The Family That Broke A Nation?

by Kris Wheeler and Wayne Franklin
HANCOCK COUNTY, Georgia

Mt. Zion Church, built in 1814.

Old structures speak to the Southern soul — houses, barns, churches. There is an irresistible spiritual pull to the kind of ruin and decay that wistful dreamers call art. Perhaps it’s the nostalgic longing for times past or simply an innate desire to connect with one’s forebears. These aging places — fragile and yielding to the passage of time — are like tangible snapshots, framing a bygone era and concealing stories made long ago within their walls. 

If not for the roadside historical marker, it’s doubtful most folks driving a lonely stretch of Highway 15 outside Sparta, Ga., ever offer more than a passing glance toward the tattered old church standing along the edge of the woods.

For some of us, however, these markers might as well be “stop” signs. Seldom can we resist reading the stories they tell.

This particular marker commemorates the life of the Reverend Nathan S.S. Beman — who moved to Georgia from New England — and pays tribute to his contributions as “teacher and preacher at Mt. Zion, an academy town founded by Hancock County planters in 1811.”

Interesting, but it’s the inscription’s next-to-last sentence that is most intriguing: “In 1821 he married Mrs. Caroline Bird Yancey, mother of secessionist William Lowndes Yancey.”

Popular misconceptions about the Civil War era hold that all Southerners supported slavery and secession while all Northerners were unionists and abolitionists. The truth, of course, lay in the grey areas between. That aside, one must wonder how it was a Northern preacher raised a famous Southern secessionist.

For the writers of this article, the tantalizing words etched upon the marker are enough to ignite a fascination and close examination of the lives of Beman and William Lowndes Yancey.

The journeys of these two men played out not unlike a Greek tragedy — just as epic, just as sad — where death spawned a collision course of events destined to destroy a family and hasten the South’s plunge into the Civil War.

Nathan S.S. Beman

Rev. Nathan S.S. Beman

This story began in 1812 when a diagnosis of “consumption” forced 27-year-old Beman to resign as pastor of a Presbyterian church in Portland, Maine and move to Georgia to regain his health. Later that year he agreed to serve as both pastor and teacher at Mt. Zion. The rustic academy town consisted of a church, a two-story schoolhouse, summer residencies, and several other buildings.

The Georgia Legislature enacted laws in 1783 to promote education and the creation of county academies. Some Georgia cities got their start as academy towns.

Within a few short years, Beman turned Mt. Zion into one of the Georgia’s most celebrated educational institutions. His reputation and stature as an educator grew quickly and, in 1818, he was offered the presidency of the University of Georgia (known as Franklin College at the time). He accepted the position, but resigned within months due to his wife’s failing health.

Rev. Beman returned to Mt. Zion, remaining in charge of both the academy and the church. Lorane Beman died on Feb. 3, 1819. Her death arguably shaped the course of our nation’s history.

During the ensuing months, Beman developed a relationship with the widowed Caroline Bird Yancey. She was the mother of one of his young students — William. Although described as intelligent, clever and well-educated, Ms. Yancey apparently had a less charming, less genteel side to her character. Her father, Col. William Bird, is said to have remarked that if he wanted to stage a raid on Hell, he would make his tempestuous daughter his first lieutenant.

Caroline Bird (Yancey) Beman

If the couple wished for a match made in Heaven, it was not to be. Rumors of violent quarrels and abuse followed the marriage when Beman returned to the North in 1823, relocating the family to Troy, N.Y. When questioned by church officials about the matter, Beman denied all accusations.

Young William Yancey, who was 9 at the time, spent the next 10 years in Troy developing what has been described as a “pathological hatred” for his stepfather and most everything for which Beman stood. Yancey would later accuse the minister of — among other things — stealing his mother’s Georgia estate.

The Bemans separated permanently in 1835, providing fuel for the reverend’s many enemies — those who often took aim at him for his controversial stands on both politics and religion. But Beman proved resilient throughout his career, outflanking his attackers and rising to national prominence as a clergyman — in part because of his success as a radical reformer within the Presbyterian Church. Outside the pulpit, he became known as one of slavery’s most determined foes. (This despite the fact that, through his marriage to Caroline, he briefly owned and sold slaves while living in Georgia).

In the decades that followed, Beman became one of the most influential religious leaders and abolitionists of his time. It was not uncommon for the New York press to publish excerpts from his more controversial sermons.

William Lowndes Yancey

William Lowndes Yancey

William Yancey was every bit his step-father’s opposite in many ways – and this was no coincidence. A restless young man who chafed at the least authority, Yancey should’ve seemed a born secessionist. However, his early career as lawyer and orator found him embracing the cause of the Union, if not the abolitionist stance of Beman.

Following college, the young Yancey relocated to his native South, hoping to escape the harsh discipline of Beman … and his politics. Yancey offered his first major public speech on July 4, 1834. Following in the unionist footsteps of his late father, Benjamin Cudworth Yancey, and his namesake, William Lowndes, The 19-year-old Yancey spoke fiercely in defense of the Union. He was quick to attack the politics of John C. Calhoun – an old political and legal adversary of his family, particularly his father – and warn against “disunion and a Southern Confederacy,” labeling secession as the “evil genius of our land.”

Within four years, however, Yancey had relocated to the old Alabama capital city of Cahawba, and begun to shift his politics toward the secessionist stance which would become his legacy. The shift was neither swift nor wholesale at first. In 1838, Yancey expanded his resume to include the title of newspaperman, taking over the Cahaba Southern Democrat. In his first editorial, Yancey strongly defended the institution of slavery, fearing for “the very existence of the Union.”

Most indicative of his shifting political attitude toward Calhoun, whom he had once called a “political madman” but now praised as “one of the most distinguished statesmen of the republic.” While Yancey had fiscal reasons for his defense of slavery – he was now a slave owner himself – the fire that smoldered within him was breathed to full flame by a deeper, more personal motivation.

In his biography William Lowndes Yancey and the Coming of the Civil War, historian Eric H. Walther notes a dual tendency in Yancey: toward appeasement of his peers and toward enmity with what he perceived as unjust authority. For Yancey, none personified the latter more than Beman.

The more influential Beman became in the cause of abolition, the more Yancey embraced the opposing point of view. He saw Beman’s politics as hypocrisy of the highest order and had, in 1837, encouraged his mother to publicly acknowledge that Beman had once sold slaves himself. Further, he found it a cruel irony that Beman would seek to save slaves from the whip while having never hesitated to use it on his own children.

As a “champion of slavery,” Yancey was emerging as a formidable force on the South’s political stage. The one-time unionist would soon be a strong voice within the most radical wing of the Democratic Party, earning the moniker “Orator of Secession.” In Yancey, the institution of slavery found its most vocal supporter — a “fire-eater” and vehement crusader. During the 1840s, he served in the Alabama Legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives — this despite the fact that he had served a year in jail for killing a man over a political slur. He defended his actions by claiming he was “taught to preserve inviolate my honor.”

On April 27, 1860, Yancey delivered a fiery speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charleston, S.C. in support of a platform favoring expansion of slavery into the territories. As one reporter had noted days earlier, Yancey was prepared “to precipitate the Cotton States into a revolution.” Ironically, on the same day, Harriet Tubman orchestrated what is widely considered history’s most dramatic rescue of a runaway slave in Yancey’s childhood hometown of Troy. Yancey was reportedly angered over the event once news of the rescue reached Charleston via telegraph.

Angry Southern delegates leaving the 1860 Democratic Convention

Yancey’s speech received enthusiastic cheers, especially when he promised that a pro-slavery stance would elevate poor white man “amongst the master race and put the negro race to do the dirty work.” Despite overwhelming support from the Southern delegates, the platform was defeated. Yancey and 50 or so delegates stormed out of the convention, effectively breaking the back of the Democratic Party.

Attempts at conciliation included an unofficial offer to name Yancey as the vice-presidential candidate. Yancey refused. With the Democratic Party split over slavery, Northerners nominated Stephen A. Douglas, and Southern states nominated John C. Breckenridge in their own convention. Meanwhile, Republicans nominated dark-horse Abraham Lincoln as their candidate.

Yancey’s campaign for secession quickly gathered steam. Within a year, the nation was torn apart and at war.

In his book, The Secession Movement 1860-1861, Prof. Dwight Dumond asserts that without Yancey’s “brilliant oratory and indefatigable labors there would have been no secession, no Southern Confederacy.” And one could argue that, without Beman, there would have been no William Lowndes Yancey as we knew him, the “Prince of the Fire-Eaters.”

Inside Mt. Zion Church

One wonders what William Yancey would have thought about the fruits of his labors had he lived to see the outcome of the war. In 1863, at the age of 49, he died of kidney disease — two years before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. His mother, Caroline, died two years earlier, bitter and essentially homeless. Rev. Beman lived a long life, dying in 1871 at the age of 86. Troy’s Beman Park is named in his honor.

How different might history be had Caroline Yancey and Rev. Nathan Beman never met?

The lone, surviving witness to that cruel twist of fate rests beneath the shadows of Hancock County’s tall Georgia pines, not far from the marker honoring its founder. Mt. Zion Church remains today a lifeless relic of a once-celebrated past — its creaking steps like ghostly whispers of a tragic story first ignited here some 200 years ago.

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