By Bryce VanStavern
White House Specialist
One of the things we try to do as the education and interpretive staff at the American Civil War Museum is make sure our visitors understand how war affects everyone. It is not just soldiers that get caught up in the onslaught of war. Civilians too can find their lives drastically changed. One such person during the American Civil War was Mary O’Melia.
Born Mary Larkin in Limerick, Ireland in 1822, she married a sea captain named Mathias O’Melia (also variously spelled as “O’Melea,” “O’Malley,” and “O’Malla”) in 1838. As did the wives of a few captains at this time, Mary sailed the seas with her husband and they carried many Irish citizens to the New World during the potato famine. Eventually the O’Meleas settled in New York and became U.S. citizens.
Captain O’Melia seems to have perished at sea during one voyage, leaving Mary to care for herself and her two children. She did so by taking in sewing, which was not an uncommon way for a widow to make a living.
While accounts vary, widowed Mary lived in either New York or Baltimore before the war. Just before the American Civil War began, she was invited to visit friends in Richmond. It is unclear how it happened, but Mary found herself unable to get back across the Potomac River to her home and children after the fighting erupted.
Consulting with Bishop John McGill of St. Peter’s Catholic Church, it was suggested that Mary explain her situation to Varina Davis, wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Mary met with Varina and explained her concerns about caring for her children, who were staying with a friend in Baltimore. Encouraging Mary to stay in Richmond, Mrs. Davis offered her a job as housekeeper in the executive mansion.
Mary wasn’t sure this was what she wanted, but after careful consideration she decided to accept the position and remained in Richmond as the Davis’ housekeeper throughout the war. In fact, Mary was left in charge of the house when the Davises fled Richmond in April, 1865.
After the war, Mary O’Melia finally made it back to Baltimore where she ran a boarding house at 9 North High Street until her death in 1907 at age 84.
The American Civil War has been called the “first modern war” for a variety of reasons, most of them having to do with technology. But it may also be called that because it represented the first time that war affected civilians on a grand scale, not just soldiers on some battlefield far away.
Mary O’Melia found herself alone, in a strange city, separated by war from her children. Under these difficult circumstances, she found a way to work and care for them, even though it meant not seeing them for four years. A strong and determined woman, our interpretive team enjoys telling Mary O’Melia’s story to our visitors.
You can meet Mary during one of the “Overheard” tours of the White House. Get tickets for these interactive evening tours here. Act soon; the tours are only being offered the last three Thursdays in March, and space is limited.