Daniel Webster Abercrombie is the most important person in the history of Worcester Academy. He was the principal of the school from 1882 until 1918 and in those 36 years created both the historic campus and the culture of the Academy. In his early life he witnessed the tumult of American Civil War, which greatly influenced his personal ideals and morphed into those of the school.
In chapel talks, Abercrombie referenced his upbringing in the ante-bellum South. “He has always been fond and fortunate in drawing from his rich stores of experience and impression, not merely to ‘adorn a tale’ in conversation, but also to ‘point a moral’. (Worcester Academy bulletin) From the dais, he reminisced about riding his pony in the cornfields with his father, Milo Bolling Abercrombie, and remembered that the tassels were higher than his father’s riding whip. He often waxed on about the balmy air and the robins that got tipsy by eating Chinaberries. The family lived on one of Milo’s plantations and Abercrombie’s closest friends were the house slaves. The slaves cooked Abercrombie’s first food, “I knew the taste of “possum” and “taters.” The very bright young Daniel taught his mother’s trusted slave, Jesse Rivers, to read, write, and cipher, which was illegal at the time. Another household member was a black nurse named Anarchy. At four years old, Tobe Hardtimes became his body servant. They were inseparable and often were involved in pranks. Once they poured water on the bald-headed tutor from the balustrade above. This resulted in their being “stretched ignobly across the ample lap of old Granny, the factotum of the ‘quarters’.” “Larrup him Granny, Larrup him!!” shouted the tutor.
Abercrombie learned many values in his youth. “A boy who earns his money is apt to spend it wisely. I myself was brought up in the country and know what heavy farm work means and appreciate the value of such work on a lad. It may be hard at the time but sometimes he gets more from that than from schooling later on”. (13/197, Sep 25 1907). “When I was a boy we didn’t know anything about such things as appendicitis, we didn’t know we had them. We just went along and worked hard and played hard, and ate all that we could get ahold of, and didn’t seem to have any trouble.” They had different sensibilities: “Such thoughts never came to me when I was a boy, nor to the boys of my time- and it seems most strange that so many boys today act as if they had the control of their own lives, as if they were competent in wisdom to control them”. (4/78, Jan 7 02). He also used some phrases from his youth. He described one distracted boy as “all over the lot,” a Southern and Western phrase. (14/696, Mar 6 09) “As they say in the south there are a heap lot worse boys than he.” (14/660, Feb 26 09)
His father’s love of horses was the basis for many stories of rearing colts and comparing them to youth. His father often mentioned that young boys were colts in the pen and that they should be allowed to kick up and play. This made a lasting impression on Abercrombie who often used this analogy with his students and their parents. His father talked about the old horseman who saw a colt being put through its paces for only a few minutes yet he could tell a lot about a colt.
“Our family was from England and Scotland, and three generations back the family came from Scotland”. His ancestors emigrated from Scotland to the American South. Milo was born on March 1, 1806 in Hancock County, Georgia. “He removed to Alabama while a young man and settled at Cross Keys, Macon County, where he became a large planter and slave owner…” According Abercrombie, Milo was open-minded to other religions. “Bishop Becker, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Savannah a few years ago, now dead I suppose, was a warm friend of my father and of mine, and I have blood relations throughout that state– Georgia.” (14/498, Jan 25 1909) His father also had important friends. “Judge Bibb was one of my father’s bosom friends.” (16/372, Aug 30 1909)
Prior to Abercrombie’s birth, the census records indicated that his father owned 41 slaves. One plantation was located in Mont Meigs just east of Montgomery in Macon County. It was so rural that the post office was the only landmark. Milo owned another plantation in Montgomery County. Alabama records show that Milo owned about 650 acres in that county as they showed that he purchased 321.68 acres in St. Stephens on July 29, 1839 and 332.04 more on May 14, 1850. In the 1830 census, it lists Milo B. Abercrombie as owning 28 slaves in Dallas County. In the 1840 census, Milo owned three males under 5, 3 more ages five to ten, one between 20 to 30 years old, and three more from 30 to 40. In addition, he owned 2 females five to ten years old, and 2 more from ten to twenty-four, five from 24 to 36 years old, and one more from 36 to 55. Nine were employed in agriculture.
In 1829, Milo married Sarah Lee Hayden, and the marriage produced eleven children, five daughters and six sons. She died on August 4, 1850, a week after the birth of her eleventh child. By then, several had reached the age of majority and she bequeathed her slaves to them: “Job, a yellow complected fellow about thirty years of age, and Fun, a dark complected fellow about twenty-five years old, each of the value of eight hundred dollars”. The will listed more slaves with their names, a physical description, and their dollar value. Her oldest three sons were appointed the executors of the will.
Product of the Second Marriage and name change
Though Abercrombie was open about his Southern roots, he never explained how his mother, a Northerner, came to Alabama and married a slave owner. Less than six months after his first wife’s death, Milo married Sarah Carroll Greenleaf on January 20, 1851. The only mention of how Milo met her comes from family lore, “During one of his travels after her death, the southerner Milo in 1853 married a Boston widow named Sarah Greenleaf and had four more children with her.” (James Smither Abercrombie). Though the family never referenced a first marriage for their mother, it is possible based upon her age of twenty-five or six at the time of her marriage. At forty-five, Milo was twenty years older than Sarah. Four children were born before the outbreak of the Civil War with the second being Abercrombie, “I was born November 25, 1853, on my father’s plantation, Boling Green, Macon County, Alabama”. The oldest was Tallulah, and after Abercrombie came Winona, then Milo, Jr.
There is a curious mystery to Abercrombie’s first name. The biographical sketches of Abercrombie mentioned that he was named for Daniel Webster. The accounts in Academy profiles were that his father’s “Whig principles” and his mother’s Cambridge upbringing inspired his being named for the Massachusetts Senator whose views ran counter to the states rights South. (WA Bulletin, p. 5.) A biographer wrote that Milo’s “fortune ebbed with the spreading of his Whig tendencies. (p. 5, Kneeland) However, 1860 census listed him as Webster Abercrombie- not Daniel Webster Abercrombie and throughout their lives, his siblings addressed him, “My Dear Webster”. It is likely that he became Daniel Webster Abercrombie moved north after the war to Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Sarah Carroll Greenleaf was born in 1826 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her father John Greenleaf was a cousin of the abolitionist poet, John Greenleaf Whittier. Town directories list John as a sexton, later an undertaker and living at 10 Brattle Street in a small house on land very close to Harvard College. While the family was not wealthy, Sarah attended Miss Jennison’s at the corner of Garden and Mason streets. Miss Jennison’s was a dame school, a very early form of private school taught by women in their home. The school had students from the best Cambridge families and one classmate was Thomas Wentworth Higginson , who went on to become a famous abolitionist.
Abercrombie idolized his mother, “My childhood had very strong discipline and control”. She gave careful instruction in morals and religious matters. It was expected that he have reverence, obedience, punctuality, honesty and earnestness of life. “My first school was private- the same as home training”. Private tutors were brought in to educate Abercrombie and his young siblings. His mother talked of her beloved north and Harvard College in her hometown of Cambridge. All of his siblings felt great warmth toward their mother, His sister Tallulah wrote, “The great love for the best and most faithful mother in the world is constant in my heart.” She “Sacrificed self and did not acknowledge herself.” (Tallulah, letter on June 22, 1896) Sarah’s obituary mentioned that she was “a woman of unusual force of character, great devotion and unselfishness and impressed all who knew her with her earnestness and kindness.
Family Life Shattered
Just prior to the outbreak of the war in the South, the family’s plantation life was shattered with Milo’s death on August 22, 1860 at their plantation in Montgomery County. Though Sarah preserved many of family’s traditions, Abercrombie still felt the loss greatly, “I lost my father as a young child and have always felt weakened by it…..The roots of affection in nature start so deep that we never outgrow our sense of need of them.” His love of the classics consoled him and he passed this along in his teaching. To a student who had just lost his father he sympathized, “Homer said the day that makes a boy fatherless makes him companionless, untended he takes his way through the world.. I lost my father at six, and only the devotion of a mother’s love kept the thought and image of him before me.” (3/298, Apr 22 01)
At his death, Milo’s will indicated that his estate exceeded $50,000, ranking him in the top 8% individuals in Alabama and possibly one of the wealthiest people in the country. The 1860 census list M. B. Abercrombie as 54 and having real estate valued at $40,800 and a personal estate valued at $50,568. Sarah is listed as 31 years old. Also listed are Amelia age 16, Ann 15, Daniel is listed as 6 and his sister Tallulah is listed as 8 years old. Oddly, Winona, born in 1857 and Boling Greenleaf, born in 1859, are not listed. There is a reference to Milo’s passing in a newspaper: “We regret to hear of the death of M. B. Abercrombie, Esq. at his residence near Mt. Meigs in this county on the 22nd. Mr. Abercrombie removed to this county from Macon county a few years since and was a most worthy citizen. Was probably 50 years of age. Funeral ceremonies conducted by Mason fraternity..
While he was principal at Worcester Academy, Abercrombie did not attempt to cover up his background and his admission about his family is startling by today’s standards. “I am a southern man and was born and raised in Alabama, the son of a cotton planter before the war, and I myself was an owner, under my father’s will, of slaves”. This was true as Milo’s devised: “6th I will and bequeath unto my current wife Sarah G. my carriage and horses and all of my household and kitchen furniture, except such as belongs to my daughters to her children by me then alive in equal parts share & share alike the remainder of my estate of every description whatsoever and such negroes as may be thus I own and final division by my children of my second marriage who may be alive, I hereby give and bequeath unto my executors in trust for them and for their sole and separate use, and to the children of their bodies at the their death and subject to the same terms, conditions, and restriction as, that received by my daughters by my first marriage as fully set forth in the preceding section (5th.)”.
The Move Off the Plantation and War
Soon after Milo’s death, Sarah freed the slaves and took her young children to Montgomery, the state capital, which had an educated and influential population. In fact, it was the first capital of the Confederated States of America and Jefferson Davis was inaugurated on the steps of the Capitol. Abercrombie went to his first school just east of the capitol and made many friends, “I have the tenderest sentiments toward Montgomery because it was the first city of my childhood experience”. The school was run by George W. Thomas, a Massachusetts man and Middlebury College graduate, whom Abercrombie always remembered as a wonderful man, “He had a little one room school house…. Just east of capitol – where I received my first instruction….Many a time I ate my lunch with Tommy Watts on capitol lawn”. “I lived on Montgomery until after the war. And many of my relatives and boyhood friends are still in Montgomery and in the South. I remember Bell Street distinctly…and Dr. Bibb and Thomas Watts, Esq. were schoolmates of mine.” (16/372, Aug 30 09)
Along with his warm feelings, by early 1862 Abercrombie was aware that his world was in turmoil, “I remember street cries of the newspaper boys one day when I was in the city with my mother “Island 10 fallen, Yankees thicker than Mosquitoes in Mississippi”.” It was even within his family, “My boyhood days as you know were spent in the south and brothers of mine were soldiers in the Confederate army”. Three served: Robert Hayden Abercrombie “entered the Confederate States Army as a Captain of Company “H” of the 45th Alabama Registry Infantry, and was promoted to Major, Lieutenant-Colonel, and Colonel of the Regiment. He fought gallantly on many a field”. John Comer Abercrombie was a member of the 45th Alabama infantry regiment in Tuskegee. Prior to the conflict, Leonard Anderson Abercrombie moved to Huntsville, Texas and was a delegate to the state Secession Convention. During the Civil War he served as lieutenant colonel in the Twentieth Texas Infantry and was assigned guard duty of the Gulf coast. (Texas Historical Assn.)
The 38-year-old widow was determined to return north. She had some help from a Union Colonel named Andrew Barclay Spurling, “a Maine man exceedingly kind to my mother in those awful days of the final dissection of the Confederacy”. The biographies mentioned that they came north with the aid of a “not too ample” bag of gold that had been buried during the war and then restored to her by the Negro overseer. The legend was that Toby Hardtimes had dug up a pot of gold hidden on the plantation, which financed the move north.
Though the family had lost everything, Abercrombie harbored no bitterness toward the South. Four decades later, he wrote to a Mr. Caffey in Montgomery, “Please give my regards to Mr. Watts, my earliest school boy friend. Those distant days are still fresh on my mind”. To another he wrote, news of friends is of great importance to me.” He could be wistful, “We have here in New England a wonderfully beautiful fall. Just now winter begins to pinch and the air is nipping and eager, and I think of the sunny South flooded still with warmth and long to be there”. (3/913, Nov. 18 01)