A Most Un-Civil War

The American Civil War is often described as a conflict that pitted ‘brother against brother.’  There were certainly many instances of such divided families, none more prominent, perhaps, than that of Abraham Lincoln’s own wife.  Mary Todd Lincoln of Kentucky had four brothers who took up arms for the Confederacy and one who fought for the Union; five sisters who were pro-Union (like their father), and four who supported the Southern cause.  But such family splits were mostly confined to border states like Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri.  In the Deep South and upper North, there was far more unanimity within the states themselves and within families for their respective causes.

Capt. Robert Townsend, USN

But for one prominent Albany family, the dividing line between North and South cut straight through their home and hearth.  During the first quarter of the 19th century, Isaiah Townsend firmly established his family as one of wealth and influence in the capital city.  The Townsend Furnace, owned and operated by Isaiah and his brother John, was one of Albany’s most flourishing industries.  John had served two terms as mayor of Albany in the 1830’s, and Isaiah’s son Franklin served a term as mayor in the 1850’s.  Isaiah had seven children, all of whom survived to adulthood. At the outbreak of the Civil War, three of Isaiah Townsend’s sons threw themselves into the Union war effort in various ways.  Robert entered the U.S. Navy and served in the blockade of Charleston, S.C.; as captain of the ironclad gunboat Essex on the Mississippi River, during the battle of Port Hudson; and as captain of the U.S.S. Wachusett, chasing Confederate commerce raiders in the Pacific Ocean.  Franklin, who managed the iron business after his uncle John died, was active in raising and financing the formation of the 113th N.Y. Volunteer Infantry Regiment (later re-designated the 7th N.Y.S. Heavy Artillery Regiment).

Frederick Townsend
Brig. Gen. Frederick Townsend, USA

Their brother Frederick had been Adjutant-General of New York before the war.  At the start of the war, Frederick organized the 3rd N.Y. Volunteer Infantry Regiment (the ‘Albany Regiment’), and led it, as its colonel, at the Battle of Big Bethel.  Later in the war, he served as a major of the 18th U.S. Infantry, Regulars, participating in the bloody battles at Corinth, Mississippi and Perryville, Kentucky.  Frederick ended the war as Provost Marshal General for New York State, with the rank of brigadier general. But not all the Townsend children spent the war in enthusiastic service to the Union.  Mary Townsend, (known as Molly), the youngest of the children, had, fifteen years before the war started, fallen in love with a dashing young Army officer stationed at the nearby Watervliet Arsenal – Lt. William Henry Talbot Walker.  After a brief courtship, and just as the Georgia-born soldier was about to be deployed to the Mexican War, Molly married Lt. Walker at Albany’s First Presbyterian Church on May 9, 1846.  She soon after moved to her husband’s hometown of Augusta, Georgia.

Maj. Gen. William H. T. Walker, CSA

Walker was a career soldier, having been educated at West Point.  He served with distinction in the Seminole Wars and in the Mexican War.  Walker resigned his commission in the U.S. Army on the day South Carolina seceded.  He initially served as brigadier general of the Georgia Militia, but entered Confederate service in 1863.  He distinguished himself during the Vicksburg Campaign and, as corps commander, at the Confederate victory at Chickamauga.  Walker proved to be stubborn, ill-tempered, and exceptionally touchy on matters of honor.  But he was unquestionably a brave and competent commander.  He was killed by a Union bullet on July 22, 1864 at the Battle of Atlanta. I have not seen any correspondence between Molly and her family about the strain her marriage to a Confederate general may have put on her family ties and patriotism.  Was she torn inwardly?  Or did she embrace the cause of her new home state, just as many transplanted Northerners did during the war?  But General Walker did write many letters to his wife in Augusta, sharing many details of his constant battles, not only with Union forces, but moreso with his fellow Confederate commanders, most of whom he despised – details he surely would not have shared with Molly unless he trusted her implicitly.

Mary Townsend
Mary ‘Molly’ Townsend Walker

In one letter, Walker sheds some light on what he expected of his loyal wife. Historian Stephen Davis writes: ‘He had instructed his wife to take the children and leave the country if the South lost the war.  He also urged his young ones to “grow up hating the Yankees more and more every day.”  “I don’t want any cousining or uncling any Northern kin – That is played out,” he wrote.’  Molly does not seem to have taken her late husband’s advice after the surrender of the South.  She and her four children remained in Augusta, Georgia.  But neither did she return to her large kinship network in Albany.  Molly Townsend Walker died just four years after her husband, at the age of forty-two, and was buried beside him at the Walker family plot on the grounds of Augusta State University.

N.B.  Another Civil War connection for the Townsend family- General Frederick Townsend was married to Sarah Rathbone, first cousin to Major Henry Rathbone, who sat in the theater box with Abraham Lincoln on the night of his assassination.

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