Many visitors to Yosemite National Park in California enjoy the quaint architecture and fine library of the LeConte Memorial Lodge, the first permanent visitor center built at Yosemite. It was constructed by the Sierra Club in 1904, and named for one of the organization’s founders and first directors, Joseph LeConte (1823-1901). It is unlikely that many of the park’s visitors have ever heard of Joseph LeConte before, and they would likely be surprised by the facts of his life. He was born in Liberty County, Georgia, and after a medical education, he practiced in Macon, Georgia for a few years, after which he attended Harvard and studied natural sciences under the famous scientist Louis Agassiz. Eventually LeConte became a professor of chemistry and geology at South Carolina College in Columbia, South Carolina (now known as the University of South Carolina). During the War Between the States, LeConte helped to manufacture medicines for the Confederacy, and also served in the Confederate nitre and mining bureau.
Of secession and the war he wrote: “This secession movement was first called an insurrection, and later a rebellion; and the war that followed is commonly spoken of…as “the War of the Rebellion.” Nothing can be more absurd. The Confederate States composed a thoroughly organized government, as much so as the United States. During the whole war the machinery of government was practically perfect. It was a war between the States, or better still, a war between two nations. For each side it was really a foreign war…let it be distinctly understood, that there never was a war in which were more thoroughly enlisted the hearts of the whole people—men, women, and children—than were those of the South in this. To us it was literally a life and death struggle for national existence…”
In 1864, when General Sherman’s army was sweeping through Georgia, Professor LeConte traveled there to rescue his daughter Sallie, who was trapped behind enemy lines. A journal he kept of his exciting and harrowing adventures eluding Sherman’s army, which included several narrow escapes, was published as ’Ware Sherman. In February 1865, he managed to make his way back to Columbia, where the rest of his family had endured the horrors of the sacking and burning of the city in their house on the college campus. Professor LeConte’s daughter Emma also kept a diary during the war, and it was published as When the World Ended.
After the war, Professor LeConte found conditions in South Carolina unbearable. He wrote in his autobiography: “After the war came what was worse than the war itself, the occupation by Federal troops and the humiliations necessarily attendant thereon. This, of course, was expected. But far worse was the arrival of the “Treasury Agents,” those vultures hovering over the rear of the army of occupation, sniffing for carrion, hunting for property to confiscate, taking accusations of any and all kinds, especially those by irresponsible blacks.”
In 1868, LeConte applied for employment at the new University of California in Berkeley. He was elected to a professorship (in geology, natural history and botany) and moved there in September 1869. In 1892, concerned about the preservation of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, LeConte became one of the founders of the Sierra Club.
Availability: This autobiography was out of print for many years, but is now available as a facsimile reprint through Amazon and other online vendors. The book was published posthumously and edited by William D. Armes.