Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Fourth John Minor - "Cousin John"

The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume X – No. 4, April 1903, pages 438-440

By Charles M. Blackford, Lynchburg, Virginia

Was the eldest son of General John Minor. He was born in 1797, at Hazel Hill, in Fredericksburg, and died in the same town on the 12th of January, 1862. He never married, but may be said to have adopted all children as his own – a sentiment which many a gray-haired man and woman now living will endorse as they recall the hours of pleasure they have spent at his knee as he told them his charming folk-lore stories.

Mr. Minor completed his education at St. John’s College, Maryland, and then, true to the nomadic instinct of the family, went to sea on a seventy-four-gun man of war as secretary to the Commodore. Of this experience in his life Mr. Minor always spoke with horror as of the time he was “hired out.” He went for the travel, but was restive under the discipline, and, after one voyage, resigned. He then studied law, and took great interest in its traditions and its black-letter lore, but, as his means were ample enough to meet all his wants, he gave little attention to its practical and more useful knowledge, and soon abandoned its active practice. He was not idle, however, and took upon himself several functions where to his taste and did not confine him to his office and yet added materially to his income. He early developed his taste for the traditional history of Virginia and for its folk-lore, and long before he died he was deemed the most trustworthy authority on such matters. He had doubtless the largest and most valuable library of Virginia books and manuscripts owned by any one person at that time, and his collection of ancient historic relics and curios connected with the Colonial times and people was vastly entertaining. He contributed much to this historical line in the Literary Messenger, and other like magazines, and was always a most welcome writer in their columns. He died during the year 1862, when his much-loved Fredericksburg was the centre of military operations; but as none of his immediate family resided in the place at the time, his library and collections of various kinds remained after his death in his offices, which were in a large brick house in the yard of his residence.

Both his residence and his offices were much injured by the shells from the Confederate batteries on Willis's and Marye's Hill, and several passed through his books and stores, scattering them in every direction; but as bad as that was, many of his treasures would have been saved but for the fact that his premises were occupied during the battle by the Federal troops, many of whom must have understood the value of his collections, for few of them were left the day after the battle, when the spot was visited from the Confederate lines by four of his Blackford nephews, whose home it once was, and who were called on to mourn the desolation of the place of their nativity. The destruction of this valuable collection was a heavy loss to Mr. Minor's estate, but a much heavier loss to the traditional lore of Virginia.

Mr. Minor was not himself an artist, though he had devoted much time to artistic study, and took much pleasure in the association with artists. He took the artist Leutze by the hand when, as a very young man, he was making a precarious support as a portrait painter in Fredericksburg. Discovering his merit he furnished him the means to complete his artistic education in Rome, after which he rapidly rose to a world-wide reputation, as is attested by his work at the National Capitol, where his pictures "Washington Crossing the Delaware" and "Westward the Star of Empire Takes its Course," attract so much admiration.

Another of Mr. Minor's protégés was Mr. John Elder. Mr. Minor discovered his wonderful talent when he was but a little boy drawing sketches on the wall of his father's shop, and advanced him the means to prosecute his education in this country and in Europe. The result is shown in his picture of "The Battle at the Crater," the likenesses of Generals Lee and Jackson, and other historic works. Nor were artists the only people he aided. Wherever a young man showed capacity and needed aid, Mr. Minor's purse and counsel were at his service, and many successful men can trace their rise to his timely aid. Of his good deeds he never spoke, with perhaps one exception. He was not a member of any church and never attended church services, though an avowed lover of the Episcopal, the church of his forefathers. Despite the fact that he never went to church, he taught at one time a Bible class in the Sunday-school at old St. George's in Fredericksburg. Many years afterwards, when visiting his sister, Mr. Blackford, in Lynchburg, he was visited by the Rev. Alexander Donophan, of the Methodist Church, who told him his first religious impression and those which sent him into the ministry were derived from his teaching in the Bible class in Fredericksburg. This incident gave Mr. Minor great pleasure, and he spoke of it often.

Your readers in lower Virginia will think any sketch of Mr. Minor which did not tell of his wonderful charm for children very incomplete, yet to depict him in his relations to children could only be properly done by the pen of a Scott or a Dickens.

In his wanderings and by his studies into folk-lore, he had gathered a vast repertoire of stories, many of which have since been published in Uncle Remus and other like books. These stories were of "Br. Fox," "Piggy-Wiggy," "Br. Rabbit," "Ticky-Tack," and of other characters which then were unknown except when he told them.

His family connection, being a Minor on one side and a Carter on the other, was immense, and every year he would make a journey through lower Virginia amongst his kin, with whom he was very popular. Wherever he went he was feted and at every house the children were gathered and he had to tell two or three of his stories in his inimitable fashion. He would never tell over three at one time. Children and grown people alike would gather around his chair and though many had heard them before, the interest never flagged until he closed the recital with "Now, wasn't that a pretty story, and wasn't it a pretty man that told it?" to which inquiry there was always a most joyous affirmative choral response. Many an old man and old woman in Virginia can tell of the delights of such occasions and can truthfully say that though they have since heard great operas and seen fine plays, none gave the same thrill of delight as "Uncle John's" tale of "Ticky-Tack, with her bag at her back," or of the thrilling escapes of Piggy Wiggy and Br. Rabbit from the wiles of Br. Fox.

While Mr. Minor was thus a hero amongst children, he held the love and confidence of men in a high degree. In the range of his friendships, and that covered the whole of old Virginia, he was the admitted standard of honor. He recognized the "Code of Honor," so-called, but approved it more as a peace than as a war measure, and it may truly be said he settled more personal controversies than any man of his time. He was a universal referee - all acknowledged that there could be no dishonor in obeying his ruling, and his rulings required each party to do what was right. If the dispute was submitted to him he required each party to obey his mandate - a settlement was thus secured.

A portrait of Mr. Minor seated in his office and surrounded by his old books and curios was painted by Leutze for The Young Men's Club of Fredericksburg, and was much prized by it, but it was lost when the Federal troops occupied the place and has never been heard of since. One portrait of him is still extant. It also was painted by Leutze, and is one of his masterpieces, but it is by no means so interesting as that which also portrayed his usual environment.

No man in Fredericksburg was more honored and beloved than this John Minor, and the death of no man was more mourned, but he died at a time when war clouds so enshrouded the State that private griefs were little noted. At a time when each morning's paper contained its long catalogue of death's doings amongst our noblest and best men, few tears could be shed over any one grave; but despite this fact his native little city, already anticipating its doom, deeply felt the shock of his death and shed many a tear over his grave. He never married, and he was therefore the last of the successive John Minors of his line.

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