Theodore Roosevelt's Divided House; Family Conflict during Civil War Had Lasting Impact

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 13, 2008 | Go to article overview

Theodore Roosevelt's Divided House; Family Conflict during Civil War Had Lasting Impact


Byline: Ken Kryvoruka, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Readers familiar with Theodore Roosevelt's childhood know of his struggle to overcome asthma and how that shaped his adulthood - notably his belief in the virtues of physical fitness - and his bravado, especially in the conduct of world affairs. Less well-known is the impact of growing up as a child during the Civil War, an experience that may have been a root cause of what many historians regard as his bellicose approach to foreign policy.

Roosevelt's family had deeply divided loyalties during the Civil War. His relatives played highly visible but contrasting roles on either side of the conflict. To understand the effect the war may have had on the adult Roosevelt, it is helpful to look at this from the perspective of a child.

Born in 1858 in the Gramercy Park section of Manhattan, Roosevelt was a toddler when the Civil War began in April 1861. His father, Theodore Sr., was a Knickerbocker, a Dutch New Yorker who ran a family business. His wealth came from importing plate glass at a time of unprecedented expansion.

A noted philanthropist, the senior Roosevelt helped found such landmark institutions as the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In a patrician boyhood such as his, young Theodore learned that, in the words of a cousin, to be a Roosevelt was to be something distinctive.

Theodore Sr.

To combat Theodore's poor health, his father pushed the youngster to exercise. As historian David McCullough tells us in his celebrated Mornings on Horseback, during the worst of Theodore's asthma attacks, his father would pick him up out of bed and get the carriage harnessed up and drive through the streets of New York, hoping that as the boy gulped in air, the breathing would clear and he would survive.

To deal with bullies, Roosevelt took up boxing and, in a remarkable turnabout from his fragile childhood, is seen by some writers as the historical figure who most exemplifies the quality of masculinity.

Theodore Sr. had a tremendous influence on his son. Roosevelt wrote in his 1913 autobiography, titled Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography : My father ... was the best man I ever knew He combined strength and courage with gentleness, tenderness, and great unselfishness. He would not tolerate in us children selfishness or cruelty, idleness, cowardice, or untruthfulness.

Roosevelt's sister Corinne later wrote, He told me frequently that he never took any serious step or made any vital decision for his country without thinking first what position his father would have taken.

Like many prosperous businessmen with commercial ties to the South, Theodore Sr. opposed the drift toward war, but once it came, he and his family became strong Lincoln Republicans. It must have come as a great shock to young Teddy to learn that his father never fought in the Civil War; rather, he hired a $300 substitute to take his place in the Union Army.

To an impressionable child, the embarrassment from the senior Roosevelt's decision not to serve in the military must have been made worse because the Roosevelts had many prominent friends and neighbors who fought and died in that noble cause. This anomaly between the father's aristocratic bearing and his failure to make a military mark in the war is complicated by the contrasting picture Teddy saw in the maternal side of the family.

'Rebel' mother

Teddy's mother, Martha Mittie Bulloch, was a Southern belle from a slave-owning family in Savannah, Ga. Her father, James, owned a cotton mill and, with his partner, founded a Georgia town called Roswell. There Mittie grew up as the darling of a wealthy planter family.

In 1839, James completed Bulloch Hall, a Greek Revival mansion that survived Union Gen. William T. Sherman's March to the Sea and is today maintained as a museum. The mansion is said to have been the model for Margaret Mitchell's Tara Plantation in Gone With the Wind. …

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