People, Profiles, Science & environment

Buried in archives, Civil War diary inspires biography of pioneering botanist

Rare account of notorious Civil War prison drew Kelly Agnew into an era of amateur botany in 19th century California that helped build the university's extensive plant collections

collage of old photo, dried plant, archivist Amy
Collage of images from video.
In her biography of John Gill Lemmon, Kelly Agnew describes the Civil War veteran and his wife, Sara Plummer Lemmon, as the ‘first couple’ of California botany in the late 19th century. The Lemmons helped grow the University and Jepson Herbaria at UC Berkeley — with 2.2 million specimens, the largest plant collection at any public university in the country. (UC Berkeley video by Roxanne Makasdjian and Alan Toth)

A chance discovery on her first day at the University and Jepson Herbaria in 2005 changed Kelly Agnew’s life, leading her down a rabbit hole of Civil War battles and prison camps, gold rush settlements, the exploits and foibles of California’s earliest botanists, the founding of the Sierra Club and ultimately the establishment at UC Berkeley of the largest plant collection at any public university in the world.

An evolutionary biologist and lecturer in the Department of Integrative Biology, Agnew packs all of this into a 550-page biography she wrote with her father, Brad Agnew, a retired professor of American history at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

John Gill Lemmon: Andersonville survivor and California botanist, details the life of Lemmon and his wife Sara, who collected and described plants around California, the Western U.S. and Mexico in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that included a flower common in high altitude meadows, Lemmon’s paintbrush (Castilleja lemmonii). Many of the couple’s curated specimens, as well as John’s photographs and Sara’s wildflower and conifer cone paintings, were among the earliest of the herbaria’s collections.

Kelly Agnew holding her book, with diary in foreground

Kelly Agnew holding the biography of John Gill Lemmon, which she wrote with her father, Brad Agnew. The biography was sparked by the discovery of Lemmon’s Civil War prison diary (foreground) in the archives of the University and Jepson Herbaria at UC Berkeley. (Photo credit: Amy Kasameyer)

“I suspect if you talked to anybody on the street 120 years ago, and you asked them to name the most famous botanist in California, they would have said, ‘John Lemmon,’” Kelly Agnew said. “But he’s just been lost to history. And he deserved (to be remembered), just because his life sort of parallels one of the stories of the American experience: He was in the Civil War — one of the worst parts of the Civil War — and moved west as the nation grew. He was there at the founding of the Sierra Club. He was one of John Muir’s closest friends. His story is important for American history and for California botanical history, and it speaks to the importance of amateurs in science.”

It all started with John Lemmon’s diary, which Agnew pulled from a Corona beer box stuffed under a tarp to prevent water damage from leaks into the herbarium from the open-air atrium above it in the Valley Life Sciences Building. She found the treasure while being given a tour of the herbaria as a new employee hired to organize all the so-called type specimens — plants collected as the basis for describing a new species.

The diary’s title alone was intriguing: “Recollections of a Rebel Prison.” But when the book flopped open to a map of Andersonville, a military prison in Georgia, Agnew’s memory of excursions to Civil War battlefields throughout her childhood kicked in. She recognized Andersonville as the war’s most notorious Confederate prison camp.

“When I held that book in my hand, and it fell open to a map of Andersonville — if I hadn’t been a historian’s daughter, I don’t think I would have recognized it for what it was.” Agnew said. “I knew it was probably important, and I knew it was probably rare.”

While Civil War diaries are fairly common, diaries about prisoner of war camps are not, primarily because the mortality rate at prisons on both sides was high. Of the estimated 45,000 soldiers imprisoned in Andersonville, almost 13,000 died from starvation and disease.

sepia photo of Lemmon in Civil War uniform

Pasted at the front of Lemmon’s Civil War diary, this 1865 photo shows him in uniform not long after he got out of a Confederate prison camp, weighing, according to Lemmon, less than 100 pounds. His diary begins shortly before he registered in the Union Army, and recounts his work in military hospitals, the battles in which he fought, and the prison camps he endured. (Photo courtesy of University and Jepson Herbaria, UC Berkeley)

Agnew excitedly told her father about the diary that night, but he was working on another book at the time and put her off. After nagging him for two years, however, his interest exploded and their collaboration began. In addition to the diary in the archives of the herbaria, Brad Agnew stumbled across an earlier diary in the Huntington Museum in Pasadena with fascinating detail about Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s march to the sea to cut the Confederacy in half. Lemmon was a cavalryman with Sherman and helped destroy railroad lines around Atlanta before being captured and imprisoned at two camps — Andersonville and Florence Stockade in South Carolina.

While her father reveled in the Civil War details, Kelly Agnew dug up equally fascinating details about John Lemmon’s life after the war, when he was afflicted by what she thinks must have been PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).

“At the time, they called it ‘the soldier’s heart,’” she said. “In World War I, they’d call it shell shock. He sort of looks haunted in all the photos from that point on. He has some demons going on.”

The portions of the biography dealing with John’s early life in a deeply religious and staunchly abolitionist household and his Civil War service were written largely by Brad Agnew. Kelly Agnew focused on John’s botanizing years in the West. The two visited many of the sites John knew: the family homestead near Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he was raised; Civil War battlefields in Kentucky and Tennessee, where he fought; Sierra Valley north of Truckee — near the town of Sierraville — where he recuperated; Tucson, where John and Sara honeymooned and climbed Mount Lemmon, which overlooks the city and was named for Sara, the first white woman to climb to its peak; and eventually Oakland’s Temescal district, where the couple lived until their deaths. John died in 1908, Sara in 1923.

From prisoner of war to California botanist

Much of John’s life after coming to California in 1866 to recover from the war was a scramble to make a living, since teaching, his profession before the war, proved too taxing given his frail health. The strange and new-to-him plants of the Sierra Nevada proved his salvation. Living in Sierra Valley with his brothers, who were 49ers, he began sending unknown specimens to the famed Harvard University botanist Asa Gray, who would classify and name them and put them in his manuals, including “The Botany of California,” the first edition of which appeared in 1876.

a group of purple paintbrush plants in a meadow

The pink flowers of Lemmon’s paintbrush (Castilleja lemmoni), bedeck alpine meadows in the Sierra Nevada each spring. This photo is from 2016 in the Little Lakes Valley of the John Muir Wilderness. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia, licensed under Creative Commons)

“He was redeemed by plants,” Agnew said. He recognized that “California is at this sort of unusual intersection of ocean and mountain and desert and forest. We have different soil types: volcanic, sandy, clay. And so that fosters the evolution of a lot of plants that are found here and only here,” she said.

Writing in the Pacific Rural Press in 1871, John expressed his motivation: “The entertainment afforded a lover of flowers, traveling in a strange country, is perpetual and unmeasured; while the joy of possible discoveries, is pure and well-nigh ecstatic.”

Providing pressed plants to Gray at Harvard, where the majority of John’s specimens still reside, brought in little money, however. To support himself, John began selling mounted specimens widely, taking out advertisements in local newspapers throughout California. Amateur botanists, many organized into local horticultural clubs, were essential to cataloging the plants of California, said Amy Kasameyer, an archivist eventually hired to organize the books and papers in the herbaria — in particular, the field notebooks describing where and when plants were collected.

Old photo of Lemmons in their home herbarium, with mounted plants and paintings

John and Sara Lemmon in 1895 in their home herbarium, where they displayed pressed plant specimens they had collected, a large cone collection and Sara’s paintings of cones and wildflowers. (Photo courtesy of University and Jepson Herbaria, UC Berkeley)

Gray himself made only two trips to the state, so he relied heavily on amateurs. Even Berkeley relied on amateur collectors like the Lemmons to build its herbaria. The couple worked frequently with famed botanist, conservationist and writer Willis Jepson, who received his Ph.D. in botany from UC in 1898 and served as a professor in the department for 40 years. He is recognized as the father of California botany.

“A really interesting thing about the herbarium and botany in California is that, because California is such a large state, Jepson couldn’t travel all over the state to see all of the plants each year. So he really had to rely on these networks of volunteers,” Kasameyer said. “Citizen science is a buzzy word now, but they (amateur botanists) actually made significant contributions to the California flora.”

photo of Lemmon's home at turn of 20th century

The Lemmons lived on Telegraph Avenue and opened their doors to visitors as the Lemmon Herbarium, denoted by a sign above the porch. The house still stands. (Photo courtesy of University and Jepson Herbaria, UC Berkeley)

“In California at that time, botany was primarily pursued by people who didn’t have formal training,” added Bruce Baldwin, professor of integrative biology and curator of the Jepson Herbarium, which is based on Jepson’s original collections and focuses solely on California plants. “A lot of the botanists out here that were active, like the Lemmons, were primarily collectors. But they were making a lot of firsthand observations and it definitely helped to establish the traditions that were carried forward by academics like Gray and Jepson.”

In all, plants in 101 different plant genera were named for the Lemmons, Kasameyer said.

John Lemmon also earned money by publishing stories about botany, California and his Civil War experiences in papers ranging from Ann Arbor ‘s Peninsular Courier and Family Visitant to the Plumas National in Quincy and the Downieville Mountain Messenger — a paper for which Mark Twain had written a few years earlier, using his real name, Sam Clemens.

Sara Plummer Lemmon

Before her marriage, Sara Allen Plummer was another citizen scientist, a teacher who had relocated from New York to Santa Barbara for her health and opened a book and stationery shop that became a local gathering place and eventually a circulating library for the small city of about 3,000. She and John Lemmon met in 1876 when he was passing through on his way to collecting plants in the hinterlands of San Bernardino County. They hit it off, and as part of their courtship, he asked Gray to name a plant after Sara, one they had collected together. The next edition of the manual contained a newly named coastal shrub: Baccharis plummerae.

old portrait of Sara Plummer Lemmon

Portrait of Sara Plummer Lemmon. (Photo courtesy of University and Jepson Herbaria, UC Berkeley)

They married in 1880 and botanized during their 1881 honeymoon around Tucson, Arizona, and returned again to collect plants in 1882. The Arizona Territory at the time was a dangerous place because of conflicts between settlers and the Chiricahua Apache, not to mention shoot-outs among the white settlers themselves. The gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone took place a little more than six months before their 1882 visit.

The couple eventually settled in Oakland and turned their home into a plant museum — a sign above the door of their house on Telegraph Avenue, which is still standing, read “Lemmon Herbarium.” They regularly interacted with botanists at Berkeley, the California Academy of Sciences, and around the world. They befriended John Muir, who at the time was living in Martinez, and joined the Sierra Club after its founding in 1892. John was a charter member and member of the board, and Sara was one of the first female members. Muir was its first president and remained so until his death.

fluffy seed heads of Plummer's baccharis

When botanizing together around Santa Barbara in 1876, John Lemmon and Sara Plummer collected a flowering plant — seen here with fluffy seed heads — previously unknown to botanists. John asked Harvard’s Asa Gray to name the plant after Sarah, and ever since it has been known as Baccharis plummerae, or Plummer’s baccharis. (Photo credit: U.S. National Park Service, 2007)

Together, the Lemmons traveled up and down the West Coast and into Mexico and New Mexico, camping and collecting, earning money by selling the plants they preserved, and publishing manuals, such as the 1900 “Handbook of West-American Cone-bearers,” illustrated with Sara’s paintings. John took up photography to illustrate other manuals, often including Sara in photos of trees for perspective.

In his later years, John served an ill-fated term as an Oakland supervisor, but mostly, he and Sara continued their strenuous trips to collect plants. They only slowed down in 1908, when John’s lingering ills finally caught up with him. He died Nov. 24 of pneumonia at age 76.

“After Lemmon died, Jepson wrote a moving tribute to Lemmon,” Agnew said. “Jepson recognized that Lemmon could be a difficult person to get along with, but that his contributions to the field of botany in California in particular were really remarkable.”

‘A unique and peculiar personage’

Following her husband’s death, Sara’s life gradually fell apart, and she was institutionalized with dementia until her death at age 86. Jepson eventually rescued many of the couple’s plant specimens and merged them into his personal herbarium and the broader University Herbarium.

painting of an unusual white California poppy

Sara Plummer Lemmon painted this rare, white-petaled variant of the California poppy, which is typically a vibrant red orange. (Photo courtesy of University and Jepson Herbaria, UC Berkeley)

“Their herbarium was pretty much abandoned and sat in a state of neglect in their house for years in a cold, damp room,” Baldwin said. “Jepson went in there and salvaged it all and brought it back here. We have the whole archive, but unfortunately, the label data wasn’t even there for about 40% of the collections.”

In 2012, heirs of the Lemmons donated other materials to the herbaria archives, including more of Sara’s paintings. Sara, who was also a suffragette and conservationist — she led the successful cause to make the California poppy the state flower — is the subject of a biography published this year, The Forgotten Botanist: Sara Plummer Lemmon’s Life of Science and Art, by Wynne Brown.

Baldwin pointed out that amateurs still play a key role in botany by collecting samples and by providing more formal “vouchered” specimens, which are required to describe new species. About 10 new California plants are recognized each year and uploaded by Baldwin to the online Jepson eFlora, the authoritative reference on the state’s vascular plants.

While herbarium specimens are still the gold standard for botanical documentation and use in scientific studies, he added, the iNaturalist app has grown into a potential treasure house of information on the world’s flora and fauna. Developed in 2008 by students in Berkeley’s School of Information, it allows anyone to upload a photo of a plant or animal, automatically time-stamped and geo-located. The enormous amount of data in iNaturalist may help scientists understand the shifting ranges of plants in the face of climate change and habitat destruction, he said.

“More and more of this observational data from iNat is going to become important,” Baldwin said. “The number of people using it is growing exponentially, including among professional botanists.”

These amateur botanists are following in the footsteps of Sara and John Lemmon. John, in Jepson’s words, was “a unique and peculiar personage in California botanical history.”

“I think Lemmon’s diary gets back to the value of these collections,” Agnew said. “Certainly they’re important as botanical specimens. They’re important for how we address climate change, how we understand how populations change, but also hidden in these collections are these treasures that speak to the history of who we are. It’s an important resource that we need to preserve.”