Wife of Confederate General Josiah Gorgas
Amelia Gayle Gorgas served the University of Alabama as hospital matron, librarian and post-mistress for twenty-five years until her retirement at the age of eighty in 1907. She was the first female librarian on the campus, and the Amelia Gayle Gorgas Library was the first academic building at the University named for a woman.
Amelia Gayle was born June 1, 1826, in Greensboro, Alabama. She was the third of six children born to John Gayle and his wife, the former Sarah Ann Haynesworth. John Gayle was a lawyer who served in the Alabama Supreme Court, the Alabama Legislature, as the sixth governor of Alabama (1831 to 1834), and as a representative to the U.S. Congress. Her paternal and maternal ancestors included distinguished Revolutionary War veterans.
After graduation with honors from Columbia Female Institute in Tennessee, Amelia traveled to Washington, DC, with her congressman father in 1847, and became acquainted with John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and President James K. Polk. On July 4, 1848, she was one of two women on the platform when the cornerstone was laid for the Washington Monument.
In 1853, Amelia married Captain Josiah Gorgas, a native of Pennsylvania and graduate of West Point. The first of their six children was born in 1854, William Crawford Gorgas, who later won international acclaim for his work in conquering yellow fever in Cuba and the Panama Canal.
Josiah’s military career took the Gorgas family to Maine, South Carolina and Pennsylvania until he resigned in 1861 to become Chief of Ordinance for the Confederate States Army. The family spent the Civil War years in the Confederate capitol of Richmond, Virginia, and returned to Alabama in 1866.
In 1878, Josiah accepted the position of vice-chancellor at the newly formed University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee, a post he held until 1878, when he was elected president of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Due to failing health, however, he resigned this post in 1879, when the position of University librarian was created for him. At the same time, Amelia, then in her mid-fifties, was appointed hospital matron, nursing sick students in her home, which is known today as the Gorgas House.
After Josiah’s death in 1883, Amelia assumed the duties of librarian at the university and was also appointed post-mistress in 1886. Of her varied duties, however, Amelia is best remembered as the University librarian, increasing the fledgling collection from 6,000 to about 20,000 volumes.
Amelia served the University of Alabama as hospital matron, librarian and post-mistress for twenty-five years until her retirement at the age of eighty in 1907. She was the first female librarian on the campus, and the Amelia Gayle Gorgas Library was the first academic building at the University named for a woman.
Amelia’s lifetime, 1826-1913, spanned the Victorian era, when the role of women and the functions of the family changed dramatically. Production of items for the home moved out of the home, and the family became a refuge from the world. Husbands went out to work in the world, and wives stayed home to cherish the children and prepare them for the difficulties of adulthood, and to create for the husband a sanctuary in which to recuperate from the stress of work.
These two realms of labor and activity represented two spheres – the man’s world and the woman’s place. This arrangement’s success hinged on the woman’s willingness to sacrifice her personal preferences to the well-being of others. Amelia epitomized the selfless keeper of the home sphere in the Gorgas family.
Image: The Gorgas House
Built in 1829, the Gorgas House was the first structure to be built on the University of Alabama campus and stands as an excellent example of Low Country architecture. It is one of only four buildings on campus to survive the Civil War. During the time they lived in the house, it was used as an infirmary, a post office and a refuge for homesick cadets. Maria Gorgas, the last remaining child of Josiah and Amelia Gorgas, lived in the house until her death.
Amelia Gayle Gorgas died in 1913, and a movement was begun to build a memorial, a library building, which was completed in 1925 (the present Carmichael Hall). When the new library was completed in 1939, it too was named for Amelia. Her portrait, which hangs on the Second Floor of the Library, was a memorial sponsored by alumni and presented in 1937.
Amelia Gayle Gorgas was elected to the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 1977.
Love is the principle of existence and its only end – on this belief Amelia Gayle Gorgas based her life, wrote her son William. She liberally showered love upon everyone around her, first on family and friends and then on those associated with her public career. The key to her success in both realms was that she felt unselfish, loving sympathy for everyone with whom she came in contact, and roused the same feeling in them.