Floride Elizabeth Clemson was born in 1842, at “Fort Hill,” her grandfather’s estate, near Pendleton, South Carolina. She was educated at a women’s academy in Columbia, South Carolina.
Floride Clemson Lee
Floride’s father, Thomas Green Clemson, a native Pennsylvanian, was educated in Paris. He was a scientist and a farmer. He combined his two loves and, for most of his life, experimented with various ways of farming scientifically. In 1838, he married Anna Maria Calhoun, the favorite daughter of the distinguished senator from South Carolina, John C. Calhoun.
At the time of his granddaughter’s birth, Mr. Calhoun was about to leave the Senate to declare his candidacy for the 1844 presidential election, which he lost. Soon thereafter, he was appointed Secretary of State in 1844, and he immediately convinced President John Tyler to appoint Floride’s father Chargé D’Affaires to Belgium. Floride spent her early childhood there.
John C. Calhoun died in 1850, after a distinguished career in public service, in the South Carolina General Assembly, the United States Congress, as Secretary of War, and as Vice-President of the United States.
The Clemsons were still in Belgium when Calhoun died. They returned to the United States in 1852. They settled permanently in Maryland, and Anna managed their farm, “The Home,” during the years preceding the Civil War. Thomas Clemson spent a considerable amount of time editing Mr. Calhoun’s speeches for publication.
Early on, Floride exhibited the strong will of her mother and grandmother. She was a talented poet. Her verse was published as “The Verse of Floride Clemson.” Her poem “Strong-Minded Women” sums up the role of a Southern female during the 19th century:
The most perfect of women are those who with grace
And dignity too still keep in their place
Oh, hard-minded sisters, leave things as they are
Nor kick down the pedestal under our feet
Involving us all in your own just defeat”
Floride was 19 years old when the Civil War began. She strongly believed in the Confederacy, but she spent her time and energy on family and social activities, rather than political matters. The Clemsons were still living at “The Home” at that time.
Floride’s father and brother, Calhoun Clemson, went south to aid in the Confederate cause. Her father served in the Nitre and Mining Bureau. Calhoun enlisted in the army, but saw little action. He was captured in Mississippi in September 1863, and was sent to the prison at Johnson’s Island in Lake Erie.
In late 1864, Floride and her mother were finally able to receive passes to travel to Pendleton, South Carolina, to care for Floride’s ailing grandmother, Mrs. John C. Calhoun.
After the war ended, Floride and her mother remained in Pendleton, while Thomas and Calhoun Clemson sought financial arrangements elsewhere. The two women witnessed the sufferings of Grandmother Calhoun, who died an agonizing death from cancer.
Floride recorded in her diary: “I trust in God that she has gone to the rest that remaineth for His people, which I believe she most earnestly tried to deserve.”
About that same time, Floride began to complain to her diary about her own vague feelings of ill health and occasional periods of “shortness of breath and sore throat.”
On August 1, 1869, Floride married Gideon Lee, who was 18 years her senior, and moved to New York. Her parents were not happy about her marriage, and were greatly saddened because she was moving so far away. Floride gave birth to one daughter, Floride Isabella, on May 15, 1870.
In July of 1871, Floride Clemson Lee died of consumption (tuberculosis). She was 28 years old. Floride Isabella was raised by Gideon Lee and her stepmother, Ella Lorton, a friend of Floride’s from childhood.
Only 17 days after Floride’s funeral, Calhoun Clemson was killed in a train wreck on the Blue Ridge Railroad. He was 30 years old and unmarried.
Anna and Thomas Clemson retired to Fort Hill in 1872. Three years later, Anna died of a sudden heart attack. It was her wish that her husband preserve her father’s house and use the land for a state college.
Thomas Clemson spent the remainder of his life making provisions to establish an institute of higher learning at Fort Hill. As he sought supporters, his connection to the illustrious John C. Calhoun often tipped the scales in his favor.
Clemson died in April 1888 of pneumonia. He left 814 acres of land and over $80,000 in other assets to the state of South Carolina. His colleagues carried out his wishes.
Today, Clemson University occupies the former Fort Hill site, with the plantation house at the center of the campus.