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An American Sculptor
By Edward S. Cooper
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2004 Edward S. Cooper
All rights reserved.
In April, 1861, when President Lincoln, in response to the attack on Fort Sumter, issued a call for troops, the city of Washington began to be transformed from a relatively sleepy backwater to a hub of feverish activity. Barricades went up around the Capitol and other public buildings, trenches were dug on the grounds and in a few weeks the city was inundated with Federal troops. The New York Seventh Regiment, the first to arrive, received a tumultuous reception: cheering crowds lined the streets, balconies, windows and rooftops to watch the Seventh's triumphal procession down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, where the president stood on the sidewalk to salute them.
After that, the arrival of soldiers became an everyday occurrence: the Fifth and Eighth Regiments from Massachusetts, the Seventy-First and the Twelfth from New York, and a force from Rhode Island. Encampments soon ringed the hills around the city and armed guards, dress parades and the sounds of regimental music were everywhere. Civilians, too, flocked to the capital: speculators, contractors and people seeking wartime appointments.
Among the latter, arriving from Arkansas, were Robert L. Ream, his wife Lavinia and two daughters, 16-year-old Mary and 14-year-old Vinnie. Lavinia McDonald had married Robert in Canton, Ohio, when she was eighteen. A son, Robert Jr., 23, stayed behind in Arkansas. The elder Ream, who was born in Center County, Pennsylvania, in 1809, had lived in Canton until he moved to Wisconsin, where he set up an inn in Madison in 1838. Becoming involved in local politics, he was elected Register of Deeds for Dane County, was named County Commissioners Clerk, and in 1839 was appointed by Governor Henry Dodge to the Territorial Treasurer's office. In 1848 he was elected Chief Clerk of the Wisconsin House of Representatives.
Possibly because he saw no real future in it, he gave up Wisconsin politics and went to work for the government as a surveyor in Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri, as well as in Wisconsin, drawing the earliest maps of these territories. In 1859 he was appointed Clerk to the Surveyor General of Kansas. But at that time Kansas was torn over the question of whether it should be admitted to the Union as a free or a slave state. Because Robert Ream supported the free state position, he was dismissed from his post and moved his family to Fort Smith, Arkansas, where the Reams remained until the outbreak of the Civil War. In Washington, with his map-making experience the elder Ream had no difficulty in being hired to work in the cartography section of the War Department.
Since expenses were high in the wartime capital, Ream needed to augment his salary. He turned to an old friend, James S. Rollins, the newly elected representative from Missouri, to find jobs for Mary and Vinnie. Rollins, 49, had practiced law in Columbia, had served in both the state house and senate and had been instrumental in establishing the University of Missouri in 1839. Ream had settled in Missouri when it became necessary to establish a base so that his three children could be educated, and that was how he had become friendly with Rollins.
Vinnie's early school years had been spent at the St Joseph Female Academy. When the Academy principal, James K. Rogers, a firm believer in states rights and an advocate of secession, was appointed principal of Christian College, the female counterpart of the state university, Vinnie and Mary transferred there. Rogers was impressed by Vinnie's lively intellectual curiosity and her obvious talents. According to the school Chronicles, she "gave evidence of the varied gifts with which nature, in rare cases, sees fit to endow certain favored ones of her children." She was recording secretary of her class and often gave musical performances and "elocution" recitations at school programs.
Rollins and the Reams had not met for over a year and the reunion was a pleasant one, filled with recollections of the girls' schooldays in Columbia. Rollins teased Vinnie, asking whether she was as strong-willed as ever, always insisting on getting her own way. He recalled that when she was at Christian College, she had wanted to attend a weekend party off the school grounds, something that was strictly forbidden. But Vinnie had drafted a petition to James Rogers, signed by her entire class, asking that she be exempted from the rule. Rollins was obviously taken with Vinnie, and from this point on was to play an important role in her life, introducing her to sculpture, seeing that she met the right people, offering her guidance and support during dark days. Vinnie had a faculty for catching the fancy of older men. She was not classically beautiful, being barely five feet tall and too thin by nineteenth-century standards. But her eyes — flashing, sparkling, misty by turns — and her luxuriant mass of chestnut curls, combined with her romantic nature and independent spirit, were to capture male hearts and imaginations for the next twenty years.
Because the manpower shortage had opened the Civil Service to women, Rollins was able to find a job for Mary in the land office and one for Vinnie in the post office at $600 a year. Robert Ream had gotten his government jobs through patronage, and the ease with which Rollins found employment for the girls was not lost upon Vinnie: she was impressed by the power of political influence. Family finances were so much improved by the girls' Civil Service jobs and by the extra $150 a year Vinnie brought in singing at the E Street Baptist Church, that she was able to afford private lessons in music, French and German.
Life in the capital at the beginning of the war was exciting to young girls: horse-drawn artillery sped along the avenues at all hours of the day and night; uniformed couriers dashed from building to building delivering their urgent messages; the shops were filled with handsome officers on leave, and reporters and military attachés from all over Europe were arriving daily. For the first several months, the war was glamorous, with parades and parties, and no bloodshed. The war party, led by Horace Greeley's New York Tribune and others, began the cry, "On to Richmond!" In response to this pressure, Federal troops marched out and met the Confederates at Bull Run on July 21, 1861.
On the morning of July 22, in a steady, sullen rain, the troops began to return to Washington, not as they had left, in smartly marching units, but at first slowly, in twos and threes, bewildered, in muddy, bloodstained uniforms. As the day wore on, larger units limped into the city, followed by baggage wagons carrying the wounded and dying to the hospitals. Disorganized regiments, followed by stray horses, wandered about the streets; hungry, exhausted men fell asleep in the unremitting rain on the pavements, in the parks. They had been routed at Bull Run, but there were 10,000 men in the army who had fought little or not at all, and they, along with other reinforcements, were able to hold the bridges over the Potomac River. The Confederates had taken losses too, and did not intend to try to take Washington, although that would not be apparent for several days.
The electric excitement of the previous months gave way suddenly to the harsh reality of men with limbs shot off, screaming in agony as they were carried from the wagons to the makeshift hospitals. Newspapers printed propaganda about Confederate brutality, reporting that the rebels "cut off the heads of men on the field, and absolutely kicked them from one to another [and] bayoneted many of our men who lay wounded on the field of battle ..." Panic spread among the populace in Washington, but was allayed when it was learned that the Union units had regrouped and were dug in on the Virginia side of the Potomac. People brought out food and drink for the exhausted men when the Commissary Corps became overtaxed. Slowly, order was restored. Soldiers were told where their units were reforming, and Washington settled down to the long struggle ahead.
The nation was torn apart, and some families, too, were split by differing loyalties. Robert Ream was decidedly pro-Union, but his son Robert considered himself a son of Arkansas and refused to accompany his family to Washington. James Rogers, Vinnie's teacher at Christian College, wrote her: "I am glad to hear that even in the Federal Capitol [sic] there are hearts that still in these dark days beat true to the cause of the now down-trodden and oppressed South. I have no heart to join in this mad attempt to preserve the integrity of the Nation by overthrowing the Constitution. It is because I am unwilling to join in so desperate and inhuman a game as this, that I am called a Secessionist, a rebel, a traitor, etc., etc." Rogers assumed that Vinnie sympathized with the South, and she did, until blood began to flow, when her sympathies gravitated to the North. She had no strong political commitments.
Arkansas withdrew from the Union on May 6 and young Robert Ream answered the Confederacy's call to arms. When the family did not hear from him, Vinnie, relying as always on connections, asked for help from J. E. Powell, a friend of General John Charles Frémont. Powell responded immediately that he would go to the general and inquire about Robert from Confederate prisoners. These inquiries were fruitless. Vinnie and her mother asked Powell to apply to General Frémont for a pass through Union lines to look for Robert, since at this early point in the war, civilians had been moving freely across both Union and Confederate lines. Soon both sides began to search men crossing the lines; this led to the use of women couriers.
Powell wrote Vinnie, "I have done all I can to gain permission for your mother to pass our lines. I have used all my influence among the army officers, all to no purpose. The only answer is a most decided no. Troops are now moving against the confederates from several points. It would be exceedingly difficult for your mother to follow or penetrate to the confederates added to which an occurrence happened here last night that has caused great suspicion to fall on all ladies now going South. As for yourself, you must not attempt under any circumstances to go. The enterprise is too full of toil and hardship, and the country is infested with bands of dissolute men scarcely above the grade of savages who prey on either side. General Frémont's pass cannot be obtained and you must not go without. He says no one shall leave St Louis to go south."
In early March, 1862, word reached Washington of the Union victory at Pea Ridge — also called Sugar Creek — under General Samuel Curtis. This was a notable battle in some ways: it was one of the few times that the Confederate regiments, bolstered by Indian troops, heavily outnumbered the Federals, and in a war that produced many eccentric generals, this battle included General Albert Pike, one of the oddest, and one who was to play an important part in Vinnie's life.
Immediately upon receiving news of the victory, Vinnie wrote General Curtis: "Pardon me for thus troubling you, but I must leave nothing undone that can give me any information concerning my only, and dearly loved, brother Robert L. Ream — a young man about twenty-four years of age who joined the Southern army at Little Rock, Ark. We have not heard from him since last June, and then heard that he had joined Woodruff's Artillery, and went to Ft Smith, and from there into southwest Mo. under Ben McCullough. If our information is correct, he was in the Battle of Wilson's Creek and he was very probably in the Battle of Sugar Creek where you were recently victorious. Our anxiety is such that I presume to write this, thinking you can tell me if any such person has come to your knowledge either as a prisoner, wounded or killed. If you will be kind enough to do this, Gen. Curtis, God will reward you for your goodness. I know how much you have to engage your attention, yet trust to your generosity to forgive us for troubling you. I beg of you, and if you will kindly see by your list of prisoners, or give us any information, a Mother's prayers and a sister's gratitude will be forever yours."
The general responded to this heartfelt plea, ordered a review of the prisoners lists and informed Vinnie that there was no mention of Robert. Vinnie persisted in her inquiries: she was always an opportunist, claiming whatever allegiance would benefit her at the moment. Now despite her Union sympathies, she put on a Rebel hat when she wrote to a family friend in Columbia, who responded, "I cannot expect you to speak as fully, under your restraints, as you feel, and was only gratified at your assurance of continued faith in the cause. Our town had none of that good old family quiet it wore when you were here, but is garrisoned by 'Merrill's Horse,' a federal regiment, the detention of which in our midst must certainly be on account of its inefficient character. Certainly they are not leaving good soldiers to harass and insult good people ..." Unfortunately there was no news of her brother. But Robert Ream had in fact not been captured at Pea Ridge, but had performed so well that he had been made a first lieutenant in Company H, 1st battalion of the Arkansas Cavalry.
In addition to her job at the post office, Vinnie worked as a clerk in James Rollins's office, where she learned about special-interest lobbying, about the way bills moved from conception to passage through compromise and coalitions. She was a keen observer and had many willing teachers. Most congressmen came to Washington without their families; they were self-important but often lonely and vulnerable. Vinnie was an attractive listener.
She was an expert manipulator, but she did not lack compassion, and often volunteered to sing for the wounded at the Lincoln General Hospital. Her repertoire including "Il Bacio," "What Are the Wild Waves Saying?," "Departed Days," "Annie Laurie" and "Santa Lucia." In addition to visiting the sick, she wrote to men in both Union and Confederate prison camps, prisoners of all ranks from Confederate General M. Jeff Thompson at Johnson Island, Ohio, to a Union private in Raleigh, North Carolina, and received grateful letters in return. She attempted to alleviate their pervasive despair with cheerful assurances of their future reunion with wives and sweethearts. Throughout her life, her somewhat ruthless ambition was tempered by strains of affection and genuine friendship.
As time passed, Washington took on the aura of a huge military compound. More than 160 gambling houses sprang up, as did at least an equal number of brothels, both ranging from the opulent to the seedy. The Washington Evening Star estimated that there were approximately 5000 prostitutes in the capital, including street walkers. And there were twenty-one hospitals receiving a constant stream of ambulances filled with the sick and wounded. Night and day the streets were filled with the sounds of galloping cavalry, marching men, bugles, carts and wagons and the cursing of muleteers.
One day in 1863, James Rollins invited Vinnie to go with him to the studio of Clark Mills, where he was sitting for a bust. Mills was at that time the most eminent sculptor living in the U.S., having in 1852 executed the country's first equestrian statue, Andrew Jackson, placed in Lafayette Park across from the White House, a work that so impressed Congress that they awarded Mills $6,500 more than the original $32,000 contract fee. In addition to his studio, Mills had built a foundry where his work and the work of other sculptors were cast. Vinnie found herself fascinated not only by the sight of models in various stages of completion, but by Mills's skill in shaping the clay to create the Rollins bust. But her feeling of respect did not prevent her from blurting out, rather to her own surprise, "I could do that!"
Excerpted from Vinnie Ream by Edward S. Cooper. Copyright © 2004 Edward S. Cooper. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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