Civil War Sleuthing: James C. Huhn

Want to feel like an amateur historian? Go to the National Archives.

There are few more “D.C.”, that is to say “bureaucratic”, experiences than visiting the main National Archives building here in Washington, D.C. First, there’s the mixture of tourism (the front of the building is a museum holding a copy of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights), a practical purpose (records that cumulatively tell the story of America), good old-fashioned bureaucracy (you have to go through an orientation, get a photo ID card, and sign several forms to look at the original records), and 21st-century jumpiness (you have to go through security on your way in and your way out). I could have easily been intimidated by the rigamarole, but I was determined to go through all this for the sake of one particular purpose: I was there to find the pension file for James C. Huhn, my 3-times-great-grandfather.

I had found through an online search that a certain James C. Huhn, a relative of mine, had fought in the Civil War. James was born in 1833 in Fayette County, Pennsylvania. I found him in the U.S. Civil War Soldiers Index (I need to investigate his service record some fine day, too), and then I found him in the U.S. Civil War and Later Pension Index. Both of these indicated that James enlisted as a private in Company E of the 14th Pennsylvania Cavalry. These files are not available in their entirety online. They are kept in the Archives in D.C. Lucky for me, I live in the D.C. area. I mean, what’s the use of living in D.C. if you can’t bop on down to the National Archives on a lark, looking for some Civil War records?

So, on a snowy Monday, I took off work and bopped on down to the National Archives on Pennsylvania Avenue. There is a separate entrance for researchers. I went through the process described above (security, orientation, photo ID, putting in the form to have the file pulled). I had some time to kill before the file would be available. Someone had to go retrieve it from the stacks, which obviously takes some time. I entertained myself by using the computers (free access to!) to do a bit of genealogy research. It turns out the relatives on my father’s side who moved in Kansas in the mid-19th century came from New York. One of them was a physician. I found an ancestor of mine who immigrated from England in the mid-19th century. And I found some delightful high school yearbook images of my grandmother.

After about an hour and a half of that fun, I went upstairs to pick up the file I’d requested. Just to enter the room, I had to hand over my brand new photo ID to be scanned. I also had to leave pretty much everything—purse, wallet, coat, scarf, pens—in a locker downstairs. They aren’t allowed anywhere near the records. Once I was admitted to the inner precinct, I picked up the file from the desk and sat down. There were quite a lot more documents than I’d imagined. I’d pictured two of three pieces of paper, probably a pension application and perhaps a few explanatory notes. But there were various applications (most of them dating to after 1890), affidavits, and records. It was a real treasure trove of information, and it gave me a very interesting look at my great-great-great grandfather’s time as a soldier and his life following the war. I knew that he was in the cavalry; I knew he’d probably been injured since he applied for a pension; and I knew his unit had not taken part in any of the blockbuster battles of the war (I looked up the service record of the 14th Pa. Cav. online). I wanted some more details on what James’s experience was like 150 years ago.

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The Interrogation of Nicole d’Oliva part 1

In 1785, it was discovered that a diamond necklace was missing. The Royal Jewelers said they had handed it over to the Queenand that she owed them for it. The Queen said she

The Palais-Royal, where Nicole d’Oliva met Nicolas de La Motte.

had never made such a purchase, in fact had turned down this very necklace because it was too expensive, and had no idea where the jewelers’ necklace had gone. That summer, an adventuress made Jeanne de La Motee-Valois was arrested, followed shortly by various of her associates, including Nicole d’Oliva. Nicole had been friends with Jeanne, and in fact had taken part in a peculiar midnight meeting in the parks of Versailles. Nicole was in Brussels with her amour when she was arrested for having taken part (however unwittingly) in Jeanne’s schemes. She was clapped in the Bastille, where she gave birth to a son, and then was moved to the Conciergerie. Below is a translation of a transcript I happened across during a Google Book search. As I mention in this post, I really don’t know French, but I made a go at translating this because I wanted to know whether there was any new information to be mined. The answer is no, not really. It makes interesting reading, anyway.

This is part 1, perhaps the more interesting of the two parts (part 2 will come shortly), as it concerns the Grove of Venus scene. Parts quoted in French were impossible for me to decipher properly. Anything in brackets in my input. If you aren’t familiar with the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, I suggest starting with The Short Story; this might not make sense otherwise. I took some small liberties with wording. I apologize that it’s somewhat stilted; I attempted as literal a translation as possible. I was tripped up in a few places. Maybe there is someone out there with a better command of French who can help with those phrases.

From Thursday, January 19, 1786

Before us, Jean Baptiste Pierre Maximilien Titon, advisor to the King in Parlement, in the halls of the government of the castle of the Bastille, has been led by M. Losme, major adjoint,  Marie-Nicole Leguay d’Oliva or Designy.

We asked her name and nicknames, age, station [ie social position], and residence. She said she was named Marie Nicole Leguay d’Oliva or “Designy”, thirty-four [sic–she was 22-23] years old, bourgeois, from Paris, residing on the Rue Thiroux, Chaussée [Carriageway] d’Antin.

We asked if she did not know of a woman named Madame de La Motte-Valois. She said yes. Continue reading

The Memoirs of Jeanne de La Motte

There’s nothing like reading the first-hand accounts of the main players in a thrilling historical drama. Or a dramatic historical thriller–you could use either to describe the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. Jeanne wrote several memoirs. They came out in French and English and sometimes in more than one volume, making for a confusing array of texts.

Here are the original versions of two memoirs by Jeanne de La Motte:

Mémoires justificatifs de la Comtesse de Valois de La Motte–In French, dense, and probably not accessible for people who don’t know French very well.

The life of Jane de St. Remy de Valois, heretofore Countess de La Motte–An English translation published while Jeanne was in London. Much more accessible to English-speakers if you don’t mind extraneous commas.

My take on the Memoirs:

Jeanne de La Motte’s story is fascinating from beginning to end, and no one would agree more than Jeanne herself. From a very young age, Jeanne learned to tell her own story to the best of her abilities, with the aim of capturing the attention and sympathy of those around her. She told her story while begging on the streets and she told her story while trying to get noticed at the court of Versailles. When the Affair of the Diamond Necklace broke, her audience became much wider and the list of antagonists in her story increased by (at least) one: now Queen Marie-Antoinette was on the list of people out to victimize her.

You can’t take Jeanne at her word. The outline of her life is almost certainly true, as well as those details that she had no reason to lie about (for instance, the date of her arrival in Paris) or that were easily verifiable fact (for instance, the date of her birth or marriage). But, otherwise, in her memoirs Jeanne makes herself into the tragic heroine, constantly wronged by fate and, more to the point, by those around her. The first villain of Jeanne’s story is her own mother. Jeanne’s mother is presented as a gold-digger who ruined her husband (Jeanne’s good-hearted father) and never loved him in return. Jeanne’s mother constantly beat her, forced them all to go to Paris where the children had to beg on the streets, barely mourned her husband’s death, and asked her children to claim that her new lover was their father. How much of this is true, it’s hard to tell. No doubt, Jeanne’s mother would tell a very different version of the story.

After her mother abandons Jeanne, other villains continue to plague her life: the nemesis is her foster father, or the officials at court, or Madame Elisabeth, or Marie-Antoinette herself, or the police, or the monarchy at large. Throughout her memoirs, Jeanne casts herself as the victim of wicked people. And yet, all the evidence points to her as the culprit in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, no matter how poorly she was treated by how many people. It’s incredibly telling that the thief is the victim here, over and over again.

Even if Jeanne only partially believed her own tales, this was the way she chose to defend her actions: she placed herself as the victim. In her own mind, she was merely responding to a cruel world as best she could–and maybe her response wasn’t perfect, but it was no worse than could be expected in the circumstances. Underlying this is Jeanne’s assumption that she deserved much, much better. Jeanne denies ever having stolen the Diamond Necklace, but if you take it for granted that she did steal it, then you can see her memoirs as a lengthy justification for why she deserved that necklace that didn’t belong to her. Her entire unfair life led up to a point where she saw for herself the chance to get some justice. Everyone from her mother to the queen had denied her what was her right. The necklace became a chance to reclaim what she felt she deserved. When that fell through, the memoirs became her form of revenge–because her story was much more damaging to the Queen than the loss of the necklace.

The morality is suspect; just because a person was constantly abused (and there’s little doubt Jeanne was abused) doesn’t justify theft, cheating, and adultery (all of which Jeanne was almost certainly guilty of). When you take into account her motives and point of view, Jeanne’s memoirs make a fascinating study of morals and how flexible they can be.

If you are patient with language, whether its French or mind-numbingly archaic English, then I suggest you take a look at these memoirs and judge for yourself.

History, Close to Home

Because of the demands of the real world, I have been neglecting this blog shamefully fora while, now. But I thought that I would share a little of what I discovered over the past few weeks. No, it doesn’t have to do with the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, or even with France or the French Revolution or the ancien regime.

The old Farmhouse in the snow.

It’s the history of the old house I grew up in. I have always known the old farmhouse was built before the Civil War. Many years ago, my mother did some research on the house that my father bought in 1978. She couldn’t finish the research then, so that’s where the research stood for about twenty years.

Having a historically curious mind, I decided I wanted to know how old this house is. I could guess from the size, style, and height of the windows at its approximate age. I’m no expert, but I put it in the early 1800’s. It has an almost Federalist style to it. But I wanted some facts, so I began at the beginning by going to the old Cecil County courthouse in Elkton. In the land records archives, I started with my parents’ deed from the 70’s. From there, it was easy to trace it backwards in time. Each deed states that the land being conveyed to so-and-so by so-and-so is the same land conveyed to so-and-so by so-and-so as recorded in such-and-such a book on such-and-such a page. So I moved back in time, through the 20th and 19th centuries……..

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The Memoirs

This is a list of the many memoirs of the people directly involved in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. There was a widespread penchant for writing memoirs at this time, so everyone involved wrote their version of events and had it published. Since the scandal made such a major impact, the memoirs sold well, though the writers didn’t necessarily see much profit due to copyright laws of the time. However, these would have proved juicy readings for the public, as well as for the historian. Although they’re wonderful fist-hand accounts, it’s difficult to decipher fact from fiction, especially in the case of the Affair od the Diamond Necklace. Some are available in various forms in various places. In her fabulous book The Queen’s Necklace, France Mossiker conveniently and brilliantly wove together these memoirs and other primary sources. If you want to read some of these various memoirs, your best bet is to find this book, which isn’t hard to do. If, however, you want to read the entire memoirs, these are the titles of them, and a few links to those that can be found via Google Books.

The Memoirs

Boehmer and Bassenge:

Memoires des joailliers Boehmer et Bassenge, du Août 12, 1785.


Mémoire pour le Comte de Cagliostro, accuse, contro M. le Proceureur-général, accusateur, en presence de M. Le Cardinal de Rohan, de la Comtesse de La Motte et autres, co-accusés.*

Jeanne de La Motte-Valois de Saint Rémy:

Mémoires justicatifs de la comtesse de La Motte-Valois. London 1789.

Memoirs of the Countess de Valois de La Motte. Dublin 1790.

Vie de Jeanne de Saint-Rémy de Valois. London, 1791, Paris 1792.

Nicole d’Oliva:

Mémoire pour la demoiselle le Guay d’Oliva, fille mineure, émancipée d’âge, accusée, contre M. le Procurer-général.*

Jacques Claude Beugnot:

Mémoires, Paris 1823

Madame Campan [Queen’s confidante]:

Mémoires sur la vie privée de Marie Antoinette. Paris 1823

Nicolas de La Motte:

Mémoires inédits du comte de La Motte-Valois (ed. Louis Lacour). Paris, 1858).

Retaux de Villette:

Mémoires historiques des intrigues de la cour, Venice 1790.

*Not personal memoires

Links to memoirs on Google Books for your edification

Count Cagliostro [FRENCH]:

Nicole d’Oliva [FRENCH]

Jacques Claude Beugnot [ENGLISH] volume 1  . volume 2

Madame Campan, confidante of Marie Antoinette

Abbe Georgel, servant of Cardinal Rohan

Primary Sources

For Texans or those with a penchant for travel, I’ve come across a cache of primary sources. The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin has a collection of documents pertaining to the Diamond Necklace Affair. Per the website:

Materials related to The Diamond Necklace Affair document the 1785 scandal that plagued the court of Louis XVI and contributed to pre-Revolution unrest. The scandal came about as a result of the Comtesse de La Motte’s fraudulent attempt to acquire (presumably for Queen Marie-Antoinette but in reality for herself and others) a diamond necklace owned by the Parisian jewelry firm Boehmer and Bassenge. Among the Center’s Diamond Necklace Affair papers are manuscript notes, memoirs, and letters by the Comtesse in which she attempts to discredit others and depict herself as a victim of circumstance. Additionally, there are letters and documents by others involved or implicated in the scandal, such as her husband, the Comte de La Motte, who took the necklace to England where it was broken up and sold and Count Alexander Cagliostro (1743-1795), upon whom the Comtesse tried to lay the blame for the whole affair. There are also retained copies of letters and documents that the firm Boehmer and Bassenge sent to Queen Marie-Antoinette (1755-1793), first requesting payment for the necklace and, later, when the intrigue came to light, setting out the details of their contract. The collection is complemented by nearly sixty-five volumes in the Ransom Center’s book collection relating to the Diamond Necklace Affair, many of them published contemporaneously with the event.

From the University of Texas site

The set of writings by Jeanne de La Motte-Valois are the vitriol that she poured out after her escape from prison in Paris. The psychology of this is interesting; I presume that Madame was simply seeking attention and revenge for the humiliation of her punishments. Even if she deserved the punishments (they were harsh, the harshest short of death, but she had caused havoc and irreparable damage to the Queen’s reputation), surely Jeanne didn’t find the memory appealing. She was all too happy to write tell-all memoirs against a Queen who she considered a personal enemy and who was currently in a very vulnerable position.

I would be interested to see the letters of Nicolas and Cagliostro. One comes across to me as a cool, calculating kind of figure with very little regard for his wife, Jeanne; when the going got tough, he got going out of the country. As for Cagiostro, he was a huckster but an entertaining and successful one.

The correspondence from Messieurs Boehmer and Bassenge must absolutely drip with desperation. These poor fellows were minus one extraordinarily expensive necklace, which they had gambled on with everything they had. They thought they had sold it to the Queen, but now they were being told that the Queen was denying all knowledge of the contract she’d supposedly signed to purchase the necklace.

I’m immensely interested in this collection. As it’s completely unlikely I’ll be in Texas any time soon, I may have to make contact and see what if anything can be digitally sent to me for my delectation and delight. And yes, I would find 18th century French documents to be delectable and delightful. Perhaps a French-to-English dictionary would be in order?

Textile Delight

I have to admit it–your average 22-year-old wouldn’t jump up and down with glee when she found, in a museum, an enormous stock of textiles from all ages of history. Not being exactly “average”, I got a little giddy.

I didn’t realize that the Victoria & Albert Museum had such a lovely collection of textiles on display. Upstairs on the third (ie fourth to Americans) floor, just beside the Europe and American 19th century room, there is a place of splendor. The long, thin room is filled with rows of textile samples. They work a bit like library stacks. There are rows, and slotted into each row is an upright wooden frame with a textile sample. Each one is numbered for reference and has a label for more detail.

The textiles included come from all over the world and are as old as the 14th century (perhaps earlier–that is the earliest date I recall seeing).

My first thought was: Nicole! There are few things are lovely as 18th-century dress and textile. There were some very pretty lace and printed cotton samples. The lace is impressive mostly because of the work put into it. I found the cotton prints interesting because they all seemed to be on a white background. I probably could have spent hours going through that place, admiring the beauty of it all. I went through, tugging things partially at random. I didn’t mind what I pulled out, because it was all impressive.

Near the end of my time, I found exactly what I was looking for: some exquisite cloth of exactly the type I can see the ladies of the Affair of the Diamond Necklace wearing. I thought particularly of Nicole, of course, as she is the main character of my work-in-progress. I took some pictures for reference of my favorite ones. The result was not an unmitigated success since the room was dim. However, I think I managed to get an idea of the beauty and the color of these fantastic textiles. I wish I could share some technical details with you, but the photos I took of the information cards all turned out blurry and unreadable. Next time I stop by the V&A (and let’s face it, I’m going to go back sometime soon), I’ll try to get the little details. Until then, enjoy the beauty: