Lately I’ve been thinking about a Salem native, descended from the city’s most-monied maritime family, the Derbys, but still devoted to public service, very well-known in his day but little-known in ours: Frederick William West Lander (1821-1862). Today, you can find hardly a trace of Lander in Salem, a city that has a statue of a fictional television witch in its most public square. Yet he was referred to as “the fearless solder, the bravest of the brave” and “the very beau ideal of an American soldier” in his New York Times obituary. Yesterday, the first truly warm spring day of the year, I wandered past Lander’s rather secretive grave in the Broad Street Cemetery and wondered about him—about all that he came from, all that he did, and what he might have done if not cut down in the prime of his life by pneumonia contracted in a West Virginia encampment towards the end of the first year of the Civil War. Lander was educated in private academies before he went to Norwich University in Vermont to study engineering. After Norwich, he worked at surveying and laying trails, first for the Eastern Railroad in Massachusetts and later the Pacific Railroad way out west, leading five expeditions to map out transcontinental routes between 1853 and 1858. He was a commissioned a Special Agent of the U.S. Department of the Interior that year, giving him superintendent responsibilities over what had become known as the “Lander Trail” through Wyoming and Idaho. In 1860, purportedly after a 12-year acquaintance and 3-year engagement, Lander married the famous British-American stage actress Jean Margaret Davenport in a San Francisco ceremony called the “The Union of Mars and Thespis” by the San Francisco Daily Times. Seventeen months later he was dead, after being commissioned as a Brigadier General and leading charges in several battles. His was the first full-fledged funeral with honors of the war, held in Washington with President Lincoln and members of the Cabinet and Supreme Court in attendance. And then his body was transported in a special train to Salem, for burial in Broad Street.
Matthew Brady daguerreotype of Lander, Smithsonian; Jean Davenport Lander at about the same time, Harvard Theater Collection.
Those are the bare biographical facts, but there is so much more to say about Lander—-and Mrs. Lander: he was not all Mars and by no means was she solely a thespian. Though Lander was obviously a man of action (and I have not even mentioned his dueling), he was also a champion of the arts: he included the Massachusetts artists Albert Bierstadt, Francis Seth Frost and Henry Hitchens on his 1859 expedition team out west–with glorious results–and addressed the “aptitude of the American mind for the cultivation of the fine arts” on the Lyceum circuit back east. He was also a poet, and although at least one publisher told him effectively not to give up his day job, several poems were published before his death, and more after, including Ball’s Bluff, his poetic account of the Union defeat at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, with an opening stanza responding to the purported Confederate claim that fewer Massachusetts soldiers would have been killed in the battle had they not been too proud to surrender. This was the battle that really “brought the war home” for Massachusetts: as soldiers in two Bay State regiments accounted for more than half of the approximately 1000 Union casualties. Lander lived to tell the tale, but not for much longer.
One of Lander’s early road surveys, from Danvers to Georgetown, Massachusetts, State Library of Massachusetts; Albert Bierstadt’s The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak, 1863, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Soldiers from the 15th Massachusetts Regiment charge the Confederate line at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, Illustrated London Newspaper, November 23, 1861, Library of Congress.
Jean Davenport Lander played several important Civil War roles as well. In the early days of the war, before her husband’s engagement and after they had taken up residence in Washington, Mrs. Lander happened to hear (I can’t fix the details!) whispers of a plot to assassinate President Lincoln. Whether by the confidence of her celebrity or the urgency of the times, she made her way to the White House hastily to report the conspiracy. Perhaps this was not as serious a threat as the earlier “Baltimore Plot“, but still, she acted to foil a presidential assassination plot! Her husband’s tragic war-camp death apparently inspired her (as well as his sister, the sculptor Louisa Lander) to start nursing, and she served as the supervisory nurse at the Union hospital in Beaufort, South Carolina for several years. After the war was over, Mrs. Lander resumed her acting career and seems to have been constantly on stage for the next decade or so, playing her last role in 1877: somewhat ironically, Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter.
Jean Margaret Davenport Lander as a bride in 1860 and Hester Prynne in 1877. Below: I’m assuming the friendship of Lander and Albert Bierstadt brought the latter to Salem at some point, because Christie’s has a Bierstadt landscape titled Salem, Massachusetts up for auction on May 22.
Albert Bierstadt, Salem, Massachusetts, 1861.