biography of Army Sgt. Barry Sadler—for the ElderStudy program at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. For info, call 540-654-1769 or email info@ElderStudy.com

·         Another talk and book signing on Desperate Engagement on Sunday, March 31, in Washington, D.C., for Profs & Pints at the Bier Baron Tavern, 1523 22nd St. N.W. The event is open to the public. For info, go to profsandpints.com or email profsandpints@hotmail.com 






There’s always the chance that I may be doing a last-minute talk or signing. For the latest on that, or to check out my scheduled 2019 events, go to the Events page on my website at https://leepsoncalendar.blogspot.com


If you’d like to arrange an event for Saving Monticello—or for any of my other books, including Ballad of the Green Beret—please email me. For info on my latest book, Ballad of the Green Beret, go to http://bit.ly/GreenBeretBook

GIFT IDEAS:  Want a personally autographed, brand-new paperback copy of Saving Monticello? Please e-mail me at marcleepson@gmail.com  I also have a few as-new, unopened hardcover copies, along with a good selection of brand-new copies of my other books.

Monday, February 4, 2019

February 2019




Saving Monticello: The Newsletter
The latest about the book, author events, and more
Newsletter Editor - Marc Leepson

Volume XVI, Number 2                                                         February 1, 2019

The study of the past is a constantly evolving, never-ending journey of discovery.” – Eric Foner

THE CIVIL WAR AT MONTICELLO: It’s difficult to throw a rock in the Commonwealth of Virginia and not hit a spot where some sort of Civil War event took place. Virginia was the scene of four years of troop movements and scores of battles and skirmishes, including the first and last significant engagements of the war—at First Manassas and Appomattox Court House. Virginia saw more than its share of the largest and bloodiest battles: at Chancellorsville, Cold Harbor, the Crater (at Petersburg), Fredericksburg (twice), Manassas (twice), Spotsylvania Court House, and The Wilderness.

Luckily for its preservation—and as I noted in Saving Monticello—no fighting of consequence took place near Monticello during the war even though Charlottesville played an important support role for the Confederate Army. In a city in which the white citizenry was solidly behind the southern cause, several Charlottesville businesses provided clothing, supplies, and weapons for the Confederate Army. There was a 500-bed military hospital in the city and large shipments of supplies came through town via the railroad.

Gen. Philip Sheridan and staff, including Geo. Armstrong Custer (right)

Near the end of the war, Gen. Philip Sheridan’s Union troops, with some 5,000 cavalrymen under the command of George Armstrong Custer, occupied the city briefly, arriving on March 3, 1865. There were fears that the conquering Union troops would wreak havoc in the city, including burning the University of Virginia. That did not happen.

Instead, University and city officials met the Union leaders as they entered Charlottesville, and “surrendered the town with medieval ceremony,” Sheridan wrote in his memoirs, “formally handing over the keys of the public buildings and the University of Virginia.” Custer’s men went on to burn a mill in the city that made Confederate uniforms, destroyed several railroad bridges, and did some relatively minor confiscating of food (and beverages). As Sheridan put it in his after-action report: “Forage and subsistence were found in great abundance in the vicinity of Charlottesville.”

He had stopped in Charlottesville, Sheridan wrote, “for the purpose of resting, refitting, and destroying the railroad.” He sent raiding parties “well out toward Gordonsville to break the railroad, and also about fifteen miles toward Lynchburg for the same purpose… A thorough and systematic destruction of the railroads was then commenced, including the large iron bridges over the North and South Forks of the Rivanna River, and the work was continued until the evening of the 5th….”
When Sheridan’s men left town on March 6, 1865, they headed south toward Scottsville. Among other things, they took with them a significant number of formerly enslaved people who took advantage of the opportunity to free themselves.


African Americans, fleeing slavery, crossing the Rappahannock River in 1862.
 (Library of Congress photo)
The Union troops did not make a detour to Monticello, heading eventually to Petersburg, and then to take part in the surrender at Appomattox, about sixty miles south of Charlottesville on April 9. 

Starting in the fall of 1861, Confederate soldiers recuperating from their wounds in C’ville did journey up the mountain and had picnics at Monticello. I didn’t go into detail about those rest and recreational visits in Saving Monticello, other than to say that it wasn’t uncommon for visitors back then to write their names on the walls of the upstairs dome room and to take souvenir chippings from Jefferson’s tombstone in the family graveyard.

I recently came across a description of a Confederate troop Monticello picnic in the fall of 1863, one I had not seen when doing the research for the book. The day on the mountain included a “tournament,” according to Louise Wigfall Wright in her 1905 book, A Southern Girl in ’61: The War-time Memories of a Confederate Senator’s Daughter.

“Some of the Knights—with only one arm to use—[held] reins in the teeth and dash[ed] valiantly at the rings with wooden sticks, improvised as spears for the occasion,” she wrote.

Wright—whom one observer described as “a wealthy young woman on the highest rungs of Southern society” and a proponent of the “Lost Cause” theory—noted that a “gallant colonel” who lost an eye “in his country’s service” was in attendance, wearing an “unsightly” black eye patch as a “badge of honor.” She also described a “boy captain” at the picnic wearing an “old ragged faded jacket” with a hole in it where a “minie ball had just missed the brave heart beneath it.”

EVENTS: Three of my four February events include talks on Saving Monticello. They will take place at:
  •         the annual meeting on Saturday, February 9, of the Potomac Hundred DAR chapter in Rockville, Maryland
  •          the Winter luncheon of the D.C. chapter of the Society of Mayflower Descendants on Sunday, February 10 in McLean, Virginia
  •          the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia, in Fairfax, Virginia, beginning at 12:30 on Tuesday, February 26. That talk and book signing is part of the “Founding Fathers and Their Homes” series and is open to the public. For more info, go to http://bit.ly/JCCNVMonticello email shari.berman@jccnv.org or call 703-537-3068
  •          On Tuesday, February 12, I will be doing a talk on the history of the American flag, based on my book, Flag: An American Biography, at the Lincoln’s Birthday luncheon in Alexandria, Virginia, following the official ceremonies at the Lincoln Memorial.


There’s always the chance that I may be doing a last-minute talk or signing. For the latest on that, or to check out my scheduled 2019 events, go to the Events page on my website at https://leepsoncalendar.blogspot.com

If you’d like to arrange an event for Saving Monticello—or for any of my other books, including Ballad of the Green Beret—please email me.
For info on my latest book, Ballad of the Green Beret, go to http://bit.ly/GreenBeretBook

GIFT IDEAS:  Want a personally autographed, brand-new paperback copy of Saving Monticello? Please e-mail me at marcleepson@gmail.com  I also have a few as-new, unopened hardcover copies, along with a good selection of brand-new copies of my other books: Flag: An American Biography; Desperate Engagement; What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, a Life; and Ballad of the Green Beret: The Life and Wars of Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler.