Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Brosius Family: South Shenango, 1861

Library of Congress [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Capitol building was a sight, looking strangely like a three-tiered wedding cake with an oil well in the place that should be occupied by figures of the bride and groom. The explanation for this unusual sight was mundane enough: the domed roof was in the process of replacement. Over 25,000 people, many of them strangers to the city, milled in the sun-warmed streets, but their interest did not lie in the reconstruction of a dome. They were engrossed in the events unfolding at the foot of the edifice.

A tall, homely man, seeming even taller in his high top hat, stood up after an introduction and approached the podium. There was a moment of uncertainty as he searched for a place to set his hat. The atmosphere was turbulent. Opinions regarding this man varied, and there was no doubt but that this crowd was about to witness history. Whether the history they were to witness was to be an inauguration or an assassination remained a question.

“…I do not consider it necessary at present for me to discuss those matters of administration about which there is no special anxiety or excitement,” said Abraham Lincoln. Clearly in his inaugural address he was going to discuss the divisive issues of slavery and the southern secession. He had not yet been sworn in, but his administration was already plagued with difficulties: two months before, partly in response to his election, seven of the southernmost slave states had already seceded from the Union, and four others were poised to follow suit. Moreover, when the newly created Confederate government insisted that the government of the United States hand over some of their Federal forts, they were refused. The South responded by seizing the forts. Tensions were high, and it was readily apparent that the country was on the verge of war.

Although the thoughts of many citizens revolved around the secessionists and the probability of war, one household in northwestern Pennsylvania was distracted by another, more immediate distress. Only three days before Lincoln’s inauguration, that is, on 1 March 1861, death had claimed Adam Brosius. Adam had been the head of the Brosius household which resided on 100 or so acres in the township of South Shenango in Crawford County. His young widow, Margrette, only 27 years of age, and possibly still pregnant with their daughter Rebecca, was left alone to raise three children.

The family had been started early; Adam had been only 31 or 32 at the time of his death, yet his oldest child, a girl named Mary, was already 12 or 13 years old. John S., the second child, was 9 or 10. The relative ages of Mary and her mother Margrette, as well as the large age gap between John and Rebecca, suggest the possibility that Margrette may have been Adam’s second wife and Mary and John’s stepmother. At this point no evidence has been found to either support or disprove this hypothesis, and it bears only academic relevance to our present narrative, so we will set the question aside for later research.

Whether mother or stepmother, Margrette was faced with the daunting task of running a farm and being what would now be called a single mother of three—and this just as the country was beginning its descent into the longest and the bloodiest war it had yet experienced. Just over a month after her husband’s death, the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter.


President Abraham Lincoln’s First Inauguration.The Civil War. Son of the South. Web. Accessed 7 Feb 2012.

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