Aunt Abby House, courtesy
the North Carolina Civil War
Students in HIS 221 (North Carolina history) at Louisburg College recently undertook original research that sheds new light on the life of Abigail House, a rough-hewn, illiterate farm woman who lived on a small farm east of Franklinton before, during, and shortly after the Civil War.
Known affectionately as "Aunt Abby," she became famous during the Civil War for her heroic efforts to take care of her eight nephews and other soldiers who fought for the Confederacy. She later moved to Raleigh and became a regular presence there, often coming into contact with the state's governors and other important figures.
Abigail House was born around 1796, the daughter of Green and Ann House. Little is known of her early life. According to the 1850 census, she owned a 150-acre farm valued at $300. Her livestock included a few cows, horses, oxen, and pigs, and she raised small quantities of wheat, corn, peas, and hay.
In 1860, Abby lived next door to the Dickerson family. The head of this household was Ann Dickerson, probably Abby's sister, whose children included Lucy, Norfleet, Martha Ann, Albert, and Marcellus. We know from an account published in 1867 that Marcellus was the name of one of Abby's nephews, so it is likely that the Dickerson family assisted Abby in managing her farm.
Section of the
Bird's Eye View of the City of Raleigh, North
Carolina (1872) showing the general location of Abby
House's last home on East Hargett Street, courtesy of the
Library of Congress.
In May and June of 1867, Mary Bayard Clarke, one of the state's most important writers of the nineteenth century, wrote a two-part article, "Aunt Abby, the Irrepressible," in a magazine called The Land We Love. In it she recounted Abby's ministrations to her kinfolk and other soldiers. Abby made a number of trips to Virginia, leaving Franklinton on the Raleigh and Gaston Railroad. She nagged Governor Zebulon Vance to help her get a medical furlough for Marcellus Dickerson. When she wanted to have the furlough extended, Vance suspected that Marcellus was fit to return to duty. In a letter to General Robert E. Lee that Abby carried with her to try to secure the extension, Vance referred to her as the "ubiquitous, indefatigable and inevitable Mrs. House." In words that Abby did not understand, he made it clear that Marcellus should return to duty in Virginia.
After the war, Abby sold some of her land to pay debts and to meet living expenses, and soon moved to Raleigh. In 1871, she rented a two-story house and garden plot on Fayetteville Street, near its junction with the North Carolina Railroad. During the 1870s, she became a well-known figure in the capital. A cartoon by Willis Holt Furgurson, published in 1876 shortly after Zebulon Vance defeated his Republican opponent to win another term as governor, shows Aunt Abby exclaiming, "Zeb, your setting Carolina frae makes me feel like a gal again."
Abby lived out her final days in a small cottage located on East Hargett Street, near the old fairgrounds. When she died on November 23, 1881, the Raleigh News and Observer's obituary described her as a "venerable woman, one of the best known in the state."
Published in The Franklin Times on April 17, 2014.
Maury York is director of the Tar River Center for History and Culture at Louisburg College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.