A Place in History

History-5e47afa5ON OCTOBER 22, the Academy of Richmond County Hall of Fame will induct 10 new members. Founded four years ago the ARC Hall of Fame recognizes alumni, teachers and coaches who have made important contributions at the local, state, national and occasionally international level.

One of this year’s inductees meets the criteria at all levels. Graduating from ARC in 1873, Pleasant Alexander Stovall held the diplomatically sensitive post of U.S. ambassador to Switzerland in the era of World War I. His story began more than five decades earlier in downtown Augusta.

Born on July 7, 1857, to Bolling Anthony and Mattie Wilson Stovall, Pleasant Alexander bore the first name of his paternal grandfather Pleasant Augustus and as his middle name that of his maternal grandfather Alexander Wilson, a Presbyterian missionary to Africa. Bolling Anthony was the fourth son of wealthy Hancock County planter Pleasant, but was reared in Augusta after his father became a merchant there. Bolling graduated from the Academy of Richmond County and University of Georgia, where he trained to be a civil engineer. After practicing that profession for a number of years he returned to Augusta to enter his father’s wholesale grocery, Stovall & McLaughlin. In 1856 he married Martha Wilson and the following year their son Pleasant was born. υ

When Pleasant was not quite four years old, the American Civil War began. His father joined the Richmond Hussars headed for Virginia. Like his friend Tommy Wilson, he witnessed the realities of war at a young age, especially after Augusta became a hospital area following the Battles of Chickamauga and Atlanta. After the war, along with Tommy Wilson, Pleasant attended the private school for boys described by teacher Joseph Derry as offering a “select classical education on the banks of the Savannah River.” A Wilson biographer wrote that “as lads [Stovall and Wilson] rode through the streets and suburbs of Augusta…including to the Sand Hills on horseback.” 

The boys were also members of the Lightfoot Baseball Club, which would later produce a U.S. President, a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, a U.S. ambassador and a dean of the Columbia University School of Law. While his boyhood playmate Wilson moved to Columbia in 1870, Stovall entered the Academy of Richmond County on Telfair Street as his father had years earlier and, like his father, attended and graduated from University of Georgia. Returning home to become associate editor of The Augusta Chronicle, Stovall honed his skills in journalism under the mentoring of editor Patrick Walsh. In January 1885 he married Mary Adams Ganahl, daughter of eminent Augusta attorney and member of the board of education Joseph Ganahl and his wife Harriet Adams. The couple moved to Summerville not far from the home of Mary’s parents.

Stovall became active in the life of the community, belonging to the Masons and the Hayne Literary Society, which he served as president in 1888. In 1891 the governor appointed him to the board of trustees of his alma mater University of Georgia. He became a popular speaker for organizations and community events and his editorials and essays were widely read, confirming his reputation as a “graceful and fluent writer.”

In March 1891 Stovall and Walsh were both invited to speak at the anniversary banquet of the Hibernian Society in Savannah. At the time Savannah had no evening newspaper, a gap Stovall decided to fill by founding the Savannah Evening Press. Even after the family’s move to Savannah, the Stovalls and their three children—daughters Sarah Adams (Sada) and Pleasant, and son Joseph Ganahl—remained closely connected to Augusta with frequent and long visits.

If he had wanted, Pleasant Stovall could have had a very successful political career in state and national office. He became interested and active in politics in the 1890s, and in 1892 he served as chair of the state Democratic Convention in Atlanta. By the early 1900s newspapers throughout the state, including The Augusta Chronicle, often called for him to run for U.S. Congress. Savannah sent him to the state legislature from 1902 to 1906 where early in his tenure he introduced a bill that would have made primary elections legal elections in the same sense as general elections. He also served on the Chatham County Board of Education. In 1911 support grew for Stovall to be elected by the state legislature to represent Georgia in the U.S. Senate. Instead he went back to the state legislature in 1912.

He didn’t know when he accepted the post that he would hold such a strategically important position during a major war.

In the presidential race that year, Stovall was an early supporter of his boyhood friend, then New Jersey governor Woodrow Wilson, for the Democratic nomination. He waged “a strong and dignified campaign for him.” In 1913 Stovall resigned his seat in the Georgia legislature when President Woodrow Wilson nominated him as the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland with enthusiastic support from Georgia’s congressional delegation. He did not know when he accepted the post that he would hold such a strategically important position during a major world conflict.

When war broke out in August 1914, Stovall and the American consuls in Switzerland worked diligently to aid the Americans in the country, estimated at more than 10,000. In August 1914, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, who had stayed in the Stovalls’ Savannah home two years earlier, notified Stovall that $50,000 in gold had been deposited in a New York bank to be credited to him by the Swiss International Bank for the purpose of getting Americans home via Italian ports.

His post was a sensitive one. Switzerland was a neutral nation surrounded by countries at war. As the U.S. ambassador there, Stovall was very successful in his duties while managing to maintain the neutrality of his post and working hard to help refugees. He also appealed for funds for facilities for Swiss soldiers stationed in defensive posts on their country’s borders.

These duties were not without danger. In November of 1914 Mary and young Miss Pleasant Stovall returned to the states for an extended visit over the holidays, going and coming through Italy. Although the U.S. was not yet in the war, German U-boats plied the Atlantic and only three months after their return trip Germans sank the liner Lusitania. In September 1917, six months after the U.S. declaration of war, Stovall returned to Washington to discuss various sensitive matters with the U.S. government. During that trip, he also visited Georgia, including his Augusta home where his old classmates entertained him with a dinner at the Augusta Country Club before he returned to his post through the dangerous waters of the Atlantic.

 During and after the war, the Swiss praised him for his kindness to refugees and for his compassion for many permanently incapacitated soldiers of the warring nations who were allowed to come to Switzerland. An editorial in 1917 lauded some of his virtues: “hardworking…without fear…thorough…fair…an active mind…”

It was a joyous day on December 1, 1918, when 156 American officer and non-commissioned officer POWs were released by Germany to Switzerland. While the train carrying them was met in Zurich by enthusiastic crowds, the welcome at Berne, where they were met by Pleasant and Mary Stovall, “surpassed almost anything of this kind seen in Switzerland since the war began…the train halted for hours while the Americans were showered with delicacies they were unable to get in imprisonment.” The Stovalls hosted an impromptu reception, with the ambassador personally shaking hands with as many of the Americans as possible.

After the war, a letter in the Washington Times described the significance of the post stating: “In the center of all the war activity little Switzerland sat in the saddle holding the most important position.”  The U.S. had sent the right man for the job, for while all nations were represented by competent men, no diplomat had “so vital and supreme a commission as that modest and tactful diplomat who had in his care the interests of the American nation…surrounded by spies, hazardous risks, terror and plunder, this fine scholarly Georgian was ever alert to his country’s need.” Stovall would eventually compile his essays on the war into Switzerland and the World War.

Throughout the war, wife Mary and daughter Pleasant were by his side. Young Miss Pleasant’s sojourn in Switzerland was life-changing, for there she met the secretary of the British legation in Berne, Robert Leslie Craigie. On October 30, 1918, just two weeks before the armistice, the two were married in the English church there. Like his father-in-law, Robert Craigie would prove to be an able diplomat, in 1937 becoming Britain’s ambassador to Japan. By that time he was Sir Robert Craigie and his wife Lady Pleasant Stovall Craigie. The Craigies and son Robert Alexander Pleasant were in Tokyo when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and spent seven months interned in the embassy compound. In August 1942 news came to Augusta via the Red Cross that the Craigies were safe and being repatriated.

After six-and-a-half years in the stressful Berne post, Pleasant Stovall returned home in 1920 as a vocal supporter of the Treaty of Versailles and League of Nations. Before he ever reached American soil, he was being touted as a potential candidate for the governorship by some, while others said he should run for the U.S. Senate. While Stovall did not seek office himself, he chaired the Georgia delegation to the Democratic convention in 1920. Four years later he was in the state’s delegation to the New York Democratic National Convention. 

Throughout the 1920s Stovall remained at his editorial desk, although he and Mary travelled often to visit Pleasant in England. Once again he became a popular speaker, especially in his hometown. Although only 20 students were graduating from the Medical College of Georgia in 1921, the Grand Opera House was overflowing to hear Stovall deliver the commencement address. His alma mater UGA awarded him an honorary doctorate of law in 1922, the same year the Belgian Parliament ordered a special medal to be struck for his general war relief efforts, but especially for his service on behalf of Belgian POWs. He remained active in the early ’30s, still serving as editor and in 1932-1933 as chair of the Georgia Bicentennial Commission. He also became an ardent supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal.

Pleasant and Mary Stovall celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in January 1935. Four months later, on May 13, Pleasant spent the day at the newspaper writing editorials; the next day he died suddenly. Even though he had lived so many years in Savannah, his family brought him to Augusta to rest in Summerville Cemetery just one block from the home where he and Mary had begun their married life. Tributes poured in from around the country, including one from the president of the United States. He was 77 years old and had enjoyed a remarkable life, leaving behind a legacy as a “quiet, kindly man, an able editor, a great citizen.” The recognition by the ARC Hall of Fame is well-deserved.

The Academy of Richmond County Hall  Fame’s fourth annual induction banquet will be held on Thursday, October 22, at 6 p.m. at First Baptist Church, Augusta. In addition to Pleasant Alexander Stovall, the 2015-16 inductees include Coach Langston Bolton, Beverly Dolan, Lawton B. Evans, Elbert McGran, Jackson, Retired U.S. Air Force pilot Colonel Derwent Langley, Federal Judge C. Ashley Royal, Retired Major General Leroy Suddath, Dr. Pat Scannon and Jim Whitehead. For information on tickets contact Richmond Academy.   

Dr. Lee Ann Caldwell is an Augusta historian, author and director of the Center for Study of Georgia History at Georgia Regents University-Augusta.             

This article appears in the October 2015 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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