Alexander Robinson Boteler
Alexander Robinson Boteler was a native of Shepherdstown, Virginia (now West Virginia), but because his mother died when he was four years old, he grew up in the Baltimore home of his maternal grandmother, a daughter of Charles Wilson Peale. After graduating from Princeton in 1835, he completed a master’s degree and returned to live on his father’s estate, Fountain Rock, in Shepherdstown.
A prominent Presbyterian member of his community, Boteler for a time concentrated on writing and experimental farming. He reluctantly stood for the state senate as a Whig in 1850 but was defeated by the overwhelmingly Democratic electorate in the district. He served as a Whig presidential elector, ran two unsuccessful campaigns for the House of Representatives, and won election in 1859 as an independent American party candidate. Because of a three-way contest for the speakership, Boteler, surprisingly for a freshman congressman, was nominated for the post.
He did not long enjoy his newfound prominence, however. When the secession crisis arose, he counseled against rash action and called for the creation of a special committee, to be composed of one representative from each state, that would work to avert disunion. In the House he gave a strong speech, much commented on for its eloquence, appealing for preservation of the Union. He invoked the image of Washington the Virginian coming to the aid of Massachusetts at the beginning of the Revolution. Despite this effort, and his support for the Crittenden Compromise, the actions of rasher men forced unpleasant choices on Boteler and other Southern Unionists. Like a number of Virginians facing this dilemma, Boteler let the action of his state determine his decision. When Virginia seceded, he chose to go with it rather than stay with the Union he had so passionately defended and resigned from the U.S. Congress.
Boteler won election to the Virginia state legislature, but before he could take office he accepted appointment to the Provisional Congress. He later barely won election to the First Congress. During his legislative term, he generally supported the Davis administration on a number of committees: Indian Affairs, Buildings, Flag and Seal (he submitted a design for the flag and had a hand in the seal that was adopted), Ordnance and Ordnance Stores, Printing, and Rules and Officers. Because his district was on the fringes of Confederate-controlled territory and most of it in fact became part of West Virginia when that state was created, Boteler had a special interest in supporting efforts to oust occupying Federal forces.
Unlike many of his colleagues who stayed in Richmond when Congress was not in session, Boteler alternated his legislative work with military service. With the rank of colonel, he was a volunteer aide on the staff of his friend, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. He became a kind of public relations officer and one of Jackson’s most trusted companions, and served as a conduit for Jackson’s appeals to Congress on several occasions. When an irate Jackson submitted his resignation from Confederate service late in January 1862 because the War Department had interfered in his command, Boteler helped persuade him to stay. Right after the Battle of Winchester in 1862, in which Boteler’s teenaged son was wounded twice, Jackson sent him to Richmond to plead for reinforcements. Boteler recalled that Jackson believed he could then “raise the siege of Richmond and transfer this campaign from the banks of the James to those of the Susquehanna.” Boteler made two other similar trips to the capital, but Robert E. Lee and the administration officials to whom he spoke either could spare no more men or were not persuaded by Jackson’s argument. Boteler was by Jackson’s side through a number of campaigns. Notably, he accompanied Jackson as the general’s 2nd Corps defended the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia’s right flank south of Fredericksburg, Virginia, against a Federal advance in December 1862. After Thomas J. Jackson’s death, Boteler served as an aide on the staff of J.E.B. Stuart.
The War was not without its personal danger for the congressman. As a member of the Provisional Congress, he was taken prisoner in his own house by Union troops on August 13, 1861, but was released the same day. Mary Boykin Chesnut noted his capture snidely in her diary, saying, “He was preaching Union and distracting us last year – when if we had been united all, this civil war might have been avoided.” The homes of prominent members of the Confederate government often became targets in contested areas, but Boteler’s limestone mansion remained untouched until it came to the attention of a Union raiding party on July 19, 1864. After the War, devotees of the Lost Cause liked to tell the story of how Boteler’s daughter Helen defiantly sang “Dixie” while the Yankees put Fountain Rock to the torch.
After Boteler failed to gain reelection to the Second Congress, he served as adviser to Virginia governors William Smith and John Letcher. From November 1864 until the end of the War he was a member of the Military Court Department. He was with Lee’s army at Appomattox.
After the War he returned to his farm, now in West Virginia. As during the decade before the War, he combined interests in agriculture and public affairs. He did not harbor the same unreconstructed opinion of the Republican party as most Confederates did, and he accepted several political appointments from the national administration, including membership of the U.S. Centennial Commission and Tariff Commission. He also served as a Republican assistant attorney in the Department of Justice and as a pardon clerk. Influenced by his great-grandfather’s example, if not his genes, he took up painting and completed oils of the principal Confederate military heroes. Writing historical articles also occupied his later years. One of them described the famous Shenandoah Valley Campaign. The bespectacled, bearded former Confederate congressman became known after the War as the most colorful character of Shepherdstown. He died there on May 8, 1892.