For Oakwood Cemetery, Niagara Falls, by Michelle Kratts
I have often found myself in a precarious position when I study the Civil War. As I work on creating a tour for our upcoming “Angels in the Battlefield; a Civil War Tour of Oakwood Cemetery,” slated for Saturday, July 16th, at Oakwood Cemetery, I can’t help but allow my mind to wander back into my own family history during this time period. When I was a little girl my sweet grandmother would come up from down south to visit and I never hesitated to ask her about our own family stories. As my father’s people were 100% dixie, she would often tell me about our southern past and life before and during the Civil War. She especially liked to talk about Grandpa Chambless.
John Albert Chambless had been born on a plantation not too far from Atlanta, Georgia, and when just a young man had ventured off to Texas. In January of 1862, he enlisted in Maxey’s 9th Texas Infantry and served until the end of the war. He fought at Shiloh, Vicksburg, the Battle of Stone River. He was in Atlanta when it burned—I imagine it was a grim time for him as he found his beloved Georgia utterly devastated. While in a Union camp for prisoners of war he saw a pathetic, dying man leaning against a fence post. Upon closer examination he realized it was his own brother, Frank—who had not much longer to live for he died shortly after from wounds and disease. Two of my grandfather’s brothers, my uncles, are buried at Vicksburg. I have other grandfathers that were Confederates and countless uncles and cousins that screamed into battle with a rebel yell. My grandmother was so proud of our ancestors and our history and I was so excited to hear her stories that told me of “my people.” However, as I learned more about the war and the circumstances that led to the war, it was inevitable that a great feeling of guilt would come over me. I was suddenly ashamed that a part of me had been on the “wrong” side of this trying moment in our nation’s history. As a genealogist, my research confirmed all my worst fears…my family had been in the business of buying and selling human beings for hundreds of years. I found early censuses and wills from the 1600’s that made that ugly fact quite evident. How could I ever reconcile the reality that my ancestors were slave-holding Confederates? It’s a strange thing but I found the answer here in the Porter plot in Oakwood Cemetery and while researching for our “Angels in the Battlefield” tour.
It seems that I am not the only resident of Niagara Falls whose blood runs Reb, White and Blue. There is a well-known family who sleeps peacefully behind the grand black iron fence and I’m quite sure if we could hear their whispers we would hear quite a bit of the southern drawl. Peter Buell Porter is responsible for this for in 1818 he chose Miss Letitia Breckenridge for his wife. It was said that when Peter first set his eyes on this beautiful Kentucky belle he was smitten for life. In order to court her before their marriage he rode on horseback through the length of Ohio and deep into Kentucky. Her family was one of the most prominent families in all of the southern states. Perhaps even Mary Todd Lincoln, the president’s wife, was connected by blood with the Breckenridge family.
John Breckenridge, Letitia’s father, was a Member of the House of Burgesses , U.S. District Attorney of Kentucky, Attorney General of Kentucky, a Kentucky State Representative, a delegate to the Kentucky Constitutional Convention, a U.S. Senator from Kentucky, and the Attorney General of the United States under Thomas Jefferson . Letitia’s first husband was Alfred William Grayson, son of Senator William Grayson of Virginia. He died in 1810, leaving her a widow. Letitia had one surviving son with Grayson and his name was John Breckenridge Grayson. John graduated from West Point and was Lieutenant Colonel of the US Army…until 1861…when the southern states began seceding. Upon the creation of the Confederate States of America, he was commissioned as a Brigadier General and died in Florida while in command of the coastal defenses of Florida and Georgia. Letitia had two surviving children with Peter Buell: Elizabeth and Peter Augustus. Peter A. married his first cousin, another lady from Kentucky, Mary Breckenridge. Her sister, Margaret, also came along to live with the newlyweds in Niagara Falls at the beautiful manor on the River. Peter became Colonel of the 8th New York Heavy Artillery and died leading his men into battle at Cold Harbor, Virginia. Elizabeth and Margaret, followed him into war and served as nurses for the Union troops. Mary died quite early in their marriage and Elizabeth and Margaret succumbed to poor health and disease contracted during their time in war service.
When I try to straighten the families out there is one thing that remains certain: the Porter/Breckenridge family truly represented the anguish and division that ran deep within our nation during the Civil War. I have found various old newspaper clippings that refer to Breckenridge visits to Niagara Falls in the pre-war years. Though diverse in their sentiments, and separated by miles and climate, I am quite sure they were a loving and close-knit family. This is revealed in the fact that so many of them married within their family, often even first cousins. Unfortunately, circumstances tore them apart and in the end it came down to two cousins on a battlefield in Virginia. One would win a battle but the other would win the war.
Peter and Elizabeth were well aware of that certain ugly truth that went alongside their southern heritage. Although their family participated in the system of slavery for many generations, they detested their own connections to that vile system of human bondage. It was said that their mother had received special permission to keep her slaves in New York, even as slavery had been proclaimed illegal. Slaves may have been among their house servants. Peter and Elizabeth often inherited slaves from their ancestral estates yet freed them immediately upon arrival. Elizabeth would find them homes in Niagara Falls and procure work for them in the local hotels. She was a self-proclaimed abolitionist and spared no pretense. In fact, while in a gentleman’s company one afternoon in Florida she made her views quite apparent. Upon riding past a certain tree, this gentleman proudly proclaimed that it was “…here where they hanged an abolitionist…” Her response must have threw him from his horse for she declared that she, too, was an abolitionist, and if it is a crime…well, he was perfectly free to take her and hang her from that very tree, too. Peter’s “secret charitable works” are still a mystery however the early Underground Railroad researchers knew that it was “Col. P” who had the reigns over the movement in Niagara. One story exists to this day of an incredible carriage chase through Niagara Falls involving “Col P’ in which a bounty hunter quite unsuccessfully sought the possession of a runaway named “Cassie” because of the heroic acts of a certain wealthy and powerful gentleman. Perhaps it was no coincidence that the lines for the Underground Railroad that ended in Niagara Falls began in Kentucky.
When war was declared the Porters found themselves in an unusual position. What would they do? They knew a brutal war would wreak havoc upon their family and indeed it did. Always at the top of things, the Breckenridge family had leaders on both sides of the conflict. Their mother’s brother, Rev. Robert Jefferson Breckenridge, was outspoken in his abolitionist verbatim and became an advisor to President Lincoln. However, their first cousin, John Cabell Breckenridge, went the other way. A well-known politician, and a former Vice President of the United States, John ran for President against Abraham Lincoln in the election of 1860 on a pro-slavery ticket. Upon the secession of the states, he was assigned the position of Secretary of War and Brigadier General of the Confederate forces. When Peter finally accepted the position of Colonel of the 8th NY Heavy Artillery, he found himself on a battlefield in Cold Harbor, Virginia, where he faced the Confederate forces led by his cousin, John Cabell Breckenridge. Peter was killed. John was wounded. It has been suggested that John, himself, had ordered the sharpshooter to aim for Peter. No one knows for sure but Cold Harbor was a devastating moment for the Federal forces and especially for Niagara County. Over 100 Niagarans lost their lives in just a few hours.
When the war ended, John Cabell (along with other Confederate leaders including Jefferson Davis) came to Niagara-on-the-Lake and lived in exile for a time. Somehow they were comforted looking across the waters at the American flag that waved triumphantly beside Fort Niagara. I wonder if Elizabeth ever met with John. He was only a few moments away. Could she forgive him for Peter’s death?
Over 150 years have passed since the onset of the Civil War and yet, at times, I feel it still plays out somewhere inside of those of us whose ancestors have been there. As I put the Porters lives back together I find some comfort in realizing that no matter where we have come from, we are individuals first. Our ancestors had their reasons, whatever they may have been, as we have ours. Most of all, they were merely victims of circumstance. It’s ultimately up to us to decide what position we will play in this battlefield which is our life.
Learn more about the Porters and many other Civil War stories that were born in Niagara Falls at our upcoming tour, “Angels in the Battlefield; A Civil War Tour of Oakwood Cemetery.” Details will be posted on the website.