Vinnie Ream became a close confidante of Albert Pike. As Jim Tresner shows in his article on her life, two outstanding minds and talents became fast friends and held each other in mutual respect and admiration. This article on Vinnie Ream is from a book by James Tresner titled:
A Life for the Ages: Albert Pike a Bicentennial Celebration 1809-2009
and is reprinted with permission.
She is buried here, beneath her scuplter of Sappho; a civilian woman, buried in the Arlington National Cemetery. Between her death on November 20, 1914 and her birth in Wisconsin on September 25, 1847, she lived as crowded, as creative and as exciting a life as could be imagined. She was a work in progress.
Her name was Vinnie Ream, and she was one of the most astonishing women of the 1800s. She wrote poetry. She composed music, sang and played the harp. During the Civil War, she visited the wounded Union soldiers in the hospitals, played for them, sang for them, read letters from home to those who could not read, and wrote letters for those who could not write.
She was a tiny woman, just five feet tall and never weighing more than 90 pounds, and, as her pictures show, she was beautiful. She made a fateful trip with a friend in 1863 when she was 15 to the studio of Clark Mills in Washington, D.C. Mills was the most famous American sculptor of the time. He tossed Vinnie a clump of clay and told her to see what she could do, and he was astonished to find that she produced an excellent modeling of the head of an Indian chief. Mills took her as a student on the spot. Within months, Vinnie was modeling virtually every important person in Washington, D.C. The next year, 1864, friends introduced her to President Abraham Lincoln. While he at first declined to be sculpted, he soon granted the 10 year old girl daily half-hour sittings for five months.
After Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, Congress determined to have a statue of the President made to commemorate his memory. And, over all the well-known sculptors who were considered, the commission was awarded to Vinnie. She was 19 years old. Vinnie Ream became the very first woman — and is still the youngest artist — ever to be awarded a commission for a work of art by the United States Congress.
The statue was unveiled on January 25, 1871. Critics have since remarked that she “balanced the neo-classical tradition with naturalistic modeling. Ream infused the sculpture with the gravity of Lincoln’s presence.” It is in fact, a work of great emotional power.
You might think that would be distinction enough for any person, but she may have done much more. This young woman may have single-handedly saved the South from the worst horrors of Reconstruction. Andrew Johnson became president following the assassination of Lincoln.
A group in Congress, known as the Radical Republicans felt that Johnson — who believed in Lincoln’s vision of healing and reconciliation following the war — was not punishing the South enough, and they determined to impeach and replace him. It was going to be a close vote in the Senate. And, in fact, it came down to a single vote — that of Senator Edmund Ross, a Republican from Kansas. Ross was boarding in the Ream home where Vinnie lived with her parents. Vinnie had come to greatly admire Lincoln while working on the original bust, and deeply believed in his vision of peace with magnanimity.
She therefore supported President Johnson, and worked to persuade Ross not to vote against him. When the vote was taken Ross refused to vote for ouster, and Johnson remained President. Vinnie was viciously attacked in the press as the woman whose wiles had subverted Ross.
In time, the furor died down, and in 1875, Vinnie was commissioned to sculpt a memorial bronze statue of Admiral David G. Farragut. The bronze for the statue came from the propeller of Farragut’s flagship, the Hartford. The statue was so large, the tiny Vinnie Ream had to work on the clay model swinging from a bosun’s chair.
In 1878, at age 30, Vinnie married Lieutenant Richard Leveridge Hoxie. It was a remarkable wedding.
President Ulysses S. Grant, General William T. Sherman, and most of the Senate of the United States attended the wedding.
Although Vinnie would create more than 100 works during her life, there was a long period of inactivity following her marriage. Her husband asked her not to follow her career (it wasn’t proper for a Victorian wife to earn money) and Vinnie followed his wishes.
For some years they traveled around the country as Hoxie built and rebuilt fortifications in many parts of the United States. He had a long career as Chief of Army Engineers, and retired as a Brigadier General.
But it is because of her relationship with another Brigadier General that Vinnie Ream is important to our story. In 1866, when she was 19 and he was 57, Vinnie met Albert Pike. They became instant friends.
It is hardly surprising — two minds of such vast scope and power, the one laden with the wisdom of age and the other shimmering with the exuberance of youth, recognized each other at once. Vinnie spent long hours in Pike’s apartment in the House of the Temple, talking with Albert and his daughter Lillian. At Vinnie’s request, Pike would write lengthy essays on various topics, and Vinnie would come once a week to hear him read them to her.
In turn, Vinnie created a famous bust of Pike in his regalia as Grand Commander. This great friendship was Pike’s major delight in his last years. Vinnie was like a granddaughter, and when she married, he welcomed Richard Hoxie as a grandson.
Vinnie died in 1914. Her last sculpting was a commission from the State of Oklahoma for a statue of the Native American leader Sequoyah for statuary hall in the National Capital building.
A stamp was issued to honor both Vinnie and the sculpting.
In 1929, her husband gave Vinnie’s papers, books, harp, two busts, and other materials to the Oklahoma State Historical Society. And there is more. The town of Vinita, Oklahoma, was named in honor of Vinnie by her friend, Col. Elias C. Boudinot.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the life and work of this remarkable lady. The Vinnie Ream Cultural Center has been created in the town of Vinita. Its mission statement reads:
The mission of the Vinnie Ream Cultural
Center is to create an environment where
everyone is encouraged to celebrate our
diverse heritage and express our uniqueness
through experience in the arts.
I think Vinnie would approve.