General Lewis Baldwin Parsons
April 5, 1818 — March 16, 1907
Lewis Parsons, who added “Baldwin” as an adult, was born in upper New York state, the third of ten children. At age 16, he taught in a country school and in 1836 entered Yale. After graduating in 1840, he went with two classmates to New Orleans but the threat of cholera was so severe that he went northward to Noxubee County, in eastern Mississippi, where he took charge of a classical school for nearly two years. He liked the people and the region but could not condone slavery. He then earned a law degree from Harvard in 1844, scouted many places to set up a practice, and settled briefly in Alton before moving to St. Louis, where he became involved with the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad, then building a line from St. Louis to Cincinnati.
It was while traveling on horseback in 1854 over the proposed line of this road through Southern Illinois that he first saw the tract of land which he bought soon after and which eventually became his home. Soon after the start of the O&M, Capt. George B. McClellan became its Vice President and he and Parsons became friends. In the spring of 1861 he returned to St. Louis where the Southern element was largely in control and planned to take over the state government. Firing on Fort Sumter on 12 April 1861 started the Civil War and the planned takeover was thwarted by the prompt action of General Lyon by the capture of Camp Jackson on 10 May 1861, at which Parsons was beside Colonel Frank P. Blair, serving as Volunteer Aide. Although 43 years of age, in the early autumn he wrote to then General McClellan and offered his services. He was brought to Washington with the rank of Captain. However, he grew restive and requested a return to the West to raise a regiment, but McClellan recognized his business ability and sent him to the Chief Quartermaster in St. Louis, where he worked on the commission with Phil Sheridan to investigate irregularities in the Fremont administration.
Released from that, he again sought to be permitted to go to the front, but instead, on 6 December 1861, he was assigned to be in charge of all transportation by river and rail in the department of the Mississippi. This territory extended from the Yellowstone to Pittsburgh and New Orleans. He soon revised existing Army regulations and these revisions became the basis for Army transportation regulations still in effect at the time “In Memoriam” was written in 1908.
In August 1864, Colonel Parsons was given charge of all rail and river transportation of the Army and was ordered to Washington, where he consistently resisted attempts by transportation executives to undermine his authority and where he continued to demonstrate his mastery of military movements. The popular compilation of brief biographies of “Generals In Blue” by Warner (see also his “Generals In Gray”) tells of one of Parsons’ exploits in moving Schofield’s entire Army of the Ohio from Mississippi to Washington at unprecedented speed. This move brought widespread praise from even foreign experts. (Note year should be 1865 rather than 1864.) He became Brigadier General on 11 May 1865 by personal direction of President Lincoln, and was brevetted Major General on his mustering out on 30 May 1866 after being retained for nearly a year after the war to oversee the disposition of major items accumulated during the war, a strong testimonial to his integrity as well as to his administrative ability.
While transportation of men, mounts, and materiel has always been recognized by military experts as essential, it lacks the glamour of combat, and it can be realistically contended that the General has not been accorded by non-professionals his deserved praise for his job well done. The combination of his character, judgment, administrative ability, planning experience, and combative nature strongly suggests that he would have been as successful at directing men in battle as he was in moving them to battle.
The General was married three times, his first two wives being daughters of Dr. and Mrs. Benjamin Edwards. Dr. Edwards was a brother of Ninian Edwards, Governor of Illinois Territory and the second Governor of the State after its admission in 1818, the General’s birth year.Sarah Green Edwards 1820-1850, married 1847 Lewis Green Parsons 1848-1875 Sarah Edwards Parsons 1850-1873 Julia Maria Edwards 1830-1857, married 1852 Julia Edwards Parsons 1854-1941 Charles Levi Parsons 1856-1923 Infant, soon after birth 1857 Elizabeth Darrah 1832-1887, married 1869 Infant, at birth ___
Post-war, the General’s health being poor, he spent two years touring Europe and into Russia with his daughter Sarah, then returned to St. Louis, and married Miss Darrah of New York City. The loss of Sarah in Minnesota and Lewis in Colorado in quick succession, along with business reverses, caused him, Elizabeth, and Julia to move to his land at Flora in 1875, where he built his three story mansion on “Elmwood Farm”, his home for thirty-two years.
In 1875, he and his two brothers, with funds left by their father for the purpose, founded Parsons College in Fairfield, Iowa. It flourished until a new administration’s grandiose plans forced it into bankruptcy in 1973. During his remaining years he kept in very close contact with the College, providing financial support and encouragement. He also remained a loyal alumnus of Yale, attending reunions when possible. He was a member of many Revolutionary, Civil War,
and hereditary societies, and was pleased to contribute to the Confederate monument in Chicago.
In 1877 he was elected President of the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad but in the following year, when the road passed into the control of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, he retired. In 1878 he was urged to accept the nomination to Congress but declined. Two years later he was touted for Governor but again declined, eventually running as the Lieutenant Governor candidate under his friend Judge Lyman Trumbull, the candidate of the Democratic Party of the time for Governor, but they were unsuccessful.
With Elizabeth’s death in 1887 and with Charles in Colorado as a successful horticulturist, Julia became his only companion. They were active in the Presbyterian Church in Flora, the General often conducting the service in the absence of the regular pastor. Julia presented a beautiful oak chair for the pulpit, which was recently restored to its original place. The General gave to the City some 5,000 shade trees grown at “Elmwood” and grew many more trees, both shade and fruit, for the farm. He was a banker, progressive farmer, and stockman as well as horticulturist.
He spent many winters in Florida. On New Year’s Day 1907, at the request of the Grand Army Post in Flora, he spoke for two hours with vigor and was presented with a chair in memory of the occasion. His death on March 16 was only a few days prior to his 89th birthday. After solemn services in Flora, the General was buried in the Edwards-Parsons plot in beautiful Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis. (A note — the General’s name and permanent rank of Brigadier General is inscribed in the relocated cornerstone of the old Presbyterian Church.) Julia traveled widely, including in China, and is buried near her father in the Edwards-Parsons plot in Bellefontaine.
Following her father’s death, Julia sent household items to Parsons College, where they are now under the supervision of Dorothy Hellkamp, volunteer, wife of Lt. Col. William Hellkamp, the PMS&T of the ROTC unit at the College at the time of its demise. The collection contains furniture, photos, artifacts, and a great many personal items and writings proudly displayed in the old Carnegie Library which is now a valuable Museum. There is close collaboration between Flora and the Hellkamps regarding Parsons history, with many exchanges of documents.
The writer’s distant association with the Parsons story resulted from Grandfather Tom Patton’s recruitment in about 1890 by a nephew of the General in Albion, Michigan to manage the large “Elmwood Farm” bordering the eastern city limit of Flora, where the old mansion was accessed by the “Avenue”, a long lane in effect the eastward extension of Third Street. Grandfather married Estella White, one of two sisters on the household staff, and Dad was born in 1892 in the manager’s two story home some 100-150 yards west-northwest of the mansion. He became an errand boy for the General and Miss Julia. The younger sister, Amelia White, married Oscar Lee and they had six children, the youngest, Calvin, less than two years older than I and a great playmate. The Lee farm was on the road south of Mt. Zion (“Foster Hill”) and I visited there as a child as often as my parents would take me. Their dirt road was virtually impassable in bad weather, so for work and for schooling they moved, on at least two occasions, into the old but habitable mansion. Calvin and I spent many hours roaming its three floors, the old house of the managers, and the mammoth barn. Our improvement to the Farm was a miniature golf course.
A visit with Attorney Paul T. Riggle in Flora resulted in his sending me in March 1995 a copy of General Parsons’ will. The listing of “my Civil War Papers” got my attention and set me on a search for information on the General, including a hasty inspection of a few of the many Parsons records in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum prior to its official opening, courtesy of its Manuscripts Manager, Cheryl Schnirring, and two visits to the Parsons collection in Fairfield guided by Mrs. Hellkamp. Both have provided many documents of which I could not have been aware. These have been shared with each.
Sister Estella Patton Berger and I have donated to the Flora Depot Museum several articles from or related to the Parsons family, along with those of our own family. I grew up hearing from both Dad and Grandfather about the General and “Miss Julia”, but as a youth was not alert enough to record those memories. Nevertheless, I well remember the reverence they had for both.
This compilation is based on “In Memoriam” by Miss Julia and “Lewis Baldwin Parsons and Civil War Transportation”, the PhD thesis by George Carl Schottenhamel, University of Illinois, 1954, obtained from the University of Michigan’s Dissertation Services.
Howard Lewis Patton 8-19-20 & Estella Patton Berger 2-23-31
Born to Howard Thomas Patton 1892-1982 & Alma Rose Lewis 1895-1939