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 proceeded 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.

Wilkes-Madison House 2012

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.

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 specifi