Thursday, May 26, 2011
James T. Williams
Jehu Williams (1788-1859) of Orange County married Absalom Row's sister Hetty on Christmas Day 1814. They soon moved to Lynchburg, where Jehu became a partner with artisan John Victor; the silverware and clocks made by Williams and Victor remain collectible to this day. Hetty died in March 1823, within a month of the birth of her fourth child, Hettie. Jehu married Susannah Tompkins on September 11 of that same year and they would have six children together. The second of these was James Tompkins Williams, born in Lynchburg on April 29, 1829.
James married Absalom Row's daughter Martha Jane on December 17, 1850 and they settled in Richmond. James worked as a commission merchant first in the firm of Bryant and Tardy with his brother in law Wilson P. Bryant and fellow Lynchburger Samuel C. Tardy. Later the business became known as Tinsley, Tardy and Williams and finally as Tardy and Williams, auction house and wholesale merchants. The business was located near Shockoe Slip at the corner of 13th and Cary Streets. Before the Civil War they were joined by two more young men from Lynchburg, Tipton D. Jennings and Richard H.T. Adams. Jennings fought in the Eleventh Virginia Infantry and in later life served in the House of Delegates. Dick Adams was a signal officer during the war and served on the staff of General A.P. Hill.
Tardy and Williams prospered in the years before the war and continued to do so after the onset of hostilities. As the war progressed they became a popular outlet for goods brought in through the Union blockade as well as their stock in trade as a wholesale auction house selling foodstuffs. Tardy and Williams also did a brisk business selling goods and services to the Confederate army and navy. An example of the dozens of their invoices found in the archives is shown here:
In April 1863 a mob of desperate women, joined by large numbers of opportunistic men, went on a rampage through Richmond in what would become known as the Bread Riot. Store fronts throughout the business district were smashed by the mob who then set about looting their contents. The employees of Tardy and Williams managed to bar the doors and windows before the rioters reached their building. From a safe vantage inside, James witnessed Governor Letcher on horseback as he confronted the mob. He told them that if they did not disperse within five minutes he would direct the soldiers present to fire upon them. He then ostentatiously took out his watch and calmly looked at its face. The crowd dispersed.
By this time in his life the once handsome James had become quite obese. In her letter to her brother George in June 1863 Martha wrote: "Mr W has bought him a beautiful iron gray mare which draws the buggy and is a great comfort and pleasure to him...JT rides to and from the store this hot weather which is a great help to him he is so fat." So fat, in fact, that James enlisted the help of his family doctor, R.R. Wellford, who wrote a letter to the Confederate authorities on his behalf in January 1864: "...I am convinced he is unable to bear the efforts and fatigues of military life. He is unnaturally fat and breaks down on any extraordinary exertion..." Dr. Wellford went on to helpfully suggest that James would be best suited for a position in the Confederate Treasury or Commissary department. James was deferred from active duty and instead served in the Second Class Militia.
In 1864 James did indeed apply for a clerkship in the Treasury Department; his letter to Secretary Memminger survives. In this effort he was helped by a letter of recommendation written by Lancaster and Son, Stockbrockers. In that last year of the war James was elected alderman from the Monroe district of Richmond and served as a justice of the peace.
During the conflagration that consumed much of Richmond's business district on April 2, 1865 the building that housed Tardy and Williams was destroyed. They would locate their enterprise to a new address, but within two years James and his family moved back to Lynchburg. Meanwhile, James applied to Andrew Johnson for a Presidential pardon, something he would certainly need to be successful during Reconstruction:
By 1873 James and Martha had nine children together. Of these, four would not survive childhood. The five who did were his son Jehu and daughters Mary Josephine, Martha Jane, Amanda and Sallie Duncan. James continued in the wholesale grocery business and prospered handsomely. In 1874 he bought this house, shown below as it looks today, at 822 Federal Street. The house, the gardens, the servants' house and the carriage house occupied an entire city block. By the 1880's James had a telegraph installed so that he could transact business while at home. Buttons that rang a bell to summon servants were installed in some of the rooms. In 1882 James and Martha went on an extended vacation, visiting Washington, D.C. Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. Life for the Williams family was good, indeed, during these years.
822 Federal Street
During the 1870's the James and Martha were parties to a lawsuit in Fredericksburg that sought to resolve some outstanding issues regarding the estate of Absalom Row. In future posts I will go into some detail about that episode. A key outcome from that case was that James and Martha received 146 1/2 acres of Greenfield land. They held onto this property until the death of Martha's brother George in 1883. In an act of remarkable generosity, the Williamses gave to George's widow Lizzie a deed to that land, naming her as trustee for George's four surviving children.
By that time there was some hint that Martha, who had grown quite large herself, was suffering from heart problems. On the morning of February 13, 1885 she was stricken while at home with a serious attack. The family doctor was summoned, but she died before he arrived. James was devastated. In a letter he wrote to Nannie Row on March 26 he revealed the depth of his torment: "The grief and pain I feel has not diminished as time progresses. I feel her loss more now than I did when she was taken...I wanted her back so bad that I would have been willing to have sacrificed every thing children and all to have her still with me until my time comes now..."
James T. Williams to Nannie
Row March 26, 1885
James remarried a widow named Mary Martin on July 20, 1887. James' daughter Josephine, who had married William Chambers in 1886, died during the birth of their son Middleton on March 30, 1888. Again, James wrote to Nannie in June of that year and described what he was going through: "In regard to the death of Jo...it was a great shock to us...Her child was very large and its birth was the cause of her death...Next to the death of your sister her death was the hardest blow I ever had and at first I felt like I could not stand it..." James and Mary Williams adopted Middleton several years later.
James T. Williams to Nannie Row
June 16, 1888
On April 25, 1900 while walking home from his sister's house, James was seized by chest pains. Realizing he could not make it to his house, he stopped at a neighbor's and was taken to an upstairs bedroom, where he died. James is buried next to Martha in the Presbyterian Cemetery in Lynchburg.
Obituary of James T. Williams