Sophronia Stevens, born in 1824 in Almond, New York, was a sister of my great-great grandpa Chester Dana Stevens. Often researchers have a difficult time finding information about the distaff side of their families, but by virtue of Sophronia’s marriage to Stephen A. Hurlbut and her own father’s exploits, she has left a bigger footprint than the usual woman does.
Her father was George Stevens, for whom Stevens Point, Wisconsin is named. Her husband was first an attorney and later was appointed a Brigadier General by Abraham Lincoln. The town both families lived in was Belvidere, Illinois, a “Yankee village, settled largely by New Englanders. The settlers, for the most part, averaged high in intelligence and culture. There were cheerful homes and genuine hospitality.”
On May 13, 1847 Sophronia married Steven Hurlbut. She was described as a charming and stately woman who was to be entirely at home in the distinguished future her husband was building. On June 7, the Illinois 2nd Constitutional Convention was held at Springfield and Hurlbut was elected a delegate. This convention was of major importance in his life as it marked his introduction into state politics.
Lincoln and Hurlbut were great personal friends. In 1855 Hurlbut organized the Boone Rifles, a Military Company and he became a Captain. In 1858 Hurlbut was elected State Representative, and he and his wife went to Springfield. In 1860 he was re-elected to this office. Lincoln was now President. During the fall of 1860, he was sent to Charleston, ostensibly to visit his sister but it was actually to discover how much Union sentiment existed in the South and how best to appeal to it. His report when he returned to Washington was “Nothing to appeal to.” He was serving in the Illinois state legislature when shots were fired on Fort Sumter. He was quickly appointed to Brigadier General of Volunteers by Abraham Lincoln on June 14, 1861.
Many letters still exist between Lincoln and Hurlbut. And as a matter of fact, Brown University has one that Lincoln wrote to Sophronia. I have been unable to get a copy of the handwritten letter but in the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 4, it provides the contents:
To Mrs. Stephen A. Hurlbut
Mrs. S. A. Hurlbutt Springfield, Ills.,
My dear Madam Oct. 29, 1860
Your good husband, who is making speeches for us in this county, has desired me to write you that he is well, which I take great pleasure in doing. I will add, too, that he is rendering us very efficient service. Yours very truly A. LINCOLN
Hurlbut took full advantage of his political connections throughout the war, leading to many difficulties. On September 17th, 1862, most likely through political connections, Hurlbut was promoted to major general, before his military career even began. Hurlbut commanded the 4th Division of the Army of the Tennessee at Shiloh and Corinth, after which he commanded the XVI Corps. In 1864, he was placed in command of the Department of the Gulf. While in this role, Hurlbut tried to further his own position, and caused problems with the government, which had been set up by the North to run Louisiana after Confederate soldiers were forced out of the area. His action brought forth an order from E. R. S. Canby for his arrest, but the case was quieted, and Hurlbut was mustered out of the army on June 20, 1865.
In the summer of 1866 Hurlbut resumed his law practice and started building a large and handsome house on the street now named for him. The house was demolished in the 1930s, but copies of newspaper articles showing the house can provide pictures of it.
Although the newspapers of Belvidere reported only good news about Hurlbut, his career both during and after the civil war was fraught with controversy including harassment of the loyal government of Louisiana, corruption (which had a solid foundation,) drunkenness, and embarrassment of government officials, and a local scandal that surely must have rocked Belvidere – a dalliance with one of his servants, which produced an illegitimate child.
Learning about Hurlbut’s activities give you an idea of the life of Sophronia. As you can tell, she faced many ups and downs in her married life.
Sophronia had a sister Serena Crandall, and a newspaper article from February of 1864 describes a train accident that they were in. She and her sister were riding in the last car on a mail train when a flange broke on one of the wheels at it descended down an incline. “The car in its descent turned completely over, smashing the top and sides, and landing right side up.” The list of passengers makes note of passenger injuries: Mrs. Crandall of Marengo, bruised, severe; and Mrs. S. A. Hurlbut, bruised, slight. The article indicates that it was a new car with a new type of wheels and was very valuable; it cost about twice as much as the common kind. The article ended with, “It is to be hoped the builders don’t always furnish that style of wheels.”
On February 11, 1887 Sohronia died after suffering from a lingering illness, and although it does not indicate what that was, it says that from the outset it became apparent that recovery was doubtful. Her obituary indicated she was “somewhat older than 62.” The obituary also indicates she had been a member of the Belvidere First Baptist Church for nearly 40 years.
Stephen and Sophronia had only one child, a son George Henry Hurlbut, who was born in 1848 in Belvidere, Illinois and died in New York City on February 15, 1930. George, in turn, had two sons, Stephen A., a professor of Latin and Greek at St. Albans School in Washington, and William J., who first became a Broadway playwright and in 1930 moved to Hollywood and took up screenwriting. His most famous movies were Imitation of Life and Bride of Frankenstein.Neither son married nor had offspring.