University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Albion Winegar Tourgee, '62

Volume VIII · Spring 1953 · Number 3

Albion Winegar Tourgée,'62


Albion Winegar Tourgée: soldier, carpet-bagger, judge, and novelist, was born in Williamsfleld, Ashtabula County, Ohio, in 1838. His early years were spent on his father's farm in Williamsfield, and later in Kingsville, except for a brief excursion to Lee, Massachusetts, where he lived with his uncle, Jacob Winegar. In 1859, after alternately teaching in an elementary school and attending Kingsville Academy, he was admitted to the University of Rochester as a sophomore. He left the University in January, 1861, taught for a short time in Wilson, Niagara County, New York, and in April of that year enlisted in the 27th New York Volunteers. In accordance with the common practice of awarding degrees to students who had enlisted before completing their academic work, the University granted him an A.B. degree in June 1862. While at the University of Rochester, Tourgée formed a life-long friendship with President Anderson. The letters used as a basis for this article are in the Martin B. Anderson Papers in the University Archives. Apparently the letters were not all preserved, which is indeed unfortunate because we have no personal accounts of some of the most interesting and exciting events of his life.

In the first Battle of Bull Run, on July 4, 1861, he received a spinal wound which was to bother him throughout his life. After a short time in a hospital in Washington, he was discharged from the army and went to Ashtabula, where a year of recuperation was spent reading Blackstone, and, when he was able to leave his bed, studying law in the office of Sherman and Farmer. By July 1862 he was well enough to again serve his country, this time as first lieutenant in the 105th Ohio Volunteers. That he was not well suited for the discipline of army life is evidenced by the fact that he was twice imprisoned for virtual insubordination. At any rate, he withdrew from the army in 1864 and returned to Ashtabula where he established a home. He was admitted to the bar at Painesville and entered the law office of Sherman and Farmer, the firm with which he had previously studied.

In 1865 he joined the ranks of the carpet-baggers and settled in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he practiced law and, with two associates, engaged in the nursery business. The nursery business was not too successful and we find no more mention of it after 1867. However, by this time he was more firmly established and devoted all his time to his law practice and politics. He believed wholeheartedly in the supremacy of the North in all things and championed the cause of the Negro, and never hesitated to give voice to his beliefs in public and in private, so it was small wonder that he was not very popular. In 1867 he might well have been appointed judge of the superior court of the seventh judicial district by General Canby, military governor of the Carolinas, except for the bitter opposition of Jonathan Worth, the governor of North Carolina, who in his correspondence called Tourgée a "vile wretch" and a "contemptible Yankee." However, Worth's opposition did no more than postpone Tourgée's rise to the judgeship because the following year he was nominated and elected by a large majority. He served as judge of this court until 1876. The lawless Ku Klux Klan was active during this period, and Tourgée, because of his openly expressed sympathy for the Negro, was a target for attack. In a letter to President Anderson, dated May 25, 1870, he said,

Just now our whole country here, is in commotion after the murder of G. W. Stephens, one of our State Senate--It is unquestionably another case of political assassination--in other words he was killed by the Ku Klux--You have no idea, you can have none of the wholesale demoralization of our society. In my district-comprising eight counties-the following crimes have been committed by armed ruffians in disguise--masked and shrouded--during the past 10 months-- viz.: 12-murders 9-rapes 11-arsons-6-men castrated--and any number of houses broken open and men and women dragged from their beds and beaten or otherwise cruelly outraged-No one has ever been convicted for any of these offenses, and probably never will be. I have tried sixty-three (63) cases in which there had been a more or less complete identification of some of the parties--In all of these cases the defense was alibi--I have never known any other defense to be urged-The vast majority of the outrages however never come to my knowledge in any official manner--The parties come to the house of the victim in the night time dressed in white gowns reaching to the feet, and with masks covering the entire face. The victim is either dragged or enticed out, seized, stripped and beaten-sometimes 100 lashes--sometimes as high as 300-- with hickory rods-generally about one inch in diameter at the butt--I have taken considerable pains to ascertain the numbers of these outrages in the different counties, and am satisfied that not less than 800 cases have occurred in these eight counties in 10 months--Barbarities which would disgrace our Indian enemies have characterized very many of these outrages-For myself I have been dogged for months and have no doubt that only the lack of a safe opportunity has saved me from assassination--The "eternal vigilance" principle regulates all my movements--I have received any number of notices of the time appointed, a coffin placed at my door, a paper pinned to the gate with a knife-stating that I had been doomed to a halter &c-&c-I still live but really do consider the tenure very precarious.

But you probably share the incredulity of many of our Northern friends upon the K.K.K. simply because you cannot understand how such things can be--They could not in New York--They seem to be almost indigenous here…

In February 1873 Tourgée wrote a long letter explaining and criticizing the bill then pending in the state legislature for Ku Klux amnesty:

Upon thinking back of what I have written I see that it has been purely a work of supererogation. The very fact that any party dare present, and force through under the lash of party discipline a measure proposing to pardon the perpetrators of hundreds and thousands of the most execrable crimes under the very plea, openly and boldly put forth, that they were political in their character and were perpetrated at the behest of the very party which now proposes their pardon and solely to secure its ascendancy--shows more vividly than anything else the demoralization which exists. The mushroom is a proof of mold beneath.

It was during the time spent in North Carolina that Tourgée developed the literary talents which led to his becoming a fairly successful novelist. He wrote articles of a political nature for newspapers in his vicinity, and in 1874 his first major work of fiction Toinette was published. This novel of the Reconstruction did not prove to be a success, and failed to recoup his finances, which all his life were in a state of fluctuation. His term as judge was now drawing to a close. President Grant appointed him Pension Agent at Raleigh in 1876, so he left Greensboro for Raleigh, where he spent the rest of his fourteen-year stay in the South. On June 20, 1876, in reply to an invitation to attend the University of Rochester Commencement Exercises, he wrote at some length about the preceding two years:

I have not much to say which you do not already know. The monetary misfortunes of which you are already informed have given me two years of very hard work, though I can now see that they have been of great advantage to me. Last Fall I was a member of our Constitutional Convention and was the leader of my party therein. As our work was simply to prevent the destruction of what was free and liberal in the old Constitution of 1868, it was merely negative in its character and for that reason I have hardly thought the journal of that body worth sending to you, as I have hitherto taken pleasure in doing with whatever marked my record--The amendments came up for ratification this Fall and I have promised to make one hundred speeches to prevent their adoption. I think there is little doubt of success. They are purely repressive in their character tending to popularize the government and put power in the hands of a few. It is the first peaceful attempt at the South to overturn the results of the war.

Professionally and politically, I should be an ungrateful man to ask to be any better off than I am. In a literary point of view I am very nearly fallow. Our friend Howard is imploring me to revise and publish another novel which is in manuscript complete in my desk entitled "Jacob Churr of Pymatuning." I wrote it not a little moved thereto by your request and hope to get time to prepare it for the press this Fall--

. . .Allow me to say, that I regretted to see in your letter the sentiment that your years of usefulness were fast passing away. I think they are just beginning --being yearly multiplied in the lives you have moulded.

From the letter of April 24, 1877, we feel that he realized his failure to cope with the southern situation although he seemed averse to admitting his own culpability:

I think I am all right. It has been a hard fight because, you see, I have everything against me--Northern birth, federal service, and a life of undoubted attachment to the nation and to Republican principles. --If it were not for these I should be in an enviable position now--I cannot blame myself for my nativity--"since nature cannot choose its origin"--but I very deeply regret the little service I did the country as a soldier. In one half the states of the union, such service is today a badge of infamy and not half so creditable in the remaining half as was service in the Confederate Army--I ought to have had sense enough, it seems to me, to have guessed that it would be so. Then I did not join the Ku Klux. If I had done that and helped kill a nigger or two I believe I might have been forgiven both my northern birth and federal service. But I didn't do it, and now my only chance is to join the White Leaguers and kill a nigger in a peculiarly cold-blooded and atrocious manner--

. . .You know it is said that two wrongs do not make one right, yet strange enough I should not be surprised if out of the present situation, sometime grew the remedy for the blunders of Reconstruction.

Tourgée left North Carolina in the summer of 1879. From that time until the appearance of his most important literary work The Fool's Errand in November, little is known of his whereabouts, but we may assume that part, if not all, of his time was spent in New York attending the publication of Figs and Thistleswhich appeared in October and the later and more important Fool's Errand. This book has the distinction of being one of the first novels dealing with the Reconstruction. It is largely autobiographical. The hero, a Northerner, has experiences similar to Tourgée's own, and finally comes to the conclusion that the attempt of the North to impose its civilization on the South was a "fool's errand." The book enjoyed a wide popularity in the North, and earned for its author literary plaudits as well as financial rewards.

In 1880 Tourgée was given an honorary degree by his Alma Mater. This passage from a letter dated July 16, 1880, from Grimsby, Canada, no doubt acknowledged cognizance of the action of the University:

. . .Your letter announcing the action of the trustees and faculty was also received and will be answered "officially" as soon as time shall serve.

A letter of November 4, 1882 indicated another period of monetary difficulty. At this time he was in Philadelphia, editing an illustrated weekly magazine Our Continent:

My dear doctor:

Many thanks. I did not anticipate or desire that you should do more than just keep me in mind should you see or write any one who might be moved to help me with a loan. I shall get on, never fear. I have abundance of property -- the only thing is to utilize it.

Having put all available funds, including money from a mortgage on Thorheim at Mayville, New York, the place which he had bought after his return from the South, into the magazine, it was a cruel blow to have to suspend publication in 1884. When legal matters relative to settlement of the defunct magazine were over, Tourgée went back to Thorheim where he remained for the next twelve years, leaving only on lecture tours or business trips connected with his literary publications. Our final letter is dated August 22, 1888, and contains interesting analyses of three of his later works:

I have the honor to transmit to you by express a package containing some recent works of mine which you may not have seen; to wit:

"Button's Inn" 
"Black Ice"
"Letters to a King"

To this I have added a paper bound copy of "Hulum Hritys," the translation into Finnish of "A Fool's Errand." I have more in other binding and am in the dark as far as such work is concerned. I send these in recognition of an intellectual godfathership it gives me pleasure always to acknowledge.

I would be glad if you would look over "Letters to a King"--unless you read them in theExaminer, which I have no reason to suppose--and let me know your opinion of it. In my view it is somewhat remarkable as being the first complete analysis ever attempted of the relation the American citizen sustains to American Destiny.

. . ."Black Ice" is in no way remarkable except as a study of an American home in which neither morbidness nor meanness are the distinctive qualities.

"Button's Inn," was inspired by a picturesquely situated old ruin half-way from our home to Westfield in this county. The only things about it worth considering, are the local coloring with a revival of the epoch of the stage coach and a carefully studied analysis of the causes underlying the Mormon heresy -- for it was religiously considered only a heresy, at first.

Tourgée left this country for Bordeaux in 1897, having been appointed consul by President McKinley. He remained there until his death in 1905.

It seems fitting that one of his later literary efforts should have been a contribution to A. C. Kendrick's biography of Martin B. Anderson, his lifelong friend and counsellor.