If Lincoln had a “Drinking Buddy”…Gustavus Vasa Fox

A friend was looking at my Lincoln in Washington map and said he thought he had read somewhere that Gustavus V. Fox had lived at the Navy Yard.  Fox was a New Hampshireman and a former naval officer who made an excellent first impression on President Lincoln and maintained a very close relationship with him through the War.  Of course, the president didn’t drink, so he wouldn’t actually have had a “drinking buddy.”  But Fox enjoyed a relaxed relationship with Lincoln that came very close to that role.  In my research, I have placed Fox as living in three different homes during the Civil War, but never at the Navy Yard.

First a few words about G.V. “Gus” Fox.  He was appointed a midshipman in 1836 and learned to be a naval officer as an apprentice before the founding of the U.S. Naval Academy.  At the age of 16 and on his first ship he met his lifelong friends, John L. Worden and Henry A. Wise.   Their lives would intersect dramatically in Washington during the Civil War.

In 20 years of service, Fox saw many of the exotic places of the world.  These experiences and his post-navy business career fed his gregarious nature and gave him endless material for his entertaining stories.  When he met Lincoln in March 1861, the president was impressed with Fox’s audacious plan to relieve Fort Sumter, and soon learned to enjoy his company, as well, swapping elaborately-told stories.  John Hay wrote of the wonderful dinner conversations he would have at places like Wormley’s when Fox would leave a group of officers in gales of laughter.  A story that I use in my map is about when Lincoln shows up at the Fox’s door on F Street, with a rifle over his shoulder.  Mary was away in New England on this mid-September day in 1863, and the president wanted to invite Gus out to take target practice with him.  The president’s frequent formal and informal associations with the assistant secretary of the navy suggest to me that this was the closest that Lincoln had to a social friend in Washington.

Gustavus V. Fox

William Stoddard captured the more formidable Fox, standing on the steps of the Navy Department to greet the president and secretary of war.  “(There) is a strongly built, bright-eyed, good-looking man in a naval uniform,” wrote Stoddard, “That is Captain Fox, a power in naval matters…”  In fact, Lincoln once sent someone to him saying, “You want to see Fox, he is the Navy.”

Now this website is about where you would have found these important personages during the Civil War.  I don’t claim to have the only truth in these matters, but I have read more than most.  Here is what I think I know.

Gus Fox had first come to Washington at the invitation of Gen. Winfield Scott in January 1861.  Scott had heard about the plan the former naval officer had developed to supply besieged Fort Sumter.  But Scott decided that the plan wouldn’t work, so Fox went back to Long Island.  He came back again in March 1861, at the suggestion of his brother-in-law, Montgomery Blair (their wives were sisters).  President Lincoln needed a plan to re-supply the Charleston harbor fort that he could use to counter the defeatist mood of his own cabinet.

This detail from the 1859 Boschke map, indicates the Fox residences in the vicinity of the White House and Lafayette Square.  As described below, center arrow is the Blair House, top arrow is 491 17th Street, lower left is 184 F Street, and lower right is the entrance to his office, the Navy Department.

Fox moved in with the Blairs (at Blair House, on Pennsylvania Avenue) until about Feb. 1, 1862.  His wife, Virginia, joined him there in October 1861.   Virginia’s unpublished diary records three Lincoln visits to them there (“Stopped by with his secretary, Mr. Hay. for tea”).

On February 8, 1862, Virginia noted that Lincoln stopped in their new home on his way to McClellan’s.  By the 17th of that month, when the president comes again, “Ginny”  complains about the “raucous young bloods from the British Legation” who were living above them.  Now here is where knowing the Washington City Directory (Boyd’s) comes in handy.  The staff of the British Legation are shown as living in two adjacent houses on 17th Street, one block from the ministry building on H Street.  The larger group of these young men live in one house, so I put the Foxes in the other, #491 17th Street, just north of H.

This glass tower to the right (north) of the Metropolitan Club replaced the row of boarding houses where Lincoln called on the Foxes at 491 17th Street, third door from the intersection.

Virginia Fox wrote in her diary of an extraordinary Lincoln encounter on March 7, 1862.  The president called to see Gus, but finding he was not at home, stayed and talked with Ginny.  After some small talk, the president descibed his frustration with the inaction of McClellan’s army.  “I’ll tell you how it is,” Ginny quoted him saying, “There is an immense amount of money spent to prepare the army for battle and there is nothing done!”  She said he spoke for nearly a half an hour before Gus returned home.  Lincoln and Fox went to McClellan’s on the northwest corner of 15th and H Streets (now the Sofitel Hotel).

The wife was unhappy on 17th Street, so clearly the Foxes wouldn’t stay in the party house for long.  There is a note in her diary that June 1 was “moving day.”  The Congressional Directory for the last session of the 37th Congress (December 1862 to March 1863), lists the address for GV Fox (he is now Asst Sec of Navy) as 184 F Street.  This is a large boarding house shown on the 1859 Boschke Map as directly behind Winder.  Ari Hoogenboom’s biography of Fox (2008) agrees with the house, but doesn’t put the Foxes there until December 1864.    The city directory for 1863 also showed this address for Fox, and did so for the remainder of the War.  Commodore Charles H. Davis lived here, too.  In 1863, Maj. Thomas T. Eckert (of telegraph fame) also lived here.

Mary Lincoln also seemed to appreciate Virginia Fox during this time.  Her fondness for “Ginny” was expressed in frequent gifts of fruits and flowers from the White House and invitations to visit the Lady President at her home.

As for Fox’s early shipmates, Worden and Wise, we talk about them when we get to the Henry Wise home on H Street.

 

 

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About John O'Brien

My name is John and I brake for roadside historical markers. The Civil War has been a particular interest since my dad took me to the 100th Anniversary re-enactment at Gettysburg. Since then, I have toured battlefield sites throughout the eastern theatre. My three daughters can mark their growth by the fortifications and cannons they were posed against. Living in the Washington, D.C. metro area since 2005 has allowed me access to the amazing resources here for studying the Lincoln Administration and the National Capital during the Civil War. I started looking for a guide to President Lincoln's life in Washington, but nothing available seemed to capture enough of the story to satisfy me. So I created my own. You can buy the beautifully illustrated map on this website. I put a high personal value in trying to settle confusion in the professional literature as to where Lincoln did what. So I spent a lot of time going to source documents to verify my sites. This website will share more detail about the Lincoln sites and will continue to update the research. I want to help the reader experience Washington as Lincoln did, as if through his eyes. This is about exploring the public life of Abraham Lincoln and the civil war history of Washington, DC.
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