This story is an excerpt from Alabama Footprints Volume V – VIII
The story below reveals the close friendship Francis Scott Key shared with Alabama Governor Gayle’s wife, Sarah and her nine year old daughter.
(This was transcribed by the Alabama Historical Society and printed in 1901 in their magazine as follows)
THE MISSION OF FRANCIS SCOTT KEY TO
ALABAMA IN 1833
By Thomas Chalmers McCorvey Tuscaloosa.
The subsequent troubles with the Indians which led to the socalled Creek war of 1836 and the final removal of the remnant of the Creeks to their new homes west of the Mississippi, belong to another chapter in Alabama history.
It remains here to note only the formal announcement from Washington of the success of Mr. Key’s (Francis Scott Key) mission in restoring friendly relations between the State and Federal governments. A letter from the secretary of war to the governor of Alabama, dated March 12, 1834, gave him official notice that the additional troops ordered into Alabama had been withdrawn, and that only the ordinary garrison at Fort Mitchell would remain in the Creek country.
The letter also expressed the pleasure of the president at the recent attitude of the State government of Alabama, and stated that he would be much gratified if the enforcement of the stipulations of the Creek treaty should render it unnecessary for him to resort to the provisions of the Act of 1807—which he had not the slightest wish to do unless required by the obligations assumed by the United States.
Later, after Mr. Key’s return to Washington, he wrote to Governor Gayle, under date of June 11, 1834: “I called on the secretary of war soon after receiving your letter and he expressed the fullest confidence in you and his willingness to leave the whole matter (of Indian troubles) to yourself.” The happy results here indicated of Mr. Key’s diplomatic mission to Alabama closed one of the most interesting and important episodes in the history of the State; but there remain to be told some pleasant incidents in the unofficial side of his visit.
The Alabama poet and historian, the late Judge Alexander B. Meek, who had been graduated from the new University of Alabama (in the class of 1833) just before Mr. Key’s visit, some years later noted in an editorial preface to some of Mr. Key’s verses in The Southron,TM 1that during his stay in Tuscaloosa the literary and fashionable circles of the little city were much delighted with the brilliancy and wit of his conversation.
Judge Meek recalled the efforts at the time of some of the society young ladies to procure souvenirs of the poet’s visit in the shape of original verses for their albums. The most interesting social features of Mr. Key’s visit to Alabama have been preserved in the journal of Mrs. Sarah Ann (Haynesworth) Gayle, wife of Governor John Gayle, which is in the possession of her only surviving daughter, Mrs. Amelia Ross (Gayle) Gorgas, widow of the late General Josiah Gorgas, who was the chief of ordnance of the Confederate government.
Amelia Gayle Gorgas
Mrs. Gayle was one of the most accomplished women of her day, and the fragments of her literary work that remain to us show that she could have won as proud a place in the field of letters as her distinguished husband held in statecraft, had she not esteemed the duties of the home a higher and nobler sphere of effort. A proof of her gift of poesy will be offered hereafter—a gift which Mr. Key was prompt to recognize.
Francis Scott Key was a frequent guest in the Gayle home
During his negotiations with Governor Gayle, Mr. Key was frequently a guest at the executive home, and Mrs. Gayle has left several glimpses of the poet-diplomat on the occasion of these informal visits.
“Mr. Francis Scott Key, the district attorney for the District of Columbia,” wrote Mrs. Gayle in her journal, December, 1833, “is here at present for the purpose of assisting to settle the Creek controversy. He is very pleasant—intelligent, you at once perceive, and somewhat peculiar in his manners. He is a little, nay, a good deal absent in company, not always attending when others converse, and often abruptly breaking in with a question, though evidently unconscious of what he has done. His countenance is not remarkable when at rest, but as soon as he lifts his eyes, usually fixed upon some object near the floor, the man of sense, of fancy, and the poet is at once seen. But the crowning trait of his character, I have just discovered—he is a Christian.”
Again Mrs. Gayle writes in her journal: “Mr. Key the agent of the government in this State, interests me greatly. He is a man of much intelligence, a lawyer of high standing, a man of honor, a poet, and a Christian. He has been to see me frequently and sat an hour or two last night chatting to me and the children. He made Sarah read for him and then he read for her some of the fine hymns and psalms in the Book of Common Prayer—one of his own, beginning ‘Lord with glowing heart I’d praise thee’ is in it. He seems to be fervently pious and I dearlv love to hear him talk on the subject. He speaks with much simplicity upon it, and it is his own remark that religion is a system of simplicity, nothing metaphysical in it or what is not suited to all. I must preserve for my daughters his contribution to Margaret’s album, and to understand his verses, mine must be prefixed—the verses beginning ‘Thanks, gentle Fairy, now my album take.'”
These informal social visits to the governor’s family left a lasting impression of pleasure upon Mr. Key. After his return to Washington he wrote Mrs. Gayle, June 14, 1834: “I have often thought of Tuscaloosa and your family circle, and could I transport myself as easily as my thoughts, I should still be a frequent visitor.”2
During one of his visits to Governor Gayle’s family, Mr. Key wrote the following verses in the album of the Governor’s little nine year old daughter, Sarah Ann Gayle, who afterward became the wife of Dr. William B. Crawford, of Mobile:
THE ROCK OF THY SALVATION.If life’s pleasures cheer thee, Give them not thy heart,
Lest the gifts ensnare thee From thy God to part. His praises speak, His favors seek, Fix there thy hopes’ foundation;
Love him, and he shall ever be The rock of thy salvation. If troubles e’er befall thee— Painful though they be—
Let not fear appall thee, To the Savior flee. He, ever near, thy prayer will hear, And calm thy perturbation;
The waves of woe shall ne’er o’erflow The rock of thy salvation. Death shall never harm thee, Shrink not from his blow;
For thy God shall arm thee, And victory bestow. And death shall bring to thee no sting. The grave no desolation;
‘Tis gain to die, with Jesus nigh— The rock of thy salvation.
It must be candidly confessed that these verses add nothing to Mr. Key’s reputation as a poet; but they serve to bring out prominently what Mrs. Gayle discovered to be the crowning trait of his character—his unwavering Christian faith. As a matter of fact none of the verses written by Mr. Key on the occasion of his visit to Alabama would be effective, in the slightest degree, in any effort to take him out of the list of single-famous-poem poets. It must be remembered, however, that these verses were made to order, so to speak, on the spur of the moment, without any expectation of their appearance in print; and they are reproduced here not on account of any supposed literary excellence, but for the purpose of throwing some side-lights upon the character of the man and the circumstances surrounding his mission to Alabama.
In a somewhat different and lighter vein than the verses already quoted, but closing with the same pious injunctions, are the following lines addressed to the same little maiden of nine years:Thine hand, fair little maiden—let me see How run the mystic lines of destiny? A poet once (so ladies kindly said Of the enthusiast their charms had made), I may, though cold and dead the poet’s fire, Touch with a kindred hand the prophet’s lyre. The face too I must look upon, for there I once could read more plainly of the fair. With hands and face, those tell-tales of the heart, If I have not forgotten all my art, Some secrets of thy fate I may impart. Now my divining’s done—list to the lay That tells the fortunes of thy future day. Sarah Gayle! thou wilt be fair, So a thousand youths shall swear; And beloved thou shall be, And be rhymed incessantly. Light the task, to lovers pale, To sing of lovely Sarah Gayle. Ne’er did words or numbers fail
To sound the praise of Sarah Gayle. See, from distant hills and dale They come to gaze on Sarah Gayle And teach the Alabamian vale
To echo the name of Gayle. When from distant land they sail ‘Tis to catch a favoring Gayle. In summer’s heat they’ll wish a Gayle And even in winter’s storm and hail, They’ll still desire to have a Gayle. If thou shalt frown, they’ll sadly wail, With broken hearts, for Sarah Gayle; And many a heavy cotton bale They’d count light weight for Sarah Gayle. Sarah Gayle! thou wilt be kind, And, it may be, some day inclined
To take a name more to thy mind
But it required the touch of a kindred poetic spirit to call forth from Mr. Key the best of his verses which were written on the occasion of his stay in Tuscaloosa. A little niece of Senator William R. King, Margaret Kornegay—who in her young womanhood became the wife of George W. Gayle, of Dallas county, a near kinsman of Governor Gayle—prevailed upon Mrs. Gayle to write a rhymed request to Mr. Key for a contribution to her album—the contribution heretofore referred to in Mrs. Gayle’s journal, which she declared her purpose to preserve for her daughters. The verses written by Mrs. Gayle at the request of her young friend with the album were spirited into Mr. Key’s room. One may well imagine his feelings when he found the album with the following graceful lines:
TO MR. F. S. KEY.Thanks, gentle fairy! now my album take,
And place it on his table, ere he wake;
Then whisper that a maiden, all unknown,
Claims from the poet’s hand a trifling boon:
Trifling, perchance, to him, but oh! not so
To her whose heart has thrilled, long, long ago,
As his inspiring lays came to her ear,
Lending the stranger’s name an interest dear.
A timid girl may yet be bold to admire
The Poet’s fervor and the Patriot’s fire;—
But ’tis not these, though magical their power—
They cannot brighten woman’s saddened hour:
And she, the happiest, lin.t saddened hours,
When all life’s pathways are bereft of flowers,
And her bowed spirit feels, as felt by thee,
That to “live alway” on this earth, would be
For her—for all—no happy destiny.
Poet and Patriot! Thou may’st write for fame,
But by a tenderer, and a holier name,
I call thee—Christian! write thou here one lay,
For me to read and treasure, when thou art away! Tuscaloosa, loth December, 1833.
The following lines in reply were written in the album by Mr. Key, and in some of them he strikes a chord in many respects worthy of the author of the “The Star-Spangled Banner:”
TO MISS”And is it so! a thousand miles apart,
Has lay of mine e’er touched a gifted heart?
Brightened the eye of beauty? won her smile?
Rich recompense for all the poet’s toil! That fav’ring smile, that brightened eye, That tells the heart’s warm ecstacy, I have not seen—I may not see— But maiden kind! thy gift shall be A more esteemed and cherished prize Than fairest smiles, or brightest eyes!
And this rich trophy of the poet’s power,
Shall shine on many a lone and distant hour.
Praise from the fair, howe’er bestowed, we greet,—
In words, and looks outspeaking words,—’tis sweet,
But when it breathes in bright and polished lays,
Warm from a kindred heart, this—this is praise! We are not strangers: in our hearts we own
Chords that must ever beat in unison.
The same touch wakens them; in all we see.
Or hear, or feel, we own a sympathy.
We look where Nature’s charms in beauty rise,
And the same transport glistens in our eyes.
The joys of others cheer us, and we keep
A ready tear, to weep with those that weep.
“Tis this that, in th’ impassioned hour,
Gives to the favored bard the power,
As sweetly flows the stream of song,
To bear the raptured soul along,
And make it, captive to his will.
With all his own emotions thrill.
This is a tie that binds us; ’tis the glow
The “gushing warmth” of heart, that Poets know. We are not strangers: well thy lines impart
The Patriot’s feelings in the Poet’s heart.
Not even thy praise can make me vainly deem
That ’twas the Poet’s power, and not his theme,
That woke thy heart’s warm rapture, when from afar
His song of victory caught thy favoring ear;
That victory was thy country’s, and his strain
Was of that starry banner that again
Had waved in triumph on the battle plain. Yes, though Columbia’s land be wide— Though Chesapeake’s broad waters glide Far distant from the forest shores Where Alabama’s current roars; Yet over all this land so fair Still waves the flag of stripe and star; Still on the Warrior’s banks is seen, And shines in Coosa’s valleys green; By Alabama’s maiden sung, With patriot heart, and tuneful tongue. Yes! I have looked around me here, And felt I was no foreigner: Each friendly hand’s frank offered clasp Tells me it is a brother’s grasp; My own I deem these rushing floods— My own, these wild and waving woods; And to a Poet, oh, how dear!— My own songs sweetly chanted here. The joy with which these scenes I view Tells me this is my country too! These sunny plains I freely roam— I am no outcast from a home; No wanderer on a foreign strand: “This is my own, my native land.” We are not strangers: still another tie Binds us more closely, more endearingly: The Poet’s heart, though time his verse may save, Must chill with age, and perish in the grave: The Patriot too must close his watchful eye Upon the land he loves, his latest sigh All he has left to give it, ere he die. But when the Christian faith in power hath spoke
To the bowed heart, and the world’s spell is broke,
That heart transformed, a never-dying flame
Warms with new energy, above the claim
Of death to extinguish—oh! if we have felt
This holy influence, and have humbly knelt
In penitence for pardon, sought and found
Peace for each trouble—balm for every wound;
For us, if faith this work of love hath done,
Not alike only are our hearts— they’re one;
Our hopes, fears, joys and sorrows, all the same;
One path our course, one object all our aim.
Though sundered here, one home at last is given—
Strangers on earth, but fellow heirs of Heaven. Yes, I will bear thy plausive strain afar,
A light to shine upon the clouds of care—
A flower to cheer me in life’s thorny ways:
And I will think of her, whose favoring lays
Kind greeting gave—and in the heart’s best hour,
For thee its warmest wishes it shall pour. And may I ask, when this fair volume brings Some thought of him who tried to wake the strings Of his forgotten lyre at thy command— Command which warmed his heart and nerved his hand— Thou wouldst for one who, in the world’s wild strife, Is doomed to mingle ‘mid the storms of life, Give him the blessings of a Christian’s care, And raise in his defense, the shield of prayer!
Tuscaloosa, December 13,1833.
Surely no apology should be needed for giving in full in an historical sketch the verses here reproduced; for in no other way, perhaps, could be better shown the spirit and temper of Mr. Key in undertaking the difficult and at one time doubtful task of allaying the excited feelings of the people of Alabama at that juncture. One can hardly read these verses now without a feeling of something like gratitude that the masterful man then at the head of the government at Washington sent as his messenger and representative to Alabama the pure-souled patriot, Francis Scott Key.
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