Information Concerning William Bird 
and his daughter Caroline Bird 
who married Benjamin Cudworth Yancey

Information taken from: 
"William Lowndes Yancey - From Unionist to Seccessionist - 1814-1852" - Thesis by Ralph B Draughon. 1968

Caroline Bird Yancey (1790-1859)


The course of the Ogeechee River begins in the springs of Georgia's central uplands. Gathering its strength in the hills, the river passes swiftly to the upcountry's edge, where the waters rush around the boulders and rocks at the Shoals of Ogeechee. Beyond the Shoals the Ogeechee slows to a low country pace, the waters stretch out in the Georgia countryside, and the river moves lazily to the sea.  

In the latter part of the eighteenth century William Bird, an energetic Yankee, came to the Shoals of Ogeechee with ambitious plans to put the river to work. A Revolutionary veteran from Pennsylvania, Bird first migrated to Virginia, where he married and raised several children. In 1796, he brought his family to the Georgia frontier. At the Shoals of Ogeechee he built an iron foundry, using water power to operate the blast furnace. He erected a woolen mill by the river and also kept a country school. Yet with all his projects Bird failed to prosper. 

Bird's income failed to multiply, but his family increased bountifully. Catherine Bird, a former Virginia beauty, presented her husband with three sons to help in the mill or foundry, but the couple had so many beautiful daughters that an admirer dubbed their home "the Aviary," since so many pretty Birds lived there. Nevertheless, life in the Bird homestead was not so idyllic as it might seem. Unfortunately, Mrs. Bird and her daughters were noted not only for good looks but for bad dispositions, and the ironmaster and his wife had such severe quarrels that even their children took sides in the arguments.

Happily for Bird, he seems to have been a stoic sort of man. Suffering one winter from fever and chills, he tried to cure himself by rising each frosty morning to jump in the Ogeechee River, then emerging to wrap himself in blankets and lie down before a roaring fire. Not very surprisingly, his chills lasted nine months, but it is a tribute not only to his stoicism but to his strong constitution that he survived the-cure at all. 

In 1808, Caroline Bird, one of the prettiest and most tempestuous of the ironmaster's daughters, married Benjamin Cudworth Yancey, a promising young lawyer of the South Carolina upcountry. Benjamin Yancey had a temper himself,  and he proved to be a suitable match for his spirited bride. In 1812, he was elected to the South Carolina  legislature, and while he was campaigning for re-election in the summer of 1814, Caroline visited her father's home in Georgia. There at the Shoals of Ogeechee on August 10, William Lowndes Yancey was born.

Though born in Georgia, William Yancey could claim to be a third generation South Carolinian. As he himself told the story, his paternal grandfather, James Yancey, had been Virginian by birth, 

[but] " . . . he married Abigail Cudworth (then styled 'the Boston Beauty') whose mother was an Otis, & near relative of the celebrated Boston revolutionary Orator of that name. . . . It is supposed that our grand-father was in the army, which occupied Boston, early in the revolution & there made acquaintance with Miss Cudworth whose charms induced him to remove to Boston immediately after the revolution.?"

After their marriage, the couple migrated to South Carolina, lived in Beaufort for a time, and then moved to the South Carolina upcountry. In 1786, James became the first man to qualify for the state bar from Laurens District. The second man to qualify was Robert Goodloe Harper, who became a friend of James and kept up his friendship with the Yancey family throughout a career of prominence in national politics. Both James Yancey and his wife died about 1790 and their three sons were dispatched to kinsmen for support. One of the boys, Charles Yancey, was cared for by his uncle, Benjamin Cudworth, a Charleston merchant. This Charles Yancey lived a long life as an itinerant and often inebriated schoolmaster and eventually ended up on the doorstep of William L. Yancey, who made earnest efforts to reform his aged uncle. Reforming Uncle Charles proved too difficult a task, however, and William Yancey reluctantly decided: "He will die I fear a sot & cannot maintain any degree of respectability."

The other two orphaned sons of James Yancey were sent to more distant kinsmen. Treated harshly by their guardians, both Nathaniel Barnwell Yancey and Benjamin Cudworth Yancey ran away. Nathaniel died when fifteen years old. Benjamin was more fortunate. With the help of Congressman Robert Goodloe Harper, he got a commission as a midshipman on the U.S.S. Constellation, participated in a great sea battle with the French ship, La Vengeance, but resigned his commission in May, 1801. After leaving the navy, Benjamin Yancey read law with Robert Goodloe Harper, who had retired from Congress and removed to Baltimore. A year later Yancey returned to South Carolina, studied law with Benjamin Saxon of Abbeville, and became Saxon's law partner.

The tall, gaunt young John Caldwell Calhoun and Calhoun's roly-poly cousin, Patrick Noble, had a separate law partnership but shared the same little brick law office with Saxon and Yancey. Calhoun, Noble, and Yancey were at first good-friends. With other young men of the village the trio would sit on Calhoun's porch on summer evenings, and Calhoun and Yancey would argue until late at night the endless, unanswerable questions the young have always debated. One moonlight night the group decided to have a series of foot races. Yancey was touted as the victor over Calhoun, but when the two set off down the dusty road Calhoun delighted the group by passing Yancey and winning the race. In 1812, the ambitions of Calhoun and Benjamin Yancey came into conflict, and the two became opponents in a political race: Calhoun was campaigning for re-election to Congress as the Jeffersonian Republicans' choice; Yancey opposed him as the Federalist candidate. Both men favored the War of 1812, but Calhoun's activities as one of the leaders of the War Hawks made him far more popular in the South Carolina upcountry. As adept in politics as in amateur athletics, Calhoun won the election.

The same year Abbeville District elected Yancey to the state House of Representatives, where he served as chairman of the judiciary committee, acted as military aide to Governor Joseph Alston, and gained particular distinction by joining with Daniel Elliott Huger, a tall, lordly-looking aristocrat of the low country, in successfully opposing an attempt to repeal the South Carolina free school law. A leading advocate of free schools, Yancey fought to keep the law in effect during the War of 1812, while the other Abbeville representatives voted for suspension of the educational appropriation.

In the summer of 1814, Yancey was defeated for re-election, and Patrick Noble replaced him in the legislature. In the great factionalism of the South Carolina Republicans, Calhoun and his friends had turned against the Alston administration, with which Yancey was associated. Moreover, Calhoun and his cousin, Patrick Noble, had become the bitterest personal foes of Yancey, and the Calhoun faction dominated Abbeville District. A political issue was the free school law, which Noble and many of the district's voters opposed.  A final cause of Yancey's defeat was his service as lawyer for the plaintiff in the "Jew's land case." An early Jewish settler of upcountry South Carolina, Francis Salvador, had owned more than fifty thousand acres of land, but when the Cherokees killed Salvador in an ambush his property passed into the hands of a Philadelphia land company. Patrick Duncan of Charleston, with Yancey as his attorney, claimed that the land was rightfully his and began a long series of suits for the recovery of the property. Yancey's success in conducting the case through state and federal courts gained him praise as a lawyer but not as a politician. Since the recovery of the land would mean the eviction of many upcountry settlers, Yancey's part in the case contributed to his unpopularity with the Abbeville electorate. 

Born in the summer of his father's defeat, William Lowndes Yancey had neither an aristocratic lineage nor a great fortune as a birthright. Nevertheless, young William did receive a patrimony that would be important to him. The members of Yancey's family took great pride in their ties with the patriots of the American Revolution. Both of Yancey's grandfathers had fought for American liberty; James Otis, the revolutionary orator, was a family connection; and William Bird's sister had married James Wilson, the Pennsylvanian. signer of the Declaration of Independence and co-author of the Constitution. The proudest family tradition, however, came from Yancey's grandmother Bird. Catherine Bird claimed kinship with the Washington family, and her younger sister was among those numerous Virginia belles credited with refusing the marriage proposal of the first President himself. Though some of these connections were quite obscure, they nevertheless meant a great deal to Yancey, who was a devoted genealogist.

In later years he joined with his cousin, Ann Pamela'Cunningham, in her efforts to preserve Mount Vernon as a national shrine, and he outdid all other orators by invoking the spirit of Washington both to defend the Union in the 1830's and to attack it in the 1850's. At first, Yancey's ties with the patriots bound him close to the nation his forebears had helped create. Later, however, the example of his ancestors tended to make a revolutionist of Yancey himself. As an orator for the cause of southern independence, he was sustained by his family's revolutionary tradition--a living tradition which had been an important part of his heritage.

As part of his heritage from his father, William Yancey also had ties with a generation of leaders who dominated South Carolina politics until 1850. This generation, however, was for long years divided into factions for and against John C. Calhoun. William himself was born a member  of the anti-Calhoun faction in South Carolina; the year of his birth his father had been beaten for the legislature by the Calhoun group. Neither forgiven nor forgotten, this defeat was recalled years later by an upcountry kinswoman with long memories: the Calhoun and Noble families, she told William's younger brother, have been the "enemy of my race--they were the deadly foes of your father. . . ." Furthermore, some of William Yancey's later political actions can be explained in the context of that South Carolina generation to which his father belonged. He first joined with his father's faction and opposed Calhoun, but when Calhoun's generation united in the late 1830's William Yancey too came to follow Calhoun's leadership. First opposed to Calhoun, later united with him, William Yancey throughout his life cooperated with his father's friends in South Carolina politics. As an Alabama political leader he was frequently taunted with being far more South Carolinian than Alabamian, and in truth no matter how far he strayed from South Carolina, William Yancey always cherished as a valuable part of his heritage his ties with the great generation of Carolinians to which his father belonged and with the Carolina country in which his father slept. These two things were part of Yancey's patrimony. From his family he acquired a reverence for the revolutionary tradition and a special respect for the position of his father's friends in [South Carolina?]


The Family That Broke A Nation?


by Kris Wheeler and Wayne Franklin

Mt. Zion Church, built in 1814.

Old structures speak to the Southern soul — houses, barns, churches. There is an irresistible spiritual pull to the kind of ruin and decay that wistful dreamers call art. Perhaps it’s the nostalgic longing for times past or simply an innate desire to connect with one’s forebears. These aging places — fragile and yielding to the passage of time — are like tangible snapshots, framing a bygone era and concealing stories made long ago within their walls. 

If not for the roadside historical marker, it’s doubtful most folks driving a lonely stretch of Highway 15 outside Sparta, Ga., ever offer more than a passing glance toward the tattered old church standing along the edge of the woods.

For some of us, however, these markers might as well be “stop” signs. Seldom can we resist reading the stories they tell.

This particular marker commemorates the life of the Reverend Nathan S.S. Beman — who moved to Georgia from New England — and pays tribute to his contributions as “teacher and preacher at Mt. Zion, an academy town founded by Hancock County planters in 1811.”

Interesting, but it’s the inscription’s next-to-last sentence that is most intriguing: “In 1821 he married Mrs. Caroline Bird Yancey, mother of secessionist William Lowndes Yancey.”

Popular misconceptions about the Civil War era hold that all Southerners supported slavery and secession while all Northerners were unionists and abolitionists. The truth, of course, lay in the grey areas between. That aside, one must wonder how it was a Northern preacher raised a famous Southern secessionist.

For the writers of this article, the tantalizing words etched upon the marker are enough to ignite a fascination and close examination of the lives of Beman and William Lowndes Yancey.

The journeys of these two men played out not unlike a Greek tragedy — just as epic, just as sad — where death spawned a collision course of events destined to destroy a family and hasten the South’s plunge into the Civil War.

Nathan S.S. Beman

Rev. Nathan S.S. Beman

This story began in 1812 when a diagnosis of “consumption” forced 27-year-old Beman to resign as pastor of a Presbyterian church in Portland, Maine and move to Georgia to regain his health. Later that year he agreed to serve as both pastor and teacher at Mt. Zion. The rustic academy town consisted of a church, a two-story schoolhouse, summer residencies, and several other buildings.

The Georgia Legislature enacted laws in 1783 to promote education and the creation of county academies. Some Georgia cities got their start as academy towns.

Within a few short years, Beman turned Mt. Zion into one of the Georgia’s most celebrated educational institutions.His reputation and stature as an educator grew quickly and, in 1818, he was offered the presidency of the University of Georgia (known as Franklin College at the time). He accepted the position, but resigned within months due to his wife’s failing health.

Rev. Beman returned to Mt. Zion, remaining in charge of both the academy and the church. Lorane Beman died on Feb. 3, 1819. Her death arguably shaped the course of our nation’s history.

During the ensuing months, Beman developed a relationship with the widowed Caroline Bird Yancey. She was the mother of one of his young students — William. Although described as intelligent, clever and well-educated, Ms. Yancey apparently had a less charming, less genteel side to her character. Her father, Col. William Bird, is said to have remarked that if he wanted to stage a raid on Hell, he would make his tempestuous daughter his first lieutenant.

Caroline Bird (Yancey) Beman

If the couple wished for a match made in Heaven, it was not to be. Rumors of violent quarrels and abuse followed the marriage when Beman returned to the North in 1823, relocating the family to Troy, N.Y. When questioned by church officials about the matter, Beman denied all accusations.

Young William Yancey, who was 9 at the time, spent the next 10 years in Troy developing what has been described as a “pathological hatred” for his stepfather and most everything for which Beman stood. Yancey would later accuse the minister of — among other things — stealing his mother’s Georgia estate.

The Bemans separated permanently in 1835, providing fuel for the reverend’s many enemies — those who often took aim at him for his controversial stands on both politics and religion. But Beman proved resilient throughout his career, outflanking his attackers and rising to national prominence as a clergyman — in part because of his success as a radical reformer within the Presbyterian Church. Outside the pulpit, he became known as one of slavery’s most determined foes. (This despite the fact that, through his marriage to Caroline, he briefly owned and sold slaves while living in Georgia).

In the decades that followed, Beman became one of the most influential religious leaders and abolitionists of his time. It was not uncommon for the New York press to publish excerpts from his more controversial sermons.

William Lowndes Yancey

William Lowndes Yancey

William Yancey was every bit his step-father’s opposite in many ways – and this was no coincidence. A restless young man who chafed at the least authority, Yancey should’ve seemed a born secessionist. However, his early career as lawyer and orator found him embracing the cause of the Union, if not the abolitionist stance of Beman.

Following college, the young Yancey relocated to his native South, hoping to escape the harsh discipline of Beman … and his politics. Yancey offered his first major public speech on July 4, 1834. Following in the unionist footsteps of his late father, Benjamin Cudworth Yancey, and his namesake, William Lowndes, The 19-year-old Yancey spoke fiercely in defense of the Union. He was quick to attack the politics of John C. Calhoun – an old political and legal adversary of his family, particularly his father – and warn against “disunion and a Southern Confederacy,” labeling secession as the “evil genius of our land.”

Within four years, however, Yancey had relocated to the old Alabama capital city of Cahawba, and begun to shift his politics toward the secessionist stance which would become his legacy. The shift was neither swift nor wholesale at first. In 1838, Yancey expanded his resume to include the title of newspaperman, taking over the Cahaba Southern Democrat. In his first editorial, Yancey strongly defended the institution of slavery, fearing for “the very existence of the Union.”

Most indicative of his shifting political attitude toward Calhoun, whom he had once called a “political madman” but now praised as “one of the most distinguished statesmen of the republic.” While Yancey had fiscal reasons for his defense of slavery – he was now a slave owner himself – the fire that smoldered within him was breathed to full flame by a deeper, more personal motivation.

In his biography William Lowndes Yancey and the Coming of the Civil War, historian Eric H. Walther notes a dual tendency in Yancey: toward appeasement of his peers and toward enmity with what he perceived as unjust authority. For Yancey, none personified the latter more than Beman.

The more influential Beman became in the cause of abolition, the more Yancey embraced the opposing point of view. He saw Beman’s politics as hypocrisy of the highest order and had, in 1837, encouraged his mother to publicly acknowledge that Beman had once sold slaves himself. Further, he found it a cruel irony that Beman would seek to save slaves from the whip while having never hesitated to use it on his own children.

As a “champion of slavery,” Yancey was emerging as a formidable force on the South’s political stage. The one-time unionist would soon be a strong voice within the most radical wing of the Democratic Party, earning the moniker “Orator of Secession.” In Yancey, the institution of slavery found its most vocal supporter — a “fire-eater” and vehement crusader. During the 1840s, he served in the Alabama Legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives — this despite the fact that he had served a year in jail for killing a man over a political slur. He defended his actions by claiming he was “taught to preserve inviolate my honor.”

On April 27, 1860, Yancey delivered a fiery speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charleston, S.C. in support of a platform favoring expansion of slavery into the territories. As one reporter had noted days earlier, Yancey was prepared “to precipitate the Cotton States into a revolution.” Ironically, on the same day, Harriet Tubman orchestrated what is widely considered history’s most dramatic rescue of a runaway slave in Yancey’s childhood hometown of Troy. Yancey was reportedly angered over the event once news of the rescue reached Charleston via telegraph.

Angry Southern delegates leaving the 1860 Democratic Convention

Yancey’s speech received enthusiastic cheers, especially when he promised that a pro-slavery stance would elevate poor white man “amongst the master race and put the negro race to do the dirty work.” Despite overwhelming support from the Southern delegates, the platform was defeated. Yancey and 50 or so delegates stormed out of the convention, effectively breaking the back of the Democratic Party.

Attempts at conciliation included an unofficial offer to name Yancey as the vice-presidential candidate. Yancey refused. With the Democratic Party split over slavery, Northerners nominated Stephen A. Douglas, and Southern states nominated John C. Breckenridge in their own convention. Meanwhile, Republicans nominated dark-horse Abraham Lincoln as their candidate.

Yancey’s campaign for secession quickly gathered steam. Within a year, the nation was torn apart and at war.

In his book, The Secession Movement 1860-1861, Prof. Dwight Dumond asserts that without Yancey’s “brilliant oratory and indefatigable labors there would have been no secession, no Southern Confederacy.” And one could argue that, without Beman, there would have been no William Lowndes Yancey as we knew him, the “Prince of the Fire-Eaters.”

Inside Mt. Zion Church

One wonders what William Yancey would have thought about the fruits of his labors had he lived to see the outcome of the war. In 1863, at the age of 49, he died of kidney disease — two years before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. His mother, Caroline, died two years earlier, bitter and essentially homeless. Rev. Beman lived a long life, dying in 1871 at the age of 86. Troy’s Beman Park is named in his honor.

How different might history be had Caroline Yancey and Rev. Nathan Beman never met?

The lone, surviving witness to that cruel twist of fate rests beneath the shadows of Hancock County’s tall Georgia pines, not far from the marker honoring its founder. Mt. Zion Church remains today a lifeless relic of a once-celebrated past — its creaking steps like ghostly whispers of a tragic story first ignited here some 200 years ago.