Elizabeth Avery Meriwether

... Rebel, Writer and Suffragist


Elizabeth Avery Meriwether was a Tennessee author, publisher and prominent early activist in the women's suffrage movement.  Always out-spoken, she became involved with this movement in Memphis, after the Civil War.  She would go on to present suffrage petitions at both the Democratic and Republican national conventions in 1880.  Because she was a writer, she left behind a thorough written legacy so we're able to examine her relationship with the Confederacy.  Elizabeth Meriwether was a slave owner, a Confederate wife, devoted mother , personal friend of Jefferson Davis and Nathan B. Forrest.  She was also a prominent figure in Memphis and later in St. Louis.  She thought of herself as a defender of  the "lost cause"  who also passionately fought for women's rights.

Elizabeth Meriwether  


Click on small photos to see an enlargement

Elizabeth Edmonds Avery Meriwether was born in Bolivar, Tennessee January 19, 1824 to Nathan and Rebecca Jones Rivers Avery.  Her father was a physician-farmer and her mother was the daughter of a Virginia planter.  Elizabeth had two sisters (Amanda and Cornelia Estelle), and a brother, William Tecumsah Avery.  According to her book, the family lived in a log cabin home.   It was a comfortable life.

  Elizabeth Meriwether

Bolivar:   Little Courthouse - 1824

Bolivar:  The Pillars House- 1826

Bolivar:  Courthouse


In 1835, when she was 11 years old, financial difficulties prompted the family's  move to Memphis.  Elizabeth's father died there in 1846, followed by her mother's death the next year.  To make ends meet, her brother, William had to go to work while she and a sister operated a small school in their home.  There are no listings for the family at this time in the Memphis directories so we don't know where they lived in the city. 

Memphis c. 1860


Memphis 1860s Memphis 1870 Beale 1860s

William T. Avery

W. T. Avery Bio

Amada Avery



In 1852 Elizabeth married Minor Meriwether an engineer and a lawyer.  His late father had asked the couple to sell their inherited land and to free the slaves and then repatriate them to Liberia (Later Elizabeth will accept a gift of a household slave from her brother).  Their marriage was a happy union and they had three sons - Avery, in 1857, Rivers, in 1859, and Lee, in 1862.  Lee, of course was named for General Robert E. Lee.  Based on the Memphis Directories, the Meriwethers lived at 35 Monroe Avenue during the early years  of their marriage.  Minor's brother Niles lived in Memphis and was also an engineer.  He married Lide Smith who will become another prominent Memphis Suffragist .

Minor Meriwether  

Elizabeth 1855 Directory Avery Lee Rivers Lide Meriwether    Lide's Bio


Elizabeth, the Rebel !


When the Civil War began, Minor Meriwether joined the Confederate army and served with Nathan Bedford Forrest, as an engineer officer.  Most of his war duty was constructing defenses and building and re-building railroads.    Elizabeth is left alone to raise two boys while she is pregnant with the third.  It's during this period that she becomes very vocal in her defense of the Confederate "cause".  Soon Memphis will fall and Union forces will occupy the city under the control of General Grant and William T. Sherman.  To disagreed with them made one subject to arrest and the infamous  Irving Block prison.  Elizabeth bitterly resented the Union forces and became so defiant that, after several encounters, Sherman orders her to leave Memphis in 1862, just weeks before the birth of her son.  (She will write about this experience later in "The Refugee").  

Civil War


Troops enter Memphis Union troops at Memphis Grant at Memphis Sherman's Officers Sherman

On the road as a refugee Elizabeth tries to find her husband's unit but ultimately gives birth in a stranger's home, along the road.  She then resorts to stealing corn and selling clothing in order to have food for her children.  She even slipped back into Memphis to pay the taxes on her property so it wouldn't be sold at auction.  Eventually Tuscaloosa, Alabama became the end of the road.  While in Tuscaloosa, Elizabeth begins to write again, a pleasure she had enjoyed as a child.  She won a competition sponsored by the Selma Daily Mississippian offering $500 for the best short story dealing with the war.  Elizabeth wrote "The Refugee" based on her experiences and won.  This success encouraged her to continue writing.  She then wrote "The Yankee Spy" and a newspaper planned to publish it, but that project fell through. 




After the war, Minor Meriwether purchased a Memphis home for the family at 95 Union Avenue, on a lot were the current Peabody Hotel is located.  Since Memphis had been occupied during the war, it hadn't suffered the destruction that most of the South did and it was now ready for big growth.   Nathan Forrest returned home, and Jefferson Davis now lived in the city after his pardon.  And so did the "Carpetbaggers".  Everyone hated this forced "Reconstruction".  There were rumors that Minor Meriwether assisted Nathan B. Forrest in forming the Ku Klux Klan, and that one of the early meetings was held in Elizabeth Meriwether's kitchen.  In 1877 the Meriwether family moved to 253 Beale for 6 years.  We've not been able to locate any reason for this move.

War Ends


N. B. Forrest KKK ??? 1872 Directory 1874 Directory 1875 Memorial Day 1877 Directory

Elizabeth's family home had been confiscated by the Union during the war.  She now petitioned General Stephen A. Hurlburt in an effort to regain title and was finally successful in her endeavor.  Ironically she was now a legal property owner and a tax payer.  Thus she was entitled to vote.  But women couldn't vote!  Yet she persisted and was able to obtain a voter registration in 1872 and in 1876 she went to the polls and /they actually let her vote.  Of course her vote wasn't counted, but the important thing to her was that she had actually voted.  And to her knowledge, she and Susan B. Anthony were the only two American Women who had ever voted.    Afterwards she rented the Memphis Theatre and held a meeting to explain her beliefs. 

    Gen S. A. Hurlburt



Elizabeth the Suffragist !


During the 1870s, Elizabeth combined her writing along with her interest in social reform.  She became one of first suffragettes in the South and was one of the first women in the state to publicly push for women's suffrage.  She wrote letters to the editor of newspapers and published a pamphlet about women's rights.  In 1872 she published a small newspaper "The Tablet" showcasing her own unique views of women's issues, divorce law, as well as equal pay for women teachers.  In 1876 she held the first public meeting in Tennessee for women's rights, and made one of the first public suffragist speeches in Memphis.  She was active in the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and belonged to the National Women Suffrage Association, serving as a national officer in 1887.  She also presented suffrage petitions at both the Democratic and Republican national conventions in 1880. 


In 1881 she joined Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony on a speaking tour of New England.  In her book she quotes a Northern newspaper which said "her keen sarcasm, wit and humor caused frequent bursts of laughter and applause".  Later Elizabeth's sister-in-law, Lide A. Meriwether will form the first suffrage league in Memphis in 1889 - and the first in the state.   Together, they are an unmatched pair.

To his credit, Minor Meriwether always supported Elizabeth's efforts and from the very beginning insisted on an equal partnership.  To him, what was his, was hers.


Suffrage History


1877 Speech

1877 Letter to Editor

1877 Constitution

1882 Lectures

1882 Letter to Senate

1886 Speech


1919 "Passes"

1919 "Passes" Suffrage in Tennessee 1919 "Passes" 1920 1920 Votes



Elizabeth, the Writer !


Elizabeth Meriwether's published works include two novels, "The Master of Red Leaf" (1872), describes life on a southern plantation before the Civil War and it present a justification of secession, and "Black and White" (1883), plus a play, "The Ku Klux Klan, or The Carpetbagger in New Orleans" (1877).  Her other works include "Facts and Falsehoods about the War on the South", which was published under the pseudonym George Edmonds in 1904, and "The Sowing of the Swords" (1910).  Her last written work was a memoir "Recollections of 92 Years" which was serialized in many newspapers in 1916.  Her son Lee, published his mother's memoir as a book in 1958.


Most of Elizabeth's works deal with the South before the war and she always refused to acknowledge that slavery had been a moral or social evil.  She will continue to believe that the Civil War was not about slavery but about "States Rights".  In addition, her writing continued to  idealize the Confederate "cause" as well as the traditional racial stereotype of the OLD South,  complete with black characters who were happy, carefree, childlike, and totally unable to govern themselves without the confines of slavery.  It seems to defy belief that a person so dedicated to "Women's Rights"  was unable to acknowledge "Civil Rights" for all. 

Elizabeth Meriwether's novels and writings are still available from publishers and on the internet ...

  "Lost Cause"


1880 Review

"The Tablet"





Elizabeth, the Mother !


The Meriwether boys grew into well educated and highly respected young men.  They all became lawyers like their father, and they also wrote, like their mother.  In 1882, Avery and Lee organized a weekly newspaper called "Free Trader" and published it from their office at 245 2nd Street.  After a few issues, they were advised that the title was confusing and the name was changed to "Meriwether's Weekly ".  The newspaper was devoted to literary, social and political criticism and was a well respected weekly, throughout the U.S.   Around 1882 the Meriwether family moves from the Beale address to 286 Union Av.

Lee Meriwether  


Free Trader 1882

1882 "M W"

1883  M.W.


1883 M W

1883 Article

1883 Final       


There are also sad times among the good times for the family including an early death for their first born son, Avery in 1883.  Newspapers in various parts of the country will print obituaries for him ... and Elizabeth writes a special "memory"  as her therapy in losing a child.     In 1896 the second Meriwether son, Rivers suddenly dies  -  a  "mysterious death" . (Complete coverage of the death in "Obit-2" below)


Avery's Obit     


Mother's Memory

Avery Tribute

Rivers Obit Rivers Obit-2 1883 Directory 1883 Directory

Who's Who1903


Their son Lee marries in 1888  - for the 1st time.  He will marry three times and live to be 103, outliving all three of his children as well as his three wives.  Although trained as a lawyer, his passion was writing and traveling.  He combined both in his 1887 book  "How to see Europe on Fifty Cents a day".  Lee was an interesting character who loved adventures.  He really should be  explored individually rather than as a son .  His many books and articles are still available from Publishers and on the Internet.  The "Who's Who" article (above) is interesting to compare how much space is devoted to Lee and how much to his mother.


Lee Meriwether


Lee's Wedding Lee's Bio Lee's Obit Lee's Book Lee's Book Lee's Bok



Minor and Elizabeth moved to St. Louis circa 1884-85  to avoid another Yellow Fever epidemic.  Elizabeth was 60 years old and Minor was 57.  Minor continued to practice law there until his death.  

Minor and Elizabeth built the Meriwether Mansion in the late 1800s in what was then the most fashionable neighborhood in St. Louis - 3716 Delmar Blvd - Grandel Square.    The home is still there and has recently been renovated.



St. Louis c.1884 Meriwether Mansion Meriwether Mansion Meriwether Mansion (Back)


A life size bronze statute in Knoxville, Tennessee commemorates Lizzie Crozier French, Anne Dallas Dudley and Elizabeth Avery Meriwether,  three Tennessee women's rights pioneers who fought for passage of the 19th amendment, giving women the right to vote in 1920.  This statue by sculptor Alan LeQuire, was erected in Market Square 86 yeas after the ratification of the 19th amendment.  Elizabeth is shown on the left representing West Tennessee.    Elizabeth and Anne also have Historical markers in Memphis and in Nashville.  We have not located a marker for Lizzie.


Suffrage Monument    


Eliz Meriwether

Anne Dudle Lizzie French

Memphis Marker

Nashville Marker




Elizabeth died in St. Louis November 4, 1916, at the age of 92.  She lived long enough to see each political party finally adopt campaign planks urging passage of a woman's suffrage amendment - but not quite long enough to see it pass.

Minor died 6  years before in 1910.  Both are buried at the St. Louis Bellefontaine Cemetery along with sons Rivers and Lee.  Avery was buried at Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis.

    Elizabeth       Minor  



The rest of the story ... May 14, 2020.  Robert Anderson writes: 

I saw the Historic-Memphis webpage on Elizabeth Avery Meriwether and thought you might appreciate some further family background ...



Elizabeth’s father Nathan Avery left the family home in New Lebanon, NY, and went pioneering to TN. [I don’t have the reference at hand but seem to recall he had served as a physician for the Navy in Philadelphia during the War of 1812.)  He was the eldest child of William Thomas Avery and Phoebe Throop Avery. Phoebe’s aunt Octavia Throop Hale was married to Enoch Hale, Nathan Hale’s brother (I regret I have but one life…) and was a 6x great-granddaughter of Gov. William Bradford of Plymouth Colony.


Widowed Phoebe and several of the other children went pioneering to IL in 1836, shortly after the end of the Blackhawk War.  They were members of a party that founded Galesburg, IL.  This was a group of idealists that wanted to found a college and church community on the opening frontier.  So Galesburg was founded along with Knox College and what they called “First Church”.  The original church was shared by congregations of 2 different denominations, Presbyterian and Congregationalist. 

I don’t know why Elizabeth says the family was Quaker.  There were many ministers of these (Puritan) denominations in the family tree.  Lee Meriwether writes of visiting Uncle John Thomas Avery in Cleveland, where Uncle John tries to introduce him to his friend retired Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman.  (Rev) John Thomas Avery was for a while the minister of First Church in Galesburg.

Lee also mentions Uncle John Kendall, in “My Yesteryears”.  John Kendall was a member of the Galesburg pioneers who married Nathan’s sister Debora Avery at Galesburg.  They moved back to New Lebanon when Kendall’s father died, and John had to take over the family business.

My 2x great-grandfather was Elizabeth’s Uncle George.  He was a deacon at First Church.  As a member of the Underground Railroad, he helped hide escaped slaves in the church belfry.  Quaker merchants brought them to Galesburg hidden under the merchandise in their wagons for a rest stop while on the way to Canada.

My great-grandfather Robert Avery was born at Galesburg.  During the Civil War, he joined the 77th Illinois Infantry Regiment.  The 77th reported to Gen. Sherman in Memphis in Nov 1862 and left with him in Dec 1862 for the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou.  This is exactly the time when Elizabeth had her meeting with Gen. Sherman and was banished from Memphis.

I don’t know if the cousins knew about each other or met at this time.  The Meriwether family photo album has a picture of Uncle George and Aunt Seraphina along with a hand written list of their children’s names.  I’ve never found mention Uncle George or Cousin Robert in any of their writings.

Robert’s biography (Chase the Prairie Wind, by historian Martin Litvin) never mentions the Meriwether’s.  Robert was captured at the Battle of Mobile Bay and spent the rest of the war in Andersonville Prison.  I read that Lee once wrote an editorial justifying Andersonville.

Just as The Meriwether’s became noted politicians and authors, Robert became a wealthy industrialist.  He founded a farm implement company that by the 1890’s claimed to be the world’s largest manufacturer of steam farm tractors.  They did sell worldwide.  Curious that these two noteworthy families were silent about each other, in spite of all the writings.

PS: after going to college in Galesburg, the son of a 24th Tennessee Infantry Regiment veteran married a daughter of Robert Avery. They eventually returned to his home in Rutherford County, where his family had lived since around 1810.  They were my grandparents.  I attended MTSU for 2 years. 
Robert Anderson , 5/14/2020




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