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.







Thursday, January 3, 2019

January 2019


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

Volume XVI, Number 1                                                         January 1, 2019

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


‘TO CONSIDERABLE EXPENSE’: Twenty years ago when I was doing research for Saving Monticello, my main goal was to find as much primary-source material as I could to show as conclusively as possible that both Uriah Levy and his nephew Jefferson M. Levy did, indeed, “save” Jefferson’s house and grounds from ruin.

I wound up digging up plenty of letters, newspaper articles, journal entries, official documents and photographs, and other credible evidence to confirm the premise of the book, that the Levys did save Monticello—Uriah during his 1834-62 ownership, and J.M. Levy during his time starting in 1879 when he bought out his uncle’s other heirs and took control of the place, to 1923, when he sold Monticello to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation (now the Thomas Jefferson Foundation), which owns and operates Monticello today.



One piece of confirming evidence I didn’t come across back then was a short article that appeared in The Washington Post on June 2, 1886. I’m guessing it hadn’t been scanned till recently when I found it on the Proquest Historical Newspapers site, which I often check.

The article talks about Jefferson Levy coming to Monticello and having Jefferson’s grave decorated “in a thoroughly satisfactory manner.”

 It ends with a final sentence that nicely jibes with all the other evidence I found. To wit: Levy “has been to considerable expense in repairing Jefferson’s mansion and the house and grounds to-day are almost exactly as they were in Jefferson’s time.”  

Also in that vein, I recently came across an 1888 WP article describing that year’s Fourth of July celebration at Monticello. I had read several accounts of what JML did to commemorate the Fourth at Monticello. Here’s how I put it in the book:

“Nearly every Fourth of July Jefferson Levy made a point of appearing at Monticello and hosting Independence Day ceremonies. He would assemble the farm employees and guests and read the Declaration of Independence from Jefferson’s music stand on Monticello’s front steps.* After 1889, [his overseer] Frederick Rhodes built catapults and scaffolds for displays of fireworks. Often, a band came from Charlottesville to play patriotic tunes.”

This 1888 article, which I hadn’t seen till late last year, includes some details I hadn’t known. First, that Jefferson Levy had Thomas Jefferson’s grave “covered with elaborate floral decorations.” And that on this occasion Levy read the Declaration of Independence at “the hour of noon” to a “large and distinguished party of guests”—not from outside on the steps, but inside “in the main hall of the mansion.”



*THE FRONT STEPS: When I wrote those words I missed the fact that in Jeffersonian architectural terms, there are no “front steps” or “back steps” at Monticello since neither of the two entrances is the house’s “front.” Instead, Monticello has an East Front and a West Front.
Here’s a good explanation of the no-front-or-back entrance nomenclature situation from the good folks at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation:

“When most people think of Monticello, they envision the dome and west-facing, columned portico shown on the nickel (photo below). But the dome and West Portico are not, strictly speaking, the ‘front’ of the house. In fact, Jefferson never spoke of a single ‘front.’ Instead he spoke of both an ‘East Front’ and a ‘West Front.’



“As in Jefferson’s day, visitors today enter through the columned portico of the East Front into the Entrance Hall. Presumably only the family and their guests ever used the door on the West Front, which opens into the Parlor. http://bit.ly/MonticelloFronts

EVENTS: No events in January as I continue researching my next book, a house history of historic Huntland, here in Middleburg, Virginia. The pub date will be early in 2020.



Meanwhile, there may be 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.