Women of the Civil War: Amelia Gayle Gorgas
Among the North-South marriages during the Civil War era was one that included a young woman born in Alabama, and a man reared in Running Pumps, Pa., near Harrisburg. The military life brought the two together, after West Point graduate Josiah Gorgas found himself stationed at Mount Vernon Arsenal near Mobile, Ala.
Gorgas claims he fell in love with Amelia “Minnie” Gayle’s voice before he actually met her. Every day, she read to her sister’s children on the veranda of her older brother’s home, next door to the arsenal, where Josiah overheard her.
They married in 1853, and, after the Civil War erupted eight years later, Josiah Gorgas resigned his U.S. army commission to enlist and serve as chief of the Confederate Ordnance Bureau. He earned a reputation as a genius for improvisation to provide sufficient munitions for Rebel military units.
Minnie assured Josiah she would go with him, no matter whether he chose the Union or Confederate army, yet he realized “the South has … wooed and won me,” as Sarah Woolfolk Wiggins related in “The Marriage of Amelia Gayle and Josiah Gorgas” (Bleser and Gordon, “Intimate Strategies of the Civil War”).
Josiah’s assignment brought them to Richmond for the duration of the Civil War, but Amelia fled with her five children when the Union army threatened the Rebel capital in 1862. She and her family were strong Southern advocates; her father had served as governor of Alabama and was a friend of South Carolina’s arch-secessionist, John C. Calhoun.
The reverse situation occurred in 1865, when Richmond fell to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s forces — Josiah fled South with the departing Confederate government officials, while Amelia and her now six children remained in Richmond. Josiah feared arrest and deportation for his service in the Southern army.
Josiah’s family in Pennsylvania severed ties with him following his decision to cast fortunes with the South. As a result, he became an active member of Amelia’s family.
Amelia and her sister Marie left Richmond after the war, because it was not healthy for the children and she feared for their safety. Josiah remained in Alabama, attempting to resurrect his life and find new employment.
When Amelia’s attempt to communicate with Josiah’s family in the North did not bear fruit, she and her sister moved first to Baltimore, and then on to Cambridge, Md. Later, when Josiah established an iron business in the rural town of Brierfield, Ala., Amelia and the children joined him there — even though she preferred to live in the city rather “to go [in]to the woods…”
The ironworks business was never profitable, and, in desperation, Josiah accepted a job as headmaster of the junior department at the University of the South at Sewanee, Tenn., in 1869. Life continued to be chaotic for Amelia and the children, who were separated from Josiah for long periods while he attempted to make a living.
The resourceful Amelia never complained, and made do with whatever means available. A year later, a house was finally built at Sewanee so that the Gorgas family could reunite and move in to their new, yet humble, abode.
Without warning, fate and a longtime friend on the board intervened, when news arrived that the University of Alabama trustees had elected Josiah as president of the school at Tuscaloosa. Even better for Amelia and their five children still living at home, the university provided a mansion for their president.
However, the Civil War and his struggles to make do in the aftermath finally took its toll when Josiah suffered a massive stroke soon after the move to Alabama. Four years later, Amelia became a widow, when Josiah passed at 66 in 1883.
The Good Lord worked miracles on Amelia’s behalf, however, when the University of Alabama trustees provided the family a rent-free house on campus, and appointed her to the position of hospital matron and later as campus postmistress. Amelia lived another 30 years, having survived the trauma and dislocation of the Civil War and difficult readjustment of family life in the aftermath.
Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Lee is Trapped, and Must Be Taken: Eleven Fateful Days after Gettysburg, July 4-14, 1863,” and “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign: How the Critical Role of Intelligence Impacted the Outcome of Lee’s Invasion of the North, June-July 1863,” both available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach and at Cardsmart in Milford, and on Amazon.com. Contact him at email@example.com or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.
By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point