1843: Capt. William M. Armstrong to Agnes M. (Dilks) Leeds

This letter was written by Capt. William M. Armstrong (1799-1861), a Naval officer whose career in the U.S. service spanned nearly fifty-seven years. His home was in Norfolk, Virginia, on Bute Street. The captain was married to Adelaide (Tyler) Armstrong (1806-1881), a niece of President Tyler, and together they had a large number of children. In 1841, two years previous to this letter, the Armstrongs lost three children in three weeks during the scarlet fever epidemic at Norfolk. They were Rebecca (27 January 1832-9 September 1841), Mary Laura (23 November 1835-11 September 1841), and Joseph M. (16 January 1837-29 September 1841). They are buried with their parents at Norfolk’s Cedar Grove Cemetery. William Armstrong and Adelaide Tyler were married at Norfolk’s Christ Church on 20 August 1827; the 1850 Norfolk County census lists their eight children, ranging in age from two to twenty-two. The Norfolk Directory lists Armstrong as a commander attached to Gosport, 110.

Gravestone of Agnes (Leeds) Burchard

Capt. Armstrong wrote the letter to the widow Mrs. Agnes M. (Dilks) Leeds (1818-1883) of New York City. Her husband, Henry Leeds (1801-1843) died in Curacao on 19 February 1843. Leeds entered into a partnership with James Nesmith (Nesmith, Leeds & Co. of New York City) in the 1820s. They were ship owners and commission agents with a penchant for naming their vessels after family members — one of which was the Agnes Leeds. Anges and Henry had at least five children.

Four years after this letter was written, Agnes married Rev. Samuel Dickinson Burchard, D. D. (1811-1891), with whom she had five additional children.

Stampless Letter

Addressed to Mrs. Agnes M. Leeds, 136 Mercer Street, New York

Norfolk, [Virginia]
November 29th 1843

My Dear Madam,

Your kind and welcome letter of the 31st October came safe to hand. It found me with a very sick child — poor William, whom you know — and so much fagged and anxious was I that I felt utterly unable to write even to you, my much valued friend. Thank God, he is again well, but walks very feeble.

I am pleased to hear that you have broke up house keeping as I well know, even with a gentleman to aid in these times of equality, it is almost impossible to get along with servants — independent of the great additional expense that will be saved thus for yourself & children. It is not those, believe me, who try to shine in this way that are the most beloved or respected. Such merit will under all circumstances be duly appreciated, whether it abide in a palace or a cottage. I am glad you give much favorable accounts to my little baracoa friend James, I trust he may live to be as great a comfort to you as your heart could desire, and after all give me the love of children — for it is ___ as that of Heaven. Without mine, I should be miserable indeed. I was pleased also to hear you contemplated a trip to Boston to see your friends there. I trust you may have come back with renewed health and spirits.

From your precious letters, I felt assured that you would meet with disappointment when your affairs were closed with your husband’s partner, for yours would have been a rare occurrence if the widow and orphan was not made to suffer. This belief induced me to urge on you a speedy settlement of your estate for I felt satisfied you would save by it. As the world goes, I have no doubt that many would think you fortunate to have escaped with anything like an independence, which I pray Heaven is the case, when we see daily such open violations of everything like truth, honesty, and virtue.

Lt. [George J.] Wyche ¹ went pretty much, I assure you, as I had anticipated (poor man). The rigid rule I held over him & others may have prolonged his life and it was unfortunate in truth that my ship ² was laid up, for had the _____ been anger, he might have been spared. Poor fellow, he had a kind heart, but like many others, fell a victim to that fell destroyer. Tell your sons and daughters never to marry or associate with such unless they wish to jeopardize their happiness in this life, and perhaps that to come.

My wife bids me thank you in the most affectionate manner for your kind invitations and remembrance of her, and says should she ever make a trip of pleasure, it will be to make your acquaintance, for like her husband, she is more than prepared to esteem and love you, In truth, she has been talking for some time of writing to you herself, which was one reason why I had delayed answering your letter. But her children & busy preparation for their winter comforts has enlarged it. But your next will be answered by her, and by this means I trust to bring you to know each other better.

I trust you will call on me at all times if it is possible for me to aid you in any way as it would give me much pleasure to be of service to you & yours. In conclusion, permit me to add, keep clear of the Law & Lawyers if you can under all circumstances. I would sooner lose a little than more perhaps by employing them. My wife sends her best regards and believe me your faithful and affectionate friend, — Wm. M. Armstrong


¹ U.S. Navy Lieut. George J. Wyche committed suicide in 1843. His vacancy was filled by Roger N. Stembel. The 3 November 1843 issue of the Farmer’s Cabinet (Amherst, N.H.) carried the following death notice for Lt. Wyche: “We understand that a young Naval officer, Lieut. Geirge J. Wyche, was apprehended last night in the street, in a state of intoxication, and conveyed to the watch house. He was a young man of unusual intelligence, possessed many fine qualities, and was believed to cherish correct habits. How he was induced in this instance, to conduct in a manner, which led to such an unhappy result we are not informed. But this morning when he awoke to the full knowledge of his degraded situation, he was so overcome by the sad reflection, that in a fit of despair he committed the dreadful crime of suicide, by strangling himself with his handkerchief. Mr. Wyche was about 28 years of age, a native of Virginia, but more recently a resident of Alabama. May his sad fate be an impressive warning to others, to shun, as they would deadly poison the intoxicating cup.” [Reprint from Boston Paper]

Subsequent articles attributed Lt. Wyche’s deranged state to be cause by the abuse of opium but it seems pretty clear that Capt. Armstrong, under whom he served and knew him well, seemed pretty certain that Wyche suffered from alcohol abuse and a sharp temper.

² In 1843, Capt. Armstrong was assigned to the U. S. sloop of war Marion. She was reported to be an “unfit vessel for service” and often needed repairs. At the time that Armstrong wrote this letter, she was in dry dock in Boston. Two years previously, she had taken on so much water that she sunk at Rio de Janeiro. Such was the state of the U.S. Navy prior to the War with Mexico.


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