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Friday, May 9, 2014 - 8:56am

Advice To Class Of 2014 From A Wesleyan College Graduate Class Of 1851

On May 10th Wesleyan College in Macon will hold commencement ceremonies. As graduates of the women’s college prepare to enter the workforce they are getting some advice from one of the first women in Georgia to get a college education. Actually, Ella Gertrude Thomas died in 1907, but author Carolyn Newton Curry says if Gertrude were alive today she would have much to say. "None of these women know what their lives will be like. They don’t know what opportunities will be out there, but she would certainly tell them to go for it and that you can do it all."

Thomas graduated from Wesleyan in 1851.

Curry’s book is called Suffer and Grow Strong. Below is an excerpt:

Suffer and Grow Strong: The Life of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas 1834-1907
Note: Sherman had taken Atlanta in September of 1864 and then marched through Georgia burning and destroying property. When he captured Savannah at Christmas, he rested his troops for a month before he started his march toward Augusta and the Carolinas. Gertrude and all Georgians did not know what to expect. By this time, Gertrude had four healthy children but two others had died. She recorded her anxiety in her diary.

Fortunately for Augusta, the main body of the Union troops did not invade the city, and it was spared the horror of going up in flames. But the fear of the nearby army, combined with other circumstances, made the second week in February one of the worst Gertrude had ever experienced. “The expected approach of the Yankees—aided by the coldest weather I ever felt combined to place me in a truly uncomfortable mood.” But what upset her the most was the knowledge she was again pregnant. “Unfortunately I have a prospect of again adding to the little members of my household—of again becoming a mother. Happening as it does in these troublous times I am sincerely sorry for it.” She confided that she usually felt bad when she was pregnant, but with “so much to depress [and] so much to unnerve I am totally deprived of energy.” She could muster no courage to face the coming events as she had earlier. “How differently I feel from what I did in Nov. when the Yankees were expected…Now I shrink appalled.”
Gertrude went through extreme mental anguish during this pregnancy late in the war. By March she could make no plans for the future, and since their planting interests in Burke County had been destroyed, she saw nothing but poverty “staring [her] in the face.” Looking back to that horrible week in February, she admitted her nervous condition was bad. “I was made realy sick by the combined prospect of Shermans visit and the burning cotton. That was a terrible, never to [be] forgotten week.” She grew so sad and low-spirited that she began to think of dying when the “hour of trial” came. “Mr. Thomas says I ‘always say I expect to die’—but I don’t think so. I know I have thought of it this time more than usual and if I do die I hope that my baby will die with me.” So genuinely concerned was she at this point that she began to write instructions to the future stepmother of her children and describe their personalities and temperaments to her.
In July Gertrude came dangerously close to fulfilling her prophesies. She abruptly stopped keeping her diary and did not take up her pen again until mid-October. She then recounted her ordeal. Confined to bed for “three months lacking one week.” She would always remember the experience. “On Tuesday July the 25th I gave birth to an infant son whose birth was premature, caused I know by the constant strain upon my nervous system. I gave to him the name of Charley and sighed to think it was all I had to give him.” Since her slaves had begun to leave by this time, she had no wet nurse and could not provide what “Gods poorest creatures could supply “a mothers nourishment.” When the baby died the next night she thanked God. “Little Baby! little darling if I could have you back again I would not.”
Gertrude took chloroform when the baby was born, and whether an improper dosage contributed to the baby’s death and her illness cannot be known. Certainly the fact that wet nurses had helped her babies to survive before and were not available for this child was a factor. Perhaps Gertrude was correct that her weakened state of health and nervous instability could have caused the death of the child. For whatever reason, she came down with a severe cold and came “nearer the valley and shadow of death than…ever before.” She had numerous relapses and a very slow recovery.
Not only was Gertrude debilitated physically, but she was also facing the reality of how drastically her life had been changed by the end of the war. By May 1865, on a day she had been feeling weak and light-headed, she admitted, “It will require all my energy to meet the emergencies of the time ahead of us. The fact is our Negroes are to be made free and a change, a very change will be affected in our mode of living.” Jeff advised their slaves that they were to be freed and that he was going to have to hire workers. He asked them to wait “quietly and see what would be done.” At first their slaves accepted his offer and worked with a “more cheerful spirit than ever,” but soon they began to leave one by one.

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