Thomas Stephen Powell Papers, 1847-1849
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Six letters, 18 July 1847-19 August 1849, written by Thomas Stephen Powell (1827-1882) to his younger brother, William Robert Powell (1831-1895), a schoolboy enrolled, as the letters progress chronologically, first at the Arsenal Academy (Columbia, S.C.) and then at The Citadel (Charleston, S.C.). Both brothers, children of journeyman painter and artisan Thomas Powell and Mary Ann Atherfold Powell, were from Greenville, S.C. The elder, a portrait painter, was traveling throughout northwestern Georgia and Alabama at the time he penned these letters to his sibling. The younger brother, the only one of the five Powell children to attend college, graduated from the Military College of South Carolina in 1851 with a degree in civil engineering. | Manuscripts Gifts 2008 | Previous Issues | Endowments | Friends of the Library |
The earliest of the letters, written from Clarksville, in Habersham County, Georgia, on 18 July 1847 was addressed by Thomas to William while his younger brother was still living in Greenville, S.C. “There are a goodly number of boarders here at present,” Thomas wrote, “all of them, myself & one other excepted, persons picked up about this state to go to Mexico in less than two months.” Powell had been that morning “to hear a converted Roman Catholic priest preach. His name is Maloney & he is a Presbyterian & agent for a Society in New York I think, called the American Protestant Society, the object of which is, to send out & support converted Catholic priests as missionaries among Catholics, each to settlements of emigrants of their own nation in America, as, a German missionary is sent to preach to German Catholics in the German language, a French convert among the French Catholics in America in their language &c. &c. This gentleman is a Frenchman by birth, but officiated as priest principally in Switzerland I believe. He married in America & has traveled over a considerable portion of the union I believe, as colporteur & preacher. He is a very gentlemanly-looking man, tall & spare built. He selected his text from Isaiah, where Christ is spoken of as being destitute of comeliness & after making a few rambling remarks in very broken English, he made a prayer & afterwards a kind of lecture concerning the nature of Romanism & the fearful increase of Roman Catholics in the United States annually, & the means of decreasing their number. His language was very broken & his remarks very scattering & distant.”
Six months later, when Thomas Stephen Powell again wrote, on 30 January 1848, he was in Cass County, Georgia, and William a student at the Arsenal Academy in Columbia, S.C. The older Powell offered brotherly advice, counseling William to stay in school and persevere lest he prove a disappointment to their parents and those who had put forward his name for admittance. “I am glad that you are resolved to try to be found worthy of remaining in the Institution,” Thomas wrote, “as the exhibition of improper conduct, or the want of persevering, application in the discharge of those duties and tasks which constitute the ordeal through which you must pass, might result in your expulsion, which would, doubtless, lower you in the estimation, not only of those gentlemen who made application for your admittance, but also in the estimation of many of those nearer and more valued acquaintances and friends, the loss of whose good opinion might be very injurious to you in time to come, and tend greatly to paralyse your efforts at the present time.”
By 7 July 1848, Thomas Powell was in Floyd County, Georgia, and quipped about having “sought a temporary home in the eternal city of north-western Georgia - Rome.” His “painting room” was on the top of the highest hill on the second floor of the Floyd County court house, and “although I have not commenced work here yet,” the letter makes passing references to those who were sitting for portraits.
The letter also provides details of the local Fourth of July festivities. “The barbecue...held on the 4th...was opened with prayer by a gentleman named Carr - which prayer was succeeded by the reading of the Declaration of Independence by the young physician, whose likeness I came to take; after which a song was sung; which was composed by the said Mr. Carr, and called Independence; after which an address was pronounced by a Mr. Brown, a store keeper living on the spot. This was succeeded by a short, but patriotic appeal, from a young lawyer...named Hemphill. After which the crowd dispersed, and proceeded males and females in separate companies to two different tables, where, after remaining half an hour or three quarters; during which some ate to gluttony and carried away (if stealing deserves the name) all they could lay hands on, and others received an excessive warming from the heat, but were far from being filled; they proceeded again to their seats at the stand, where a number of toasts were read to them; some of which were highly complimentary to the American people....”
The letter writer notes that another portrait artist, a “young man Clark, who was in Greenville with a Daguerreotype apparatus when I was there, has been here, but was about leaving when I came. I was introduced to him...and went to his room, where he showed me several pictures in his line....”
Powell was still in Rome, Georgia, at the time he wrote again, 1 October 1848. He had returned there in early September after visiting Cedar Valley in Paulding County, Georgia, “and was immediately engaged to paint [a] banner for the Whigs of Rome,” over which he had labored longer than expected owing to the fact that he “had to grind paint as well as paint the banner.” The banner was commissioned for use at a political meeting in Atlanta and “had on one side the head of Genl Zachary Taylor, with his name worded as above, and under it, the words Constitution - 47th Senatorial District.”
Powell had been engaged to paint another political banner, he reported on 16 January 1849. “Since I last wrote to you I have had to work on Sunday again,” he complained, “which was owing to the work being wanted by a certain time. It was a banner for the Sons of Temperance, and the ladies of the town made it; and as it was not made till 3 or 4 days previous to the time it was to be used, I was of necessity compelled to work on Sunday, or not have it finished in time, as the Society marched in procession to the Rome Baptist Church when addresses were delivered. This was on Christmas Day.”
William apparently had wished his elder brother “success in obtaining a wife” but Thomas was noncommital in his response: “I have no particular desire to get one....As to my proficiency in becoming a ladies man, I am sorry to say that what with travelling about, attention to business, fondness for my own favorite pursuits &c. &c. I am, I believe, very little altered from what I was when you last saw me.” “O brother,” he continued, “when I consider how vast is the knowledge & skill requisite to make a good painter, how feeble my powers, how shallow my attainments, is it surprising that my best efforts, my best affections & all my powers are more or less firmly bound together and concentrated upon this; and even then how feeble, how powerless I am!”
Cholera, he wrote, was reportedly raging in New Orleans, New York, Montgomery, Alabama, and possibly as near as Columbus, Georgia, and Charleston, S.C. “Whether it be true of false,” he advised, “you cannot do better than live an orderly life, as I have often heard say that disease is more apt to thin the ranks of the vicious than of the moral, & by vicious, I mean those who indulge in drinking spirituous liquors, indulging with women, segar smoking, tobacco chewing, snuff taking, Intemperate eating, and irregularity in sleeping &c. &c.”
The final letter of the group was written on 19 August 1849 from Warsaw, Sumter County, Alabama, and suggested that Thomas Stephen Powell’s next move would be “30 or 40 miles toward home,” with the express hope that he might see his brother again in less than two and a half years.