Alexander Robinson Boteler and Shepherdstown from the Old South to the New

  • Name:

    Alexander Robinson Boteler

  • Lifespan:

    May 16, 1815 – May 8, 1892

  • Notable Accomplishments:

    Member of the first Confederate Congress and as a voluntary military aide (with the rank of colonel) to Stonewall Jackson, JEB Stuart, and Robert E. Lee.  Active promoter of railroad and industrial investments (including James Rumsey and his steamboat). A supporter of the new state of West Virginia, a founder of Shepherd College, and an employee of federal agencies, including the Centennial Commission, the Tariff Commission, and the Justice Department. Interviewed John Brown.

Alexander R. Boteler

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Alexander Robinson Boteler was born May 16, 1815, in Shepherdstown, the son of Dr. Henry and Priscilla Robinson Boteler, and died May 8, 1892. The Boteler family had been in the area for two generations and had important ties with Philadelphia and Baltimore. Dr. Boteler earned his medical degree in Philadelphia. Alexander’s mother was a granddaughter of the notable portrait painter of the early republic, Charles Willson Peale of Philadelphia. Her father, Alexander Robinson, was a prominent merchant of Baltimore.

Boteler came of age during the time of Jacksonian Democracy and matured during the sectional strife that led to the Civil War, the painful demise of the Old South and the rise of a new order during Reconstruction.  During the antebellum era Boteler was a slave-owning planter and mill owner, a champion of James Rumsey as inventor of the steamboat, and a spokesman for the view that the Union and slavery should both be preserved. When the Civil War came, he became a reluctant warrior for the Confederacy, serving as a member of the first Confederate Congress and as a voluntary military aide (with the rank of colonel) to Stonewall Jackson, JEB Stuart, and Robert E. Lee. During the rise of the New South after Reconstruction, he became an active promoter of railroad and industrial investments, a supporter of the new state of West Virginia, a founder of Shepherd College, and an employee of federal agencies, including the Centennial Commission, the Tariff Commission, and the Justice Department.

Boteler’s mother died during his early childhood.  He grew up in Baltimore under the tutelage of his grandfather and namesake, Alexander Robinson. There he received a good education and made important lasting connections.

His relationship with his mother’s Philadelphia relations, the Peales, inspired his interest in art, though both his father and grandfather thought art a waste of time and tried to suppress the young man’s budding skills in sketching, cartooning, and caricature. Despite their efforts, he retained an interest in painting and sketching throughout his life.

As a young man, Boteler attended Princeton, a favorite institution of privileged young men from the Shenandoah Valley. There he formed some friendships with these fellow Virginians and as well as with some Northerners, ties that would be of lifelong significance. He also painted the walls of his dormitory room with his artwork, which the institution left as an attraction for visitors until the dormitory burned in 1855.

At Princeton, he fell in love with one of the young beauties of the town, Helen Stockton, whom he married in 1836 after graduation. His father died soon afterwards leaving the young Alexander control of the family lands and large house, Fountain Rock, which was on the site of today’s pavilion at Morgan’s Grove Park. He also inherited Boteler’s Mill on the Potomac, which nearly ruined him financially.   His father left a debt of some $32,000 on the mill, and rough economic times made it difficult for Boteler to recover. He was saved only by his wife’s money and the strategic intervention of his elderly grandfather, who advised him and loaned him funds needed to stave off creditors.

Boteler found escape from his business woes in championing James Rumsey. In 1841 he wrote his wife about a pamphlet given him by “old captain Chunky Lucas.” Written by Rumsey in 1788 after the successful launch of his steam propulsion boat in Shepherdstown, it convinced Boteler that Rumsey deserved acclaim as the inventor of the steamboat. “Worth its weight in gold,” Boteler said, Rumsey’s account contained testimonials from prominent men who saw Rumsey’s steamboat run on the Potomac at Shepherdstown. Thrilled with the pamphlet, Boteler told his wife that he was now determined to prosecute his own researches with renewed vigor. He also told her he was soon to possess the boiler from Rumsey’s first boat.  Historic Shepherdstown board member Nick Blanton is the best authority on Boteler’s lifelong and somewhat quixotic campaign to glorify Rumsey as the inventor of the steamboat. A replica of the boat can be seen as an adjunct to the Shepherdstown museum.

Boteler always liked politics better than business. He tended to the quirky side of politics, being over the years a member of several unconventional parties, including the Know Nothings (of which he was briefly national secretary), the Whigs (a local newspaper once called him the “young wheel horse of Whiggery in Virginia”) and the American Party, which like the Know Nothings tended to be nativist. He was elected to Congress as an American Party member in 1859.

On October 16, 1859, he hurried to Harpers Ferry on the news of the John Brown Raid. Boteler interviewed and sketched Brown in the engine house after his arrest.  He had previously seen and sketched Brown on a train, labeling the sketch “the Wandering Jew.” Long after the War, in 1883, he published an article on Brown’s raid in American Century.

In My Ride to the Barbecue, a short book published during the antebellum crisis, Boteler argued that because the people of the Lower Shenandoah, particularly of Jefferson and Berkeley counties, were the first people of the South to go to the aid of Boston in the Beeline March of 1776, the Bostonians should now reciprocate and defend their Southern allies against abolitionists. When Congress met in December, 1859, Boteler used the same argument in a speech, called by some late nineteenth century commentators one of the greatest orations ever in Congress. It catapulted him into the contest for Speaker as a Southern voice for Unionism, but his odd political pedigree made him unacceptable to both sides in a time when congressmen and people in the galleries came armed and ready for a shoot-out rather than a compromise.

Boteler served as the national secretary of the Constitutional Union Party in the election of 1860, persisting in the argument that both the Union and slavery could be saved by strict commitment to the Constitution. Even after the election, he visited President-Elect Abraham Lincoln, hoping that the two former Whigs could find common ground that could save the Union.

When the War came, he somewhat reluctantly joined the Confederacy, feeling he had to fight for Virginia and its way of life.  He was elected to the first Confederate Congress and became a volunteer aide de camp to Stonewall Jackson and later to JEB Stuart. He helped design the Confederate flag and seal.  Defeated for a second term in the Confederate Congress (because some Confederates thought he had been too pro-Union before the war) he became more active in military matters. Late in the war he served as military judge on Robert E. Lee’s staff and was with Lee when he surrendered at Appomattox.

Boteler and his family suffered during the war as his prominent position in the Confederacy made him a target.  In early August, 1861, Union forces arrested him at Fountain Rock and took him to Union headquarters across the Potomac.  He convinced his captors to release him, but shortly thereafter Union forces burned his mill on the Potomac, claiming that it served as a snipers’ nest for Confederates firing across the Potomac.  Fountain Rock, often caught between the contending forces, suffered as the fields and crops were ruined, and the cattle and horses stolen.  His slaves left as Union forces arrived, and the fields received little attention during the War. The greatest tragedy for Boteler and his family came on July 19, 1864, when Union soldiers under the orders of General David Hunter burned Fountain Rock and all its contents, as well as nearby Bedford, the residence of the Edmund J. Lee family. Henrietta Bedinger Lee’s bitter letter of reproach to General Hunter, widely reproduced in the North and South, became a Civil War classic. Boteler’s daughter, Helen Macomb “Tippie” Boteler, also wrote letters about the event, one account appearing in numerous newspapers.

Despite the loss of his mill, his home, his slaves, and his way of life, Boteler accommodated to the post-war new order, quickly renouncing the Confederacy and slavery as he sought a pardon and release from the post-war restrictions on participants in the rebellion.  In dire straits after the war, he sold the mill, which had not operated since its burning. He dreamed of rebuilding Fountain Rock, but never did.

Shepherdstown lost its brief wartime hold on the county seat of Jefferson County as it returned to Charles Town in 1871, leaving Rezin D. Shepherd’s iconic Town Hall bereft of a tenant. Boteler was among the founders of Shepherd College, which received a lease to the building from Shepherd’s heirs. Boteler Hall on the Shepherd University campus honors Boteler’s role in the founding.

Boteler, like other former Confederates who, dreaming of a New South, threw themselves into business and industrial projects, led in bringing both the telegraph and railroad to Shepherdstown, frequently hosting meetings of investors at the Entler Hotel. In the 1870s, sometimes relying on Northern ties from his Princeton days, he received appointments to the US Centennial Commission, the Tariff Commission, and the Justice Department. He tried to get involved with electoral politics again, seeking in vain to be elected again as a congressman or as United States Senator from WV. He also continued to sketch and wrote two book length manuscripts that were never published, one on James Rumsey and another on temperance. A popular public speaker, he spoke before political, agricultural and business groups as well as at Confederate Memorial Day celebrations and at Confederate reunions. As he traveled the country for the Tariff Commission and on business ventures, he became quite a raconteur, entertaining Northern reporters with tales of Stonewall Jackson and John Brown. Though he died long before it became a reality, he advocated the building of a Rumsey Monument in Shepherdstown on the banks of the Potomac.

by Jerry B. Thomas