Wealth, tragedy and international intrigue coursed through the life of Andrew Low. Hear the rags to riches story of Andrew Low a man William Makepeace Thackeray portrayed as a “great man” and described Low’s home as the most “comfortable accommodations in America”. Opportunity brought him to Savannah in 1829 and he became the wealthiest man in Savannah.
Andrew Low II was born in Kincardinshire,Scotland on July 20, 1812, the third son and youngest child of William and Katherine Reid Low. His father was a grocery merchant in the cathedral town of Brechin, on the windswept northeast coast. As a boy, Andrew probably attended a local school and helped in his father’s store. The virtues of thrift and hard work would have been instilled in him from an early age.
In 1800, William Low’s youngest brother, Andrew, had come to America to work in the Savannah store owned by Bowman Fleming, a Glasgow firm with outlets in several southern seaports. Within a few years this Andrew Low I bought out the Savannah store and established a company under his own name, Andrew Low and Company. The Sign of the Buck, the proud head of a thirteen point highland stag, was the trade mark this company used for the next seventy-five years. The company traded in all types of general goods. The demand for more and more cotton for the textile mills in England brought about a gradual shift in the company’s business into the cotton export trade. The trans-Atlantic nature of the cotton trade into which Andrew Low and Company was expanding created need for it to have an office in England. Cotton would be bought by the Savannah company and sold through its partner company in Liverpool. A fellow Scotsman, Robert Isaac, joined the company and it operated under the name, Isaac, Low and Company, in Liverpool. The company owned several ships and chartered others when needed.
The Great Fire of January 1820 destroyed the company’s Savannah building. It was promptly rebuilt. Occupying the northwest corner of Johnson Square, where the Sun Trust Bank Building is today, it was a two story brick building. Andrew Low I probably had living quarters on the second floor. At a later date, a third story was added and a fine cast iron balcony was installed on the Johnson Square side of the building. The company’s warehouse was located on the river bluff at the foot of Lincoln Street and below, their wharf stretched along the river bank.
Andrew Low I (1779 – 1849) never married and by 1829 was aging. He needed an heir. Two of his brothers had been with him in Savannah for a time but both were now dead. His partner, Robert Isaac had died in the yellow fever epidemic of 1827. He looked back to Scotland and to the family of his eldest brother, William. There he found a promising candidate!
On October 17, 1829, Andrew Low II, age seventeen, arrived in Savannah, on the Georgia, a ship owned by his uncle’s company. Fifty-seven years later, on November 13, 1886, the day his body was buried in Laurel Grove Cemetery, vessels of the Ocean Steamship Company in the Savannah harbor flew their flags at half mast.
Andrew Low II applied himself and within two years was publicly listed as agent for his uncle’s company. In the next few years he joined the St. Andrew’s Society, rented a pew in The Independent Presbyterian Church, and went off to Florida on a brief campaign with the Savannah Blues during the Seminole War. He and his uncle lived in rooms on the upper floor of the Johnson Square building.
Management of the Savannah business was increasingly placed in the hands of the younger man and by 1839 Andrew Low I retired to England and thereafter worked only from their Liverpool office. Andrew Low II began making the necessary, strenuous, trans-Atlantic crossings for the dual firms.
The rise of the cotton factor as a major player in the commodity field evolved from several developments. First, following invention of the cotton gin in 1793 demand for ginned cotton steadily increased. To meet this demand, more and more land was planted in cotton. Arrival of the railroad in the early 1830’s gradually spread a net work of tracks across the state, connecting inland regions to the coast. By 1840 the warehouses and wharfs on Savannah’s river front were stacked high with huge, 500 pound bales of cotton, ready to be loaded on ships that would carry them to the hungry textile mills of England. The cotton trade was roaring in full throttle and continued to do so for the next twenty years, until the Civil War blockade closed the port. These were the years of “high cotton”. The world price of cotton was set in the Savannah Cotton Exchange. The English author, William Makepeace Thackeray, wrote after staying with Andrew Low II in the 1850’s, “Cotton dealers, brokers, merchants, they are tremendous men, these cotton merchants.”
During his first ten years in America Andrew Low II acquired a thorough understanding of the company’s business as it evolved from general merchant/agent/shipper to cotton factor. He earned the respect of the business community and already served as director of at least one local bank. From this base, he rose to become the premier cotton factor in pre-Civil War Savannah. His ships frequently carried cargoes worth a million dollars or more bound for Liverpool. (Records report only one “lost at sea”.) The company’s Liverpool office handled shipment to the hundreds of textile mills located in Manchester and the English midlands. In 1857 Andrew Low II wasSavannah’s richest man, with an income of $257,000. A fortune in those days!
On January 25, 1844, in Christ Church, Andrew Low II married Sarah Cecil Hunter, daughter of Alexander and Harriet Bellinger Hunter. Her father had been Collector of Customs for the Port of Savannah and her mother came from a prominent South Carolina family. Within a year the couple had a son, named Andrew for his father and uncle. Two daughters followed Amy in 1846 and Harriet Anne (Hattie)in 1848. The family lived at 3 Parade Square, probably Madison Square today.
In July 1847, Andrew Low II purchased the southwest Trustees’ Lot on Lafayette Square and hired John Norris, a New York architect then in the city, supervising building of the new Custom House, to design and build a fine house for his growing family. The neo-classic style house John Norris designed for Andrew Low II is today Savannah’s premier museum house.
On August 30, 1848, an “annus horribilis” began for Andrew Low II, his son, Andrew, not yet four years old, died; February 23, 1849, his father, William Low, died in Scotland; May 20, 1849, the heaviest blow fell when his wife, Sarah, age 31, died. It closed August 31, 1849, with the death in Liverpool of his uncle and mentor, Andrew Low I. In his will, after making bequests to several close family members, Andrew Low I left the entire remainder of his estate, business and property, to his nephew, Andrew Low II . Before the end of 1849, wealthy, somber Andrew Low II moved into his fine new house with his two little daughters.
The next several years were primarily devoted to business. Andrew Low II made several ocean crossings to England, in 1851 taking Amy and Hattie with him and placing them with a family in Brighton. This family operated a boarding school both girls later attended. Amy was five years- old and Hattie barely four.
Then, the skies brightened! Andrew Low II began to court the twenty year-old daughter of William Henry Stiles, Georgia politician, former Representative in Congress and most recently U.S. Minister to Austria. Her mother, Elizabeth Ann Mackay (Eliza), came from an equally prominent Savannah family. On May 20, 1854, forty-two year-old Andrew Low and twenty year-old Mary Cowper Stiles were married. The ceremony was performed by the Bishop of Georgia, The Right Rev. Stephen Elliott, at Etowah Cliffs, the Stiles plantation home in north Georgia. A special train carried Savannah relatives and guests to the wedding. (Andrew Low was a director of the Central Railroad of Georgia and friend of its president.)
The newlywed couple spent the summer in Europe then returned to Savannah to share what must have been the happiest years of their lives in the Lafayette Square house. Eight year-old Amy and six year-old Hattie and a governess returned with them. The following year, 1855, a daughter, Katherine (Katie) was born, followed in 1856 by a child who lived one day. In 1858, a second daughter, Mary, was born and on August 3, 1860 a son, William Mackay Low, was born in Newport,Rhode Island, where the family was spending the last summer before the coming war.
Andrew Low II’s sympathies were understandably with the south, where he had lived and worked for over 30 years. He was highly respected in the community and each of his marriages had forged ties to prominent Savannah families. He regularly traveled to Liverpool on business and also to Brighton, where Amy, now 14 and Hattie, age 12 were in boarding school.
In August 1861, the war and coastal blockade, plus a secret commission, prompted Andrew and Mary Low to leave their children with her mother, at Etowah Cliffs and travel north overland to Canada and sail from Quebec to England. The stated purpose of their trip was to tend to his business and visit Andrew’s two daughters, at school in Brighton. In England, Andrew Low, his business partner, Charles Green, and several other business men met a number of times, in various cities, with their Savannah neighbor, Major Edward Anderson, now Confederate Purchasing Agent in England. The group loaded a ship, the Bermuda, with munitions and sent her on her successful way to Savannah. Then they purchased a ship, the S/S Fingal, outfitted her, loaded her with the largest cargo of guns and munitions to successfully reach the Confederacy and under Captain John Low, nephew of Charles Green, and later of C.S.S. Alabama fame, saw her silently slip out to sea just ahead of a party bent on restraining her. Andrew Low II is believed to have contributed heavily to financing this enterprise.
The group parted to make their separate ways home. Despite great care having been taken to conceal their meetings, Union agents managed to trail them. Word was sent ahead—Charles Green was arrested when he arrived in Boston.
In Cincinnati, Ohio waiting for papers to pass south through Union Lines, Andrew and Mary Low were arrested. Andrew Low II was sent to Fort Warren, in Boston. Mary Low was allowed to go to Baltimore, where she stayed with friends for some time before being issued a permit to pass through the Union Lines and travel south.
Friends in both the north and south petitioned the War Department for release of Andrew Low II, stressing his honorable character and that he was a man who kept his word and vouching that he would not violate any terms he accepted in exchange for his release. In March 1862 Andrew Low was freed on probation and about three months later permitted to return home. He reached Etowah Cliffs on June 3, 1862, where he was reunited with his family. Two days later, the couple’s youngest child, Jessie, was born.
Life in the south altered as the privations of the war and its human toll mounted. Mary Low’s father and both brothers were in the Confederate Army. (Father and one brother would be seriously wounded but recover.) Other relatives and friends received the dreaded news of death of a loved one. That fall the Lows returned to Savannah, where cotton filled the warehouses on the river but trade was blocked. Fort Pulaski, near the mouth of the Savannah River, had fallen and even daring blockade runners no longer attempted to pass. In June 17, 1863, as Robert E. Lee and the Confederate forces were heading toward what became the defining battle of the war, at a small town in Pennsylvania called, Gettysburg, Andrew Low II received what must have been the most devastating blow of his life, Mary Low, died, age 31. In their separate ways, these events forever changed Andrew Low II’s life.
A grieving Eliza Stiles came to take charge of her grandchildren and manage the household. The fate of the Confederacy was gradually sealed and a few months after the close of the war Andrew Low II sailed for England to take measure of affairs in his Liverpool office. He returned in late November 1865, accompanied by daughters Amy, 20 and Hattie, 18. They had grown up in the peace and order of Victorian England while the south lived through war and gradual destruction of its way of life. Andrew Low II soon faced another turning point in his life—how best to provide for his children’s future.
Mary Low’s family, the Stiles, like others in their social class across the south had been ruined by the war. Union forces ransacked Etowah Cliff’s plantation as they passed by on their way to Atlanta but did not burn the house. Both Stiles sons had survived the war and now were at Etowah Cliffs with their families, grappling with the neglected plantation and a changed labor force. William Henry Stiles, his health broken, came to Savannah and died a few days before Christmas 1865. Weary Eliza Stiles longed to return to Etowah Cliffs, where she died two years later. Inexperienced Amy and Hattie took over management of the Lafayette Square household. Andrew Low II, the good father, realized his children would have better lives in England than in the impoverished south of reconstruction. Plus he had two daughters of marriageable age. He had the means to stay or go. If Mary Low had lived, the family might have stayed in Savannah. Without her, his decision was made for his children and their future.
By the fall of 1867, the family was living in Leamington, England. A suitable staff ran the household, the children were given sound educations and within a few years Amy and Hattie had made very successful marriages. Andrew Low II returned to Savannah each fall tending to business and entertaining friends. A number of prominent guests stayed with him, including Robert E. Lee in 1870 and the Earl of Roxbury in 1874. Faithful Tom Milledge, his butler since 1844, saw to his comfort and his wife, Mosianna, was an excellent cook. As he sat alone in his fine house, Andrew Low II must sometimes have thought of the happy times spent there before the war.
In 1872 Andrew Low and Company was sold to John D. Hopkins, who had joined the firm in 1861. Andrew Low II remained a silent partner in the company for several years, gradually shifting his financial interest into investments in railroads, steel mills and shipping. These new responsibilities brought him to New York and Savannah each year. In 1876, Katie, now 21 and Mary, 18, daughters from his second marriage accompanied him. In 1880 Jessie, then 18, came for the first time. William came in November 1881, the year he had finished at Oxford. Diary accounts indicate the girls enjoyed these trips and the opportunity to be with relatives and family friends in Savannah. Several weeks were spent visiting their Stiles aunts and cousins at Etowah Cliffs. By 1883, William was making these annual trips to New York and Savannah for his aging father.
Andrew Low II died at his home, Beauchamp Hall, in Leamington,England on June 27, 1886. William Low accompanied his father’s body when it was returned to Savannah that November for burial beside his wives, Sarah and Mary and his young son, Andrew III, in Laurel Grove Cemetery.