What does the surrender of Lord Cornwallis after the Battle of Yorktown on October 19, 1781, have to do with Edith Wharton?
This sounds like Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter’s famous riddle “How is a raven like a writing desk?” but there actually is a connection.
John Trumbull’s painting Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, which is in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, depicts, obviously, the surrender. Cornwallis wasn’t there but sent his second-in-command, so General Lincoln (on white horse), Washington’s second-in-command, accepted the sword of surrender. (Based on this chart, I’ve labeled Hamilton, Laurens, Knox, and Lafayette.)
But at the rear of the painting, between Lincoln and Washington, is Ebenezer Stevens, Colonel of American Infantry, who later rose to the rank of General. The picture and the man are noteworthy for obvious reasons, but they also feature prominently in Edith Wharton’s A Backward Glance–for Stevens was Wharton’s great-grandfather and the man who built the original dwelling called “the Mount,” after which Wharton named her house near Lenox, Massachusetts.
Here’s an excerpt from pp. 11-14 of A Backward Glance, with some added bolding (mine, not Wharton’s) for emphasis:
My great-grandfather, the Major-General Ebenezer Stevens of the Rotunda,
seems to have been the only marked figure among my forebears. He was
born in Boston in 1751 and, having a pronounced tendency to mechanical
pursuits, was naturally drafted into the artillery at the Revolution. He
served in Lieutenant Adino Paddock’s artillery company, and took part in
the “Boston tea-party,” where, as he told one of his sons, “none of the
party was painted as Indians, nor, that I know of, disguised; though,”
(he adds a trifle casuistically) “some of them stopped at a paint-shop
on the way and daubed their faces with paint.” . . . At Ticonderoga,
Stillwater and Saratoga he commanded a division of artillery, and it was
he who directed the operations leading to General Burgoyne’s surrender.
For these feats he was specially commended by Generals Knox, Gates and
Schuyler, and in 1778 he was in command of the entire artillery service
of the northern department. Under Lafayette he took part in the
expedition which ended in the defeat of Lord Cornwallis; his skilful
manoeuvres are said to have broken the English blockade at Annapolis,
and when the English evacuated New York he was among the first to enter
The war over, he declined further military advancement and returned to civil life. His services, however, were still frequently required, and in 1812 he was put in command of the New York Brigade of artillery. One
of the forts built at this time for the defence of New York harbour was called Fort Stevens, in his honour, and after the laying of the
foundation stone he “gave the party a dinner at his country seat, ‘Mount Buonaparte’,” which he named after the hero who restored order in
My great-grandfather next became an East-India merchant, and carried on a large and successful trade with foreign ports. The United States War Department still entrusted him with important private missions; he was a
confidential agent of both the French and English governments, and at
the same time took a leading part in the municipal business of New York,
and served on numerous commissions dealing with public affairs. He
divided his year between his New York house in Warren Street, and Mount
Buonaparte, the country place on Long Island created by the fortune he
had made as a merchant; but when his hero dropped the u from his name
and became Emperor, my scandalized great-grandfather, irrevocably
committed to the Republican idea, indignantly re-named his place “The
Mount.” . . . In his Bonapartist days General Stevens must have imported a good deal of Empire furniture from Paris, and one relic, a pair of fine gilt andirons crowned with
Napoleonic eagles, has descended to his distant great-grand-daughter;
but much was doubtless discarded when the mantelpieces went, and the
stuffy day of Regency upholstery set in.
If I have dwelt too long on the career of this model citizen it is
because of a secret partiality for him–for his stern high-nosed good
looks, his gallantry in war, his love of luxury, his tireless commercial
activities. I like above all the abounding energy, the swift
adaptability and the joie de vivre which hurried him from one adventure
to another, with war, commerce and domesticity (he had two wives and
fourteen children) all carried on to the same heroic tune. But perhaps I
feel nearest to him when I look at my eagle andirons, and think of the
exquisite polychrome mantels that he found the time to bring all the way
from Italy, to keep company with the orange-trees on his terrace.