Elizabeth Thomas, Owner of Fort Stevens
Today is President’s Day, February 12 was Lincoln’s birthday, and this entire month is #BlackHistoryMonth. As such, it seems like a good time to post a quick update. We’ve been very busy! We’re currently putting together the segment-by-segment breakdown for our short film with preliminary language and quotes. The goal is to use this frame and outline to recognize gaps in our narrative and to better steer our research. In addition, we’re still scouring archives and records for stories from Invalid Corps members themselves.
On Saturday, we visited with the National Park Service who hosted a fantastic presentation on Elizabeth Thomas, the original owner of the property that became Fort Stevens, which of course, played such a critical role in our project. Although Elizabeth’s story is only tangentially connected, I wanted to share with you what we learned about this exceptional woman.
Elizabeth Proctor Thomas was born in the early 1800s. She lived in Brightwood, a community of free blacks in northwest Washington, D.C. (I believe it was then called Vinegar Hill). Elizabeth’s property was of a significant size and value (88 acres) with a barn, garden, orchard, and a two-story wooden house. And because of its location on a hill beside the Seventh Street Turnpike (now Georgia Avenue), they controlled the major tributary leading into Washington from the north.
As such, with the advent of the Civil War, Elizabeth would lose her farm to the Union army when they took the land to build what would eventually become Fort Stevens. As she later told a reporter, one day soldiers “began taking out my furniture and tearing down our house.” As the soldiers were German immigrants, they couldn’t understand Thomas, nor could she understand them.
“I was sitting under that sycamore tree with what furniture I had left around me. I was crying, as was my six months-old child, when a tall, slender man dressed in black came up and said to me, ‘It is hard, but you shall reap a great reward.’”
It was President Abraham Lincoln.
When Jubal Early’s Confederate army marched to Washington and stood at the very gates of Fort Stevens, Elizabeth Thomas did not flee with other refugees. She did not hide with civilians. She stayed. Affectionately nicknamed “Aunt Betty” by her soldiers, she continued to cook and do laundry for them. When battle was imminent, she carried ammunition back and forth on the walls of the fort itself. And as the President stood on the fortifications, she kept her old shotgun by her side to kill any “Rebs” who would try to harm her Lincoln.
Even after the war Elizabeth continued to be a civic leader doing much to shape the DC community. Her warmth and courage was respected by many. In fact, for many years after the war, when the Grand Army of the Republic held their reunions in the city, they would do so at her house – with the African American woman who was brave enough, who cared enough, to fight beside them to save the city.
Pretty powerful stuff and a great example of amazing stories of men and women that can and should be told before they are lost to history. And because of you we shall endeavor to capture similar stories about the Invalid Corps. Special thanks to National Park Service Ranger Kenya J. Finley and Patricia Tyson of the Military Road School Preservation Trust and Female RE-Enactors of Distinction.
A quick note this is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. NPS always has great programs – history, nature, culture – and they’ve been staunch supporters of our own Invalid Corps project with information and advice, so I have to give a shout out and encourage you to spend some time this year and #FindYourPark.
Find out more about Elizabeth Proctor Thomas from the National Park Service: http://www.nps.gov/cultural_landscapes/People-Thomas.html
A wonderful detailed article about Elizabeth Thomas from the Civil War Round Table of Washington DC: http://files.cwrtdc.org/62-1-Newsletter-September2012.pdf
You can also read more about her and how she was thought of from the Afro-American, a local newspaper (August 30th, 1952): https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2211&dat=19520830&id=uOklAAAAIBAJ&sjid=ffYFAAAAIBAJ&pg=3002,632358&hl=enPosted on: February 15, 2016