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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 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 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.

Wilkes-Madison House circa 1865

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.

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