Monday, October 3, 2016

Mary Louisa Mitchell Binckley to John Milton Binckley, August 8, 1869

August 7, 1869 Solar Eclipse (Princeton University)
[Mary Louisa Mitchell/Michel Binckley at Abingdon, Virginia, to John Milton Binckley at Washington City, August 8, 1869].

Aug. 8th 1869

My beloved Milton,

How I did wish for you yesterday, and how I do wish for the pen of Job or David to describe now the sublime spectacle of the total eclipse. It seems indeed a helpless task to attempt -- but I will try and give you some idea of what it was to me.

After dinner yesterday, then, Mother, Mrs. Delia Hughes, cousin Robert's sister-in-law, her son, Nellie, Harvey and cousin Eliza's two boys started out with me to walk to the top of the high bald hill near the house, where we could have an extensive view of the country, and a clear one of the sun until its setting. The day had been bright -- only now and then a cloud passing towards evening there were a good many but thin and fleecy, so that the view was quite satisfactory.

As the clock was not right I cannot tell the exact time when we noticed (through our well smoked bits of glass) the first little dark indentation on the western edge of the sun, or I should say what seemed to me like the northern edge. It seemed just as if someone had snipped it with a fingernail a bit from the crimson sun-disk.

We started off at once for the hill, turning often to look and see what progress was made. Slowly, surely, the dark shadow crept on, and when after a tough scramble, we reached the top and sank panting on its high bare summit our first glimpse thro' our glasses showed the sun reduced to a red half moon the lower horn of which seemed blunter than the upper.  

The time then seemed very short until the shadow crept on a fourth more, and the sun, seemingly about an hour high, shrunk to a narrow crescent, while over the landscape crept that wierd [weird] wan light I had learned to expect, yet of which no description can be given. Sunlight, yet with the ghostly pallor of a waning moon. The evening shadows of rock and hill and tree fell in lengthening lines, yet gray and dim. 

A hush fell upon the earth. Far in the east the the sky darkened and a shifting shade crept up towards the zenith -- and still the crescent shrunk -- faster and faster. Wierd [weird] shades fell around us, and we started to our feet in wild excitement, mingled with a strange feeling of terror as with one vivid flash and sparkle of dazzling light, the sun, in a second of time, was blotted out of the heavens.

I cannot describe to you how I felt wrapped in that mantle of darkness that fell in an instant over the earth. Only the outlines of the world at my feet were visible. All to the east, north and south hung darkness -- over the western horizon a pale orange glow. Hung in the gray air, a silvery aureole of pale flickering light was all . . . left of the king of day -- while close at his side shone out two glorious stars.

I trembled, I could have wept -- sublime yet filling the soul with a tenderness beyond words. I longed for it to last, for I felt as if in the very presence of God, yet like His presence, it was too much for man to endure.

Suddenly, in the midst of this tumult of thought, I perceived a subtle change come over the air, and a sudden spark of crimson light flashed out on the western edge of the silvery aureole.

In a few bewildering moments the glorious sunlight was shining, the stars were gone, the skies were bright, and Mother Earth woke from her fright, the gray pallor slowly leaving her lovely face. 

I sent the children away down the hill while I sat for a long time watching, (again thro' my glass) as the shadow slowly passed away. Not to be seen again for an hundred years! This thought deepens the interest. Neither you nor I, nor our children, will be on Earth when next the sun is blotted out. My own beloved, let us regale in the thought that we may then be together in a perfect world where the word farewell is never spoken.

The time of the total eclipse here was about half past five, and, according to the Almanac lasted only 2 minutes.

The chickens went to roost, but some that did not go into the hen house but as usual into a bush, came out again and ran about when the sun shone out. Some very funny scenes are told as occurring among the negroes -- an idea was prevailed among the most ignorant that the sun would not reappear that night, but in the meantime bears & wolves would descend form these mountains, and make wild work.And when the darkness fell so suddenly, there was scampering to get under shelter.

There is on the place an old negro of 94 years old.* Quite active, stately and old fashioned, he refused to come out and see it, saying contemptuously he was "used to 'clipses, had seed many a'one."

Will you please keep this letter? Imperfect as the account is, it will have an interest for us when we are old folks.

I think Nellie will remember the scene for a long time. Poor Harvey, not being able to understand the natural causes, was frightened.

But I must close this epistle which we will christen "Eclipse," with a heart full of fondest affection from your

[John Milton Binckley (1821-1878)
Mary Louisa Mitchell/Michel Binckley (1838-1930)
Mother = Jane Mary Wood Mitchell/Michel (1811-1892)
Cousin Eliza Hughes =  Eliza Mary Johnston Hughes (1825-1909), married to cousin Robert William Hughes (1821-1901), one of the Abingdon lawyers, and wealthy
Nellie = Nellie/Ellen/Nella Fontaine Binckley (September 1, 1860-April 27, 1951) 
Harvey Mitchell Binckley (1864-1928)
Mrs. Delia Hughes, cousin Robert's sister-in-law = Delia Ann Stocking Hughes (1819-1897); her son =  William Morton Hughes (1858-after 1925)
Cousin Eliza's two boys = John Floyd Hughes (1861-1940) and Robert Morton Hughes (1855-1940)
*From the 1870 Census, Peter Hope, classified as mulatto and born circa 1776, living in the Hughes household; there were two other household members also thus classified: Louisa Saunders (born circa 1852) and Frank Trigg (born circa 1850)]

Original manuscript in the John Milton Binckley Papers, 1816-1943. Library of Congress Manuscript Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. This is my rough transcription. 

Many thanks to William Myers for sending scanned copies of the documents from the Binckley papers, and also to Mary Davy and Sally Young for their assistance.

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