Jane Phillips: The Washington Family Dynasty of Kinston, NC - Part 3

Jane Phillips: The Washington Family Dynasty of Kinston, NC - Part 3

Part 3 – Susannah Sarah (Susan) Washington Graham

Susannah Sarah Washington was born in Kinston on 26 Feb 1816. She was called Susan by the family and her friends. She was the youngest child of John and Elizabeth Herritage Cobb Washington. In 1826 her parents move from Kinston to New Bern where John Washington already had a store and property. John Washington continued to hold his Kinston properties but under the supervision of his son John Cobb Washington. It was In New Bern

Susan Washington Graham

Susan married to well to attorney William Alexander Graham of Lincolnton in 1836. The Graham family lived near Lincolnton and had made their fortune in the iron industry in the Catawba River Valley and agriculture. Little did she realize the heights Graham’s ambition and intellect would take him. Susan was a smart, beautiful woman with a delightful personality. She was just the kind of wife a successful man needed as a partner on his path to success. They were well suited for each other and had a long and productive marriage.

The Grahams had ten children, eight of whom survived both parents. Their offspring were Joseph (1837–1907), John Washington (1838–1928), William Alexander (1839–1924), James Augustus (1841–1909), Robert Davidson (1843–1904), George Washington (1847–1923), Augustus Washington (1849–1936), Susan Washington (1851–1909), Alfred Octavius (1853–54), and Eugene Berrien (1858–63). All who survived childhood were afforded an excellent education and achieved notable careers. Four sons were attorneys, two were physicians, and one—William Alexander, Jr.—was a planter and North Carolina commissioner of agriculture. Susan Washington Graham married Judge Walter Clark. (Clark during the Civil War was the commanding officer of the NC Junior Reserve that served at the Battle of Wyse Fork near Kinston.)

William Alexander Graham

William A. Graham graduated with honors from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1824. It was customary in that time to study with aspiring lawyers. He subsequently read law with the eminent Thomas Ruffin of Orange County, who later became an outstanding jurist and chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. In 1828 Graham established a practice as a member of the highly competitive Hillsborough legal community. Within a few years he became one of the most successful members of the North Carolina bar, maintaining a lucrative practice until his death.

Graham owned three plantations, but it was not agriculture that held his interest but public affairs. Graham began his political career with the emerging Whig party, winning several terms to the state legislature in the 1830s, and serving as speaker of the House of Commons in the 1838 and 1840 sessions. During this time Susan had three sons. She spent her time between Hillsborough and Raleigh with side trips to New Bern to visit her mother.

1n 1842 the Grahams moved from their home in Hillsborough to property they brought on the outskirts of Hillsborough and facing the Eno River. They named the estate Montrose. Susan wanted a beautiful lawn and garden. Thomas Paxton, landscape gardener for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, under direction of Susan, he designed the layout of the grounds and begin to plant trees. Montrose remained in the hands of the Graham Family for 3 generations. Today Montrose Garden is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Graham was elected as a Whig to the United States Senate to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of Robert Strange and served from November 25, 1840, to March 3, 1843. John Tyler was president of the United States. While Graham was in Washington, he and Susan were separated for months at the time as she remained at Hillsborough tending their small children.

In the collection of William A. Graham’s Papers are many letters he wrote to her. He describes how difficult it was to travel to Washington, DC in bad weather. He writes a lot about the issues before congress of which he was deeply involved. He describes the Washington social life and writes of his colleagues in congress. He always writes of how he misses her and the children. At some point when Susan was visiting in Washington they shopped for a home in that city. His letters stopped the last year he was in DC. I assume the reason why is because Susan had moved to Washington. With her charm and beauty, she must have been the ideal hostess for the Washington social scene.

They returned to Hillsborough after his defeat for reelection. However, Graham’s love for being active in public affairs continued. By now there were four children and they kept Susan busy. William traveled the state in his law work while Susan from time to time would go to New Bern and Kinston to visit family. Then there were trips to visit her brothers in other states.

In 1844 Graham ran for governor, won the election for governor and served until January 1849. Graham was an able administrator, and his terms of office were characterized by concern for humanitarian causes and for internal improvements, especially railroad development. Susan Washington Graham was the First Lady of North Carolina. She made her family and friends in New Bern, Kinston and Hillsborough proud.

President Zachary Scott offered Graham diplomatic appointments, but Graham chose to return to Hillsborough and focused his attention on his growing family. He now had seven sons. He worked his law practice and over saw the operations of his plantations. However, his time at home was to be short lived. 

His call to public service was beckoning. A friend from his days in congress was Millard Filmore and he became president in 1850. President Millard Fillmore appointed him secretary of the navy. Although he knew little of naval affairs and never fully grasped the significance of contemporary technological advances, Graham was an experienced administrator. He relied heavily on knowledgeable advisers such as career officer Matthew Fontaine Maury.

Secretary Graham was the moving spirit in several notable endeavors, including a constructive program of personnel reforms, exploration of the Amazon basin, and the Perry expedition to Japan. The authoritative naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison has characterized Graham as one of the best navy secretaries in the nineteenth century.

It was during this period that Susan gave birth to the only daughter of the Grahams. She grew up in the style of her mother and shared the same love of family. She married well to Walter Clark who became chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court.

By 1852 Graham had established an admirable reputation on the national scene. It was at this time the Whig Party nominated him as vice-presidential running mate with Gen. Winfield Scott running as president. It was an exciting year for the Grahams, but the tide was beginning to turn for the Whig party and the Winfield-Graham ticket lost the election.

Graham returned home and continued to actively engage in his law profession. It was during this period Elizabeth Herritage Cobb Washington, mother of Susan was living with her daughter. On March 8, 1858 the mother died and was sent to New Bern for burial beside her husband, John Washington in Cedar Grove Cemetery.


By 1860 unrest was spreading across the country and the future of the United States was in trouble. Graham was a Unionist and opposed North Carolina succeeding from the Union until the firing on Fort Sumter and Lincoln's call for troops to put down the rebellion. Graham fell into line and came to serve as a state and Confederate senator during the Civil War. Five of his sons served honorably and innumerable relatives and friends were involved militarily. (Three nieces were married to Confederate generals “Stonewall” Jackson, Daniel Harvey Hill, and Rufus Barringer.)

When the end of the war was in sight, Graham left Richmond where he had served in the CSA congress to warn NC governor Vance that the Confederacy was collapsing and to advise that North Carolina should look to its own interests. Gov. Vance showed reluctance but authorized former Governors Graham and David L. Swain to surrender Raleigh to William T. Sherman, whose armies menaced the capital. 

At the end of the Civil War the North Carolina General Assembly elected Graham to the U. S. Senate in December 1865, but Radical Republicans gained control of Congress and refused to seat the Southern delegates.

During Reconstruction Graham spent his time serving on the board of trustees for the Peabody Fund, a fund aimed at providing educational assistance to the post-Civil War South.

His last public service activity was on the arbitration commission to settle the Virginia-Maryland boundary dispute, and by 1875 he had become the principal figure in the long-delayed deliberations of that group. Graham died unexpectedly at Saratoga Springs, New York, where he had gone to attend a meeting of the Virginia-Maryland Arbitration Commission. His body was sent home and he was buried in the cemetery adjacent to the Hillsborough Presbyterian Church. His memory is perpetuated in the name of a small city in Alamance County and a county in western North Carolina.  

A native of Kinston, Susannah Sarah Washington Graham, the daughter of John and Elizabeth Washington lived an affluent life with a distinguished family. She was blessed with a loving family and many unique life experiences as the wife of such a man as tenacious William Graham who loved serving his country. She died on 2 May 1890 in Hillsborough, North Carolina, at age 74 and is buried next to her husband.


NC Pedia
southernliving.com.Gardening Ideas
William Alexander Graham Papers
The Civil War in North Carolina by John Barrett

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