Review - A Savannah Family
A Savannah Family
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Review from The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Volume LXXXIV, Summer 2000, Number 2, pages 333–335:

“A Savannah Family, 1830–1901. Compiled and edited by Anna Habersham Wright Smith. (Milledgeville: Boyd Publishing, 1999, pp. 308. Illustrations, appendix, index. $29.68. ISBN 1-890307-26-2)

In the late summer of 1863, thirty-two-year-old Leila Mackay Elliott Habersham of Savannah composed an account of the life of her husband, Fred Habersham, killed in the Battle of Chancellorsville. A descendent, Anna Habersham Wright Smith, has brought to life this remarkable document, complete with notes and genealogy, enabling the general reader to enter into the world of Savannah’s antebellum elite and take the measure of how an aristocratic family made sense of the tragedy of war. The author interwove letters from her husband and others into her own writing, giving it a telling freshness and sense of immediacy.

From the first generation onwards, the Habersham and Mackay families stood at the apex of the social world that dominated Georgia’s largest town: early settlers of the new colony, merchants, royal officials, plantation owners, leading Patriots, the first Postmaster General of the United States, slave traders, rice and cotton factors, marriage alliances with virtually every family of prominence in the Coastal Empire, and a friendship with the young Robert E. Lee that came close to a marriage.

In the nearly two hundred pages of the sketch, Leila Mackay Elliott Habersham, granddaughter of Robert Mackay and great-granddaughter-in-law of the redoubtable James Habersham, describes what it meant to be at the top of the social world in the Savannah of the 1850s: being rowed to Daufuskie Island with members of their wedding party (twenty-one in number) for a week of entertainment on the Mongin plantation, the family friendship with Robert E. Lee, frequent parties and ‘gaities’ in Savannah, furniture and jewelry bought in New York, summers in Cass (now Bartow) County, Fred’s careful attention to appearance (‘the most particular man in the world as regards his dress’ [p.75]), and the occasional hunting trips to Ossabaw island for days at a time. A thoughtful husband, Habersham worked conscientiously in the counting room, took his duties as father seriously, kept a discrete distance from organized religion, and exhibited a style of living that made him considerably more comfortable with a New Yorker than a resident of Macon or Augusta.

The war severely tested those values, for Habersham attempted to hold tight to his aristocratic principles while embracing a heady and heartfelt Confederate nationalism. In the late spring of 1861, he encamped with his cavalry unit, made up of young gentlemen, on Skidaway Island, where their lifestyle more nearly resembled that of an elegant hunting party. When part of the Hussars left for Virginia, he elected to stay with his wife, but, by January 1862, decided he could no longer sit in an office while others fought for ‘my liberty & my peace’ (p.76). Thus began a twelve-month quest for an officer’s position. Election was no easy matter. From Virginia, an old friend, Captain Read, nominated him for a position as lieutenant, but the battle-hardened soldiers chose an Irish bartender from Savannah. Habersham gamely joined the company as a volunteer, paying his own expenses and messing with the officers. He declined a position with a Savannah company, writing his wife, ‘nothing but the field & Yankee blood will answer for me’ (p.89). He, together with a wealthy uncle, paid his way across the battlefields of Virginia. ‘I have the position of a gentleman,’ he explained to Leila, ‘and can serve my country as well here as in any other capacity and will stay here as long as my money lasts and then, commission or home!’ (p.100)

In the spring of 1863, he found a position as lieutenant with an artillery company [Fred was unanimously elected to the position of Lieutenant by the members of Read’s Battery and sought out by Captain Read to fill the position. His acceptance by the men of the battery gave him great satisfaction.] and shortly thereafter died a brave death at Chancellorsville. The remaining forty-one pages of the sketch record how tragedy called forth feelings that transcended class or place: the misery and desolation of Leila Habersham, the sympathy and devotion of countless cousins, the importance of establishing the least detail of how the death occurred, the blustering call for revenge by those still serving, the last look through his war chest, hoping for some few lines of writing, and the anguish of finding only a small picture of herself stained with his blood.

The remainder of the book offers selected letters and writings from other family members, stretching from Charleston Harbor in 1863, Sherman’s March and the fall of Savannah, her brother’s return from Virginia at war’s end, and Leila’s sad but proud life until her death in 1901.
Of interest to the general reader and historian alike, these writings belong to the rich collection of material already published that, together, portray the lives of five generations of the Mackay family, from the quixotic Don Juan McQueen in the 1790s to Robert Mackay and his wife in the early 1800s to Leila Habersham in the 1860s and, finally, to a great-granddaughter of Robert and Eliza McQueen Mackay for the late nineteenth century. The Georgia Chapter of the National Society of The Colonial Dames deserves special praise for helping make possible these valuable publications.

Principal, Savannah Country Day School
[Note: Fred & Leila’s family line died out, making their story all the more poignant. The comment about Macon and Augusta is purely the opinion of the Reviewer. AHWS]

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From Todd Groce, Executive Director of the Georgia Historical Society, Savannah GA, 3/20/2000:
“Dear Anna, Just finished reading A Savannah Family and wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed it! The account is most interesting, as are your judicious footnotes. You filled in the background & gave the reader just the right kind & amount of information on the people & places in Leila’s & Frederic’s lives. Well done! I have recommended it to several people. Thank you for the book—Todd.”

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From Mrs. Edward Brinley, Thompson, CT, 5/18/2000:
“Dear Clermont (Lee): … Leila’s story gave me a great deal of pleasure and I thank you for sharing it with the world. Eugenia Price would have ‘drooled’ if she had her hands on the manuscript. All the stories from the Civil War, both North and South are terrible, but Leila’s was heart breaking. As I read along I felt like she was my friend, probably because of all the things you have told us about the Mackay family. And of course our trips to the South made us familiar with Georgia and South Carolina towns… As far as the footnotes: I thought they were wonderfully researched and well written. I skimmed some, as I abhor war and get no pleasure in reading about it. Smith did a superb job and I’m grateful to the Dames for taking on the Project… It’s nice to know that if the originals disappear the story is preserved in 1000 copies.”

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From Dr. William Montgomery Gabard, Valdosta GA, 6/12/2000:
“Dear Anna, Your book A Savannah Family is a splendid work, and I congratulate you for such an accomplishment. I especially commend you for those excellent explanatory footnotes. Too, the book is remarkably free of errors… I have enjoyed reading your book during my illness… Once again, my heartfelt congratulations for an excellent book… Sincerely Bill.”

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From Mrs. Leon S. Dure lll, Athens, GA, 2/16/2000:
“Dear Anna, We had a rainy Saturday in Athens, so I picked up my copy of A Savannah Family & began to read. Now—four days later—I have been unable to put it down! I’ve neglected all of my household duties and such, as I’m captivated by the tender words of Leila & Fred. What a marvelous tale of love, loyalty and duty this is. I am so grateful to you for compiling the documents & sharing them with the world. I will present a copy of the book to our speaker on Thursday… Also our Town Committee will present a copy to the Athens/Clarke Co. Library. Must go plan tomorrow’s meeting so that I can get back to the book—Fred has headed back to the war and I know tragedy looms… Many thanks for this masterpiece of work. Sincerely, Meg Gunn Dure, Athens Town Committee Chairman (NSCDA in the State of Georgia).”

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From Arthur Barrow, West Palm Beach FL, 1/17/2000:
“Dear Clermont (Lee), …I finished the “Book” last week… It is an amazing book that I thoroughly enjoyed, finding it well done and most enjoyable… I have always been a Civil War buff so the parts about Fred’s experiences and the replies were exceptionally good. What a terrible time those guys went through themselves as well as their womenfolk left at home…”

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From Arnell L. Engstrom, a retired geophysicist living in Dallas, Texas, June 30, 2000:
Dear Mrs. Anna Habersham Wright Smith,
“… I found the experiences of Lt. Frederic Habersham and your other ancestor war participants to be particularly interesting. It is clear that the educated people of that time wrote as well—or likely better—than their modern counterparts. Even for someone like me—who not only was not related to any of your ancestors, but had never even heard of them, save Brig. Gen. Stephen Elliott—such was the descriptive prose of their correspondence that even I could feel the anguish and sorrow the family and extended family members obviously felt when they learned of the death in battle of Lt. Habersham…
Good luck in any future literary endeavors you may undertake.”

Arnell L. Engstrom review 5 July 2000:
A Savannah Family, 1830–1901. This book focuses mainly on the effects of the American Civil War (1861–65) on an old-time extended family in Savannah, Georgia, and environs. The author has compiled and edited a series of mostly letters and some newspaper articles put together in a ‘sketch’ by an ancestral Confederate widow in 1863 so that her young children, in later life, could better know and understand their father and the temper of those war turbulent times. The author, Mrs. Anna Habersham Wright Smith, succeeds admirably in conveying the story of how her ancestors and their friends in Georgia were impacted by—and they, in turn, impacted—the Southern war effort. Especially interesting and poignant is the story of Lieutenant Frederic Habersham, killed at the battle of Chancellorsville on May 3, 1863, who was the husband of the aforementioned war widow.
The reader of this book will get a clear picture of the changing social and economic conditions of that area of the South, just prior to the start of hostilities, during the war and in the immediate aftermath of the war. However, one factor of constancy through all of those times, happy or troubled, is the seemingly unwavering religious faith of the people of that region.”

Introduction | Index | Index to Ilustrations | Table of Contents | Roster of the Pulaski Guards
A Savannah Family | History of the Georgia Militia 1783-1861
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Gordon Burns Smith and Anna Habersham Wright Smith © 2012
P.O. Box 10041 | Savannah, GA 31412 | USA
Telephone: (912) 857-3351 | Facsimile: (912) 233-2543 |