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

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.



Posted in Fox, Gustavus V. | 5 Comments