It’s hard to believe that pub day, March 30th, is almost here for Sunflower Sisters. So I wanted to start sharing some of the hidden history I discovered while writing it.
I’m starting with these wonderful Woolsey women that live in one-third of the chapters of Sunflower Sisters so you can get to know them a bit before we enter their lives. They’re the women Caroline Ferriday was so proud to be descended from. Abigail, Jane, Mary, Georgy, Eliza, Hattie and Carry and their mother Jane Eliza, known as Moremama to the family. Here’s a bit about each one, and a family tree at the end, which you may want to print and save as a helpful reading companion to Sunflower Sisters. I used it as a cheatsheet while I was writing, since there are a lot of sisters!
Image courtesy of the Bellamy-Ferriday House & Garden Archives, Bethlehem, Connecticut, owned and operated by Connecticut Landmarks.
The matriarch of the family, Jane Eliza Woolsey was by all accounts a remarkable woman. She grew up on a slave-holding farm in Virginia, raised by her Aunt Ricketts after her parents died. Jane Eliza hated everything about the institution of slavery and once she left the farm vowed to do everything she could to abolish it. She met Charles Woolsey on a street in New York City and both said it was love at first sight for them. Known as Moremama by her grandchildren, she instilled a sense of duty and compassion in her children that was passed down three generations to her great granddaughter Caroline Ferriday.
Abigail was the eldest Woolsey sister and had an incredible intellect. Her sisters kidded her quite a lot for never wanting to sew herself new dresses. During the war she ran a school that taught impoverished women to support themselves by working as seamstresses.
Jane Woolsey had auburn hair, a wonderful biting wit and while Abigail eschewed new clothes, Jane embraced them and amassed a lovely wardrobe. During the war she served as a Union nurse at many locations around the northeast and wrote a book about her nursing career, Hospital Days. She and Abigail were best friends and, after the war, having never married, took care of each other for the rest of their lives.
The Woolsey family considered Mary to be the great beauty of the family. She married Reverend Robert Howland, a cousin, and they had four daughters. She was an accomplished poet, the author of a famous poem that almost every Civil War soldier, North and South, carried in their pocket, A Rainy Day at Camp. People assumed the poem was written by a man and the family could not divulge that a woman had written it. Mary took that secret to her grave.
Georgeanna “Georgy” Woolsey is one of the three main point of view characters in Sunflower Sisters. With her quick mind, incredible work ethic and great sense of humor, she was a tremendous asset to the Sanitary Commission where she served as one of their first nurses.
Eliza Woolsey Howland married a Union Colonel Joseph Howland, a distant cousin, and lived a very privileged life in Beacon, New York on a vast estate named Tioronda. But having the means to do whatever she wanted didn’t stop Eliza from working as a nurse during the Civil War and following her husband as he went into battle. Georgy and Eliza were the best of friends their whole lives.
Harriet Roosevelt “Hatty” Woolsey is often mentioned in the Woolsey letters as the most giving and generous of the sisters and also a close companion to her mother. She married surgeon Hugh Lenox Hodge, Director of Surgery at the University of Pennsylvania, and the couple had two children together.
Caroline Woolsey Mitchell was an academically gifted young woman and, as the youngest daughter, longed to follow her accomplished sisters into war service. Left at home, she focused on underprivileged children in her volunteer work, at both the New York Orphan Asylum and the Colored Orphan Asylum in New York City. She married Edward Mitchell, a young man her sisters Georgy and Eliza had helped recover from malaria on a hospital ship, who later became a lawyer and headed the Republican party in New York City. The pair had one child, Eliza Mitchell Ferriday, Caroline Ferriday’s mother. Caroline was very close to her beloved Grandmother Woolsey and losing her, around the same time her father Henry Ferriday died, was a terrible blow for young Caroline.
The youngest Woolsey sibling, Charles, benefited greatly from having six older sisters. Having lost their father when they were young, Charles became the only male in the house and they doted on him. But he was expected to contribute to society as they all were and after Mrs. Woolsey succeeded in keeping her only son away from the worst part of battle during the war, she finally had to succumb to Charles’s wishes and allow him to join a regiment.
The Woolsey/Ferriday family tree: