If Lincoln had a drinking buddy...

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.

Gustavus V. Fox

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.

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 isthe 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.

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