1848: John Daniel Kurtz, Sr. to Lt. John Daniel Kurtz

Georgetown, District of Columbia

This letter was written by John Daniel Kurtz (1787-1850) to his son, Lt. John Daniel Kurtz, Jr. (1820-1877), while stationed at Fort Johnson, Charleston Harbor. Kurtz, Sr. was married to Catherine W. Browne (1797-1820) and Kurtz, Jr. was married (1843) to Jane Thompson Wright (1821-1865).

John D. Kurtz, Jr. attended West Point Military Academy from 1838 to 1842 and his first assignment as an engineer was to work on the construction of fortifications in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, 1842-1851. He later served as an engineer during the Civil War and was breveted Colonel for meritorious service during Gen. Early’s raid against the U.S. Capital in July 1864.

We learn from this letter that Kurtz, Sr. was a banker in Georgetown and that he formed the acquaintance with South Carolina Congressman, Robert Barnwell Rhett — a secessionist politician and the owner of the Charleston Mercury newspaper.

The content of this letter contains a bit of irony. John Kurtz, Sr. rejoices in the news of the revolutions in Europe where the oppressed citizens were overthrowing the monarchies — striking a blow for liberty;  yet he appears to have no compassion for the Negroes in his own neighborhood who attempted to escape slavery in what has come to be known as “the Pearl Incident.”

Stampless Letter

Addressed to Lieut. J. D. Kurtz, U.S. Engineers, Charleston, South Carolina

Georgetown [Virginia]
21 April 1848

My dear Dan,

Your letter of 8 inst., though post-marked 9, did not get here until the afternoon of the 14th, showing great irregularity or carelessness somewhere that ought to be corrected.

We have had two very cold nights this week — ice having been showed yesterday morning, but after a careful examination I find the fruit in my garden all safe and the season is now so far advanced that I think there is a fair prospect of good crops.

A packet ship arrived from France with a few days later intelligence informs of the spread of republicanism in Europe and I would not be surprised to hear of its extending to the British Islands. Indeed, I think it probable that by the close of this year, the only reigning monarchs in Europe will be found in Russia & Turkey and they also must eventually succumb to the people as the latter learn their rights. Meantime, there may be sanguinary struggles, for man born to power and wealth will naturally endeavor to maintain their positions.

Robert Barnwell Rhett

I happened to meet Mr. [Robert Barnwell] Rhett yesterday and he promised to send you the Patent Office Report soon as he receives it. He also mentioned that there is no doubt of appropriations being made in due time for publications.

You will observe by the newspapers ¹ that great excitement has existed here & in Washington for some days past in consequence of the re-capture of 77 Negroes who endeavored to escape from servitude. I was glad that my peculiar feelings, or perhaps want of them, enabled me to remain entirely composed & indifferent to the result.

Affectionately, your father, — J. Kurtz

All friends well.

My Dear Daughter,

This is Good Friday — a bank holiday, but I am in the bank writing to you as I must go to the country on business tomorrow and supposed if I deferred writing till Monday next you and J. D. would think me behind time.

I am glad that Annie keeps me in remembrance and hope she will continue to do so till we meet again as old acquaintance.

Catherine is still about & I know not when she will return. I advised her to remain as long as she found it agreeable to herself. She writes to Rebecca that her health was good.

Helen and her family are established in the country and have not communicated with us. I have had several ____ of asparagus from the garden where everything looks very luxuriant.

Since Paulina, Margaret C. Catharine & Helen are all away, I get no information of what is doing or expected to be done in certain quarters.

Affectionately your father, J. Kurtz


¹ The New York Herald of Thursday, 20 April 1848 ran the following article with respect to “the Runaways.”

Washington, April 18, 1848
The Men Stealers — The Capture of the Runaways

Mary & Emily Edmonson, two slaves who attempted to escape on The Pearl in 1848

On Sunday, this city [Washington] and Georgetown were thrown into a state of intense excitement. Between seventy and eighty slaves belonging to citizens of the two places had disappeared, as had, also, money, spoons, and other valuables. Several negroes who had made their arrangements to vamoose, were left behind, and to be revenged they gave the alarm. A telegraphic despatch was sent to Baltimore, with a view of having a vessel despatched to the Bay to meet the runaways; and the steamer Salem, Captain Baker, raised steam, and immediately proceeded down the Potomac. There were about thirty volunteers on the vessels, armed to the teeth, and two field pieces were provided to be used in case of necessity. We heard nothing about this expedition until last night when it was reported that there had been a fight, and that eight of the negroes had been killed! This, however, was a mistake. This morning, at eight o’clock, the whole party arrived at the wharf, and were taken to jail. There were, in all, seventy-seven negroes, viz: thirty-eight men and boys; twenty six women and girls, and thirteen children. The captain of the Pearl, the piratical craft, is named Edward Sayers; the supercargo or mate, Daniel Drayton, from White Hill, New Jersey. They were discovered in the Pearl, while at anchor at Point Lookout, a hundred miles from Washington, at the mouth of the Potomac River, at 4 o’clock, on Monday morning. The vessel was approached, and the captain was ordered to put on his clothes, as he was required on board the Salem. He obeyed the summons, it is said, without resistance. The negro men and boys were tied — the women and children were left unbound. They were all transferred to the Salem, and came to the city a few days ago, openly, with a load of wood; and departed, clandestinely, with a cargo of wool.

Details of the incident can be found in Mary Kay Ricks’ book

While captain of the schooner (Sayers) was on his way from the wharf to the jail, an attempt was made to lynch him; and for safety he was put into a carriage.

Excitement prevails, and there is a murmuring of discontent among the b’hoys, which, it is to be hoped, may not result in something to be lamented by friends of order.

Father Giddings made a movement in the House with reference to this inflammable subject. – FELIX


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