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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Martha Row Williams

Martha Row Williams (Courtesy of Ellen Apperson Brown)

     Martha Jane Row, the oldest of Absalom and Nancy Row's five children, was born on June 9, 1828. Few details are known about her childhood, but at Greenfield Martha grew up in a household characterized by a certain level of wealth and privilege. There were house servants to see to the family's needs. The girls' closets and trunks were full of fine clothes and linens. Tutors for Martha and her sisters were hired by her father, who took seriously the education of his children. One of these tutors, Adeline McDonald, taught the Row sisters, as well as the children of other nearby plantation owners in Spotsylvania, in the early 1840's. Adeline loved Absalom's girls and was also concerned about their spiritual development. In a letter she sent to Absalom in November 1844 from Vermont, Adeline wrote: "I want to say something to your daughters, particularly to much happiness they can secure to themselves by consecrating themselves to their heavenly father while still young."
     Martha married Lynchburg merchant James T. Williams on December 17, 1850. Martha and James then moved to Richmond, where James was a partner with Samuel C. Tardy in the auction house and wholesale merchandising firm of Tardy and Williams. The Williamses would live in Richmond until 1867, and most of their nine children would be born there.
      With the outbreak of the Civil War a great deal would change for James and Martha. James was able to wrangle a deferment that kept him out of active military service, but he was still required to serve in the Second Class Militia. Richmond quickly became a very crowded and increasingly lawless place. Wounded Confederates, captured Federals, office seekers, and petty criminals of every stripe poured into the city. Despite the deteriorating conditions there, life was much better and less stressful for the Williams family in Richmond than it was for Martha's widowed mother and sisters in Spotsylvania.
     In a letter to her brother George in June 1863, Martha urged him to avoid the unseemly behavior she has observed among the soldiers in Richmond and to take "your Father as an example of all that was good, noble, gentle, loving, kind and above all a Christian." Showing concern for George's safety, Martha suggested that George seek a position in the Signal Corps. Richard Adams, a friend of the Williamses from Lynchburg who was associated with Tardy and Williams before the war, was a signal officer and a member of the staff of General A.P. Hill.

                                                          Martha's letter to George 1863

     In early 1864 Martha's mother and her sister Nannie, together with her other sister Bettie Rawlings and her family, fled Spotsylvania to live in the comparative safety of the village of Hadensville in Goochland County. After the immediate danger of the fighting in Spotsylvania had passed, Nannie would often return to Greenfield to attend to matters there. By the end of the war one of the Rows' remaining slaves would be given a pass so that he could move foodstuffs, clothing and other articles as needed among the houses in Richmond, Hadensville and Spotsylvania. 
     In a letter she wrote from besieged Richmond in March 1865,  Martha told her Mother and Nannie: "How I wish I wish I could come see you when the spring opens. It seems to me that I want to see you all worse now that I can't come than I could when the way was open." Less than a month later the Confederate army evacuated Richmond, setting ablaze warehouses full of goods they did not wish to fall into the hands of the Federals. Many of the buildings in the business district were destroyed by fire, including that of Tardy and Williams. 
     Two years later the Williams family would return to Lynchburg, where James would establish his own wholesale grocery enterprise which ultimately became known as James T. William, Son and Company. In this undertaking he prospered handsomely and by 1874 he and Martha were able to buy this house at 822 Federal Street. The house and the grounds comprised a city block and included a servant's house, carriage house and terraced gardens. James would have a telegraph line run to his house so that he could transact business while at home. This photograph, taken in the early 1880's, shows a woman sitting on the front porch, said to be Martha.
                                            822 Federal Street, Lynchburg, early 1880's

     Some time between 1867 and 1872 the photograph at the top of the page was taken in Lynchburg. Martha is sitting to the right of her mother. Standing behind them are her sisters Bettie Row Rawlings and Nannie Row. Following the death of her daughter in law and granddaughter, Nancy Row spent much of 1872 in Lynchburg with Martha and her family.
     In 1883 Martha's brother George died in Spotsylvania, leaving behind his widow Lizzie and four children. In August that year Martha traveled to Spotsylvania and deeded to Lizzie 146 1/2 acres of land that was once part of Greenfield and represented her part of the Row legacy.  She named Lizzie as trustee on behalf of George's children. This generous act would increase Sunshine to the size that it is today. 
     On the morning of February 13, 1885 Martha had a heart attack while at home. The family doctor was summoned at once but she died before he arrived. Her passing was noted in several obituaries. This excerpt from one of them provides the best insight into what kind of woman Martha Row Williams was: "During the dark and trying days of the war she was untiring in her efforts on behalf of our sick and wounded soldiers, ministering to their necessities by every means within her power, both in the hospitals and on the field, often depriving herself that she might help and relieve them. Many are still living who can bear testimony to her unwavering kindness to them during those days of sorrow and suffering." Martha is buried in the Presbyterian Cemetery in Lynchburg.


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