Mary Elizabeth Commander

(Perquimans County)

Featured Character – Divided Allegiances

Cedar Vale

Courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress, Historic Buildings Survey

Born on July 21, 1825, Mary Elizabeth Commander came from the upper class of Albemarle society.  Her father’s family, the Commanders, was the largest landowners in Pasquotank County, and her mother’s relatives, the Weeks, also played a significant role in the region.  At the age of two, Mary Commander’s father, Joseph, died suddenly.  Her mother, Parthenia Commander, quickly remarried.  At the age of twelve, her mother and stepfather sent Mary Commander to Wesleyan Female College, a newly established Methodist school for women in Wilmington, Delaware.  Three years after her 1841 graduation, Mary Commander married James Laurence Gatling.  One of the wealthiest landowners in Perquimans County, by 1850 Gatling owned twenty-five slaves and over $8,000 in property.  Although he only owned seventeen slaves in 1860, the rise of land and slave prices during the antebellum period drove Gatling’s estimated wealth to $45,973 by 1860.  The Gatlings  referred to their farm as “Cedar Vale.”  Their eldest son, John Gatling, attended the University of Virginia and then Harvard Law School.  Unlike other large landowners along the Albemarle Sound, James Laurence Gatling expressed open sympathies for the Confederacy.  During the organized escape from the Union steamer Mable Leaf, Mary Commander Gatling provided food and shelter to fugitive Confederate prisoners.  Emancipation severally impacted the Gatlings’ wealth and prestige.  In 1867, the General Assembly gave a consortium headed by Elihu A. White and James L. Gatling the exclusive right to steamship navigation on Albemarle Sound, but a lack of capital doomed the effort.  By 1870 Gatling’s net worth stood less than half its 1860 value.  James Laurence Gatling died on January 26, 1882.  Eventually, Mary Commander Gatling moved to Forrest City, Arkansas, where John Gatling practiced law.  She died on June 10, 1896.