Lincoln Group Critiques Spielberg on History

Lincoln, the movie, has thrilled his devotees from the moment of its release.  The “spot-on” portrayal by Daniel Day-Lewis seems to have captured the very essence of Lincoln’s character and persona.  I’m remembering a long line of Lincoln portrayals from Raymond Massey, who was too self-consciously historic, to Sam Waterson who was too strident and too humble.  Director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner had the great sense to narrow the story to one brief but momentous segment of the 16th president’s life that could be used to develop a portrait of Lincoln not as the great leader on the five dollar bill, but as “a man in full,” with the greatness mixed in with fears, self-doubts, political reality and family concerns.

Daniel Day-Lewis as president Abraham Lincoln in "Lincoln."

But how true to history was the movie?  I was on a panel in March for The Lincoln Group of the District of Columbia that analyzed the movie and the record.  Referee-ing more than 50 Lincoln enthusiasts as they picked apart a movie that they had all absolutely loved was a surreal moment.  For me it underscored the ultimate question: “Whose history are we talking about?”

My co-panelists Craig Howell, Karen Needles and Dr. John Elliff laid out the big issues and the time-line.  The story of the passing of the 13th Amendment in the House of Representatives occurred during the first six weeks of 1865.  The movie follows no single account of the events surrounding the vote.  Doris Kearns Goodwin gets the credit for the story, but her groundbreaking book, Team of Rivals, devotes only five pages to this subject.  Tony Kushner’s screenplay draws on about 30 different sources from which he created his own dramatic interpretation of the underlying conflicts and relationships of the principle characters.

There is no record of the Lincolns having any discussion at a theatre, nor that Mrs. Keckly ever accompanied Mrs. Lincoln there. But it probably could have happened. This is the type of liberty that the Kushner script took to add dramatic context to the film story. But the result is that he invents his facts. Is it history?

There is no record of the Lincolns having any discussion at a theatre, nor that Mrs. Keckly ever accompanied Mrs. Lincoln there. But it probably could have happened. This is the type of liberty that the Kushner script took to add dramatic context to the film story. But the result is that he invents his facts. Is it history?

Our panel agreed that Kushner captured the essential events roughly in sequence.  More importantly, he gave many of the key characters depth and substance.  Mary Lincoln, Elizabeth Keckly, William Seward and Thad Stevens all left me believing in who they were and wanting to learn more about them.  But most of the dialogue and events in which they were portrayed were not taken from any written record.  History does not typically leave records rich enough to know what people thought or what they spoke in private.  That these people come alive so convincingly doesn’t mean that the facts as given are correct.  Kushner puts his characters in scenes and situations for which there are is frequently no record to compare.  This doesn’t mean it couldn’t have happened.  But if we can’t find the record to support it, is it history?

Daniel Day-Lewis projects the most wonderfully complete image of Abraham Lincoln that I could imagine.  As father, husband, politician and statesman, he portrays the president’s great qualities in seeking the greater good knowing when to compromise or when to stand fast for a principle.  But here Kushner filled in the otherwise blank spaces in the record with moving and insightful dialogue.  How great were the liberties he took?  Did Mr. Lincoln ever discuss Emancipation with Mrs. Keckly?  Did Lincoln direct a vote-buying campaign to pass the 13th Amendment?  Did the president ever strike his eldest son, Robert?  There is no direct evidence for any of this, so has Kushner created his own version of the president’s character and motivations?

Kushner also had a wide range of opinions to draw on in creating his interpretation of the main characters.  The president’s relationship with his oldest son, Robert, is hard to read.  But rather than intense, as it was presented on-screen to the point that Lincoln even struck him, Robert himself had called it “reserved.”  Though the president was known to lose his temper (rarely), it was never expressed physically.  Robert himself never even suggested that his father had hit him.  In fact, the only mention of an argument in the record is John Nicolay’s note about Robert complaining that he “just had a major row” with Lincoln, but over Robert’s complaint that father wouldn’t discipline little Tad.

Even Robert's intense desire to join the army against his parents' wishes would not have caused him to want add to his father's burdens .

Robert’s intense desire to join the army against his parents’ wishes would not have caused him to want add to his father’s burdens .

In a recent interview, Kushner said, “I hope no one is shocked to learn that I had to make up dialogue and imagined encounters and invented characters!”  It turned out that my role on the panel was to defend the honor of an unlikely victim, Pennsylvania congressman Thad Stevens, against one of Kushner’s hypothetical scenarios.

Contemporary profiles seem to describe Thad Stevens as the very picture of the abusive, irreligious and scatological congressman portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones

Contemporary profiles seem to describe Thad Stevens as the very picture of the abusive, irreligious and scatological congressman portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones

In one of the closing scenes, the triumphant Stevens is shown in bed with his black housekeeper, Mrs. Lydia Smith, listening proudly while she reads aloud the newly passed Constitutional amendment abolishing slavery (oops, did I give away the ending?).  This depiction of the relationship takes the side of Stevens’ slave-owner critics.  They delighted in countering his observations about the many slave children who resembled their masters with their own charge that Stevens and his housekeeper were “living as man and wife.”  There is much evidence that their 20-year relationship was very close.  But there is no evidence given by anyone who knew them that the relationship was ever physical.  In fact, Stevens never bothered to respond to the accusations while he was in office, when it might have been prudent to do so.  Only after he had retired from Congress did he publicly deny an improper relationship with Mrs. Smith.  Perhaps Kushner unwittingly sided with the Stevens critics in an effort to show him as more “progressive” to a modern audience.

This is just one example of how this wonderful film has adapted a view or skewed some facts to make a very interesting story.  If this sends new readers off to investigate other sources and to come to their own conclusions, perhaps that would be the best way of promoting the search for the truth in history.

But for producing a profoundly beautiful and compelling portrait of a beloved president at a politically and personally challenging time, this is an inspiring work of art.                         Well done, Steven Spielberg!

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Lincoln Honors Monitor Commander on H Street

A memorial has been dedicated at the Hampton National Cemetery in Virginia on the 150th anniversary of the sinking of the U.S.S. Monitor, December 31, 1862.  It had been only eleven months since the tiny ironclad, derided as “a cheesebox on a raft,” had been launched at Brooklyn, NY.  After being quickly sea-tested, it was towed to Hampton Roads in time to confront and defeat the Confederate ironclad, C.S.S Virginia, in a contest that would revolutionize naval warfare.

Lincoln respected Gustavus V. Fox for his naval expertise and his personal bravery. Mrs. Fox kept a diary that related stories of many Lincoln visits to their home.

Lincoln respected Gustavus V. Fox for his naval expertise and his personal bravery. Mrs. Fox kept a diary that related stories of many Lincoln visits to their home.

President Lincoln had come to rely on Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox to keep the army offensive in the spring of 1862 well-supported. Fox was guiding the Navy’s transport of Burnside’s army to capture Roanoke Island off North Carolina, supplying McClellan’s movement to the Peninsula below Richmond, and the construction of the new iron warship, the Monitor. Lincoln called frequently at Fox’s new residence at 491 17th Street for progress reports. The President was there waiting for Gus on March 7 when Secretary of State William Seward stopped by. Seward was hoping to meet the famous British actress Fanny Kemble who was then living upstairs in the Foxes’ building. When Gus arrived, Lincoln asked him to go to Hampton Roads to select ships to help McClellan. 1,2

John L. Worden had already volunteered for other dangerous assignments before agreeing to command the untested Monitor.

John L. Worden had already volunteered for other dangerous assignments before agreeing to command the untested Monitor.

Fox took along his old friend Lt. Henry A. Wise, the assistant chief of Navy ordnance. The two arrived at Hampton Roads the night of March 8 to learn that the dreaded C.S.S. Virginia had finally come out and demonstrated its awesome power by sinking or damaging several of the greatest ships in Union fleet. Fox and Wise learned that the Monitor had also arrived that night, unexpectedly. They were able to witness the entire “Battle of the Ironclads” the following morning. The two naval observers also had a deeply personal interest in the outcome of the battle.  As teenagers, they had served as midshipmen together on their first vessel with the commander of the Monitor,      Lt. John L. Worden. 4

Rumors of the invincibility of the Virginia, built on the hull of the captured U.S.S. Merrimac, had alarmed the Lincoln administration.  Capt. John Dahlgren, commandant of the Navy Yard at Washington, recalled that he was sitting in his office that Sunday morning, March 9, 1862, when the President appeared at his door.  Mr. Lincoln brought the news of the previous day’s carnage wrought when the Virginia first emerged from the Gosport Yard on the Elizabeth River.  The Union’s most powerful wooden-hulled warships had been easily handled by the the Confederate ironclad.

Print of the Battle of the Ironclads produced from an eyewitness account.  The C.S.S Virginia was significantly larger than the Monitor.

Print of the Battle of the Ironclads produced from an eyewitness account. The C.S.S Virginia was significantly larger than the Monitor.

Lincoln had come to take Dahlgren to an emergency war council on the matter at the White House.  The captain described the scene that he found there:

“The Secretaries of State and War and Navy … and private secretary Nicolay were in his (the President’s) private room. McClellan was also present. There was a hasty and very promiscuous emission of opinions from everyone, without much regard to rank, and some inter-talking which rather confused. Meigs looked desponding and was silent. McClellan was concerned about the troops at Newport News. Seward was composed. I suggested… vessels be loaded and be got ready to block the Potomac.” 5

The next day (March 10), Dahlgren went to the Navy Department where Secretary Welles said that the crisis had passed and ordered him to stop preparations to block the Potomac. Gen. Meigs came in to insist that the work continue.  They all went to see the President, “and met (Lt. Henry A.) Wise at the front door, who had just arrived and brought up (Lt. John L.) Worden, said to have been the only one hurt on the Monitor. We ascended to the President’s Cabinet… where Wise gave a very spirited account of the battle.” He reported that one of the last shots fired by the retreating Virginia had struck the pilot house on the bow of the Monitor, temporarily blinding its commander, Lt. Worden. 6

When Wise concluded, Lincoln stood up and said, “Well, gentlemen, I am going to shake hands with that man.” He walked the two blocks to the Wise home at 225 H Street, three doors east of 18th, where Worden was laying in bed, his scorched eyes covered with bandages. As Lincoln was introduced to Worden, the lieutenant said, “you do me great honor, Mr. President, and I am only sorry that I can’t see you.” He seemed puzzled when Lincoln didn’t respond.  He could not see that the President had become overwhelmed with emotion and was choking back tears at the sight of the wounded hero. He soon composed himself and replied, “No, sir, you have done me and your country great honor. We owe to you, sir, the preservation of our navy.” 7,8

Sites near the White House that are mentioned here include (counterclockwise from the upper right) Navy Secretary Welles' home on Lafayette Square, Gustavus Fox home on 17th St. above H, The Henry Wise home on H St., near 18th, and the Navy Department on 17th St., next to the White House. The map is a detail of the Boschke 1859 map of the District of Columbia.

Sites near the White House that are mentioned here include (counterclockwise from the upper right) Navy Secretary Welles’ home on Lafayette Square, Gustavus Fox home on 17th St. above H, The Henry Wise home on H St., near 18th, and the Navy Department on 17th St., next to the White House. The map is a detail of the Boschke 1859 map of the District of Columbia.

President Lincoln visited the Monitor twice. Two months after the battle, on May 10, John Nicolay noted that Lincoln left Washington for the first time since his inauguration to travel to Hampton Roads to congratulate the officers and crew of the ironclad. The following month, he escorted Lt. John Worden back to be reunited with his ship and crew. 9,10 

The new monument at Hampton National Cemetery is dedicated to the memory of the brave sailors who lost their lives during the sinking of the U.S.S. Monitor. The ironclad warship heralded the transition from wood and sail to iron and steam. Lincoln’s secretary William O. Stoddard wrote that this was possibly “the costliest sea-fight ever fought, for it compels all the old nations to put away their old navies and build new ones.” 11  The unveiling and dedication of the monument took place on Dec. 29, 150 years from the day the Monitor left Hampton Roads in tow of the U.S.S. Rhode Island, bound for Beaufort, S.C. The ship encountered rough seas off the coast of Cape Hatteras and took on water so fast that her pumps could not keep pace. In the early hours of Dec. 31, 1862, the Monitor sank with 16 sailors aboard. 12

The Monitor Center in Newport News is restoring the salvaged ironclad. It has outstanding interpretive exhibits on the the “Battle of the Ironclads” and the beginnings of the iron ships era.   www.marinersmuseum.org/uss-monitor-center

Wise home today is at the entrance to a pizza shop in a modern office building on H St.

Wise home today is at the entrance to a pizza shop in a modern office building on H St.

1.  Hoogenboom, Ari, Gustavus Fox of the Union Navy (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 113

2.  Boyd’s Directory of the City of Washington and Georgetown, 1862

3.  Hoogenboom, 113

4.  Hoogenboom, 5

5.  Dahlgren,Madeline V. (ed), Memoir of Admiral John A. Dahlgren (Cambridge, Mass: University Press, 1882) 358

6.  Dahlgren, 360

7.  Boyd’s City Directory, 1862

8.  Burlingame, Michael, Abraham Lincoln: A Life (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008) 307

9.  Burlingame, 308

10. Burlingame, Michael (ed), With Lincoln in the White House: Writings of John G. Nicolay (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000) 77

11. Stoddard, William O., Inside the White House in War Times, Michael Burlingame (ed.), (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2000) 70

12. National Cemeteries Website

 

 

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Emancipation Caps Lincoln’s Desperate Month, December 1862

African-Americans and Abolitionists across the country waited nervously 150 years ago today, for confirmation that President Lincoln had actually signed the Emancipation Proclamation.  No one close to the President doubted that he would before the end of the day.  But the country was well-aware of the amazing confluence of multiple crises that had confronted  Lincoln during that fateful December.  Waiting all day at Tremont Temple in Boston with a crowd of 3,000, even Frederick Douglass wondered if Lincoln could shoulder one more great issue.  At about 10 p.m., the text of the Proclamation began to come in over the telegraph and, as Douglass recalled, the crowd was “wild and grand…with shouts of joy and gladness.” 1

Contrasting with this jubilant event, December 1862 started with the President having completed his review of the proposed executions of 303 Dakota Sioux and agreeing to allow 39 to be hung.  Lincoln’s letter to the military commander on the 6th, fixed the date of execution as December 19.  Gen. Sibley in Minnesota requested a little more time in order to manage local passions that ran in favor of killing all.  Dec. 26 was agreed.  The delay also permitted evidence to develop that cleared one of the 39.  2

Coming into the month, Lincoln had been stunned by the Republican losses in the November elections and was under continuing pressure from Border state delegations objecting to the Emancipation Proclamation.  He was observed at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church on Nov. 30 by his old friend Noah Brooks, who commented on his worn appearance.  He attended church there three times in December.  Lincoln paid a social call on Gen. Joe Hooker at the National Hotel on Dec. 7.  This was the month during which Washington society was buzzing about a possible inappropriate relationship between the President and the captain of his guard (Virginia Fox diary, Dec. 16); a man confronted Lincoln in his bedroom, claiming to be the rightful president (Washington Chronicle, Dec. 4); and Ford’s Theatre would be gutted by fire (Dec.31, to reopen in Aug.).

When Gen. Burnside finally moved the Army of the Potomac to capture Fredericksburg VA on Dec. 11, John Nicolay wrote of the White House hopes for a much-needed military success.  “The rebellion is now virtually at an end,” Lincoln proclaimed, and he predicted that Richmond would fall by New Year’s. 3

Nicolay was dispatched to observe the assault and report.  Lincoln was making several trips each day to the War Department Telegraph Office without learning much.  His lack of success while rumors of disaster trickled back, prompted Lincoln’s terse telegram to his secretary on December 14: ”What news have you?” 4  But the first hard news came to Lincoln with a visit from Col. Herman Haupt (see “Second Manassas Drama” post).

The Northwest Executive Office Building was known as the War Department during the Civil War.  Secretary Stanton added a floor and a half to the two-story structure in the winter of 1863.  The Telegraph Office was on the second floor over the main entrance.

The Northwest Executive Office Building was known as the War Department during the Civil War. Secretary Stanton added a floor and a half to the two-story structure in the winter of 1863. The Telegraph Office was on the second floor over the main entrance.

“The next day (Dec. 14), I returned to Washington,” Haupt wrote, “and went … to see the President at about 9 p.m.  The President was much interested in the report, and asked me to walk with him to General Halleck’s quarters, then on I street, between 15th and 16th.  When we arrived he … asked me to repeat the substance of my report to him.  On its conclusion, the President asked General Halleck to telegraph orders to General Burnside to withdraw his army to the north side of the river.  General Halleck rose and paced the room for some time, and then stopped, facing the President, and said decidedly: ‘I will do no such thing. If we were personally present and knew the exact situation, we might assume such responsibility.  If such orders are issued, you must issue them yourself. I hold that a General in command of an army in the field is the best judge of existing conditions.” 5

Gen. Ambrose Burnside. His failure at Fredericksburg stoked opposition to the Proclamation.

Gen. Ambrose Burnside. His failure at Fredericksburg stoked opposition to the Proclamation.

The army defeat demanded that there be scapegoats and the Radical Republicans in the Senate were quick to pounce on Seward.  Acting on the rumors (probably fed by Chase) that the secretary of state was a “polarizing influence on the army and the President,” the caucus voted a resolution proclaiming “a want of confidence in the secretary,” and “that he ought to be removed from the Cabinet.”  On Dec. 17, Sen. Preston King reported the vote to Seward who promptly wrote out his resignation rather be an issue for the President.  When he received the note that evening, Lincoln hurried across Lafayette Square to Seward’s home to ask him to withdraw it.  6  Over the next three days, the President orchestrated a series of meetings with his Cabinet and the Radical caucus that finally exposed and neutralized Chases’ plot.  In a mildly comical exchange, Chase tendered his own resignation, not quite wanting to let it go, until Lincoln yanked it out of his hand.  As he later explained to Sen. Ira Harris, he didn’t want anyone’s resignation, but now “I can ride, I’ve got a pumpkin in each end of my bag.”  By Dec. 22, all talk of the Cabinet crisis had subsided.  (Burlingame, Vol II, 455; Goodwin, 494)  But a visit to town by Gen. Burnside required a confidential meeting at the home of Secretary of War Stanton on K St.  Lincoln was concerned about the army’s apparent lack of confidence in its commander and the President wanted to make sure he didn’t attack again without specific approval.

Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury.  His self-promotion and presidential aspirations nearly destroyed the Lincoln Cabinet.

Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury. His self-promotion and presidential aspirations nearly destroyed the Lincoln Cabinet.

On Christmas Day, Abraham and Mary Lincoln visited the Union wounded in many Washington hospitals.  Accompanied by Secretary of the Interior and Mrs. Caleb Smith they distributed food and flowers in the Patent Office Hospital, where the secretary had his office, and in the Judiciary Square Hospital. (Evening Star and Washington Chronicle, Dec. 27)   The Proclamation was much on the mind of the soldiers they met.  Lincoln took comfort from his sense that most of the men appreciated that freeing the slaves would undercut the Confederates’ ability to fight.

The final changes to the Proclamation were made in Cabinet meetings on Dec. 29, 30 and 31.  At Seward’s insistence, Lincoln inserted the commitment of the government to not only recognize, but to ”maintain” the freedom of newly freed persons, in spite of his personal concern that this would be an overreach.  He accepted Blair’s suggestion that freedmen be asked to “abstain from all violence.”  Lincoln himself had dropped the more lofty commitment of “forever free,” to the more nuanced “henceforward shall be free,” remembering that Chief Justice Taney would have less to react to.  The final version was the first to include the concept of enlisting black soldiers.  This demonstrated how substantially his concerns for the Border states had changed from the previous summer.  Lincoln was not going to leave anything out if he was going to make this the most effective “war measure” he could possibly produce. 7

First thing in the morning, on New Year’s Day 1863, the President reviewed and approved the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Assistant Secretary of State Frederick Seward carried Lincoln’s handwritten document over to the State Department to be formally transcribed and engrossed with the Great Seal of the United States.  He then officiated at the traditional White House New Year’s Day open house, the first such event since the death of his son, Willie, in February.  He returned to his office at 2 p.m.  Seward and Fred brought in the portfolio with the Proclamation.  “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper,” Lincoln said.  “If my name ever goes into history, it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.” 8

Lincoln was lawyer enough to realize that the gains of the Proclamation would be too easily upset without a fundamental change in the law of the land that would “lock-in” the new condition of things.  Without a Constitutional amendment, it was unlikely that the Proclamation would not be undone when the southern states were again in the Union.  But the nation needed time to adjust to the present change.  Political and military victories would be needed to build support.  That amendment would have to wait for Lincoln’s own re-election.  The Thirteenth Amendment would be the priority of the second Lincoln term.

1.  Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals; New York, Simon & Schuster (2005). 500

2.  Basler, Roy P., Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln; New Brunswick, N.J., Rutgers University Press (1953).  Vol. VI, 6

3.  Burlingame, Michael, Abraham Lincoln, A Life; Balt., Johns Hopkins University Press (2008).  Vol. II, 445

4.  ibid., Basler; Vol. VI, 2

5.  Haupt, Gen. Herman, Reminiscences of General Herman Haupt; Milwaukee, Wright & Joys Printers (1902). 177

6. ibid., Goodwin; 489

7.  ibid., Burlingame; Vol. II, 463

8.  ibid., Goodwin; 499

Posted in Burnside, Ambrose, Chase, Salmon P., Halleck, Henry W., New York Ave. Presbyterian Church, Seward House, Seward, William H., Stanton, Edwin M. | Leave a comment

Lincoln and the Abolitionists at the Sprigg House

A project that started as a way to better understand the influence of Lincoln’s connections with Washington, D.C., led to a real curiosity about the impact of Ann G. Sprigg on his political life.  Most Lincoln readers will recall that Congressman Lincoln lived in Mrs. Sprigg’s boardinghouse on Capitol Hill.  But I found evidence to suggest that this woman’s  sympathy for the abolitionist movement could have shaped the future president’s views on how he could work with the antislavery activists to accomplish his political goals.

I delivered a paper last week at the 39th Annual Conference of the D.C. Historical Society.  The topic was how Lincoln’s connections with the National Capital shaped his ideas, strategies, and motivations for emancipation in 1862.  You can review it in the conference  archives at www.historydc.org.  The thesis is that people and events in the capital helped to drive Lincoln’s emancipation strategy at a faster pace than he would have preferred.

Ann G. Thornton married Benjamin Sprigg in 1818.  Benjamin had worked for the House of Representatives until he died in 1833.  Mrs. Sprigg opened her first boardinghouse in 1834 and moved to Duff Green’s Row in 1839.  The 1820 census had listed Benjamin Sprigg as owning eight slaves.  The 1840 census shows that the only black’s living in Ann’s home were free.  Once on her own, Ann Sprigg had created an environment that was very comfortable for leaders of the antislavery movement.

Theodore Weld was a founder of the American Antislavery Society who roomed at Sprigg’s in 1842.  He wrote to his wife that “we speak on the subject of slavery with entire freedom,” a remarkable fact in a southern town with broad and strong support for slavery.  Later, he wrote that the place was known as ‘Abolition House.”  He admired that she hired only free blacks or those who were working to buy their freedom.   He had come to Washington as the lobbyist for the movement.  He had advised antislavery Whigs Ben Wade and Thad Stevens.  Weld also counseled Congressman John Quincy Adams during his “gag rule” trial when he disregarded the southern-imposed prohibition against discussing antislavery petitions in Congress.

Eight of Lincoln’s fellow congressman who lived in the Sprigg House were vocal antislavery men.  Joshua Giddings was the most radical antislavery member of the House.  He represented his Ohio district from 1838 until 1842, when he resigned his seat after the House of Representatives censured him for supporting the slaves who rebelled on the ship Creole. His constituents returned him to the House that same year and he continued to serve until 1859. His Ashtabula County home reportedly was a stop on the Underground Railroad.  During his later years in Congress, Giddings became one of the founders of the Republican Party. When John Quincy Adams died in February 1848, Giddings assumed leadership of the antislavery forces in the House.8

Joshua Giddings

Another boarder at Sprigg’s was John Dickey of PA, who was “a very offensive man in manner and conversation,” who “seemed to take special pleasure in ventilating his opinions and provoking unpleasant discussions.”  Rep. James Pollock of PA, wrote that fellow-boarder Lincoln helped to calm such outbursts, that he “never failed to restore harmony & smiles, when the peace of our little community was threatened by a too earnest or heated controversy…”  Pollock was elected governor of PA in 1854, as a Know-Nothing. Samuel Busey, a new physician who took his meals at Mrs. Sprigg’s, recalled that Lincoln “would interrupt it (a heated discussion) by interposing some anecdote, thus diverting it into a hearty and general laugh…”  Busey wrote that, “Lincoln was so discreet in giving expression to his conviction on slavery as to avoid giving offense to anybody, and was so conciliatory as to create the impression, even among the pro-slavery advocates, that he did not wish to introduce or discuss subjects that would provoke controversy.”9

But Sprigg associated with others who were more active in their reaction to slavery.   Former slave, Thomas Smallwood, worked for Mrs. Sprigg while he was active in the Underground Railroad movement from 1842 to 1844.  With his wife, Elizabeth, Smallwood helped New Englander Charles T. Torrey to establish that famous escape system in the District that moved an estimated 400 escaped slaves to the north before they themselves were forced to flee to Canada.3  It seemed curious to some that Sprigg was more prone than most employers to have her staff run off.  Giddings wrote to his son that “poor Robert, who I believe was here when you visited us has left…and when next heard from was full tilt for Canada.”  Another instance was with John Douglas, a slave whom Sprigg had hired as a waiter.  He cared for Rep. Gates of New York during an illness.  When he revealed his master’s intention to sell him south, Gates referred him to Smallwood and Torrey “who told him how to get off.”

Lincoln was not just consorting with extremists while at Sprigg’s house, he was frequently exposed to the central actors in some of the most sensational slavery disputes in Washington during his term.  In January 1848, slave hunters seized a black waiter at Lincoln’s boarding house and, “in the presence of his wife, gagged him, placed him in irons and, with loaded pistols, forced him into one of the slave prisons of Washington.  Giddings called for an investigation of the matter and for the repeal of slave trading in the District, a resolution that Lincoln supported.”10

Lincoln was at the Sprigg boardinghouse on April 15, 1848, the night of the “Pearl Incident.”  William L. Chaplin, the organizer of the largest slave escape attempt in Washington, was then the leader of the capital’s Underground Railroad.  The night before the Pearl sailed with its cargo of 77 lives, Chaplin described the plan to Rep. Giddings.  Chaplin would probably have visited Giddings at Mrs. Sprigg’s house and may have even been introduced to Lincoln. When the rescue attempt failed, the Pearl’s owner, Daniel Drayton, and Captain Edward Sayres, were jailed.  In the midst of the mob violence that threatened them, and at the risk of his own life, Giddings went to the prison to assure the two that they would have legal counsel.  The office of the abolitionist newspaper, The National Era, was stoned and the crowd demanded that its editor, Gamaliel Bailey, leave the District.  Lincoln’s thoughts are unrecorded, but the incident must certainly have reminded him of the fatal attack in Alton, Illinois, on newspaper man Elijah Lovejoy ten years earlier.  In fact, Bailey and his wife Margaret were already friends with Elijah’s brother, a man who Lincoln would one-day call his “closest friend in Congress,” Owen Lovejoy.  William Chaplin was never implicated in the “Pearl Incident” and continued his work in Washington of conveying escaped slaves north, until 1850.11

Two of the initiatives that are frequently discussed about Lincoln’s single term in Congress are his abortive effort to introduce legislation to emancipate slaves in the District of Columbia, and his position against President Polk’s decision to declare war with Mexico.  Both of these initiatives were attempts to “strike a blow” against slavery.  Lincoln viewed the war with Mexico as a southern-provoked effort to extend slavery into new territories.  Lincoln argued both of these positions in the style consistent with his boarding house dinner conversations, in a mild, discreet manner “to avoid giving offense to anybody,” and not” provoke controversy.” 12  During his time in Washington, Lincoln cultivated friendships on all sides in preparation for a larger role, while declaring his “leaning’ to be the ultimate extinction of slavery by containing it within its current borders.  Though devoid of philosophical or oratorical passion, his well-reasoned position would always stay firmly rooted in his interpretation of the Constitution, and the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.

It could be no coincidence that Mr. Lincoln chose to live under the same roof with known abolitionists. His experience over meals there helped him to learn to work with the passions of the abolitionists without allowing himself to be consumed.  It might also suggest that Lincoln had a stronger passion to encourage active steps to undercut the institution of slavery in spite of his intellectual self-control on the issue.  Twelve years later Joshua Giddings was quick to acknowledge the genius of Lincoln’s approach.  After Lincoln’s nomination for the presidency in Chicago, Giddings wrote that “Lincoln was selected…because his antislavery sentiments had been less prominent (than Seward or Chase),” and therefore more electable.13    Giddings wrote his congratulations to Lincoln and expressed his confidence that “you are the best choice” to lead us to an end of slavery.

In 1860, Wendell Phillips triggered a lively debate by denouncing Lincoln as “the slavehound of Illinois” because his 1849 District emancipation bill included a fugitive slave clause.  In a public letter to Phillips, Joshua Giddings defended Lincoln: “his conversing with the people of the District, the preparation of the bill, the avowal of his intention to present it, were important.” Such actions placed him among “those who were laboring in the cause of humanity.  He avowed his intention to strike down slavery and the slave trade in the District; to strike from our statute book the act by which freemen were transformed into slaves; to speak, and act, and vote for the right,” and “cast aside the shackles of party, and took his stand upon principle.” Chiding Phillips, Giddings added: “you speak of that act with great severity of condemnation.  I view it as one of high moral excellence, marking the heroism of the man.  He was the only member among the Whigs (identifying him apart from the few ‘antislavery Whigs’ in Congress) of that session, who broke the silence on the subject of those crimes.” 14

In a letter to Treasury Secretary William P. Fessenden, dated July 21, 1864, President Lincoln recommended Ann Sprigg for a position of clerk of the loan branch. He wrote, “The bearer of this is a most estimable widow lady, at whose house I boarded many years ago when a member of Congress. She now is very needy; & any employment suitable to a lady could not be bestowed on a more worthy person.” 15  Lincoln said no more about his relationship with his landlady or about what influence the abolitionist community she nurtured could have had on his political development.  The mutual understanding formed there with Joshua Giddings seems to have been of considerable help to Lincoln’s future success.

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Second Manassas Drama Unfolds in Lafayette Square

Critics of General John Pope suggested that his most prominent qualification to be appointed to command the Union’s new Army of Virginia was his father’s clout as a Federal judge in Illinois and a friend of President Lincoln.  He actually had excellent battlefield experience in the west, including the capture of Island Number 10 in March 1862, that opened the Mississippi to northern shipping down to Memphis.

But Pope certainly didn’t help himself to win over the loyalty of eastern soldiers from George McClellan when he loudly sounded his own horn in the first order that he issued.  In summary, he announced that “in the west, we were used to seeing the backs of our enemies” and that was a the tradition he expected to start with his new eastern army.  He declared that his “headquarters will be in the saddle.”  His new officers were quick to note that his “head-quarters were where his hindquarters” should be.

Henry Wager Halleck

A second handicap for the new commander was that he was dependent on reinforcements coming from a second army that was being transported by ships from outside of Richmond to Alexandria and marched 20 miles to his support.  A third obstacle would be that this other army was led by Gen. George B. McClellan, a man who considered Pope to be an unworthy rival.  And fourth, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, who was supposed to coordinate this strategy, was new to the job and proved himself to be ineffective.  Pope must have been blissfully unaware of these complications when he rode out of Washington to begin his brief command that would end at the Second Battle of Bull Run near Manassas, Virginia.

The campaign began with a modest Union victory on August 9, 1862, at Cedar Mountain.  The next two weeks would find the armies testing each other and maneuvering for advantage.  When the major battle opened at Manassas Junction on August 29, Pope committed his forces piecemeal, allowing Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson to take the day with a flanking action.  By the 30th, Pope is not aware that Longstreet has joined Jackson and that Jackson had the Union army out-positioned.  The Union disaster is made complete the following day (Sept. 1) when Jackson again flanks the retreating Federals at Ox Hill in Chantilly.  This was Robert E. Lee’s greatest victory and it put the nearby City of Washington in a panic for fear of its imminent capture.  But on Sept. 4, Lee decided to press into Maryland to the north of the capital and set the stage for another major battle at Antietam Creek.

A most interesting account of this campaign was put together by a Union officer who was uniquely positioned to witness the several conflicts play out within the Union side that led to the catastrophe.  Col. Herman Haupt had been assigned to coordinate railroad transportation for Pope’s advance.  Haupt was a highly accomplished civil engineer whose successful projects had made him known to Lincoln and other senior officials.  In his book, published as Reminiscences in 1901, he wrote a little narrative to tie together the actual telegrams sent during the battle.  In their own words, the principle actors in this drama reveal their concerns, plans, schemes, and their confusion in “the fog of battle.”

Herman Haupt

Haupt was put in his position because of his expertise in managing rail traffic.  He found that every general considered himself the only authority on how his troops should use the railroad.  Confusion reigned.  Haupt soon came to see a pattern that convinced him that the McClellan faction was causing the confusion and had decided to “sit this one out.”  When Haupt confronted Gen. Samuel Sturgis at Headquarters of the Defenses of Washington (Pennsylvania Avenue at 15 1/2 Street), Sturgis exclaimed, “I don’t care for John Pope a pinch of owl dung!”  Haupt had already heard from other officers that Pope would be expected to “get himself out of his own fix.”

President Lincoln followed events closely from the Telegraph Office in the War Dept.  While he expressed his own concerns about McClellan’s apparent slowness, he was not so quick as several of his cabinet members to consider his removal from command.  On August 19, Treasury Secretary Chase wrote in his diary that he met Secretary Stanton at the War Dept. in the evening and drove together to Stanton’s home on Franklin Square.  Stanton was outraged at McClellan’s conduct and was dissatisfied with the President’s lack of decision in the matter.  They began to draft a resolution for others in the cabinet to sign that demanded McClellan’s ouster.

Lafayette Square is the park and neighborhood that fronts the White House to the north, across Pennsylvania Avenue. The White House is shown at the bottom of this map.  Gen. Halleck’s headquarters was in the house at 232 G Street (A) from July 1862 until October 17, 1863.  The War Department with its Telegraph Office is west of the White House (B). Headquarters for the Defenses of Washington, established by Gen. McClellan in November 1861, is across from the White House on the Avenue at Madison Place, or 15 1/2 Street (C). Riggs Bank is on the Avenue at 15th Street (D). McClellan rented the house at 334 H Street, corner of 15th (E), from November 1861 through the end of 1862. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton bought the large house on K Street, across from the center of Franklin Square while he was James Buchanan’s Attorney General (F). Gen. Halleck rented a large townhouse in Corcoran’s Row at 305 I Street (G),  before he moved to Georgetown early in 1863.        

 

Lincoln would often turn to Col. Haupt for information about the flow of the battle, sometimes looking for specific details and at other times, just any information.  The telegram sent at 9 a.m. on August 30, was terse: “Colonel Haupt; What news? A. Lincoln.”

Gen. McClellan found time to write to his wife several times each day after arriving in Alexandria from Fort Monroe on August 27.   He reported to her that he had ridden to Washington to meet with Gen. Halleck at his I Street home about midnight.  They talked until 3 a.m., with McClellan agreeing to cooperate with Halleck’s orders.  Within 48 hours, a frustrated and exhausted Halleck would have to plead with McClellan to do what he thought best to aid Pope.  McClellan was able to assure his wife that he would try to stop at Riggs’ Bank to save her fine silverware before the rebels could loot the place (August 31, 12:30 p.m.).

Presidential Secretary John Hay described the events of August 30 around the White House.  He had accompanied the president to Halleck’s headquarters at 232 G Street.  The general wasn’t there, but Stanton showed up and took them to his home for dinner.  Over their meal, “Stanton was unqualifiedly severe upon McClellan,” Hay wrote.  Stanton declared that if the battle is lost, it could only be from foul-play.  ”Stanton seemed to believe very strongly in Pope,” and, Hay noted, “so did the President for that matter.”  They went back to headquarters and found Halleck.  “The greatest battle of the century was being fought,” the general said.  And he was confident of a good outcome.

Edwin McMasters Stanton

On September 1, Lincoln invited McClellan to the White House to personally ask the general to “correct the unkind feeling of the Army of the Potomac toward Gen. Pope.”  McClellan then went to see Halleck at headquarters.  The president will meet them there later in the day and will ask McClellan to again assume command of the armies defending Washington.  A history of troops from Wisconsin in Gen. John Gibbon’s Iron Brigade described Lincoln that day on the front lawn of the White House “with a pail of water in one hand and a dipper in the other…offering water to the tired and thirsty soldiers.”  (Wisconsin in the Civil War; Letters from the Wisconsin Second, 1882).

The following morning, Lincoln and Halleck surprised McClellan having breakfast at his residence on H Street at 15th.  They had come to present the official order restoring him to command in Washington.  Lincoln returned to the White House where his cabinet had already assembled for a regular meeting.  Chase says that it was only after he had asked several questions that the president acknowledged that he had replaced Pope with McClellan in command at Washington.  Several of the cabinet members were outraged and puzzled by this apparent reward for treason.  Lincoln simply said that McClellan would be better at deploying troops to defend the capital than any other man (Inside Lincoln’s Cabinet).

McClellan resumed his Washington headquarters in the Gunnell House on the corner of Lafayette Square at Pennsylvania Ave and 15 1/2 Street (Madison Place).  Gen. Heintzelman described a meeting there on Sept. 4, with the president, McClellan and Gen. Marcy to plan the advance toward Frederick.  Heintzelman also reported seeing the president at headquarters before McClellan was awake on Sept. 7 (The Life and Times of SPH).  That was the last day that the general used the building before leading his army after Gen. Lee to Frederick and Antietam.  But staff officers who remained there reported that the president would frequently come in to visit during the Antietam Campaign, starting off with the same simple question: “Any news, boys?”

References

Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay.        Burlingame and Ettlinger (eds); SIU Press (1999).

Second Manassas 1862. Langellier; Osprey Publishing (2002)

Inside Lincoln’s Cabinet: the Civil War Diaries of Salmon P. Chase.                             Donald (ed); Longmans, Green and Co. (1954).

Reminiscences of General Herman Haupt. Haupt; Wright & Joys Co. (1901).

McClellan’s Own Story. W.C. Prime; Webster & Co. (1883)

The Life And Times of Maj. Gen. Samuel P. Heintzelman.                                                           J. Thompson; Texas A&M Univ. Press (2006)

City Directory of Washington and Georgetown, 1862,63 & 64

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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New York Avenue Church and Lincoln’s Emancipation Year

July 14, 1862 is a significant date for New York Avenue Presbyterian, the Lincoln family’s church in Washington.  One of the Lincoln artifacts that remains on permanent display at the church is a draft of an emancipation bill written by the president himself on that date.  The church history committee and the Lincoln Group of the District of Columbia commemorated the day this year by sponsoring a conference on President Lincoln’s 1862 Emancipation Decisions.  I was on a panel of presenters along with Burrus Carnahan, JD, immediate past-president of the Lincoln Group, and John T. Elliff, Ph.D, a noted Lincoln scholar and lecturer.  Over 40 attended and most were eager to participate.  Also there in support was Dr. Edna Greene Medford, this year’s recipient of the Lincoln Award and co-author of The Emancipation Proclamation: Three Views (2006).

The 13 months leading up to January 1, 1863, when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, were days of surprise and wonder for both friends and foes of abolition.  Lincoln’s decisions and behaviors seemed often to be contradictory to his privately announced intentions.  Lincoln had confided in Senator Charles Sumner (MA) in December 1861 and again just before July 4, 1862, that he was going to take a dramatic step against slavery.  But after continuing to propose compensated emancipation to the Border States, and over-ruling emancipation declarations by military commanders in the field, the president truly shocked his cabinet members, Welles and Seward, with what he told them while riding to the funeral of Edwin M.Stanton’s infant son on July 13, 1862.  That was when Lincoln first said that he was preparing “a military proclamation freeing Rebel-owned slaves.”  Nine days later he read to his cabinet the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation.

That brings us to the July 14, 1862 document.  The church that the Lincolns had attended was rebuilt in 1950.  At the dedication, Paramount Pictures president, Barney Balaban, gave the church a Lincoln document that he had recently acquired from a private collector.  Though he was Jewish, Balaban felt that Lincoln’s church was the most fitting place to house this treasure.  He gave it as a tribute to his immigrant parents for their sacrifice that made his success possible.  The document is a draft of a compensated emancipation bill that was read in the House two days later, but wasn’t passed.  This could certainly have reinforced his intent to press for the Emancipation Proclamation.  The document had for 60 years been in the possession of the family of a War Department custodian who had saved it from the incinerator.  It is now on permanent display in the Lincoln Parlor at the church.

This is the neighborhood of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York Ave. at H Street. The Treasury Department and the White House are at lower left. Church is indicated by center right arrow.  Pastor Gurley’s House, 390 I Street, near 12th, is shown by upper right arrow. Other churches visited by Lincoln are: St. John’s Episcopal, at left above Lafayette Square; Foundry Methodist, lower center; and Church of the Epiphany, lower right.  

According to Mary Lincoln’s sister, Elizabeth Todd Grimsley (Six Months in the White House; J Ill State Hist. Soc., 1927), “Our first Sunday in the White House (March 10, 1861), we all went to the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Dr. Phineas D. Gurley’s, which had been decided upon as the church home ever after…”  The “family” then included not only the president, his wife and three sons, and Mrs. Grimsley, but also Mrs. Elizabeth (Todd) Edwards, Mrs. Margaret (Todd) Kellogg, niece Elizabeth Edwards, Capt. Lockwood Todd, Nicolay and Hay, and Col. Ward Hill Lamon.

New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in 1862 was just two years old. The current church building, on the same site, was opened in 1950. Lincoln would have had no difficulty recognizing it today.

Sunday attendance at New York Avenue swelled as people knew they were likely to see the president there.  An old friend from Illinois, Noah Brooks, knew to go there when he first arrived in town.  “On the Sunday after my arrival in Washington I took a long look at him (Lincoln) from the gallery of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church,” Brooks wrote, after seeing his friend for the first time in two years on November 30, 1862. “His eyes were almost deathly in their gloomy depths, and on his visage was an air of profound sadness.  His face was colorless and drawn, and newly grown whiskers added to the agedness of his appearance.”  

According to church records, Lincoln attended Wednesday evening prayer meetings. The president would avoid disturbing the sessions by entering from a side entrance and sitting in the pastor’s study with the door ajar so that he could listen.  A church member wrote that when he was a boy, he and a friend followed a tall man who had left the church at night.  He led them right to the White House, appearing not to notice his pursuers.  Turning into the driveway, the president stopped, leaned back and thanked the boys “for the escort.” (A History of the NYAPC; Frank E. Edgington, 1961).

Rev. Dr. Phineas D. Gurley

Abraham Lincoln’s commitment to the extinction of slavery was evident from the earliest days of his political life.  That he connected with this church in Washington may not have directly advanced his thought process for how to accomplish it, but it did allow him time for quiet reflection while he worked out an effective strategy.  The pastor, Rev. Phineas D. Gurley became a confidant and spiritual advisor to the president.  Lincoln once commented that he liked Gurley because he didn’t tell the president how God wanted him to manage the country, as other preachers did.

Lincoln quickly developed a personal relationship with the Gurley family and secured leave for a new West Point graduate, Lt. William A. Elderkin, so that he could marry the Gurley’s elder daughter, Fanny.  And, after the wedding on that June 12, 1861, he stood by the bride at the family’s home, 390 I Street, to greet their guests.  Mrs. Grimsley had recalled that this wedding occurred after Bull Run in July, but newspaper accounts confirm the June 12 date reported by the church.

Another notable event that Lincoln attended at the church was the funeral of cavalry General John Buford, a hero of Gettysburg.  Buford was in Washington waiting for reassignment when he died, probably of typhoid fever.  His funeral at NYAPC on December 22, 1863, was reported in local papers.

Rev. Gurley was asked to preside at the East Room funeral of Willie Lincoln.  He was summoned to be with the president on the morning that he died, and later conducted the funeral service.

New York Avenue Presbyterian was rebuilt in the 1950’s, but appears much like the original that Lincoln knew, with the high front stairs and steeple.  The Lincoln family pew that Mary chose, and the president reserved each year for $50, is still in its approximate same location.  There are many Lincoln artifacts, including the president’s desk set, a lock of his hair, and a letter from Mary Lincoln conveying the hat that he wore to his second inauguration.  Sadly, the hat has long been lost.

This stained glass window in the church depicts the president standing in prayer as he would during services.

See: Capital Witness: A History of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC (2011). Edited by Dewey Wallace, Jr., Wilson Golden, and Edith Holmes Snyder.

 

Posted in Gurley, Rev. Phineas D., New York Ave. Presbyterian Church | 4 Comments

Lincoln in Washington Map at Library of Congress

Today, I was invited to the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress to present my Lincoln in Washington map for the Library’s permanent collection.  The meeting came with an opportunity to walk through the “vault” and see some of the amazing map treasures that are available to researchers there.

My host was the head of the Division, Edward James Redmond.  The holdings are vast, so he had to speed through the high level overview of some significant world maps before we got to the Civil War and Washington, D.C. section.  There were several editions of the Boschke maps of the District of Columbia, beginning with 1857.  The incredible detail of these large-scale works allowed me to first visualize the Lincoln visits that I described in my publication.  Other maps showed the changing aspects of the “seat of war,” the Washington and northern Virginia region.

Ed Redmond (center) of the Library of Congress, receives the Lincoln in Washington map from the author (left). Kieran McAuliffe, author of JW Booth Escape Route map, is on the right.

Redmond is expert in the drawings and maps of George Washington.  When he brought out the original layout and plot plans for Alexandria, VA, created by 15-year-old George, Redmond couldn’t hide the respect and awe he holds for Washington’s graphic work.  Indeed, he obviously takes pride in being able to display a few of the millions of documents for which he is responsible.

And my happiest meeting in recent weeks has to be the chance encounter with another “map guy,” Kieran McAuliffe.  Kieran is the author of the popular, John Wilkes Booth Escape Route map.  This was another inspirational piece for me.  Early in our life here in Washington, my good wife agreed to spend a day retracing the assassin’s route through southern Maryland and into Virginia.  Now, I have finally met the guy who showed me how to use geography to tell an interesting story.  His new project is a map of Civil War Washington.  I was happy to share some of what I have learned about the subject during four years of research.

The mission of this website is to continue to add to our knowledge of President Lincoln’s life in Washington, D.C.  The blog posts have reported the reference citations that elaborate on the sites and stories that were featured in my map publication, Lincoln in Washington.  The map is continuing to receive recognition as an authoritative guide for helping to better understand the life of President Lincoln in the National Capital.  The Library of Congress now joins Ford’s Theatre and the Mary Surratt House in Clinton, MD, in presenting this interpretive piece to their visitors.  But if you can’t get there, you can still buy your copy of the map at the Products tab on this site.

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Lincoln Gets Dan Sickles’ Take on Gettysburg, at F Street

Say what you will about Dan Sickles, he was a master at shaping a story to get himself out of a scrap.  Where to start on this New Yorker’s colorful career?  My post on the Seward House refers to how he had already gotten away with murder.  He won re-election to his seat in Congress in spite of this and his widely known philandering.  He tried to advance his career at the outbreak of the war by assuring the War Department that he would quickly raise a full brigade, and then failed to raise even one regiment.  But he was still able by early 1862, to convince President Lincoln to appoint him a brigadier general.   Maybe that was because the new secretary, Edwin M. Stanton, had been his murder trial defense attorney.

As an army officer, however, it appeared that Sickles had finally found his stride.  By many reports, he had performed well on the Peninsula with McClellan, at Fredericksburg under Burnside, and at Chancellorsville under Hooker.  But then came Gettysburg.

Gen. Dan Sickles, left, in Washington after Gettysburg recovering from the loss of his leg. He is with Gen. Sam Heintzelman, commander of the Defenses of Washington in 1863.

The recommended reading on this notable military career is Jim Hessler’s book, Sickles at Gettysburg (2009).  I refer you there to find a very well-told story of how Sickles’ gift for self-promotion so perplexed his commanding officer, Gen. George G. Meade, and did cost him his own leg.  It was during the process of correcting his Third Corps’ alignment along Cemetery Ridge, that a cannon shot took off his right leg.  He was carried from the field and after a harrowing escape adventure, his staff were able to put the general on a train to Washington.  He arrived there on Sunday morning, July 5, 1863, and was taken to the boarding house where he had previously stayed at 248 F Street.

Col. James Rusling arrived at Gen. Sickles’ new quarters at 3 p.m. that Sunday, just moments before the guard at the door announced, “His excellency the President.’  Lincoln strode in with his son, Tad.  They had ridden in from the Soldiers’ Home.  Col. Rusling did his general great service in documenting this meeting.  The president pressed Sickles for details of the great Union victory.  Though in great pain, and still on his stretcher, the general spoke clearly while puffing on his cigar.  Since Sickles was the first to get his story out,  he began the process of justifying his decisions on the battlefield that had so confounded his superior, Gen. Meade.  This was also the meeting during which Rusling claimed that the president confided his great faith in the “Almighty” as having provided Lincoln with guidance and assurance through the dark days of the War.  (Men and Things I Saw in Civil War Days.  Gen. James A. Rusling; 1899).

The arrow indicates the house at 248 F Street where Lincoln and son, Tad, visited the injured Gen. Daniel E. Sickles after the Battle of Gettysburg.  The large building at left is the Treasury Department on 15th Street, near the White House.

The house address for this event was given by another aide, Maj. Henry E. Tremain, in his book, Two Days of War (1905).  Tremain said there were other Lincoln visits here to see the recovering general, though dates are not given.  Tremain did describe the president anguishing over Lee’s escape into Virginia, telling Sickles that this was “one of the greatest catastrophe’s of the War.”

The Sickles House site at 248 F Street today, across from the Press Club Building near 14th. A carved wooden figure promotes the cigars that General Dan smoked in his conversation with the president.

That Lincoln had brought his son to the interview, was probably an indicator of what had become a family relationship.  Tad had accompanied his father when he visited the troops outside of Fredericksburg, VA, in early 1863.  There Tad had befriended the corps commanders’ headquarters drummer, Gustave ”Gus” Schurman.  The 12-year-old boy was already a battle-hardened veteran and expert horseman.  When Tad’s horse ran away with him, Schurman caught-up and saved the day before Tad could be injured.  This was just one of the incidents that allowed Lincoln and Sickles to develop a relationship.  At Tad’s request, the president invited Gus to stay at the White House on leave granted by Sickles until the army began its move toward Pennsylvania in June.  More on Tad and Gus when we talk about the Lincoln’s theatre outings.

 

Posted in Sickles, Daniel E. | 3 Comments

“He Has Probably Gone to Mr. Seward’s House….”

One of the greatest losses among the historic buildings with a Lincoln connection in the District of Columbia would certainly be the Secretary of State William Seward Home on Lafayette Square.  There was no other single place in Washington that Lincoln would frequent so often, other than the War Department and the White House itself.  That house at 17 Madison Place will be the topic of most of this discussion.  However, I want to start ”one house back,” as those of us who have moved around would say

William H. Seward, circa 1850

In trying to inventory all of the Lincoln sites in Washington, it helps to understand that the War-time capital was a city in flux, in a steady state of transition and turmoil.  In national politics, as well as in the military, you didn’t expect to stay in one place for long.  In Seward’s case, his position was usually secure enough as a former governor and then senator, but he moved for positional advantage, or to be where his station would best suit him.  When he first came to Washington in 1849, it was as a senator.  Since the legislative sessions were short, he began, as most others had done, staying in the hotels and boarding houses, and then returning home to Auburn, NY, for most of the year.

Seward was elected for his second senate term in 1855.  Now it seems he wished for a more permanent address in the city.  He rented a brand new house at 148 G Street, northeast corner of 21st and G.  At the time this was a sparsely built suburban part of town, just five blocks west of the White House.  This building survives as the campus security headquarters for George Washington University.

But now comes the Lincoln connection.  Seward must have been feeling the need for a better strategic location.  In 1858, he moved to a more prestigious neighborhood of stately townhomes at 252 F Street between 13th and 14th Streets.  Walking away from the Treasury Department, the house was just past mid-block on the left. Today the Finemundo Restaurant has the site.  This was the Seward residence on February 23, 1861, the day President-elect Lincoln came to town.

The story goes that the senator, defeated presidential contender, and now secretary of state hopeful, had overslept and missed meeting Lincoln at the B&O train station.  He rushed the block and a half down 14th Street to the Willard Hotel getting there just after Lincoln arrived.  Then he calmly offered his services to escort the president-elect to call on President Buchanan and then Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott (see Scott post).  After a brief rest back at the hotel, Seward took Lincoln to his home for some dinner and cabinet planning.  Picture yourself at Finemundo sharing a bite with that pair.

Arrow on the right indicates Seward House on F Street. The left is the more widely known house on Lafayette Square. The secretary of state lived here from about May 1, 1861, until the day he retired from government service on March 4, 1869. He died in Auburn, NY, on October 10, 1872.

Add another Lincoln site to our inventory.  Dinner at the Seward home on Saturday and again the next day after church services at St. John’s, was not on Lafayette Square but here on F Street, across from today’s Press Club Building entrance.

The evidence for this location comes first from the city directory of 1860 for the house number and then from many contemporary newspaper accounts.  An anecdote comes from the diary of Gen. Erasmus Keyes as quoted in his memoir, Reminiscences of Fifty Years Observation of Men and Events, Civil and Military (1885), p. 381.  Keyes was to stop at Seward’s home on Easter Sunday morning (March 31) 1861, to deliver the message from Gen. Scott, that Ft. Pickens (Pensacola) could not be reinforced before it would be attacked by Confederates.

Arriving at Mr. Seward’s house on F Street, I was admitted, and found the astute secretary standing in the middle of his parlor alone. ‘Mr. Seward, I am here by direction of Gen. Scott, to explain to you the difficulties of reinforcing Ft. Pickens.’

‘I don’t care about the difficulties,’ said he. ‘Where’s Capt. (Montgomery) Meigs? Please find him and bring him here.’

‘I’ll call and bring him on my return from church.’

‘Never mind church today; I wish to see him and you here together without delay.’

The rest of the story has Seward and Lincoln demanding that a plan be developed, with the president directly giving orders outside of the military chain of command.  Ft. Pickens was saved (for other reasons), and Col. Keyes lost his position as military secretary to the commanding general.

The National Republican newspaper (March 1, 1861) reported on the progress of a “vast assemblage” of singing revelers working their way toward Willard’s Hotel in anticipation of the Lincoln inauguration.  “From the home of Mr. Corwin, the crowd repaired to the residence of the Hon. W.H. Seward, on F Street, between 13th and 14th.”

The first reports of Seward’s move to Lafayette Square hit the papers with news of his grand open-house party on the night of May 14, 1861.  He probably took possession shortly after May 1.  The Philadelphia Inquirer headlined the story “Governor Seward’s Reception:”

The Secretary of State having removed into his new residence on Lafayette Square (formerly the Club-House), gave a magnificent entertainment on Tuesday night….Among the guests were the President and his Cabinet, General Scott and staff….

Yes, the president was there for the very first party, and he would return frequently to enjoy the generous Seward hospitality probably hundreds of times right up to his last visit on April 9, 1865.

William H. Seward House, 17 Madison Place, Lafayette Square

The reference to the “Club-House,” is about the former use of the house by the Washington Club.  There had been many famous occupants since the home had been built by Commodore John Rogers in 1831.  Henry Clay and Chief Justice Roger Taney had connections here.  But in 1858, some prominent citizens bought the place for their eating club.  The greatest scandal of the era played out on the street here when in October 1859, NY Cong. Dan Sickles murdered his wife’s lover, Philip Barton Key.  Mortally wounded by pistol shots at close range, Key was brought into the Club, where he soon died.  Sickles was acquitted with the first successful use of the temporary insanity defense, and went on to become a Union general.  One of his attorneys was Edwin Stanton.  The Club soon folded and the house was empty for nearly a year.

Seward breathed new life into every aspect of the house and the neighborhood.  He wanted the 23-room mansion because he intended to entertain on the world stage as would befit the “prime minister” role he intended to play in the Lincoln Administration.  Every national and international celebrity who would come to Washington was entertained at Seward’s.  Here the president could relax in a smaller group than he could typically manage in the over-accessible Executive Mansion.  Seward could arrange for Lincoln to meet with military and political leaders in a more intimate and confidential setting than  the White House.

Commodore Samuel DuPont wrote of a planning meeting at Seward’s on October 1, 1861, before the campaign against Port Royal Sound, S.C.  He and Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus Fox “go to Seward’s where the President was, to have a final decision on the expedition.”  DuPont was a little disconcerted when Lincoln failed to recognize him as the commander of the assault, and Fox had to remind him.  “Seward,” DuPont recounted, “pokes a cigar at Fox who, sitting on the same sofa with Lincoln, puffs smoke into the President’s eyes.  Meantime, there is a desperate hunt all over town,” for Cameron, McClellan, and (Gen. Thomas W.) Sherman, while Seward intoned, “There’s nobody, nowhere tonight.”

The last description of a Lincoln visit was written by Seward’s daughter, Fanny.  The secretary had been badly injured in a carriage accident while the president was touring Richmond right after its capture.  Lincoln cut short his victory tour to rush back to visit Seward in his room.  Fanny described a tender scene as the president stretched out on the bed beside her father to be able to speak softly to Seward to describe what he had seen of the rebel capital.  This last visit to Lafayette Square was on April 9, 1865.

Federal Court of Claims Building, viewed from the Jackson Statue in Lafayette Square. The entrance to the Seward House would have been at the left stair section. The Tayloe House still stands, to the left.

The Seward House was razed shortly after the secretary died.  In 1895, the Lafayette Square Opera House was built in its place.  Today, a Federal Court building occupies the site.  The threshold that Lincoln crossed countless times was probably in the left entry stair section of the court building.  There are historic markers for most of the Rogers-Seward House historic tenants, but these are inside the main lobby and are accessible to the public only during regular business hours.

 

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Historic Fixation: Lincoln at Wilkes-Madison House

Every reader of Civil War history can tell you about Lincoln’s frequent visits to the house on Lafayette Square that was  the headquarters and residence of Major General George B. McClellan.  Known today as the Wilkes-Madison House on H Street at Madison Place, it has been incorporated into the federal court building that encompasses much of the block and is not open to the public.  The main entrance of the courthouse, in fact, is located further along Madison Place on the site of the William H. Seward home.

Because the Wilkes-Madison House still stands and because it has been given definitive status as to the beginning and end of Lincoln’s connection with it (in the John Hay diary), Washington local traditions have determined that this was “Army Headquarters” in Washington for most of the War.  This building was the scene of many significant interactions between Lincoln and one of his most enigmatic generals.  But the period during which this house played its most important role was much more limited than most believe.

President Lincoln had been closely following the well-publicized campaign that McClellan had devised to clear the Confederates from the northwestern counties of Virginia in June – July 1861.  The public’s fascination with ”the young Napoleon,” encouraged Lincoln to select him to lead the army at Washington after the defeat at Bull Run.  Lincoln overrode Winfield Scott’s concerns for McClellan’s youthful inexperience and brought him to the capital to assume command of the still retreating army on Friday, July 26, 1861.

Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan and wife Ellen Marcy

On arriving in the capital that Friday evening, McClellan checked into Willard’s Hotel (Philadelphia Press, July 27) and then proceded to pay his respects to Gen. Scott.  McClellan established his first headquarters that very weekend “over a plain three-story house, on the northwest corner” of Pennsylvania Avenue at 19th Street.  The correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer on August 5, 1861, could be forgiven for not knowing that this “plain” house was in fact one of the most illustrious in the capital.  It was the end building of one of the first row homes built in Washington (The Seven Buildings), had twice been a temporary White House, and was known as the ‘house of 1000 candles” for the brilliantly illuminated parties given there by Dolley Madison.  But a lack of local knowledge (and without even any street markers to help) had created a lot of confused reporting over buildings and locations by all the newcomers to the capital.

Much of what we know about McClellan comes from the letters that he wrote several times a week to wife, Ellen, back in Cincinnati, Ohio.  In his letter of August 13, 1861, he told her “I am living in Com. Wilkes’s house, the northwest corner of Jackson (sic) Square, close by where you used to visit Secretary Marcy’s family.  It is a very nice house.”  Newspapers had gotten wind of the change a few days earlier.  The Philadelphia Inquirer had the following story filed on August 9:

Gen. McClellan has taken for two months for himself and his staff, the handsome private dwelling to the eastward of Lafayette Square, of Commander Wilkes, of the Navy, and formerly occupied by Mrs. Madison.  The business headquarters of the General will be on Pennsylvania Avenue, corner of Nineteenth street, as usual.

Note the statement of the limited time that the general was expected to remain in the house.  There was every expectation that before November the Army of the Potomac would be on its way to Richmond, with McClellan at its head.

Wilkes-Madison House 2012

Wilkes-Madison House circa 1865

It was here on Lafayette Square that presidential secretary John Hay began to record the many Lincoln visits to the general that McClellan would soon find so annoying.  Starting with August 22, Hay accompanied the president on a series of visits that would become (in John Nicolay’s words) “his usual practice.”  I have been able to document such visits on 15 specific dates from the diaries and accounts of various witnesses.  Many more are suggested in other literature.  However, one of the most apocryphal episodes that local tradition ascribes to this house probably did not happen here.

Hay described a particularly frustrating visit to the general on November 13, 1861.  Lincoln, Seward and Hay had called at McClellan’s house and were told by his aide that the general was out at a wedding.  The president offered to wait.  A short while later, McClellan came into the house, walked by the parlor where his visitors were seated, and hurried upstairs.  When he didn’t return, the president asked the aide to remind the general that he had visitors.  The aide returned and said that McClellan had gone to bed.  Hay was outraged at what he termed this “unparalleled insolence of epaulets.”  While Lincoln showed no obvious annoyance, Hay wrote that henceforth, the president always sent for the general and never called at his residence again.  But rather it seems from the record that Hay may not have accompanied Lincoln on ensuing visits.

Where did this display of “insolence” occur?  We already knew that McClellan’s stay in the Wilkes-Madison House was only to be for “two months.”  In his correspondence with this wife, McClellan had kept her posted on his search for new quarters.  In late October, he wrote that he had inspected the vacant Gwin Mansion at 19th and I Streets.  This would later become headquarters for the provost marshall and the military governor in Washington.   And on November 8, McClellan wrote to Sam Barlow, his friend in New York, that “my new house is ready to accommodate you.”  He described it as being the former residence of Bayard Smith on H Street at 15th, now the site of the Sofitel Hotel.

McClellan sites shown with red arrow indicators on a detail of the 1859 Boschke map near the White House and Lafayette Square.  From left to right; first headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue at 19th Street (The Seven Buildings); Wilkes-Madison House on H Street at Madison Place; residence at Bayard Smith House on H at 15th Street; and the lower arrow indicates Gunnell House, McClellan’s last Washington headquarters, Pennsylvania Ave. at Madison Pl. 
 

Major changes in headquarters sites occurred around November 1, 1861, when Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott retired.  The Philadelphia Press described the rearrangements on November 11, 1861, as follows:

The headquarters of the army have hitherto been at New York, though virtually, since the commencement of the war, they have been in Washington.  On the retiracy of Gen. Scott, and the appointment of Gen. McClellan to the command of the army, it was decided to remove the headquarters of the army to Washington – the new arrangement will continue until the end of the war, and probably through all future time.

The large private dwelling-house, corner of the Avenue and Sixteenth street (Madison Place), nearly opposite the White House, has been fitted up and will in the future be occupied by Gen. McClellan as the general headquarters of the army.

So the combined headquarters and residence arrangement for Gen. McClellan at Wilkes-Madison was broken up around the date of his promotion to commanding general of the army on November 1, 1861.  He had already moved his private residence to the house at H and 15th by November 8.  Now his headquarters were being moved to the Gunnell House on Pennsylvania Avenue at Madison Place.  I can not find a good date for the actual move-in to the new HQ, but it certainly occurred by early December.  Newspapers reported that Capt. Wilkes, having returned to the city, was serenaded at his home by friends and a brass band on December 14.

It also suggests that the cherished notion of the Hay reported “insolence” event having occurred at the Wilkes-Madison House is probably not correct.  McClellan had established his personal residence at 15th and H by November 8.  A newspaper sketch of a street celebration on November 11, honoring McClellan’s promotion shows the general on the porch at his new address.  That would most likely have been his sleeping quarters on the night of the November 13 date of Hay’s diary note.  My conclusion is that the president was insulted on November 13 while at McClellan’s new home, 334 H Street at 15th.

It is wonderful to be able to still see the historic Wilkes-Madison House while enjoying a walk in Lafayette Square.  It is, however, frustrating for the public not to be able to enter and inspect the home that Lincoln visited.  And while it is a highly significant structure that connects us in Washington with some of the major decisions of the Civil War, the truth is that its role in the conflict only spanned a brief three month period during Major General George B. McClellan’s tenancy from August 10 to November 8, 1861.

And a final small note of thanks to the unnamed security guard at the Wilkes-Madison entrance who allowed me inside for a quick peek.  It has been renovated and I’m sure Lincoln would not recognize it today.

Posted in McClellan, George B. | 2 Comments