From the Richmond Times-Dispatch, 9/1/1912, p. 33, c. 1
Personal Reminiscences of the Adams Houses
By W. H. P.
In your account of the Adams’ houses on Church Hill, accompanied by photographs of the two houses in last Sunday’s paper, what is published is interesting, but I am constrained before one of them is pulled down, to continue the story, and to tell something of the families who lived in them before the sixties.
John N. Van Lew, who lived in the house, to give place to a public school, was a hardware merchant with his store at Market Bridge, on Main Street.
For a city of 23,000 people, he was considered a merchant in a large way. A hardware stock in that day was almost all of it imported from England, and in some way the dealing in things brought across the sea gave a man importance. Mr. Van Lew was very successful and the Adams house and ground were never in their history kept in more perfect condition.
In addition to the falling garden to Franklin Street, the entire square diagonally opposite was occupied as a kitchen and flower garden and stable lot, the walks of white gravel were kept in order by heavy granite roller and bordered with box. He kept a carriage and horses, and there was no household in Richmond with more elegant surroundings.
The ladies of the house were Mrs. Van Lew and Mrs. McCreery, a widow, who, though not connected by blood were as close as sisters from long association of the families, in the old country and this. These ladies were educated gentlewomen, refined in manner, and in every way attractive. Mrs. McCreery had two sons – Westwood and Van Lew – Westwood, after his school days received an appointment to the United States Academy at West Point, and graduated just as our war commenced. He resigned and came South, and entered the service in the Army of Northern Virginia and served in various positions until, as the army approached Gettysburg, he obtained “the desire of his heart,” the command of a regiment of infantry in Pettigrew’’s Brigade, Third Army Corps, and lead it, born and educated soldier that he was, and fell dead upon the field at its head. Van Lew McCreary served as a private soldier in the “Richmond Howitzers” to the close of the war. Worked hard in reconstruction days. He married the daughter of that noble Christian, the Rev. John H. Keppler, rector of St. John’s Church, and his descendants are honored citizens of Richmond.
When I have passed the Van Lew house and seen changes wrought by time, and the results of the war, I have thought of the active merchant who loved flowers, graded walks, and knew how to spend his well-earned money, the dear ladies who graced the place, the young soldiers who were worthy of their companions of the Army of Northern Virginia, and I have ignored Miss Betty, the daughter, who was always a crank, and I doubted the sensational accounts of her spying and relations with Libby prisoners.
In her last days she had no friends but those of the Confederacy, and she received care, comfort and consolation from the artillery soldiers of her house and of the Army of Northern Virginia, and died in their arms.
The occupant of the other Adams’ house, now enclosed in the high brick wall of the Catholic Academy, Monte Maria, was Mr. Loften N. Ellett, clerk of the County Court of Henrico. He belonged to the old order of Virginia clerks, notable for their accuracy and knowledge, and who could and did give points to the judge on the bench. He had his graveled walks and garden, and all things in order about him.
In 1861 there were three stalwart sons, and all joined the Army of Northern Virginia – James Ellett, Thomas Ellett, Robert Ellett.
James was a successful dry goods merchant in New York, and when Virginia was invaded, he closed up his affairs and joined Pegram’s Battery of artillery. At Fredericksburg his guns were on the right on the hill above Hamilton’s Crossing, and when Franklin’s grand division tried to turn Jackson’s right, the fourteen guns on the hill were worked effectively in driving the Federals back. In the midst of the action James Ellett was struck by a ragged piece of shell from the enemy’s battery, and his spirit took its flight in the midst of the roar of the action.
Robert, the youngest, was a lieutenant in the Crenshaw Battery, Pegram’s Battalion. He saw much service, especially on the right of the army at Petersburg.
He attracted the attention of Lieutenant-General Hill one dark winter night in snow and hail far down on the Weldon Road. Where time in the movement was important the battery was stalled, but a youthful voice full of energy was heard encouraging the men at the wheels. Nothing could be seen, but soon, under the inspiration of this young officer, the battery moved and the line was not delayed. At Five Forks, when outnumbered, the Confederate “forlorn hope” was charged by Sheridan’s Cavalry followed by infantry. Pegrams guns were fought until they were overrun and Robert Ellett fell dead by the side of his colonel, Colonel Willie Pegram, within the guns, both with many wounds, and “all in front.”
This action at Five Forks is notable as the last action of the Army of Northern Virginia in which there was any hope. Pickett’s Division was the chief infantry force, the same division that crowned the last hope at Gettysburg. Its defeat, at the highest point of the fortunes of the Confederacy, was followed by its defeat at Five Forks. The evacuation of Petersburg soon followed. The shadows lengthened until the black night of Appomattox Courthouse came down. The men were not to blame. It was a “forlorn hope” in both cases, and they did all that men could do.
Thomas Ellett, captain of the Crenshaw Battery, served to the end, a distinguished soldier in many battles.
Of five young men in these two old Adams houses on Church Hill, and under the shadow of old St. John’s Church and within sound of its sweet bell, three died a soldier’s death on the field.
Two endured the horrors of the reconstruction period in their burned city, maintained themselves and those dependent upon them under the adverse condition in the rank to which they were born.
It is said that the true “school of the soldier” is the well-ordered household. Certainly Virginia’s part in the Civil War seems to prove it to be true. These old houses, with waxed floors and spindle-legged mahogany furniture, no pictures except a few family portraits, had family prayers held in them, and the ladies taught the young generation the catechism, the Lord’s Prayer and the ten commandments. Ladies with side curls, held in place with tortoise shell combs, and who did not go out of the house without a shawl around them. While they wore silk, they worked hard. The endless patience it took to educate the stupid African in household duties – all had to obey and to go to church Sunday morning.
It is appropriate that one of the old Adams houses should be pulled down and the other walled up out of sight. All that they represent has passed away. As God made the world for man and in His image, and self-sacrifice is the type of the highest thing in man, it remains to be seen in the future if the present civilization will produce a higher type than the households who last occupied the old Adams houses on Church Hill.